The Harvest of 2019 – A Look at the commercial vineyard

The beginning of the year in a vineyard is a swarm of people doing 300 things at once. So many different things must happen in order to ensure that the harvest is the best that it can be. The processes involved have a cumulative effect: it can either be positive or negative, depending on the amount of preparation, local, national and international decisions, environmental effects and unforeseen circumstances.  There are only so many things that can be controlled. You can calculate the exact amounts of water, plant protection products, pest control, sunlight and hand labour needed to produce the perfect wine grape. Preparing for the harvest begins the previous year, with irrigation and pest or weed control at the top of the list. For a vineyard to yield the best amount of crop possible, many different processes must be implemented and frequently checked.

Training & Pruning

Common Vine Training Methods. Credit: Madeline Puckette, Wine
A vine must be guided to grow into a shape that would enable the best grape production possible. Not only does it take time to learn the exact art of healthy pruning, but it also takes time to guide (or train) the vine. While older woody vines are strong shrubs that can withstand a good amount of environmental strain, a young vine is a very delicate little plant that needs the care to flourish. Therefore, one must know exactly where to prune and how to bind a vine, so it has support to grow. We use the Spur pruning style (Puckett, 2016), as the Western Cape has a warmer climate. Vines can start producing grapes effectively within between one and three years. By then, the vines are woody and strong, able to carry the weight of the grapes and withstand harsh winds. The harvest itself normally takes place in the Robertson region around early to middle February, depending on the rainfall. But one cannot just decide on a harvesting time that looks good on the calendar. The harvest all depends on the sugar content of the grapes. Although wine itself is not necessarily sweet, the sugar in the fruit makes it possible to ferment and produce alcohol. Although winemaking is a lot more complex than just this, the first step is to measure the amount of sugar in the grape (Dami, 2014). To do this, a refractometer is used.

Testing sugar

A handheld refractometer.
Refractometers are handheld devices that enable producers and winemakers to measure sugar content in grapes. This is done by selecting a sample of grapes from the vine, crushing it to release the juice, and placing a drop of juice on the little eye of the meter. It reads the way that light is bent by the liquid. Higher sugar content will bend or refract light more, thus indicating the amount of sugar held by that sample (DePalma, 2019). A high sugar content indicates that the grapes are ready to be harvested. But if the sugar content is too high, the grapes will go bad quite quickly and will be unfit for wine.
The time it takes to harvest depends on the size of the vineyard, the number of available workers, the available equipment, the weather, and the sugar levels among other things. Smaller vineyards may choose to employ fewer workers, depending on the sugar levels and how much time there is to harvest before it gets too high. Normally the harvesting is still done by hand, yielding big bunches of grapes. Vineyards that mass-produce grapes for big wine brands (like Four Cousins or Robertson Wineries) might have industrial equipment that streamlines the harvesting process.
But the real feeling during the harvest is that of excitement. The underlying stress that producers feel (because of all the things that need to be done) is accompanied by excitement to see what fruits their labours and efforts yielded. Planting seedlings may have a variety of potential outcomes, and you don’t know whether you will have the best harvest of your life (or the worst one) until the harvest is over. And then, the cycle begins again.



Dami, I. 2014. Determining Grape Maturity and Fruit Sampling. Date of Access: 20 Feb 2019.

DePalma, A. 2019. Refractometer Uses in Industry and Selection. Date of Access: 20 Feb 2019.

Puckett, M. 2016. Illustrated Grape Vine Training Methods. Date of Access: 20 Feb 2018.

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