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The vineyard year


Marc Millon

this article was first published in Italy Magazine 01/05

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


Copyright Marc Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved
Images copyright Kim Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved

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