Harvest 2018 – A Bumper Crop

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Harvest 2018 is well underway and it’s looking like one of the very best years in recent memory for winemakers across most of Italy and France.

Despite a worrying amount of rain in the springtime and outbreaks of mildew/peronospora, the summer was hot, constant and mercifully allowed the grapes to come to maturity.

Largely because of last year’s frost but also because of this year’s gentle flowering season, the vines have produced a much larger quantity of grapes than usual.

So much so that winemakers have more grapes than they know what to do with! My boyfriend’s phone keeps ringing with nearby growers trying to sell him grapes because their cellar is already full. Theirs is full to the brim too!

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Stamping down on the grapes in order to fit them all into the press!

Today, Monday 24th September, the cantina sociale of Gambellara (a small town near Soave) didn’t open its doors to its members because it needed a day of downtime to sort and make space. It has been completely overloaded and it’s not the only one.

It’s not hard to imagine how busy the cooperatives are when you watch the video below showing the street leading to one of the Prosecco coops. A traffic jam of tractors!!

There’s another video which has gone viral because it shows a man machine-harvesting his grapes but leaving them on the ground. “You realise this is a sacrilege,” the guy filming says to the driver of the tractor. Better than seeing them rot on the plant, is the unsaid message.

One of the consequences of having so many grapes on the plant is that the sugar levels remain relatively or unacceptably (depending on your point of view) low.

We’ve heard of prosecco vineyards near us which were harvested two weeks ago (i.e. early September) but which only yielded a sugar level of between 9 and 12 babo. That means between 6 and 9% potential alcohol. Insane.

What can you do? Well, like many quality winemakers, in the summer, you do what is called green harvesting. In some of Angiolino Maule’s vineyards, he removes 50% of his grape bunches in late June/July when he’s got an idea of how the year is going. Crop thinning allows you to manage the yields better; you lose quantity but you gain quality, sugar and complexity in both the grapes and in the resulting wine.

Alternatively, you can do what we know some conventional producers in Soave are doing this year: reverse osmosis.* In this case, you keep as many grapes on the plant as possible but once the grapes have been brought into the cellar and are being vinified, you pass the must through a membrane which separates some of the water content and allows you to concentrate the sugar. All the quantity and now a wine which you can bottle at an acceptable 12% ABV.

Where I am (in the Veneto, Italy) we’ve just about finished 40% of our harvest…. and we’ve been harvesting since the last few days of August. It’ll be at least another (long) three weeks until we’ve brought the last of the grapes into the cellar.


* n.b. I know that reverse osmosis is more commonly used for reducing alcohol content, but unless I’m mistaken, it can also be used for increasing the ABV.

 

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Shock, Horror and a Golden Lining

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My alarm clock seemed louder than ever this morning. I got back from Paris late last night and having enjoyed every baguette crumb, every bite of cheese and every drop of wine, I was running a high sleep deficit.

The alarm sounded at 6.30am. Half an hour later, I was standing at the top of a vineyard, secateurs in hand, admiring the view down the Val d’Alpone and over to the Soave hills.

We were picking garganega grapes for our recioto today. The Recioto di Gambellara is a traditional dessert wine made in my adoptive town by letting the grape bunches dry out over a period of about 4 months. Gambellara’s Recioto is not like other passito or straw-wines, because we hang our grapes on vertical nets…… which is exactly what we then spent the afternoon doing!

Brutal as my wake-up call was this morning, it is nothing compared to the shock, 3 days ago, when the De Bartoli family in Sicily discovered that someone broken into their winery during the night and stolen 600kg of passito grapes.

Screenshot of their Facebook post. Click for full-screen.

Continue reading

Harvest 2016: The Final Week

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We are (finally!) approaching the end of Harvest 2016, up here in Castelcerino, in the Soave hills. It’s been by far the longest harvest that anyone here at the winery can remember. Since the 1st September, between 3 and 6 people have been hand-harvesting the 15 hectares, meticulously arranging the precious bunches of grapes into small boxes.


