The vineyard year
this article was first published
in Italy Magazine
After the excesses of the holiday season,
and at the start of a New Year, it is worth sitting back to take
stock and consider the immense amount of year-round effort that
goes into the creation of a wonderful and miraculous product that
we all enjoy: wine.
In Italy, perhaps even more so than in
other countries where viticulture is carried out on a large mechanized
scale, the production of wine is still very much a human activity
that follows the rhythms of the seasons.
I recently discussed this with my good
friend Mario Fontana of Cascina Fontana, a small winegrower in the
Barolo hills of the Langhe. Mario proudly considers himself a contadino,
a countryman, and he works the land as five generations of his family
have done before him and as his young sons, Edoardo and Vasco, will
continue to do when they grow up. “Il vero produttore
di vino, the true wine producer,” insists Mario passionately,
“is someone who loves la sua terra, his land, so
much that it is almost as if it were part of his own body. Every
year when I produce my wine and taste the results of my year long
labours, I thank God, like a father does when he has just been blessed
with the birth of a son or daughter.”
Here are some of the tasks that are undertaken
throughout the vineyard year in the wine hills of the Langhe for
the production of red wines such as Mario’s Dolcetto d’Alba,
Barbera d’Alba, Nebbiolo delle Langhe, and Barolo. Similar
work is carried out wherever grapes are grown and wine is made.
I am including some Italian phrases as this may be helpful for anyone
who visits a vineyard to taste and to learn direct at the source.
At this bleakest time of year, a leafless vineyard, with its even
rows and dead wood, resembles nothing so much as a cemetery. The
vines are resting and in northern vineyards there may even be snow
on the ground. But there are important tasks to be done in vigneto,
in the vineyard: the winegrower must go out even in the freezing
cold, con i piedi nella neve, with feet in the snow, to
begin la potatura, the pruning of the dead wood from the
vines. This is an immensely skilled task, learned from father to
son, the knowledge of precisely which branches to remove and which
to leave, the latter determining the quantity of grapes that the
vine will produce this coming season.
Mario con i piedi nella nevi
Meanwhile in the cantina, the
wine cellar, the wines from the previous vintage continue to repose
in either vasche di acciaio, stainless steel fermentation
and storage vessels, or in botte di rovere, large Slavonian
oak casks, or, on some estates (but not Mario’s), in barriques,
small 225 litre French new oak casks.
The lungo lavoro della potatura, the lengthy manual task
of pruning the vines (there is no way to do this effectively by
machine), continues all through the cold and icy month of February.
But already the days are beginning to lengthen and by the end of
the month there is a little more warmth from the sun to heat the
vines and the winegrower alike.
The potatura is finally complete, but important work in
the vineyard continues: repairing or replacing broken pali,
stakes, that support the rows of vines, checking the fili,
wires, upon which the vines are trained, tidying up the filari,
rows of vines, in readiness for the new vegetation that will soon
come. It’s an exciting time, preparing for spring and the
rebirth of the vines. And as the vines themselves anticipate the
coming year’s new vintage, so is it now almost time to bottle
the young wines from the previous year that are traditionally sold
in the spring.
Molto lavoro da fare! Much work to be done! In the cellar,
first the travaso must be undertaken, the racking or transferring
of the young wine off its sedimento, wine lees, to clean
barrels in readiness for bottling. Soon the regular clienti-amici,
customers who have become friends, will arrive, both locals and
from further afield, to make their annual purchases of the vino
nuovo, new wine. Some will purchase vino sfuso, wine
drawn direct from the cask into 54 litre damigiane, demi-johns;
others will prefer to purchase vino in bottiglia, bottled
and labelled wines.
Wine sales of course bring important
revenue, for no money is received from a year’s labour until
the wine can be sold. In the case of vini pregiati, superior
wines that have a specific lengthy ageing discipline such as Barolo,
this means that cash can be locked into the wine for upwards of
four years. That is one reason why, in the past and still today,
many contadini may choose instead to sell grapes or newly
fermented wine to larger case vinicole, wineries that buy
in grapes, to bring in immediate cash.
But wine sales are not just about money.
For this is also an important moment for the winegrower, when the
fruits of his considerable labours are rewarded by seeing appreciative
clients who arrive to taste and purchase, and who depart loaded
with cases of wine that they will enjoy throughout the year. Questa
è una grande soddisfazione. A great satisfaction, indeed.
