A great deal of dedication is required when you need to set your alarm for 5:15 in the morning, especially when this is not part of your normal daily routine.
However, it is absolutely necessary to get up this early during the hottest time of the year (the middle of August) when you have volunteered to help with the grape harvest in a vineyard in Mallorca.
So, after the initial surprise and the later realization that I did indeed set my alarm for this particular time, I got myself ready and drove towards the centre of the island to help with the grape picking at Bodega Son Juliana, located between Santa Eugènia and Biniali.
It is necessary to start picking the grapes at 6am as the temperature amongst the vines can reach over 30C by 12:30pm and as you can imagine, this is not a pleasant experience for any worker or volunteer. It is also very risky to pick the grapes when the temperatures are high as they can break easily. The cooler, early morning temperatures keep the skins intact and so the aromas are retained.
When harvesting, you have to be prepared for all eventualities and surprisingly it can be quite fresh at 6am during the month of August. Later on though, the sun can burn your skin and if you don’t drink enough water you can easily dehydrate. Packing for the day therefore consists of a jumper, a hat, sunscreen, coffee, water and some breakfast…other workers also choose to wear gloves whilst harvesting.
Son Juliana is a young vineyard built on flat, clay terrain with a stunning view of the Tramuntana Mountains in the distance. Their cellar is a modern, functional building that focuses on three primary elements: production, location and climate (otherwise known as ‘terroir’ in the world of wine). The architects, Munarq, designed the winery to work with 100% renewable energy (such as solar panels) as well as passive ventilation and geothermal systems.
Their vines are also young and the winemaker prefers to work organically. There is a mix of local grape varieties as well as more renowned, international varieties, which helps the winery to create a range of wines that appeal and reach many different clients.
On my first day amongst the vines we picked the Chardonnay grapes.
I met up with Rafael the winemaker, and the rest of the team, including Günther, who is the owner. Günther did not want to miss this important time of the year, regardless of how busy he is back in Germany.
Rafael gave us a quick run through on what to look out for whilst picking the grapes and how to know which bunches to save (or not). The team of workers then collected their buckets, head torches (as it is still dark at 6am) and a pair of scissors. Picking commenced line by line and in pairs, with one person on either side of the line of vines. On this particular morning I was paired with Sarah, a winemaking student from the south of Germany doing an internship. She is hoping to learn a lot about wine making in Mallorca and then apply her new found knowledge at her family’s winery in the south of Germany.
The grapes looked really healthy but Rafael also encouraged us to taste some of them in order to double check the quality of them. They tasted very good so they would surely produce a good wine.
If we were unfortunate to taste a bad grape, which is usually vinegary or sour, we had to leave that bunch behind. Sometimes the bunch would look fine from the outside but then it would smell of vinegar so it is absolutely crucial to be thorough. This does make the whole picking process quite tricky and slow but this form of manual labour ensures the best quality grapes reach the cellar. This is impossible to achieve if you use a picking machine.
As the sun began to rise and it started to get warmer, more workers arrived to help, including members of the family, friends and the winemaker himself. By midday all of the grapes were picked and then taken to a refrigerated room to keep cool, ready for processing. Once the grapes are pressed they are then transferred to stainless steel tanks and barrels for fermentation.
During the harvest period we picked many different varieties and it is an eye opening experience for any wine lover to try all of the grapes before they are transformed into wine.
The Mallorca Giró Ros grape is one of my favourites. It is quite sweet and very soft skinned, so much so that I couldn’t stop eating them!! Another surprise is the Callet grape. This Mallorcan red grape comes in really tightly packed bunches, with uneven grape sizes but they have a very soft, creamy skin and lots of red fruit flavours, a real treat!!
Mantonegro, Syrah, Prensal and Moscatell were all picked during the harvest period. Each type of grape has its own particular characteristics and flavours. They also have their own individual ways to be picked and processed.
There was certainly no time to get bored and also no time to waste as the weather could change at any moment. Grape picking is not ideal when it rains or when temperatures rise up to 35C, as it does here in Mallorca.
Once you get to know how hard it is to harvest the grapes, you also understand the amount of stress the workers are under during this period. It is a make or break time of the year and one mistake or wrong decision could prove to be very expensive. I have nothing but respect for the wine workers around the world and it is thanks to their hard work that we can all enjoy the good wine that is produced.