Sunday, September 25, 2011

The vendemmia

It’s that time of the year when the sun rises slowly, hovering just on the crest of the horizon, casting a golden light on the vineyards. I wake early to the sound of old diesel engines rumbling in the hills around.

It’s the first day of the vendemmia - the grape harvest. A day of frenetic activity, there’s a palpable sense of nervous excitement mixed with festivity.  Mechanization hasn’t invaded this region, yet, and everywhere groups of workers are taking to the vines. It’s a motley crew. A few experienced hands, some friends and family members, students and casual workers, but despite the prospect of a back-breaking day’s work ahead, the mood is upbeat. An experienced hand can harvest up to two tonnes a day, if the conditions are right and on this day, they are near perfect.

Timing is the most crucial element of the process. Some say it’s a question of science – determining the point at which the perfect balance is reached between the natural sugars in the grape and its decreasing level of natural plant acids. Just one day too soon, the grapes won’t have achieved their optimum condition. A day too many, the grapes will pass their peak. Weather conditions also add an element of risk and uncertainty to the decision. 

My old friend Carlo eschews the science. With more than 50 wine harvests to his name, he prefers to rely on instinct. It was time to harvest the grapes… and so here we are.

The wines of Piacenza, the northernmost province of Emilia Romagna, are generally unknown to the outside world. For now, suffice to say the area is better known for its cuisine than its wine.  Gutturnio is the most common red here, made from a mix of Barbera and croatina (Bonarda) grapes. In this part of Piacenza the red is more likely to be served with a frothy head than still but as the locals will quickly point out, the slight fizz of the wine is a wonderful accompaniment to the local cuisine, which is robust and hearty.

By midday it’s nearly 30 degrees. A long table is set in the old farmhouse and twenty tired and hungry workers put down their secateurs and sit to a feast prepared by Carlo’s son and his wife. Everyone starts with a glass of sparkling cold white wine – a champagnino, or ‘little champagne’, as it’s known in the local dialect.  A large pot of risotto with sausage is passed from one end of the table to the next. Plates are filled and quickly emptied. Platters of stuffed peppers, grilled aubergines, local cured meats and cheeses follow. And then there’s more wine, both red and white, the result of last year’s vendemmia. No prizes for guessing where it comes from. Carlo, at the head of the table, smiles. The harvest is under way and all the signs are good. This year’s wine will be even better than the last.      

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