The phrase “wine is made in the vineyard” received much attention recently when wine writers questioned some of Bordeaux’s first growth producers about their heavy financial investments in upgradation of the cellars. This also was an indication of a cautionary measure to have control over a bad vintage, which obviously reasons against the above-mentioned argument. Let’s just leave this to be dealt at another time. But the winemaker still has to work his magic in the vineyard. Hence, green harvest, a form of crop thinning practice, which helps in managing and controlling the yield in a vineyard, has found many takers lately.
What exactly is ‘Green Harvest’?
It is a viticulture term to describe mainly removal of excess grape clusters and to let the remaining clusters ripen fully. Some winemakers from regions such Bordeaux and Burgundy have been practicing crop thinning since more than four decades, but it can’t be considered as a very common practice. This largely depends on the weather condition in a particular vintage year. More rains mean more severe crop thinning and the opposite in case of a warm vintage. Some of the Bordeaux chateaus practicing crop thinning are Chateau Petrus, Chateau Margaux and Lynch Bages etc. The norm is to do green harvest when the grapes become red/fully ripen so that there is a significant difference between the clusters, which are riper than the ones that are still green, and then getting rid of those. However, there are still arguments over this practice, as some viticulturists believe that thinning at the stage of veraison (grapes are ripened) could have less impact on the actual quality of the yield.
According to Giacomo Bartolommei, the owner of Caprili winery Montalcino, Italy, green harvest has an essential role to play for the production of high-quality wines. “With this process we are reducing the yield per hectare by obtaining less quantity of grapes with really great characteristics. For example more sugar, less acidity resulting into wines which are more rounded and more approachable than the past”. For Tuscany and specially Montalcino green harvest is important in the month of June, sometimes (though it’s not anymore green harvest but has the same principles) also the month of August. He adds,“Just before the harvest this year, we are going to cut some more grapes to define and achieve better ripeness of the grapes in the vineyard”.
In regions such as Priorat, Spain, ‘green harvest’ is gaining popularity says, Albert Costa, Owner, VallLlach Winery. “It is very important to control the production as well as the quality of the yield from the vines. In Priorat, our vines don’t get enough nutrients from the soil to feed the grapes during maturity. So, green harvest helps us provide enough nutrients to the grapes to get the full ripeness that we want”. It is practiced mostly during the end of July in Priorat.
Wojciech Bońkowski, Editor-in-chief, Winicjatywa.pl & Polish Wine Guide says that there are various approaches, some preferring to intervene during the pruning and flowering phase to let the vine concentrate on a select number of bunches. Others green harvest a few weeks before the proper harvest. He also adds that yield control is essential to any quality wine. You can only produce basic table wine if yields are not controlled, especially in high vigour environments.
However, according to Bońkowski, green harvest, once considered a standard thing to do, is also increasingly being criticised as not respecting the natural balance of the vine. The key moment in programming the vine to produce a given amount of grapes is pruning. Pruning very short is time-consuming and requires expertise but has the advantage that the plant is geared toward a lower yield from the beginning of the vegetation period. A more conservative approach is to intervene at a later stage with green harvest, cutting unripe bunches that has developed normally through budding, flowering and fruit set.
Speaking on whether it is a modern practice to produce only fine wines or an essential aspect of viticulture process and vineyard management Bartolommei, the Brunello producer says that it is more of a standard process that everybody has implemented on vineyard management. “I think it’s more of a process for a category of wines where there is an imposition of yield reduction, andit is not a common practice, for example, for table wines”.
“I think it is both”, says Costa. “Of course it’s the way to produce the best wine possible, but in the same time with green harvest you can control a lot of fungus diseases, like botrytis during the maturation”.
Robert Joseph, Wine Writer, UK believes that green harvest can be very useful if there are too many berries during the season. If pruning and set have given an ideal number, then green harvest will be unnecessary. “You need it more for vigorous young vines, and in regions with legal limits on yields. It’s a modern practice, and not essential for most commercial wine”.
How important is the practice in case of India? Kailash Gurnani, Winemaker, York Wines says, “Green harvest is important. Generally, it can be done anytime during the growing season. But the best time to do it is between fruit set and veraison (the time when berries change colour and start becoming soft). If done at the right time, the plant adjusts its nutrient supply to the shoots & fruit. If done too late, depending on the variety there may be no significant benefits. It is definitely an essential part of viticulture. In India, however, the awareness of the science behind this practice is varied. For Indian farmers, more fruit = more tonnage = more profits which again is a problem”.
Potential for Wine Tourism!
Bartolommei says, “June and July are perfect months to visit vineyards and cellar because it is a less busy period and the visitors can see the vineyards during its best time. So is the time just before the harvest, which is, in most wine regions, by the end of August to the beginning of September. The process of green harvest is really important and people should see it to perfectly understand the process of wine making.
Speaking of the pros for wine tourism, Bońkowski says, “It reveals an additional aspect of agriculture to clients as well as extends the season for visits. But I can also see several cons: green harvest is usually operated at the height of summer in very hot weather; it definitely lacks the magic of harvesting ripe grapes, eating them / drinking freshly pressed juice; even if you explain the procedure, some visitors might be (unconsciously) uncomfortable in what amounts to throwing away a part of the production”.
However, Priorat wine producer, Costa is of the opinion that it is an interesting moment during a good time of the year when everything is green, and of course the best way to teach the visitors and show them how the practice eventually leads to production of best quality wines. It could also be of interest to showcase several vineyard management techniques, which according to him is better than showing winemaking process at the winery.
A number of new world wine producing regions such as California and New Zealand have been practicing green harvest for some time. Misha Wilkinson, Misha Vineyards, New Zealand confirms, “We do, but every vineyard handles it differently. Usually the higher the quality of the vineyard, the more they green thin to ripen only a small tonnage to get maximum quality. It could happen at various times during the season but usually mostly at veraison”. In New Zealand, green harvest takes place from January onwards as it has 10 wine regions so the wine producers follow different timings. Down in Central Otago, the coolest of all regions, crop thinning is practiced in early February that is also depending on the variety.
‘Green Harvest’ as a practice is highly dependent on varietal, producer’s preference, the region etc. While some may consider the practice as a necessity, it is up to the winemaker to find the balance between over cropping and under cropping which ultimately influences the wine quality. And somewhere in between is hidden the potential for tourism, that is, if the producer is confident enough to let the visitors in a little more into the world of wine-making.
This article was originally featured on The Wine Club website.