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Peter Csizmadia-Honigh: Harvest diary from Chile

Published:  16 May, 2011

There is nothing like learning by doing. Quite true, I thought to myself when boarding the red-eye on Mayday in Santiago on the way back home after two weeks in Chile.

There is nothing like learning by doing. Quite true, I thought to myself when boarding the red-eye on Mayday in Santiago on the way back home after two weeks in Chile.

I am sure there is a long list of books, and tasting samples, I need to work my way through to better understand Syrah, but they cannot supersede the wealth of hands-on experience I had during the week I spent with Sven Bruchfeld of Polkura Vineyards in the Colchagua Valley and then travelling around in the most important wine regions of Chile.

The idea of doing a stage came about through a FaceBook chat with Sven earlier this year. A moonlighting proprietor and vigneron myself - at Royal Somló Vineyards in Hungary - I had been looking forward to my vintage experience at Polkura for the reasons that I had never made red wine before and neither had I worked in a winery other than my own.

Thankfully, it did not take long to convince Omar, my partner and a wine enthusiast, to be my travel companion for the trip.

It all started to become reality after an 18-hour flight from London followed by a 4-hour coach ride from Santiago to the village of Marchigue in the Colchagua Valley. The lush agricultural landscape of the Central Valley bordered by the dramatic ranges of the Andes to the East provided picturesque scenery for the journey.

Once in Marchigue, we got off the bus, which quickly rolled on leaving us in the centre of the village. Deserted as it was, it resembled the pictures of a Western movie. The prairie all around and there was one place open, the bar. Disguised as a wine restaurant, we decided it was best to order a beer whilst waiting for Sven to pick us up.

We drove to the heart of the 100-hecatre estate (27-ha under vine) to drop off our luggage at the newly erected log cabin then we went down to the winery straightaway.

We met Cristian, the leader of the core team of vineyard workers, and Brendan Carr, a young Australian winemaker in charge of the winery this year. A good international atmosphere in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.

Brendan, a native of Margaret River, Western Australia, had arrived from the Okanagan Valley, where he had been making wine, via the West Coat of the USA, Mexico and other Central and South American countries. He was busy with plugging one of the containers holding the destemmed and crushed grapes, as we entered the winery.

They had already harvested Grenache Noir, Tempranillo and Syrah.

More Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were yet to come assuming there were day labourers to pick. Following the post-earthquake boom in the construction industry in Chile - apparently I slept through a 4.7 magnitude quake on the Richter scale one night during the week - there is hardly anyone who would be willing to work in seasonal agricultural jobs.

Worth the toil
Raising the day fee up to $50 - whilst an average salary is $500 per month - enticed more appetite for work among the locals. You may contemplate about its economic impact on the winery, but then again leaving the fruit hanging on the vine would cause over-ripeness or loss of yield.

Unless it is possible to machine-harvest, which was a out of the question on the slopes of Polkura Vineyards, some with 18% incline.

It also happened mid-week that the pickers walked out around 2pm after having filled some 420 crates with grapes leaving them along the rows of vines on a steep hill.

In such a situation, we could do nothing else, but dropped our work in the winery and went up the hill to carry the crates of grapes on our shoulders down to the bottom of the site where the tractor could crawl up to. Two hours of hard labour and the grapes were down at the winery. I had learnt to appreciate again the amount of work that goes into producing wine.

The days typically start early and finish late during vintage. Yet, they pass by quickly, as you are busy all the time. It is not helped by the fact that you also need to align your daily routine to the electricity metre, so as to avoid having any machinery running from the main between 6 and 11pm.

This is the peak period for electricity usage with the highest rate and the provider calculates the annual bill on the basis of the two highest measures of electricity usage in the evening periods during the year.

If a winery were to pay its bill on the basis of two figures obtained whilst running all the destemmers, crushers, presses, the heat exchanger of the temperature control systems and who know what else, you can imagine that retail prices were to soar.

I took my fair share of the work in processing the Syrah grapes that were picked during our stint. A rather strenuous work for the back, as you stand along the triage table picking all the unwanted leaves, stems and stalks out so as to avoid any green tinge or harsh tannins in the wine.

As a guest worker for a week I was at liberty to desert my position at the triage table so that I could make myself useful with other jobs. For example, Brendan trained me in additions and calculations. The first one was to get my head around the amount of potassium metabisulfite added to the must bled off from the Syrah juice and later sold off in bulk.

Another job of mine was taking the temperatures and the sugar levels of the cold soaks, which were between 10 and 12°C and 25 and 27 Brix respectively.