In recent decades, wine has become one of the most popular and widely accessible alcoholic drinks worldwide. According to a 2017 study, an average Briton consumes 108 bottles of wine per year. As a staple in the agricultural economy for many countries, winemakers have had to adapt to producing it on a mass scale. But how did mechanical harvesters help this once-exclusive drink reach the shelves of every supermarket?
The revolution was brought by the mechanical grape harvester. Mechanical harvesters were adopted en masse in Australia in the 1960s. This skyrocketed the productivity of Australian wine makers, allowing them to plant large plots where it would have been impossible before due to a labour shortage. The capability of mechanical harvesters is astounding; this method of harvesting can reduce labour costs by up to 75% in some cases. Furthermore, estimations show that a machine is able to clear a hectare of vineyard in up to five hours, compared to an estimated one to ten days for hand harvesting.
How it works
Mechanical harvesters work by beating the grape vine with rubber or fibreglass sticks in order for the fruit to drop onto a conveyor belt below, which transports the grapes to the holding bin. In recent years, mechanical harvester technology innovations have meant that the machines can distinguish grapes between mud and various other debris. Most modern machines come with de-stemmers and sorting systems as standard. Despite these improvements, many harvesters face difficulty when distinguishing between ripe grapes versus unsuitable or rotten ones, meaning that they still have to go through a manual sorting process. However, even despite this, the mechanised process is far less labour intensive. Some grape varieties are less suited to mechanised picking as they have a thinner skin. In particular, Pinot Noir grapes are best suited to gentler hand picking; broken skins can lead to oxidation, maceration and various taste issues with the grape. These complications mean that mechanical harvesters are not yet the solution for everyone.
Innovations in mechanical harvesters
The New Holland Braud 9000 series is an example of machines that try to overcome the problems faced by mechanical harvesrers. Braud’s high-capacity grape harvesters feature industry-exclusive features like the Noria collection system, as well as the SDC shaking system, allowing for gentler harvesting. In particular, the Braud 9090X is specifically designed for large wineries with a large yield. This powerful model was able to harvest a record 197.6 tonnes of grapes in just 8 hours in an SGS-verified test, which amounts to almost 200,000 bottles of wine. The Braud 9000 series challenges the view that high harvesting speeds in the field leads to lower quality wine, as the rate of harvested materials other than grape was only 1%.
Whilst mechanical harvesting versus the traditional hand-picking method continues to remain a controversial subject in the industry, some research has indicated that the quality of machine-harvested grapes is equal to, and sometimes better than traditional methods. In some regions, machine harvesting is outlawed; peak season in the Champagne region sees a huge surge in demand for 120,000 workers over a three-week harvesting period. Although some traditionalists claim to be able to tell the difference between machine and hand harvested wine, the choice for the winemaker comes down to more practical and financial factors. Despite the criticism mechanical harvesters get from parts of the wine industry, they are key to revolutionising affordable wine production, allowing the popular drink to be exported worldwide on a mass scale.