THE telltale signs of the harvest were everywhere: from the incessant hum of tractors in the distance to the omnipresent red bins, filled to the brim with grapes, that marked the end of each picked block of grapevines. The efforts of the last year were coming down to a final few days of frantic activity in each vineyard we passed. The 2002 harvest was ready to close.
The Italians call the last few weeks of September la vendemmia — their word for vintage, but it's so much more. It is a season, a time when grapes, sweet, dark and heavy, are plucked off the vines by hand. It is a festival in which neighbors gather to celebrate long days in the fields by drinking glass after glass of richly textured wine. For us, it was the occasion for a trip to Italy, to participate in the wine harvest and taste the wonders that Chianti, Montalcino and other Tuscan wine regions had to offer.
Last year, as summer waned, my husband and my father, the obsessive oenophiles in our family, wondered what it might be like to participate in the vendemmia in their favorite wine regions. A few international phone calls and e-mails gave us an answer. Come, they said. The grapes will be ready soon.
And so we arrived, my parents, husband and I, in Rome in the third week of September, for an adventure that would prove every bit as wonderful as we had hoped. After spending a night in Frascati — sampling the white wine of that region — we guided our rental car toward Greve in Chianti, the main destination along the Chianti wine route known as Il Gallo Nero, the black rooster. (Tuscany boasts at least 14 wine routes, known collectively as Le Strade del Vino di Toscana.)
The four-person Europcar we rented at the airport was a tight fit for four adults, their luggage and the cases of wine we knew we would soon be buying. But by the time we arrived in Greve, the discomfort hardly seemed to matter. We had ridden through lush countryside lined with grapevines as far as the horizon would allow us to gaze.
At the Piazza Matteotti, in the middle of Greve, a farmers market was bustling, despite cloudy, sometimes rainy skies, and a junior bike race, the Giro della Val di Greve, was finishing up. In typical Italian style, the winning teenage contestants were awarded hocks of prosciutto and bottles of Chianti along with their trophies.
We entered a narrow stairway that fronted the piazza and walked upstairs into the Ristorante Giovanni di Verrazzano, where a table was open for us. We ordered a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva from a local producer, Ludovica Fabbri, which a waiter carefully poured into a decanter. It was deep and beautiful, and the meal turned out to be a fitting complement. The menu changes every day at Giovanni di Verrazzano, and we sampled the season's best offerings: a Tuscan antipasto of meats and bruschetta with pâté, tomatoes and olives; pappardelle — long, thick noodles — topped with shredded cinghiale, wild boar; pigeon roasted with sage; and Stracotto al Chianti Classico, a slow-cooked stew with a wine base. We finished the meal with tiramisù a fragola — the familiar dessert but with a twist: strawberries instead of coffee sat in layers between ladyfingers and mascarpone. It was delicious.
In Greve we stayed at an agriturismo called Casa Nova. Agriturismi are an Italian travel phenomenon that lends itself to visiting wine country for the vendemmia. For a fee — often less than it would cost to stay in a hotel — you can sleep on a working farm, sometimes in an apartment, sometimes in a private room in a larger house. Most are family run, and many take reservations on the Internet.
Our room at Casa Nova was in a converted old barn and consisted of a loft with a sitting area, a comfortable double bed and a breathtaking view of surrounding vineyards. Casa Nova's vineyards, where the vendemmia was in full force, were five minutes from our rooms. I walked there along muddy trails, past plants of rosemary, sage, lavender and wild blue- and blackberries.
Wines by the barrelful
That night we drove to nearby Panzano in Chianti for the Vino al Vino festival, a three-day celebration of the best wine production of that region (scheduled this year for Thursday to Sept. 21).
Of the 16 wineries pouring samples, only a handful, such as Le Bocce, would be easily recognizable to American aficionados. For $8, we got a glass and holder and as much wine as we wanted. Wines weren't for sale — just for tasting. But after we lingered at the booth of Vecchie Terre di Montefili, praising the Bruno di Rocca, Maria Acuti, the sales manager and daughter of the proprietor, invited us back to the vineyards.
She scribbled directions in my notebook that seemed cryptic at first but were enough to guide us: "Passi Panzano, Direzione Mercatale San Casciano. Circa Km 5." (Pass Panzano toward Mercatale and San Casciano. Go about 5 kilometers.) As we pulled into the winery, the sun was just beginning to set, and Roccaldo Acuti and his wife, Franca, greeted us warmly. Maria had called ahead. Roccaldo showed us around his small azienda and the cantina, a three-room building where the wine was pressed, bottled and boxed for distribution.
