Experiencing Harvest in Argentina: Falling in Love One Cluster at a Time

May 9, 2011, by: Stephen George

In sports, it’s the championship game.  In law, it’s the closing statement.  In business, it’s closing the deal.  In almost every profession, there’s that watershed moment when everything you’ve been working toward comes together in one critical effort.  It’s a moment when everything is on the line, when your future hangs in the balance, when you’re making decisions that could realize your hopes and dreams or dash them on the rocks.

For the best winemakers – those talented savants who form the beating heart of the wine industry – this critical moment is harvest.

Michel Rolland's Val de Flores vineyard Uco Valley, Mendoza Argentina

Michel Rolland's Val de Flores vineyard, moments before harvest

Naturally, the moment of harvest is shot-through with excitement.  It can be tense and nerve-wracking, certainly. But for those of us who are romantics at heart, who love adventure, it’s the best time of the year.  We risk-takers live for these moments, and we thrive in the thrill they provide.

So imagine our level of anticipation as we woke up before dawn, on our third day in Argentina, to head out to the Val de Flores vineyard to begin the Uco Valley’s Malbec harvest.  We were a tired group – dinner the night before had ended around 1:00am, and after the customary post-dinner frivolity, most of us crawled into bed much later than that (’tis the Argentine way, we were learning!).  But nary a grump was to be found on our team.  We were too excited – our eyes glimmered with the possibilities of the day.

Bodegas Rolland winemaker Thierry Haberer

Winemaker Thierry Haberer makes final preparations for harvest

We knew that this was The Moment.  Thanks to the previous several days we had spent with Thierry Haberer – Michel Rolland’s right-hand-man and the head winemaker for all of Michel’s properties, including Bodega Rolland in the Uco Valley – we had experienced firsthand how critical harvest decisions were.  We had walked together through the Mariflor and Val de Flores vineyards sampling the grapes off the vine, and we tasted how dramatically the ripeness and balance levels varied depending on individualized factors such as canopy, rootstock, vine age, soil, elevation, and exposure.

We saw that to make a general decision to pick the whole vineyard at once, as many large-scale commercial operations do, would result in harvesting many grapes that are underripe, and many more that are overripe – and ultimately would get you uninspiring wine.  What’s needed instead, according to Thierry, is vigilant monitoring of the grapes’ progress – daily tastings, not just of each vineyard or of each block or of each row, but even throughout a single row to determine how the fruit changes from vine to vine.  Then, you can individualize picking decisions so as to ensure that each block is harvested at the moment when its own fruit has reached optimum ripeness and balance.

This kind of micro-decision-making takes a lot of experience, effort and intuition.  It’s a true art.  And it draws the line between crafting an ordinary wine and an extraordinary wine.

Why is this so important?  After all, winemakers do a lot after harvest that affects the character of a wine.  They must decide what to do – and what not to do – in the cellar to shepherd the grapes through press, maceration, fermentation, aging and finally to bottling.

But remember this: the quality of a finished wine can never exceed the quality of its fruit.  A winemaker with mediocre fruit might trick out the juice in the cellar to make up for lack of quality, but the final wine will always be lesser than what it could have been with perfect grapes.  (Of course a winemaker could also mess up perfectly good fruit with undesirable choices in the cellar.  That happens all the time.)  At the end of the day, the choices made in the vineyard during the growing season – and critically, the moment at which the grapes are picked – determine how good your grapes are, which in turn forms the upper limit of how good your wine can be.

I had learned all of this a long time ago, of course – this wasn’t new information for me.  And yet, as I stood in the crisp air among the Val de Flores vines glistening with sunlit morning dew and strapped a steel bin-carrier on my back, I was living it for the first time.  It’s one thing to hear something in a lecture or to read it in a book.  It’s quite another to experience it for yourself.  I had always known in my brain how important this moment of harvest was.  But now, I knew it in my bones.  The physical excitement of the moment was charging through my body, causing my heart to beat more quickly and my hands to flex with pent-up energy.

I could now smell the dusty earth and hear the soft crunch of soil underfoot.  I could feel the rough veins of the grape leaves and taste the sweetly bitter skins of the fruit.  I could see the Andes towering to the west and the sun rising on the eastern horizon.  And I was full of a sense of The Moment, the climax of the growing season. We all were. Harvest was about to begin, and it was time to get to work.

Montesquieu Wine Brokers Harvesting Grapes

Clipping grapes at Val de Flores

And work we did. Thierry gave us instructions and split us into several teams, each tackling a particular row of vines.  Two of us would clip on either side of a vine, while the third person – the “runner” – would shuttle bins of grapes to the truck as they were filled.  That was my job, and in between runs I would de-leaf the vines so as to make it easier for the clippers following behind me to snip each cluster’s stem.

We started slowly, but soon got some momentum as we gained a feel for the job.  Blinded by enthusiasm, I didn’t notice until the second hour just how back-breaking the work was.  Constant crouching.  Lots of lifting.  Bending over, gripping with your fingers, straining with your neck, swiveling your body from vine to bin and back, hunching and shuffling.  And, of course, running.

But we didn’t mind any of that.  Because we could sense that through the physical exertion, we were gaining something irreplaceable.

You see, it changes you – to feel the dirt of the vineyard under your fingernails and caked in the wrinkles of your hands; to cup a fresh, cool cluster of grapes with your own hands and to detach it from the vine and gently lay it in the bin;  to see how hearty these grapes are, and at the same time how delicate; to experience the strain of a bin of freshly-picked grapes on your back as you make your twentieth trek down the row to the truck bed.  All of your senses – smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight – converge to help you fully experience the wine in its most primal state.

Montesquieu Winery assisting harvest 2011 Val de Flores Malbec

Argentine Malbec, in all its glory

Doing this gave us a sense of intimacy with the grapes – as if we knew them well, like old friends – and infused us with a sense of expectation for what the finished wine will bring. I can’t wait to taste it, even though that’s a couple years away.  I’ve no doubt the wine will turn out beautifully – the grapes were perfectly ripe and incredibly fresh and consistent across each row, the vineyard was immaculate, there were very few raisined bunchs, plus Michel and Thierry are geniuses in the cellar.  But either way, I’ll always have a deep connection with this wine, and I’ll cherish it. Because I was there with the winemaker during The Moment.  I had experienced the gravity of that critical dramatic scene in the life of this wine, and I participated in its denouement.

If the bloom has come off the rose for you, so to speak – if wine has become a series of critical judgments and QPR assessments, or if it feels more like work than play – then this kind of experience causes you to fall in love with wine all over again.  It reminds you of what you always loved about wine.

In fact, now that I’ve picked in Michel Rolland’s vineyards in Argentina, I’ll go even farther.  Until you have experienced harvest first-hand, you haven’t really experienced wine.


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