Preparing for the season
The year effectively begins for grapes in autumn when harvest is complete, because that’s when the vines lose their leaves and get ready for a new growing season.
Winter is a busy time for growers as vines are pruned, old canes are removed from the trellises, and new canes are selected to bear the next season’s crop.
Vines come to life
Grapevines burst into life from early September and go through a series of growth stages throughout spring. First, young shoots appear and develop clusters of flowers that blossom into berries, which are small, hard and green. Over spring and early summer, the grapes grow and ripen, and their sugar content increases.
Harvesting and drying
Harvest begins in late summer to early autumn (February/March) when grapes are ripe. Growers use two methods – traditional hand picking or trellis drying and mechanical harvesting.
Trellis drying, sometimes known as summer pruning, was developed by the CSIRO in the late 1960s and is now the technique used by most growers. Fruiting canes are cut to separate the bulk of grape bunches from the vine, and the fruit is sprayed with a food-grade drying emulsion. Around three weeks later, when the fruit has dried to about 16 per cent moisture content and the stems are brittle, the bunches are harvested mechanically. A harvester moves along the rows, shaking fruit from the vine and removing dry leaves and sticks at the same time. The fruit is then collected in large bins and finish-dried in dehydrators.
Some growers still use the traditional method of picking grapes by hand. Fresh grapes are put on large, multi-tiered wire racks to dry in the sun for about 10 days. They are then placed onto large plastic sheets for final sun drying.
No sulphur is used in the drying process. Rather, all varieties except currants are sprayed with an emulsion of potassium carbonate and a refined vegetable oil. This alters the wax layer on the grape and allows the moisture in the berries to move out through the skin, locking in natural sugars.
Preparing fruit for sale
The dried fruit is taken to a local, state-of-the-art processing company for grading, cleaning and packing. Fruit is checked carefully to ensure it meets rigorous quality standards, then it is cleaned and all unwanted vine material is removed. Fruit is then packaged for sale in Australia and overseas.
Eating dried fruit at home
Australian dried grapes make a healthy snack and are great flavour enhancers in savoury and sweet dishes. Australians eat about 3kg of dried fruit on average every year.
Dried grapes are best stored in a dry and well-ventilated area, at 10–15°C.