Picking Grapes in Matakana

Turning grapes into wine is a messy business. In fact it’s a science experiment on a grand scale and the first step in the process is picking the fruit.  As volunteer grape pickers on one of the last days of a long hot summer, we joined a small enthusiastic group armed with garden gloves, sun screen and a ton of anticipation.

Picking is not difficult. That’s what the wine maker told us, and he was right. The vines are planted in rows and each row is separated into panels by thick posts which make  the framework for the vines. The vines are planted using a nifty system that splits each vine into two so we worked in pairs clambering over the main trunks and each picking on one side of the long rows. The vines are first liberated from under their protective net (not as effective as the wine maker might hope as it turns out), and each bunch is cut from the vine being careful not to snip the black wire that runs along the entire length of the row (we never were told what would happen if we got careless). The bunches are then gently laid in one of the plastic bins provided.

We started slowly in the rows of ripe Sangiovese grapes. These are beautiful and black skinned and look magnificent (and taste just as good). At first we treated each bunch like a fragile thing but after a while as our confidence grew and our tummies rumbled, the tightness of the bunches and the difficulty of prising them  from their supporting framework (without snipping said framework and incurring the wrath of the wine maker or the collapse of the vineyard) made it slow going. I’m sorry to say that more than a few gorgeous grapes were sacrificed in the process of releasing the bunches from their tenacious grip. The wine maker told us how to spot grapes that were too dehydrated or blighted by botrytis to pick. In the beginning we deliberated on whether to pick or not to pick, after all a good vintage starts with good picking,  but as time passed we fairly ripped through the rows.

As we filled the bins, they were taken by tractor to a shed to be fed into a shiny stainless steel box, a magic machine that strips the fruit from their stalks in the most efficient manner possible. Clearly  a machine invented by a wine maker who thought there must be a better, faster way. The grapes were then dumped into a huge tank and the magical wine making process begun. As the wine maker watched our pickings fill up the tank he looked relieved. The growing season had been hot and dry and although farmers around the country had been complaining loudly, wine makers had been quietly celebrating but the weather was changing and it was becoming important to get the fruit  indoors.

The wine makers wife made us lunch. We had romantic notions of a long table set up under the vines, covered in a white cloth with hearty homemade food (and perhaps a jug of wine) to satisfy us after our morning’s work. What we found was homemade food but no white cloths (or jugs of wine) and the food wasn’t quite hearty enough to satisfy this pickers appetite. Nonetheless, the rest was welcome and just long enough for my aching muscles to decide that they didn’t want to move for the rest of the day.

I needn’t have worried. The rest of the picking was finished quickly and then we were heading home with tired limbs, t-shirts stained with grape juice, and a bottle of “thank you for picking” wine on the back seat. We worked out that we had  picked enough grapes to make 112 bottles of wine but we’ll have to wait for 2 years before we can drink it. Wine making is not for the impatient.

Categories: New Zealand

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