In recent years, Niagara’s wine grape harvest has seen a collision between tradition and technology in the field.
While some wine grapes are harvested by hand each fall, most will, quite literally, be rattled off the vine by towering machines.
Advancements in ag tech provide grape growers and winemakers an edge in producing world-class wine in a hypercompetitive industry that needs any advantage it can get to stand out.
At Baker Estate Vineyards, Jose Hernandez, pilots one of Huebel Grapes Estates’ New Holland Opti-Grape harvesters.
Huebel Grapes, which contracts out their harvesting services in Niagara Region, purchased the harvester in 2016 for nearly half-a-million dollars.
Wineries pay a premium to have grapes harvested with the Opti-Grape over conventional harvesters, which don’t “clean” the crop as well and include many of the unwanted bad grapes, petioles and leaves during harvesting.
With the Opti-Grape system — or “optimized sorting table for grape treatment and separation” — the crop bounces atop rollers that separate stems from grapes, allowing them to fall through gaps onto more rollers below, which carry the grapes, small stem bits and leaves to an “air knife” where anything that’s not berry-round is blasted from the passing grapes, back out into the field.
In the pursuit of better quality and more consistent wine, Stratus Vineyards takes grape sorting a step further with their Pellenc Selectiv Process Vision 2.
Brought to Stratus in 2019 — at a price of $220,000 — it uses a camera system to detect unwanted grapes, insects or stems, depending on what the winemaker wants eliminated.
This past Friday, Stratus's assistant winemaker Dean Stoyka, tapped on the sorter’s touch screen controlling the parameters for a crop of Merlot grapes harvested from the Stratus vineyard just a day before.
It’s the earliest they’ve ever harvested Merlot.
“This is the best Merlot we’re going to make this year,” Stoyka said of the grapes as they whipped by along a grooved conveyor belt toward their destiny.
“Wine is really made in the vineyard,” he said. “This is an incredible year; it’s probably a top three vintage in the last 20 years — it’s a luxury to make wine in a year like this.”
Stoyka is able to define, to the diameter, what kind of grape makes the cut for wine; everything else beyond the set thresholds is identified by overhead cameras and rejected.
Whatever it may be — a stem, a rotten grape, one that’s too small, an insect — a shot of air blasts it away. What’s more, it processes upwards of 2,000 grapes every second.
“See that little bit of pink?” he asked, holding up a single grape. “That thing will get rid of even that. We don’t want pink in there, we want all fully, black red.”
In the crop of Merlot being sorted that day, between 0.2 and 0.5 per cent of the grapes were being rejected, hinting at the quality yield.
So far this year, the machine has sorted through 21 tonnes of grapes.
Underripe grapes have a “pyrazine character” similar to a green bell pepper, pink grapes have very high acidity, stems can give a broccoli taste and rotten berries have a vinegary character and introduce volatile acids.
“The hardest part for the human to sort, is those unripe berries,” Stoyka said. “In a $50 bottle of wine, you don’t want any of that.”
Before the sorter (which is ordered from California and can be serviced by a Niagara Falls company on this side of the border) it would take eight people an hour to hand-sort one tonne of grapes. Now they’re averaging five tonnes an hour with only three people needed to run the entire sorting line.
Stratus doesn’t produce more wine because of the technology, but they do produce a higher quality wine, more efficiently.
“It’s helping us compete at the price point of $50, which is probably one the most competitive price points of winemaking that you can have,” Stoyka said.
“Wine making only happens once per season, we spend all season growing the grapes — you can’t afford to take a risk. Really at the end of the day, all this equipment in here is to mitigate our risk.”
Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week