Sorting just-harvested grapes is very important, at least according to some – hopefully most – vignerons.
Some sorting is carried out by pickers in the vines, with the rest done at the winery on the way to the press or fermentation tanks. This process is normally done on various types of sorting tables, or even by automated “optical” sorters that supplement the human eye.
The traditional setup is a long, vibrating table that moves the grapes past a number of sorters who remove what is unwanted – stones, leaves, insects, rot, etc.
But what is good sorting? And what are the consequences of substandard or even poor sorting?
Optimal sorting can only be judged at the end of the process, preferably before the grapes enter the destemmer and/or fermentation tank.
If all (or most) unclean elements have been removed, then the sorting is excellent, or optimal. By unclean elements I mean dried berries, rot, overripe and unripe berries, sunburn, hail-damaged berries, mildiou- and oidium hit-berries; the list goes on.
In 2022, only moderate sorting was needed, whereas the 2021 vintage was very demanding sorting-wise.
In reality, there is a limit to what sorting can accomplish, as rot and mildiou are very difficult to fully eliminate. This means that in 2021, even some well-sorted grapes had a hint of dustiness that could be attributed to less-than-ideal fruit.
Number of sorters
To get the desired quality of sorting, the number of people at the sorting table varies: from two to eight, or even more. That said, certain producers run the grapes directly from the vineyard into the tank, hopefully with some thorough sorting in the vineyards.
In reality however, it is the speed of the table – and the willingness to stop it in order to thoroughly sort the grapes – that defines the number of people needed.
At Domaine Garcia, 14-20 kg of grapes (two cases) are loaded onto the vibrating table, moving slowly down the table itself. The table is stopped when the fruit reaches the end, and the batch is sorted while stationary. When all is done, the table is restarted, and a new batch of grapes is loaded. Six to ten people do the sorting, with two people loading the table, and two more transporting the sorted fruit to the tank or destemmer.
A table in continuous motion, with only two people sorting, cannot, in my opinion, ensure proper sorting of even the cleanest grapes. This is of course based on my own observations.
The speed of the table and the volume of grapes are also important; it’s a question of the winemaker’s ambition and style – crystal clear, or more rustic and dusty.
The size of the harvest cases is also important. Producers like Domaine Garcia and Comte Liger-Belair use smaller cases, while others use bigger units which can compact the grapes more and increase the volume of grapes on the sorting table.
In 2022, between four and six at the sorting table seems to be norm, although some use more. Experience is, however, important, and experienced sorters can sometimes do the work of two novices.
Consequences of superficial or poor sorting
In my experience, superficial sorting can give a slightly cloudy, dusty expression to a wine. This is not necessarily serious, but if one tastes a slightly problematic wine from a normally very vigilant sorting estate, then one will know what I am talking about. The expression is not fully transparent, and the wine is not crystal clear.
This is the effect of sub-optimal sorting, and some domaines display more crystal clarity than others. This could well be down to the sorting regime.
In the worst cases (hail and severe rot), a poorly sorted wine can be almost undrinkable, as hail damage leaves a strong tannic, bitter taste, and rot can leave many unclean flavours.
To conclude: Sorting is critical, and given Burgundy prices, eliminating one or two people at the sorting table is for me a false economy.
Proper sorting can make a wine; poor sorting can destroy it.