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.