The end of August marks the beginning of grape harvest season in the Penedès wine region of Spain. Tractors overloaded with grapes crowd the roads and create traffic jams on the normally empty roads. Even the locals who know the back-road shortcuts aren’t immune to being stuck behind a grape harvesting machine or truck hauling grapes back to a winery. Small villages in the area run communal grape presses and the smell of wine production fills the air as you pass by them.
The harvesting process is pretty straightforward, but takes two distinct forms. Younger vines in flat areas are aligned in perfectly straight, evenly spaced rows with the growth direction controlled by wires and stakes. This allows for a mechanized harvesting machine to easily pass down the row and harvest the grapes leaving the vines intact. Older vines, such as those in the photos are allowed more freedom to grow and require hand picking as they are far more delicate. Hand picking allows the wine maker to be more selective about the grape quality, leaving grapes that might be past their prime on the vine.
Grapes need to be harvested at different times depending upon any number of factors: the type of wine being created, sugar content of the grapes, altitude of the growing reason, variety of the grapes harvested, etc., but ultimately the winemaker is at the mercy of the weather. The combination of rainfall and temperature can decide the quality of the wine produced each growing season long before the harvesters step into the field.
From the field the grapes are brought directly to the winery for timely processing. It’s up the winemaker to decide how to process them to create each specific type of wine. Temperature, type of juice extraction, length of time the grapes are allowed to remain with the skins and other factors shape the wine from the very start so every step in the process is important in achieving a high quality wine. Exactly how much wine that can be produced from a field is dependent on the growing conditions, age of the vines, and the processes of the winemaker.
I had a chance to attend the grape harvest of a local winery while I was in Spain during August. It was a great chance to see the starting process in wine making, and gave me more respect for how complex the wine making process really is. Between endless grape varieties, harvest times, extraction processes, and then fermentation and bottling, there are so many factors that go into producing a quality wine, that sometimes it seems like it takes a lot of luck to come up with a good formula.
But I saw firsthand that it’s not about luck. The winemakers I met are extremely passionate about what they do, and are constantly learning and reworking their process. They know their land, and in a sense their land is what brings them their passion to keep improving; identifying with a specific wine producing region or regional wine variety is a matter of pride. In some cases wineries have been in the family for centuries, and vines depending on the region can grow till 50-80+ years. When you have been working with the same vines for fifty years, I’m sure you start to understand their properties and can plan a product that works to their strengths.
The original plan was to see both methods of harvest currently employed in the region; manually picking and mechanized harvesting. As is the case sometimes with modern methods, the more advanced grape harvesting machine had broken down earlier in the day and a repairman was set to show up to get things running. I was told that I could ride in the machine while harvesting, which would have opened up some interesting photo opportunities, but by the time we had to leave the machine was yet to be fixed so I guess it will have to wait for another time.
The field was pretty dusty, as it was in fact a field. I tried to find some interesting angles which had me laying in the dirt or climbing on the trailers covered in grape juice. I came away with a dusty camera, but no harm done. I used my Canon 30D with my 70-200 F2.8 IS, 17-40 F4 and 50 F1.8 lenses. On second look at the photos, I could have brought my speed light as some of the shots were shot in the early morning and could have used some fill.
I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you made it all the way through, please leave a comment with your thoughts. I’m going to be doing regular photo essays and would love any feedback on how to improve.