REPORT: Viticulture is becoming an increasingly popular enterprise, but the grape harvest has remained largely unmechanised. A trailed harvester is now proving to be an option, both for individual growers and a specialist contractor.

Charles Palmer Vineyards at Winchelsea, East Sussex, is a family business which is making the most of innovation to take advantage of the fast-developing English wine sector. Charles and his son Robert have been able to combine their farming experience with the latest techniques in grape production, and firmly believe that mechanisation is the way forward.

The UK grape harvest is currently carried out almost exclusively by hand, but change is on the horizon, suggests Charles. “We’ve always used labour from (vineyard management services provider) Vineworks, with a requirement for 35-40 people for a week, but it was hard to predict exactly how many we needed and when, and easy to end up with too many or too few,” he explains. “Then the Covid pandemic came along and labour was in short supply.”

Help was at hand in the form of contractor S.J Barnes, who has been offering specialist machinery services across Kent, Surrey and Sussex since 2017.

“Sam Barnes has two Pellenc trailed harvesters and came in to do some of the harvest in 2021 so we were able to see how the machines could work for us,” says Charles.

They decided that purchasing their own harvester was the right way forward, he comments. “We wanted to have control over the operation, harvest when we wanted to and in the best weather window.”

Other benefits
In addition to labour and time savings, the trials showed that the Pellenc Grapes’ Line harvester could actually offer improvements in quality. The trailed harvester straddles the row and picks small bunches of fruit from the vines using a set of shaker bars positioned either side as it travels along the trellis.

“You can control the speed of the vibration of the bars, which sets the degree of ripeness at which the fruit comes away, leaving unripe fruit behind,” explains Robert, who operates the harvester.

Adjustments can also cater for changes in crop condition in a more consistent way than hand pickers achieve, Charles adds. “Botrytis levels were high in Chardonnay grapes in 2022, so by reducing the speed of vibration we could ensure that the necrotic bunches were left on the vine. Similarly, we can adjust sugar levels in the fruit by harvesting more or less vigorously.”

The mechanism also offers other opportunities – unripe berries left behind on the first pass could also be picked separately for the verjuice and marc markets.

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