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Symington sees light at the end of ‘mechanical harvester trial’ tunnel

Published:  05 November, 2019

Symington Family Estates has said it sees ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ in relation to its project to develop a mechanical harvester specially designed to work on terraces.

The port producer pioneered the ambitious project seven years ago with the final goal of reducing the dependence on an ever diminishing number of pickers in the region, with unemployment having now reached “exceptionally low levels”.

“At the stage when we embarked on the project back in 2013 the necessity to develop this technology was not so evident, fortunately however we took important steps during this period to overcome what is now becoming a very apparent problem,” head winemaker Charles Symington told Harpers.

So far, the investment in this equipment has been around €600,000 and “a considerable amount of time of our viticultural team and R&D team”, he said.

No attempt has been made by any other organisation to tackle this problem, he added.

“This has been a very ambitious project and we still have many hurdles ahead however, I feel we have overcome the principle difficulties and are now looking at refining the process.”

In addition to the mechanical harvester project, Symington has in the last 10 years adapted the way it plants its vineyards with the objective of mechanical harvesting in mind to make it possible to mechanically harvest significant areas of vineyard in the future.

It mechanically harvested around 45ha of vineyard this year in what it said was “in many ways still an experimental year having harvested many blocks for the first time, processes being established and operators being trained”.

“It is particularly satisfying to have reached this point in resolving one of the key issues of the Douro region and although we still have many challenges ahead after several years of ups and downs we are finally seeing light and the end of the tunnel!

“This to say we can improve considerably on this as we are on a steep learning curve. One of the most encouraging aspects of this mechanical harvester is the quality of the fruit arriving at the winery which is exceptionally high and compares favorably to conventional mechanical harvesters.

“We have in fact carried out comparative vinifications in previous years of mechanical and handpicked fruit and found no loss of quality with the added advantage of being able to harvest when we want and not being conditioned by the number of pickers available,” said Symington.

The 45ha harvested mechanically this year account for less than 5% of Symington’s total vineyard area and many of its old stone terraces – responsible for the grapes that go into some of its top Ports and wines – will always be harvested by hand given the narrow rows and access points.

Unlike easily mechanisable vineyards in other wine regions, the Douro has over 42,000ha of mountain vineyard, representing 52% of the global total.