Looking Back Over Harvest 2016

The Preparations – starting the yeast pied-de-cuve.

Early September – at the beginning of the harvest, when I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Mid-September – at this point I still had plenty of energy and had concretised my place in the team.

End of September – with the end of harvest in sight, I was feeling tired but happy.


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I’m Hanging In There!

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Apparently, it’s the 27th September; however, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. All I know is that we started harvesting on Sept 1st and we’re only just over half-way. I’m now one of the old hands – one of two people left from the original team of pickers.

At the weekend, the team of Polish labourers arrived.

You can say what you like about the EU but in the agricultural sector, free movement of people is essential.

We started harvesting with a team of Italians. Half were friends and family of the winery; the other half were hard-core contadini from the local area. Continue reading

Harvest 2016: the second week

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We’re approaching the end of the second week of harvest here – Day 12, to be precise – and I can’t tell you how exhausting it is.

I fall asleep at 10pm and dream about tractors and trailers until 6am when the alarm goes off and it all starts over again.

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The Turbiana vineyard – the highest vineyard in Soave and completely surrounded by woodland.

The morning routine is so comfortable now that I don’t even need an espresso to locate the same old trousers, trusty straw hat, water bottle and my forbici (secateurs.)

We’ve moved from the guyot-trained vineyards to the more traditional Veronese pergola. It’s gone from being absolutely back-breaking (I even googled “hunchback” at one point) to being an Ironman workout for the shoulders.

The last two weeks have been seriously hot: over 30°C every day. However, today the weather changed dramatically and a heavy thunderstorm meant that we’ve had to take a break from harvesting. I’m now making the most of this overdue “down-time” to get bash away at my computer keyboard in a futile attempt to whittle down my burdensome inbox.

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the past three weeks. Culturally, linguistically, and also personally, I’ve learnt so much in this short time.

If you’re planning on moving to Italy and/or learning Italian, there are two really essential verbs that I hear all the time here but which I hadn’t seen in the textbook:

spostare: to move something. i.e.  we need to move the pallet – dobbiamo spostare questo bancale

=> spostarsi: to move (or relocate) yourself

buttare: to chuck or throw away. i.e. butta il grappolo – throw away the bunch

I’d always used gettare – because it is more similar to the French word jeter – but buttare is what I hear most commonly here.

There’s so much more that could be said but I’d better sign off this blog post and go back to the cellar to do the final rimontaggio (pump over) of the day.

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Tasting wines just off the press. Photo to prove that not every wine tasting has a sexy or idyllic setting.

 

Harvest 2016: the first week

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Harvesting started last week here in Soave. We’re not actually picking the garganega (the emblematic grape variety here) for at least another ten days but the chardonnay, merlot and trebbiano is done.

If you were wondering what life is like here at the winery, here is a run-through of my day today:

08.00 – I’ve just wolfed down breakfast, which, this morning, consisted of just a coffee and a couple of biscuits. My boots are on and my water bottle has been refilled; I’m ready to jump on the tractor and head out to the vineyard. Normally we start at 7am, but last night we got home at 1am (after the Soave Versus tasting in Verona) and such an early wake-up call would have been very difficult.

Until 13.00, there’s a team of five of us in the vineyards picking the last of the chardonnay grapes. There’s an experienced Polish guy, a local Italian, winemaker Filippo and his nephew (on work experience) and myself. The banter back and forth doesn’t stop. Continue reading

The Italian Job

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It’s been a remarkably busy week. It’s the case for many people across Europe as they come back from holidays and go back to their office jobs. I always quite like this time of year because it’s full of good energy and many new projects are undertaken.

It’s a stressful week if you’re a winemaker because you’re carefully watching the weather and judging when to start the grape harvest. 2016 has been a disastrous year in France and I think most vignerons are just happy to have made it to the finish line. In Italy, however, it’s been a very hot and dry summer and it’s shaping up to be one of the best vintages of the decade.

For me personally, it was the week that I finally packed up the car and rode off into the sunset…

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Well… except, in my case, riding off into the sunset means crossing the border between France and Italy. Continue reading