Lukas Plöckinger picks me up in Eisenstadt at 6.30am prompt, on a chilly October morning. Lukas is the winemaker and vineyard manager at Weingut Tinhof, in Austria’s red wine heartland Burgenland, and he’s my teacher today as I pop my grape-picking cherry. Why am I doing this? Because I’m hoping that a day’s physical immersion in wine production, at the most important time of year, will give me a whole new slant on the subject that I call my passion.
Today we’re picking Sankt Laurent, Austria’s native, silken red variety, from Tinhof’s Feuersteig vineyard high in the Leithaberg hills. And I’m about to learn about one of Sankt Laurent’s less desirable properties. Being a thin-skinned grape, it succumbs easily to Botrytis (or rot). All it needs is some rain at the wrong time of year, which is exactly what has happened during Autumn 2013, so we have a badly affected crop.
After a short, bumpy ride up to the vineyard, I’m handed a pair of secateurs and a plastic bucket, then given a quick lesson in how to detect ripenesss – and most importantly how to avoid the “zweite blüte”, or “second blossoms”: small bunches of grapes which grow on renegade secondary shoots rather than off the main boughs. Lukas’s best piece of advice is simple “if in doubt, always taste”. And he’s right – there’s a world of difference between the sweet, ripe grapes growing in the right places, and the thin, acidic fruit on the “zweite blüte”.
I quickly confirm a few truisms: first, grape picking is not well paid, thus usually undertaken by whichever less well-off ethnic population happens to be nearby. In Burgenland, that means Hungary – and our 12-strong picking team are Hungarian to a man. They are hugely valued – Lukas tells me “we’ve had the same team for 10 years – they almost know the vineyard better than I do”.
Second, an elevated vineyard site at 7am in the morning is cold and windy. My thoughts of a bucolic idyll are dashed – although once we get going, the vines hum rather charmingly with Hungarian banter. I fancy they are saying “What the hell is that crazy English guy doing? He hasn’t even filled one bucket yet.”
Third, grape pickers really do drink wine throughout the day. At least at Tinhof. I’m enthusiastically offered my first glass (of a tasty Tinhof Blanc) at 10.30am during the morning teabreak. Of course I accept.
Fourth, visions of an expansive sit-down lunch, with several bottles of wine, turn out to be just that. We picnic on bread rolls, salami and salad, out of the back of the minivan, albeit with more wine (this time also a delicious 2009 Blaufränkisch).
Fifth, I note that I’m roughly twice as slow as the Hungarian crack-team, although I tell myself that’s because I have become obsessive about stripping out every last bit of Botrytis. And it’s dispiriting and tedious, starting with a splendid looking bunch, only to find it rotten to the core. Still, Lukas doesn’t seem overly worried: “It was like this in 2010 – quantities will be down, but we had two outstanding years in 2011 and 2012”. He is however pretty certain that there will be no “Feuersteig” – the top wine – in 2013. “If the quality isn’t there, we prefer to use the grapes for the classic Sankt Laurent instead. I don’t want to reduce the price of the top wine if it’s not good enough. I just won’t make it”.
After lunch, I opt to help out in the cellar. 5 hours of picking is enough for my back. I imagine the afternoon will be spent wandering around fermenting tanks, discussing the finer points of temperature control and perhaps tasting some of the must. But it turns out that cellar work is no less arduous – now we get to see all six boxes (each holding around 300Kg of fruit) picked during the morning again, this time on the sorting table.
By the end of the afternoon, I decide that the inventor of the destemmer (the machine that shakes off the stalks) deserves a Nobel prize. I simply cannot imagine the hard work entailed without this device. We have only to pick out the 10% of so of stalks, leaves and other foreign matter that the destemmer misses – and a few stray scorpions that amazingly seem to have survived the trip all the way from the vineyard.
Lukas never adds yeast to fermentations, preferring to let everything happen naturally – but despite this, the grapes receive a minuscule dose of sulphur on their way into the crusher. This is risk mitigation, as the delicate Sankt Laurent is prone to oxidation, especially in such a damp year.
By 5.30pm, all the grapes are sorted, crushed and swilling around in a 10hl steel tank. Until the pickers arrive back at base a few minutes later with another 4 boxes, that is. I gracefully bow out, leaving Lukas and his team to another few hours work.
I’ve learnt a lot, and to complete the lesson I have three vintages of Tinhof Sankt Laurent in my bag. Lest I forget, there’s also a fourth staining my clothes and hands an unmistakeable red hue. My badge of honour for the day.