Hand-Picking vs Mechanical Italian Wine Harvesting – The Key Differences

Way back during the beginning of the wine industry, producers used their hands to harvest and process their grapes. There was no machinery to help them, at least on a large scale. Everything had to be done manually, which means that production was a slow and labour-intensive affair.

The introduction of machines to help with the picking of grapes and the production of Italian wines was a boon. Suddenly, producers could grow huge yields of crops because they knew they’d be able to turn all of their grapes into wine. Mechanical wine harvesting technology was key to the Italian wine industry becoming what it is today.

And yet, some traditionalists will tell you that the introduction of machines sullies the wine production process. They argue that truly great wines can only be made by hand, with machines removing the personalized touch that is essential to the creation of wonderful wines.

We’re not so sure that we agree with this viewpoint.

Still, the fact remains that there are some stark differences between the manual methods that some producers use and the mechanical techniques that allow for large yields to be processed quickly. This article examines what those differences are and what, if any, impact they have on the wines that producers create.

Difference No.1 – How the Practices Are Used

The differences between hand picking and mechanical picking are obvious. With hand picking, the producer assembles a team of people who go from vine to vine, picking grapes as they go. Mechanical picking involves the use of machinery to strip the vines of their grapes while ensuring that the plants remain strong enough for future use.

Still, there are differences in how these techniques are used.

For example, producers whose vineyards are in hilly or mountainous regions are often unable to make use of grape-picking machines. The nature of their land means the machines aren’t able to stay stable, which makes picking by hand a necessity. Of course, those with vineyards on flat land get to use machinery if they choose, though not all producers will.

There are also differences in the types of grapes picked.

A machine isn’t capable of being selective when it comes to which grapes it picks off a vine. It’s simply programmed to strip the vine of all grapes so that the producer can transport them to their facility. With hand picking, the labourer chooses which grapes to pick and which to leave behind. This key difference in practice plays into the next item on our list.

Difference No. 2 – The Grapes Being Picked

Imagine that a producer has a vine that contains grapes of varying qualities. Some of the grapes are better than others, likely because those grapes received the bulk of the nutrition from the vine.

With hand picking, the producer can select only the strongest grapes from their vines. They can also pick weaker grapes and get rid of them, ensuring the vine only feeds the strongest grapes. The result is often a stronger vintage developed using only the best grapes from the producer’s yield.

Mechanical picking machines can’t distinguish between strong and weak grapes, at least with the technology available today. As such, they’ll pick every grape available, which can lead to weak grapes entering production. Many will tell you that the use of weak grapes damages a wine because these grapes lack the flavour and sugar contained in their stronger counterparts.

Of course, a producer can mitigate this issue by going through the grapes a mechanical picker gives them, allowing them to get rid of weaker grapes before they enter production. But many producers who focus on yield ahead of quality won’t do this, potentially resulting in the production of poor-quality wines.

Difference No. 3 – Fermentation Styles Play a Role

One of the biggest issues that many have with machine harvesting is that the machinery only removes the grapes. While that isn’t a problem if the producer only intends to incorporate grapes in their production process, it also means that many red wine producers struggle with mechanical harvesting.


Many of these producers like to use grape stems and other elements of their grape clusters when creating their wines. This often leads to wines having different tannic properties, in addition to being truer depictions of their terroir. If a producer wishes to use these extra parts of the grape, they’ll have to go with the hand-picking method.

Furthermore, hand picking is preferred when the producer wants to minimize oxidation, as they may have to with more delicate grapes. Mechanical pickers may break berries and cause incidental oxygen exposure. Thus, hand picking is preferred for the more delicate grapes used in Champagne, Riesling, and similar white wines.

Difference No. 4 – Quality

Given everything that we’ve stated in this article so far, you’d likely assume that hand-harvested grapes are of a higher quality than machine-harvested ones.

But that may not be the case.

In 2000, the owners of the Paumanok winery engaged in an interesting experiment. They took a block of Cabernet Sauvignon and split it in half. The first half of the block was hand-picked, with the other half being machine picked. The grapes were then processed and turned into wine. Paumanok’s owners then conducted a blind taste test to see which wine was better.

They found that the two wines were very similar, though one was a touch more exuberant than the other. Surprisingly, they then discovered that the higher-quality wine was actually the one that had been machine picked.

So, there are often differences in quality between hand-picked and machine-harvested wines. However, those quality differences may not always go in the direction you would expect them to.

The Final Word

It’s clear there are some major differences between hand and machine picking grapes. Picking manually gives producers more control over which grapes enter the production process while using machines creates a more efficient harvesting process. But the effects on quality are up in the air as blind taste test experiments show varying results.

Regardless, at Xtrawine we ensure we offer the largest variety of Italian wines possible. Our collection contains hand-picked and machine-harvested wines to ensure you always have options available. And we’re always available to provide more information about a wine’s production method if you need it.


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