By the time the alarm clock goes off, usually around 6:00, we are already having coffee, even though we should normally be at the vineyard before dawn. Not that anyone gets much sleep the night before the harvest. Before going to bed, I laid out my clothes and assembled my gear: a wide-brimmed hat, a tatty old T-shirt, and frayed shorts with deep pockets; closed-toe shoes, small sharp knives, and pruning shears (gloves are optional); bottles of cold water, cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil, and frozen beers; fresh figs, tobacco, rolling papers, and filters. The crates are already stacked in the back of the pickup truck, and small buckets, one for each harvester, are placed one inside the other.
Still groggy from sleep, we say our September good mornings in the vineyard as we rush to harvest before the rain begins. Our rendezvous marks the beginning of the grape must. Will it be a good year? Will the grapes turn out well? Will there be enough? Will the weather allow us to harvest and press the grapes on time? Will the tanks fill up? Will the fermentation process go smoothly? For the winemaker, harvest time is like service time in a professional kitchen, like a championship final in football, or like when a pregnant woman enters her due month: adrenaline is high, and anxiety is mixed with joy and anticipation. The entire year will be judged by the outcome of this activity. That’s why the harvest is crucial – a mini battle at the end of summer, at the end of every summer since the dawn of time.
A difficult year
“There are three kinds of weather that make farmers unhappy. Dry weather, rainy weather, and weather in general,” wrote French author Pierre Daninos with his trademark wry wit. It is early September 2023, and there is nothing sweet about the grape harvest in the Cyclades, not even the grapes. There were floods in early May, droughts for the rest of the year, relentless heatwaves, and high nighttime temperatures, even hailstorms and piercing winds that caused entire pergolas to flutter like flags.
The weather has changed, grown wild and ferocious, and nature’s fury knows no bounds. No one can predict anything, and most of the time they barely manage to get by. Climate change has many surprises in store, and we find ourselves unprepared, almost helpless in the face of the weather’s moods. It doesn’t take much for an entire year’s worth of work to go to waste. But that’s farming for you. Isn’t it always this way? After all, life has always been at the mercy of the elements.
“Gather everything, even the duds” was this year’s motto. The grapes were late in arriving at most wineries, and when they did, they arrived erratically. From one moment to the next, the phone would ring and a grape grower would say, “I’m going in to start picking, the grapes are ready, I’ll be there in the afternoon with 150 crates.” In the afternoon, the truck would arrive half full. “What is this you’ve brought me? Didn’t you say 150 crates? These are 50, and they are only half empty.” The bag of pears and basket of figs brought along to sweeten the deal would fail to placate the furious winemaker. Late harvest, poor production, shriveled grapes, and wasps everywhere were the norm. Powdery mildew and late blight, two of the most dangerous threats to grapevines, struck many vineyards this year. Moreover, grape ripening within the same vineyard varied considerably, making it difficult to determine when to start the harvest.
Those who made a few key and timely interventions are said to have suffered less damage. Those who sprayed sulfur and used simple techniques like proper plowing and pruning had good results with no major issues. Harvesting is a great struggle; while it can be a source of great joy, it can also be soul-crushing for the grape growers, oenologists, and winemakers who depend on it for their livelihood.
Harvest fever, literally and figuratively
“Wine is made in the vineyard,” as the saying goes, and so it should be. Wine should have the flavor of the vineyard, i.e., the grape and the terroir. It should feel like you’re biting into a ripe grape when you drink it. The winemaker’s concern is to protect the grape from the time it is cut from the vine until it has fully fermented into grape must, much like a parent would watch over their child, always observing but intervening only when necessary. This year has been difficult; the romance is gone. The harsh reality is that grape production in most parts of Greece has dropped by at least 50%, and in some cases by as much as 90%. Compounded by the increased cost of grape cultivation due to diseases, this leads to exceptionally high grape prices, another major stumbling block to be overcome by those involved as soon as the wines are fermented and the tanks are sealed.
How will our viticultural tradition fare in the face of the new climatic conditions, and how will winemakers manage the necessary price increase? During harvest season you sleep little, work hard, and think even more. When I first went to the grape harvest, I came home with chills and fever every evening. We called it “harvest fever.” And if that somewhat spoils the romantic image of the joyful grape picking at the end of summer, consider that this fever contains all the intensity and stress of the day. As I toss and turn in my bed, I imagine myself bubbling just like the grape must in its tank.
This article was previously published in Greek at gastronomos.gr.