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Night Harvests in the Barossa

Stuart Bourne is getting in some night harvests while the weather is still hot in Barossa Valley.
2009 Southern Harvest Winemakers
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Posted: Mar 2, 2009 12:58pm ET

By Stuart Bourne

Posted by Stuart Bourne

Vintage 2009 continues at Barossa Valley Estate, and what a week it has been. The weather was very kind to us this past week, and the red grapes continue to arrive at the winery as we pick the blocks that are ripe and patiently wait for those that will be harvested in the next few weeks. On that, the hot spell of weather we had in the immediate lead up to vintage is now being recognized for the effect it had on our vineyards in the Barossa Valley. What that heat did was to reduce the crop levels in terms of volume, but appears to have had no detrimental effect on quality. This, of course, is very good for the wine. As we now really ramp it up and start picking more blocks of Shiraz, we are finding that the tonnage of fruit coming in off these blocks is lower than what we picked last year. The berry sizes are quite small, which also is good for concentration of body in the wine. Colors, aromas and flavors are all in the ripe spectrum, quite vibrant and lifted, so early signs are all good.

The first photo shows the outlet hose on one of our fermenting tanks as it is being pumped over. This is a Shiraz ferment that came in from the vineyard just a few days ago. For those that need a little explanation to understand this aspect of winemaking, when red grapes are crushed to a fermenting tank or vat, it starts off as a soupy mess of skins, juice and seeds. As the yeast we add starts to ferment the juice, the skins rise to the top of the vat and form a layer called the cap, with the fermenting juice underneath. The skins have all the color and extract we are looking for in the final wine, but they are sitting on top of the juice. So how do we get all the good stuff out of the skins and into the juice? I’m glad you asked.

Just-pressed Shiraz gets pumped over for more extraction.
What we do is we suck the juice out from beneath the skins and then gently pump it back over the top of the tank, and let it slowly percolate through the skins and back into the juice. This pumping over lets the juice extract the color and flavors of the skins, as it trickles back through the skins sitting on top of the juice in the fermenting tank. Punching down (We call it plunging down in Australia) is another technique we use to get color out of the skins in red wine. By plunging the skins down and into the fermenting juice underneath, we get a similar effect to pumping over. The take-home message here is to look at the color of the juice being squirted out over the skins in the photo. This was taken only 24 hours after the fruit was crushed, so to see that level of vibrant red purple is a winemaker’s treat. I’m really looking forward to watching this little baby as it gently ferments along.

We've also been harvesting Shiraz at night here at our winery vineyard. We had a mechanical harvester out picking some Shiraz in the cool of night. We had a warm to hot day forecast for that following day, so thought it would be best to pick by machine in the middle of the night, when temperatures are much cooler, so the fruit would be cooler and we also save on refrigeration since the grapes don't need to be cooled as much as if we had picked during the heat of the day.

Barossa Shiraz stays nice and cool before the sun comes up.
The next shot is taken of the fruit in picking bins, straight off the vine, ready to be crushed soon after. Have a look again at the color of this fruit. Dark black, with small berries and loads of flavor. (The shot also includes my cup of tea, resting on the side of the bin, as I was sick and tired of coffee by that stage, and needed something warm but with less caffeine. Rest assured, it did not spill into the fruit, but it did go cold as I forgot to get to it in time … oops.)

There are some out there that think that machine harvesting is in some way inferior to picking by hand. A quick note on that. Hand picking can only be safely done during the day (to prove that, try picking grapes at night by hand in the dark and see how many fingers you come out with afterward!), whereas machine harvesting can be done any time of the day or night. The tractors and harvesters all have headlights, so they can be used safely in the dark. The modern day machine harvesters are very gentle in the way they pick the fruit, doing no damage to the vine as they gently shake the fruit off. To understand this, the next shot is the machine harvester, after we washed it down in the morning, following picking that block of Shiraz.

The mechanical harvester gets a sunrise washdown.
As you look straight at it, you see it is U-shaped, so it straddles the vine row, and the beater rods just visible within the center of the machine are what shakes the vine from side to side, releasing the fruit from the bunch, where it is then caught in soft buckets before being conveyed out to a chase tractor pulling a fruit-collection bin, similar to the bin photo above. I love machine harvesting as well as hand picking, as they both have pros and cons, but early in vintage, when the weather is still warm to hot during the day, nighttime machine harvesting lets us get the fruit in quickly while retaining freshness, and at the right temperature so the yeast will start fermenting. The secret to a good machine harvest is the operator of the machine. The modern machines are so good at picking fruit gently, but it takes a trained operator to work the machine so it is clean, quick but soft on the fruit and the vine. I liken the new machines to a modern aircraft in their level of complexity, and we all want a good pilot at the helm when we fly! By the way, that Vine Star harvester in the photo is only a lazy $300,000 on the road, drive away, no more to pay.

Fifth generation Barossa grapegrower David Heinze.
As we wrap it up for a few more days, a couple of shots to introduce more of the crew. David Heinze, one of our grapegrowers. David is another fifth generation Barossa Valley grapegrower whose father was the founding chairman of what is still today our cooperative. That photo was taken as David delivered another lovely load of fruit to the winery, just after sunrise, after being up all night harvesting by machine for us. David has enormous passion and pride for his fruit, and it is always a treat to have him deliver to us. He will always have a beaming smile on, when his truck rolls in over the weighbridge, even if he has been up all night.

Graham Sharman keeps order in the BVE cellar.
The next photo of the chap with the white beard, behind his computer, is Graham Sharman, our cellar supervisor. Graham has been a part of Barossa Valley Estate for over 10 years, and sees to it that all of our requests as winemakers are carried out to his very high standards by the cellar team. He is also very proud of his efforts, and not only manages the daily workload with efficiency and a smile, but also manages to keep all of the crew happy as the long hours tick by. A formidable bloke, with a big smile, but you'd better be moving and working around him, or Graham will want to know why you're not! It’s guys like this that are very much the heart and soul of Barossa Valley Estate.

Jill (left) and Deb keep the harvest workers well-fed on long days.
The last photo is of Jill and Deb. These two legends work in the winery’s Cellar Door, so if you come in to taste our wines or simply enjoy our great hospitality, then you would probably bump into one of them, if not both. These two rate a special mention because during the long hours of vintage, you can always count on Jill and Deb to have cooked up some special treat for the winery crew. Simple things like a basket of fresh baked scones, or some uber deluxe cherry ripe muffins make the crew smile and give us the chance to sit down for a moment, catch our breath, and share a delicious handmade treat from the Cellar Door crew. Jill runs the tasting bar and Deb also manages all of the weddings and functions that we hold at the winery. Again, it’s people like these that are very much who we are, what we stand for, and it is shown in the wines we make. Top job crew, keep the scones rolling!

With a million things still running through my head, and now with more ferments to look after, I’ll leave you with one thought. Every time you raise a glass of fine wine with friends, behind that glass was a team of passionate farmers and people, all striving to bring you wine with a sense of place.

Enjoy and more later on white ferments, red ferments, the weather, the crew and how I probably need a refresher course in forklift driving!


Stuey B and all the BVE crew

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