His description of the process was poetic, from the careful preparation of the vines, which are trimmed to expose the grapes to the maximum amount of sun, to his choice of oak — usually French — for the barrels in which the wines age. Franca was more direct. "We make a wine of quality," she told us. "We must do that."
The next morning, as wine pickers from France, Germany and Italy gathered at our agriturismo armed with garden shears and plastic kitchen gloves, the foreman looked up at the overcast sky, then down at the muddy fields. He clicked his tongue. "Not a good year for wine," he said in Italian with a French accent. "Rain."
After breakfast at Casa Nova — we had stiff espresso con latte, cereals, bread and cornetti, the Italian version of croissants — I watched as the pickers went about their work, reaching up and down and snapping the bunches of grapes off the vines as they swarmed efficiently down row after row, quickly filling the red baskets they kept nearby.
I could have lingered all day, but we had called ahead for a tour at Castello Vicchiomaggio, one of the major wine producers in the region. Cristina, who speaks English, gave us a tour of the Renaissance-era castle where the winery is based. Then, as a special treat, she drove us down to the grapevines, where a small group of young Italian men and women were picking, to show us the differences between the Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Cabernet grapes that are used, in varying percentages, to make the winery's different varieties of Chianti and Super-Tuscans. I tasted a grape off the vine; it was sweeter and more complex than the California table grapes I was used to.
Later that afternoon, we wandered back into Greve to pick up a picnic for dinner. But it was impossible to ignore the wine's clarion call. Everywhere, it seemed, there were enoteche — wine shops that allowed us to sample a variety of regional bottlings for a small fee. The best we found was Le Cantine in Greve, a few blocks off Piazza Matteotti. Le Cantine is a surprisingly automated sampling cellar that boasts more than 140 wines to taste at any given time. We bought a wine card — available in $10, $15 and $25 increments — and then walked around to a series of round banks and inserted our cards. Machines dispensed shots of the wines of our choosing, deducting money from our card depending on the quality of the wine. (Most prices ranged from $1 to $4). Olive oils and grappa also were available to sample, as were snacks like salami, bread and cookies.
Eight decades of vintages
We left Greve the next morning for Carmignano, a small wine city about 15 miles from Florence that is developing its own wine route, called the Strada Medicea dei Vini di Carmignano. We decided to spend the night at the Tenuta di Capezzana, which functions as an agriturismo as well as a winery.
Luca Innocenti, the enologist, gave us a tour of the winery — from the wine cellar, which contains each vintage produced by Capezzana since 1925 — to the vin santo room. Vin santo is a sweet dessert wine made from dried grapes; from early September through the end of February, grapes sit on racks indoors that are designed to expose them to the maximum amount of air until they become almost transparent. The liquid pressed from these grapes sits in chestnut barrels for five years before Capezzana can call it vin santo. Touching the rim of one of those barrels left the sweet, powerful smell of the wine on my hands for the rest of the day.
From Carmignano it was on to Montalcino, the holy grail for my family, for it is the home of the Brunello wine. We began our trip at the Enoteca La Fortezza di Montalcino, a wine shop housed inside the old city walls. It has a fantastic selection of the region's best varieties, so we sipped a variety of Brunellos, both old and young, paying by the glass. Alessandro Orlandi, the manager, remembered us from a previous visit, and he walked us around the shop, giving us honest assessments of the wines we were considering buying.
For the next few nights we stayed at another agriturismo, in nearby Val d'Orcia. Poggio al Vento — loosely translated, the hill in the wind — is owned by the Mascelloni family. It is a beautiful place about 10 minutes' drive from the city center, along a dirt road, with a gorgeous view of the valley.
Before World War II, the Mascellonis were tenant farmers, living off the land and giving a portion of their crops to the nearby contessa. They were allowed to buy their land after the war, and these days they give the old contessa a run for her money, producing excellent wines, olive oil and sometimes honey and jam. Lido and Marisa run the farm and the hotel; their son Roberto is the enologist.
Marisa's breakfast, served outside on the veranda in good weather, was not to be missed. It often included salami made from the meat of animals raised or hunted on the farm, as well as an assortment of homemade jams.
