If you’re gunning down a road in wine country around midnight in early autumn, the lights you see are probably not UFOs. It’s unlikely to be a rave. Nor are you seeing an unusual cult ritual. You are observing the nocturnal movements of the winemaker in their natural habitat.
Vintage is the time of year when vineyard managers and winemakers put the pedal to the floor. Many work through the night during this period. I spoke to two winemakers and a viticulturist from Margaret River to understand this curious practice a little better.
So why pick grapes at night?
Janice McDonald, Chief Winemaker at Howard Park, one of Australia’s leading wineries, explains why. “We pick at night because it’s the coolest part of the day. Unusually that is just before sunrise. When we talk about the night picking we are talking about machine picking, as it is not possible to hand pick at night. Pickers would lose fingers!”
Janice explains the science behind night picking. “We are trying to minimise the oxidative impact of the enzymes in the grapes. There can be a particularly strong reaction in white grapes with strong aromatics such as reisling or sauvignon. We want to slow down the activity of the enzyme.”
Leonard Russell, Viticulturist with Watershed Wines, the highly awarded Margaret River winery, adds that “it’s about the optimisation of the fruit. When a machine picker shakes the berries off the vines it slightly damages the fruit. Like if you take a bite from an apple and leave the apple out it turns brown. The equivalent with grapes would be a sultana flavour. By picking at night when it’s cool, we are slowing down this effect. Otherwise fermentation could start before the grapes reach the winery.”
“So picking grapes at night when it is coolest, allows the winemaker to benefit from a natural chilling effect which protects the freshness of the grapes and the purity of the fruit flavour.”
Ryan Aggiss, Chief Winemaker at Aravina Estate, agrees – citing the favourable impact on colour, flavour, and the aromas from night picking.
Are red grapes also picked at night?
Leonard says that Watershed sometimes pick Shiraz at night or in the early morning if it’s being used for Rosé because these grapes are picked earlier in the season when it’s still hot. For Cabernet and Merlot, which are harvested in March or April, night picking is less of an issue because the temperatures are getting cooler.
Janice agrees that there is no where near as big an impact with red grapes because reds are not as aromatic.
Interestingly, at Aravina Estate all machine-harvested grapes are picked at night including red grapes. Ryan does this partly for pragmatic reasons – a vineyard worker’s biological clock is set to night-picking during vintage – but also because the vineyards and winery are quieter, and because of the value of having fruit nice and cool. For Aravina’s table wines, they start with picking the Chardonnay grapes, then it’s Semillon, Chenin, and Sauvignon Blanc through to Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet, and Tempranillo.
“It’s a very exciting time” says Leonard. “The year’s work is coming to an end. You are picking the grapes at a time when they are going to be the best they ever will be. The winery runs 24/7 during vintage. We work 12-hour shifts. Vintage is a magic time of year. Margaret River is a hive of activity during this time. There are trucks taking grapes to the wineries in the mornings. There’ll be harvesters and chaser tractors. You’re going at it hammer and tong.”
Ryan echoes this. “The smell of the fresh grapes and pulp in the winery. The heady aromas of yeast. There is high pressure. Your logistical and organisational skills need to be en pointe. The machinery all needs to work optimally.” He goes on to emphasise the importance of good diet and getting some snatches of sleep to get through it.
Janice picks up the same theme. “The adrenaline starts flowing and everyone is really pumped for vintage.” She jokes that they send the coffee machine in for a pre-vintage service each year because everyone is drinking lots of it come harvest time. “Harvesting in our Margaret River vineyards is typically from mid-February to late March. It starts later in the Great Southern. Depending on conditions at midnight sometimes it’s too warm to start. In early season, it’s hard to plan. For a small block we’d start at three or four in the morning, for a bigger block we’d start earlier. We have our own harvester, which means that we have more control around start times and have more flexibility.”
And when vintage is all over?
“It all stops with the last block and the last row,” says Leonard. “It’s the end of the year from a viticultural point of view. Everyone pauses to take a breath. You’re fried. It’s like after your last exam at uni.”
“Vintage is physically and mentally very demanding, but it’s rewarding,” says Ryan. “I couldn’t give the same intensity and tenacity to another career.”
The next time you’re sipping on a glass of wine, spare a thought for the vineyard workers who’ve done weeks of night-shift so that your wine dances in the glass.