The gemme, buds, on the vine are beginning to open and
transform into tralci, shoots, so it is an important time
now for the winegrower to leave the cantina and go back
into the vigneto to choose which shoots and miniature formations
of incipient grappoli, grape bunches, to leave and which
to discard. This important task is known as the potatura verde,
green pruning, and is essential to reduce the potential yield and
thus concentrate quality and goodness into the remaining grapes
that will form and ripen.
“Dio aiutami, dammi la forza, Dio, ti prego, fa che non
grandini.” Grandini, hail, is the great risk in hill
vineyards such as those in the Langhe especially in the month of
June, so the winegrower prays that his vineyard might be spared.
For the damage caused can be immense, even total, stripping all
foliage and grapes from a vine in the merest matter of minutes.
This is a time, too, as the days lengthen and heat and goodness
goes into the vines, when the winegrower has to be especially attentive
against vineyard maladies such as peronospora, downy mildew,
and oidio, oidium.
By the time July arrives, the well-tended vineyard should be in
good shape and it is now a matter of keeping on top of the day-to-day
tasks, cutting grass, turning the ground, spraying the vineyards
when necessary. It is the time, too, to prepare for the bottling
of i grandi vini, the big, important wines such as Nebbiolo
and Barolo, wines that have been ageing in the large traditional
botti di rovere in the cantina for release in
September. In a small cellar where space is at a premium, bottling
wine also serves the purpose of freeing vats and barrels in anticipation
for the forthcoming new vintage.
While the rest of Italy – and even the winegrower’s
own family — basks on the beaches of the Tyrhennian or Adriatic
seas, the winegrower continues his careful and constant vigil, passing
again and again through the vineyards, reaching up to break off
the ends of the tralci, vineshoots, that reach to the sky
and shade the grapes from precious sunlight, removing leaves around
grappoli, grape bunches, in order to expose them more fully.
A great change in the mentality of the modern winegrower, especially
compared to his or her forebearers, is a realisation of the need,
constantly, to limit production in order to increase quality. Thus,
the diradatura, the selection, thinning out and discarding
of superfluous grape bunches, is a necessary if painful task that
must be undertaken.
At last, the start of la vendemmia, the harvest, the culmination
of a year’s efforts in the vineyard. Each grape variety has
its own period of maturation. For Mario, the Dolcetto is always
the earliest ripening and the harvest begins in the first days of
the month. Next will come the Barbera, workhorse grape of Piemonte,
in the wine hills of the Langhe capable of producing wines of real
structure and character. Finally the aristocratic Nebbolo is the
last grape to be harvested. The name comes from nebbia,
fog, for the grapes are late ripening and often not harvested until
well into October and the season of mists.
October is the busiest and most hectic month of the year, il
periodo di piena vendemmia — the harvest in full swing.
The teams of harvesters are usually regulars who return to help
year in and year out, family and friends as well as experienced
farmhands and helpers, for this is a skilled if backbreaking task,
the careful selection, cutting and transport of the uve, grapes,
to the cantina. October is an anxious month, too, and decisions
need to be made that are critical, for example, whether to harvest
now, or wait a little longer to allow the grapes to ripen that little
bit extra that will result in even better wine. But wait too long
and the rains may come, last a week or longer, and so dilute the
efforts of a year.
The grapes are now all in, but the immense work in the cantina
continues. The fermentation that began with the earliest grapes
is in the process of reaching completion, but for the later harvested
grapes, that magical transformation of grape mosto, must,
into vino continues. However, this is a time now of satisfaction,
the worries of the past months mainly gone, for there is little
more that can be done to change what will be. Così è
già nato il vino nuovo! And so this year’s new
wine is born! Time to taste, time to enjoy, time to celebrate. And
why not. The winegrower can now go down into the cantina
to draw off a jug or two of vino nuovo to enjoy with pungent
anchovy and garlic bagna caôda or to sip outside,
while roasting castagne, chestnuts, under the bright stars
of the winter sky.
A quiet month: the wines are in riposo, resting, and so
is the winegrower. This is a time to be with family, to prepare
for Natale, to festeggiare, to eat, drink and celebrate.
It’s a time, reminds Mario, above all, to give thanks to God
for la famiglia, the family, which is the most important
thing in the world.
Copyright © Marc Millon 2005