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New Tools for Great Winemaking

by Mark Simpson May 08, 2008

What do you need to be efficient in winemaking?

Most winemakers will tell you that great wine comes primarily from the vineyard. There are, however, ways to improve wine quality - even with fantastic grapes - through technology.  There can be several criteria used for employing mechanization with two keys ones being quality improvement and more efficient utilization of labor. Any winery that is serious about making great wine is always evaluating the business cases for new equipment.

In Bordeaux, France, grape sorting has been around for a long time. The grapes from the best estates are hand picked into baskets or totes and brought back to the winery for processing. A common practice has been to use sorting tables and the hands of many labourers to pick out the best fruit from the berry clusters. It is not uncommon to have 6 – 12 people working at a sorting table making sure that only the most desirable fruit makes it into the vinification. The key aspect to manage in sorting is berry asynchrony or in slang, “chickens and hens”. No matter how careful the pickers are, there will always be grapes of varying size, brix, ripeness and flavor ending up in the must. The goal of sorting is to pick out all the green matter, shot berries (wasp or bees can drill holes in ripe fruit), petioles (the stalk of a leaf) or moldy fruit or berries of uneven ripeness. This “triage”, as the French call it, is extremely labor intensive, adds cost to the wine and can give highly variable results, depending on the judgment and training of the sorting table workers.

La Tribaie

A machine developed in Bordeaux called “The Tribaie” could be one solution to these problems. This is a grape sorting machine that ensures levels of selection and care previously only available with the costly and time-consuming manual triage. It has been in use at Chateau Val d'Or in St Emilion and Chateau Picaron in Cotes de Castillon for some time, but is being popularized by its adoption by André Lurton, a well known French winemaker.

“This machine does in one hour the work that ten people can achieve in one day – and even then they would not be able to get these levels of accuracy” Lurton is quoted as saying. It works by dropping freshly picked fruit onto an adhesive roller, which anything slightly rotten sticks to, along with the stalks, leaves and green berries. The new machine uses a vibrating triage table, as well as a roller that is treated so that leaves, petioles and other debris, as well as badly damaged grapes, adhere to it. The remaining grapes are dropped into a juice solution at a certain specific gravity so that the ripe grapes fall to the bottom, from where they are taken for further processing.

La Tribaie will process up to 10 tonnes of grapes per hour, roughly the equivalent of a 10-person triage team’s daily capacity. At the second level of selection the healthy fruit drops into a bag containing grape juice at a known density. The best grapes (with enough sugar in them to have good potential alcohol levels) drop to the bottom, and the remainder float. These perfect grapes are then ready for fermentation in the usual manner. This machine is not cheap at 55,000 – 75,000 euros each, depending on throughput, but has a definite return on investment when the increase in wine quality and the tremendous amount of labor required for hand sorting is considered.

Cellar Tek

Closer to home, a California company called P and L specialties has developed a line of machines for fruit sorting, that is represented locally by Cellar Tek. This sorting equipment operates by combining vibration and a series of screens so the grapes are sorted by size and weight, rather than density.  The screens allows shot berries, smaller (green) berries and assorted MOG (material other than grapes) to drop out and conserves the must with high sidewalls. The equipment can be combined as modules in an ultra premium sorting system. The sequence would consist of a primary cluster sorting table, followed by  a crusher/destemmer, following by an incline sorting table and the vibrating screen table, called the Le Trieur 2+2.

This equipment is widely used in California and at least two premium wineries in BC have adopted this sorting technology. This same type of technology may be applied one day to remove other undesirable elements from fruit, such as ladybugs, which cause widespread quality problems in recent Ontario vintages. In many ways this type of processing technology will push the boundaries for quality as more marginal grapes can be sorted to reveal the best fruit for the ferment.

On a budget

For wineries with more modest capital budgets, this equipment may be impossible or difficult to acquire. There have been mobile services developed such as bottling lines and electro dialysis to provide access to expensive equipment cost effectively. The opportunity exists for this type of sorting equipment to be shared by several wineries to be rented on a per day basis. Let’s hope that a company with entrepreneurial spirit rises to this challenge.

To get the same type of quality fruit sort result with sweat equity instead of cash, wineries should consider buying a conveyor type sorting table and passing the grapes over it for inspection between the bin dump and crusher/destemmer. Invite a few friends, give them a few guidelines on assessing fruit quality, fire up the BBQ after and invest in your wine quality this way. Great winemaking is a function of passion and attention to detail and the selection of fruit prior to ferment is a key step on that journey.

Mark is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Group Food and Beverage Consulting.

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Mark Simpson
Mark Simpson


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