There’s harvests, and then there’s harvests… Since being in Nierstein, I’ve now had the opportunity to hand-harvest grapes three times. The first came a few weeks ago when I spent several hours picking Frühburgunder (early-ripening Pinot Noir grown primarily in Germany). Basically, you clip off the bunches, pick out the excessively rotted grapes, and then throw everything into a bucket. Sounds fairly simple (though imagine doing this for days and days on end).
However, the only unpleasant aspect I found in hand-harvesting Frühburgunder was the bugs (spiders, worms, unidentifiable insects I’ve only encountered along the Rhine… that sort of thing). As a kid, I used to be deathly afraid of bugs. However, today, I have somewhat overcome this fear (though at one point I did give everyone a shock when I suddenly let out a loud shriek because I could have sworn a worm had fallen down my shirt). Yet, when the owners approached me the other day asking if I’d like to do some more hand-harvesting, I didn’t think twice about it.
Little did I know that harvesting Riesling would be a totally different animal…
Hipping is Nierstein’s most acclaimed vineyard (Nierstein is the village I currently live in within Germany’s Rheinhessen region). It is planted almost predominately with Riesling and is famous for its Rotliegend terrior. Rotliegend (which translates to “red lying” soils) features layers of clay and sandstone that were formed 280 million years ago (well before the Ice Age, back when Germany was a tropical jungle). It looks a bit like red slate since the layers are so well-compacted. However, it is not slate like you find in the Mosel region. The soils themselves are red largely due to large deposits of iron, which (along with a small amount of limestone) result in wines that have an abundance of minerality.
What is also unique about Hipping is its sloping vineyards, which overlook the Rhine River and face East/Southeast to soak up the morning/mid-day rays. As a visitor, you get some pretty amazing views from the top of Hipping Vineyard, and on a clear day you can actually see the Frankfurt skyscapers. However, as a grape picker, I cannot over-emphasize just how steep these slopes can be (which makes the harvest far more challenging than when picking on flat land).
Just like learning to ski
We were assigned to the steepest slopes, which fall at a 40 degree angle. For those of you who ski, imagine picking grapes on a Blue Square (intermediate) slope—in New England this would even qualify as a Black Diamond (expert) slope. Well, the way it worked is that everyone grabbed a bucket and pliers, took a row, and started picking from the bottom-up. Then, once we made it to the top, we’d turn to the next row and pick top-down while descending the slope.
Over the course of five hours, we went up and down the Hipping slope three times. Going up was indeed tough on my legs, but going down was (for me) impossible to do while standing. So, I literally sat down and descended the slope on my bum (just like I did as a kid when first learning to ski). However, in addition to actually ascending/descending, I also would have to take my bucket with me. Keep in mind, the most critical part of picking grapes at those angles is securing the bucket.
Between every vine, you’d have to lift the bucket and then firmly plant it before the next vine so that it would not tip over. Needless to say, my bucket did tip over on several occasions. One time it even rolled down the slope. I was extremely grateful for the help of a fellow picker who descended the slope to fetch it for me. However, as I went to retrieve my bucket, I slipped and literally starting sliding down the slope myself. Fortunately, I managed to grasp a sturdy Riesling branch to catch my fall, but for a minute or two I just lied there, clinging onto this Riesling vine for dear life as I caught my breath…
Remember how I said I hated bugs? Well, they suddenly became less of an obstacle. I swear I had cobwebs in my hair by the end of the day, but I didn’t really care. Otherwise, the Riesling itself was not all that picker-friendly. First of all, there were very few beautiful, green bunches. Due to some previous rainfall, rot was setting in and there were lots of mushy, purple bunches. Also, these bunches were very hard to get at. What I called the anti-thesis of “low hanging fruit”, these Riesling bunches had a way of tangling themselves up into everything (even themselves). They also liked to hide within the leaves, which made them much harder to spot.
On the plus side, you rarely needed the pliers to cut these bunches. Upon contact, most literally fell off the vine like meat falling off a rack of perfectly grilled baby back ribs. In fact, I noticed many bunches already on the ground, which the owner told me is typical of Riesling since their stems are so weak. She told me she could remember some harvests when you just collected the bunches right off the ground.
After five consecutive hours of sliding around to pick grapes, I was a mess—completely covered in terroir. However, it was a very rewarding experience (though not something I’d want to do everyday). We ultimately picked 150 Liters of juice, which equates to just 200 bottles. Five hours with five pickers—that’s not much wine! However, that’s the reality of owning a vineyard.
If you have the chance to enjoy a future bottle of Georg Albecht Schneider ’10 Hipping Riesling, then now you know the efforts involved to make it happen.