But Roberto provided my best memory of Poggio. A scientist had visited the day before, he told us, to measure the sugar content of the grapes. Roberto had worried that the recent rainy weather would delay the harvest past our stay, but he had been given the go-ahead to harvest. Would we like to join him in the vineyards behind the farmhouse the next day to help him pick?
Our answer: a resounding yes.
Although a few of the largest wineries in Italy have moved to machine picking — nearby Castello Banfi recently acquired the machines — most Italians still believe in the virtue of hand harvesting.
It is not easy work. We moved up and down precipitously steep terrain, my husband, Shawn, working one side of the row and I the other. My parents took another row in a similar fashion. The buckets we lugged with us weighed 77 pounds when full.
Each bunch of Sangiovese grapes we plucked had to be carefully inspected. Bad grapes were tossed to the ground; dried grapes were allowed. We brushed off insects. The sunnier the terrain, I learned, the larger the grapes and the better their quality.
We worked from about 10 a.m. until Marisa called us for the noonday meal. My father helped Lido load the buckets onto a tractor and haul them up the hill to the cantina. There Roberto tossed the grapes into a stainless steel machine that ground them up and then spit skins, leaves and stems to one side in a deep burgundy pile. Using a hose, he siphoned the remaining liquid into a tall stainless steel drum, taking measure of the liquid's temperature and noting it on a piece of paper that hung nearby. In total, he said, we had picked enough grapes that day for 300 bottles of wine.
The Mascelloni family harvested for three more days after we left Poggio al Vento. By the time their harvest was over, they had hauled enough grapes to make more than 9,000 bottles.
Shawn and I returned to Val d'Orcia this spring. On a Saturday night before dinner, Roberto indulged us with a barrel tasting of the grapes we had harvested the previous summer. He tapped into the oak barrels of Sangiovese with a glass pipette, which he held over a series of wide glasses, releasing a shot of deep red liquid for each of us. We sipped. The wine tasted cloudy, rough and unfinished. But there were the beginnings of spicy, chocolate flavors.
It wasn't ready yet. But we knew that our labors had paid off.
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Harvesting delight in Italy
From LAX, connecting service to Rome is available on Air France, Lufthansa, Delta, American, Air Canada, Aer Lingus, British Airways, Delta, Continental, KLM and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $971.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (country code for Italy) and the area code and local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Agriturismo Casa Nova, 30 Via Uzzano, 50022 Greve in Chianti; 055-853-459, e-mail info@casa nova-laripintura.it. We stayed in La Ripintura, a former barn that has been converted into a series of well-appointed rooms. Open April-November. Doubles $50 per person, with breakfast.
Castello Vicchiomaggio, 4 Via Vicchiomaggio, 50022 Greve in Chianti; 055-854-079, fax 055-853-911, http://www.vicchiomaggio.it . The winery Castello Vicchiomaggio rents rooms in the castle and in two old farmhouses. Doubles from $109. They also do a series of wine-related dinners during the vendemmia.
Agriturismo Azienda Poggio al Vento, 53023 Castiglione d'Orcia (Siena); 0577-897-384, http://www.poggioalvento.net . Poggio al Vento is a short drive along a dirt road from the city center of Val d'Orcia. It has a half-dozen apartments for rent, each $24 a night per adult, $10 per child 6-12. Breakfast is $5.50. If the weather is nice, it is served outside on a lovely veranda.
WHERE TO EAT:
Ristorante Giovanni di Verrazzano, 28 Piazza Matteotti, Greve in Chianti; 055-853-189, fax 055-853-648, http://www.verrazzano.it . Regional and seasonal specialties can be found at this restaurant, which changes its menu daily. Entrees start at about $15.
Albergo La Bussola/Ristorante da Gino, Via Vecchia Fiorentina, Catena; 0573-743-128. A family-run 10-room hotel and restaurant. Reservations are suggested — or arrive early (which meant close to when the restaurant opened, at 8 p.m., the night we were there). Dinner for two about $55.
Ristorante/Pizzeria Le Contrade, 18 Via Nuova, Val d'Orcia; 0577-898-098. Wonderful pizzas are baked in a wood-burning stove. The pizza marinara, garlicky with oregano and tomato sauce, is excellent. Pizzas start at $8.75.
TO LEARN MORE:
Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; (310) 820-1898, fax (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .
Tourism Board of Tuscany, http://www.terreditoscana.regione.toscana.it This site is a good starting point for planning a wine tour in Tuscany; it has details and maps of many of the region's wine routes.
— Cara Mia DiMassa