My first experience of harvesting grapes by hand was an unexpectedly collaborative one as well as being very satisfying and a bit tricky.

With less than 24 hours’ notice I found myself standing, slightly nervously, in the vineyard on quite a cold October morning. The nerves were due to my concerns about whether I would be able to keep up with the other pickers and whether I would be any good at it.

I didn’t want to let anybody down and I was pretty sure that my usual desk job wouldn’t have equipped me with the necessary skills.

Meeting the wine manager as arranged at the vines along with about 10 other people. Two plastic buckets, a pair of secateurs (pretty sharp!) and a pair of unattractive blue plastic gloves were soon allocated to everyone. The gloves weren’t mandatory but apparently hands can get pretty sticky without them.

Collaborative

It turns out grape picking is collaborative since you work in pairs. Each pair working their way down their allocated rows, one either side of the vine, cutting off the bunches of grapes on their side, not cutting fingers (their own or their partners) with the sharp secateurs.

Being partnered with a very experienced picker was a challenge, would I slow him down? Would we be able to keep up with the lightning speed of the other pickers?

 

Getting into a cutting rhythm seemed to be the key. Grab bunch of grapes, snip, dump grapes in bucket; grab bunch of grapes, snip, dump in bucket; grab bunch of grapes, snip….STOP, THOSE ARE FINGERS!…snip stalk, dump grapes in bucket.

There was much chatting with partners as people worked their way down their rows. Hearing snatches of the conversations from the pickers in other rows I got some new holiday destination ideas.

It was very satisfying seeing my buckets fill with bunches of grapes and emptying them into the big bins at the end of each row. I confess, this not achieved at quite lightning speed.

The vines I was working on belong to Wyken vineyard in Suffolk. They are on a south facing slope but this being Suffolk the slope isn’t very steep.

Tricky

We picked two different grapes that morning, a white grape called Auxerrois and the more well-known black grape, Pinot Noir. Both destined for the vineyard’s sparkling wine Moonshine.

Even to my inexperienced eyes the Auxerrois crop looked a good one.

The bunches were big with lots of grapes on each bunch. Some of the bunches were so dense with grapes that they had grown around the wires which form the trellising for the vines.

I had to cut around them to get the bunches off the vines, being very careful not to cut the wires by mistake.

My partner forewarned me that cutting the wires is a big no no. You have to go and confess to the boss if you do that. No one wants to confess to their boss on their first day.

Being involved in such an ancient and traditional activity was quite different from the scenes I had witnessed in Bordeaux a few weeks before.

Visiting the Entré Deux Mers area they had started harvesting using big harvesting machines. The machines straddle either side of the vines and shake the grapes off the vines so that everything is left on the vines except the grapes.

All you can see are the grape-less stocks where a few minutes before there had been full bunches of grapes.

I enjoyed my first experience of hand harvesting very much and I needn’t have worried about letting people down. Everyone was helpful and friendly and I mustn’t have been too bad at it as when I volunteered to help with the winter pruning in January they seemed to want me back. Even though pruning is a more technical and complicated procedure.

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