As autumn descends on northern Italy, anyone involved in grape harvesting is reminded not to sleep late. Much work needs to be done in a relatively short time, and the first rays of sunshine send a wake-up call to get up, get dressed and get busy. The production of wine begins with the harvesting of grapes.
At a mid-sized vineyard in Tuscany, south of Florence, a group of vendemmiatore (pickers) gather for the day's production armed with roncolas (grape harvesting knives). Each selects a row and starts the tedious task of cutting the Sangiovese grapes from the vines, proceeding slowly and silently. Still damp with dew from the night's cool temperatures, the grapes are dumped into wooden crates, then transferred to larger tubs and loaded into carts. In each step of the process, workers are on the lookout for swarming bees attracted to the grapes' sweet nectar.
By mid-morning when the temperature starts to rise and vineyards starts to buzz as the workers greet each other and strike up conversations, mostly about the juice they're allowed to suck up from the crates with straws, however, this settles down by 4 p.m. when the workers retreat to the wine cellar in the villa's main section.
Processing the Grapes
Here's where the grapes are unloaded, pressed and deposited into a large tank for further processing into Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino wine. The tubs and crates are then rinsed and readied for tomorrow's harvest. Activities such as these are duplicated at thousands of other vineyards throughout the country's 20 wine regions. The combined production enforces Italy's ranking as the world's leading wine producer, with an annual yield of 1.3 billion gallons and 17.7 percent of the world's total production. Closest competitors are France, Spain and the U.S.
The Sangiovese grapes grown at this location are designated the "Pride of Tuscany", according to Italian Wine Central, a wine educational organization. These grapes are the key element in the so-called Super Tuscans wines aged in oak barrels and featuring a high-alcohol, fruity profile.
The harvest often prompts tourists and visitors to inquire if they can participate in the experience. Getting involved is usually allowed, if they are part of a wine tour or friend of the vineyard owner.
The conclusion of the harvest in late September or early October is celebrated with events reflecting the cultural and social tradition. The wine tastings and festivals are generally regarded as Italy's reaction to Germany's legendary Oktoberfest.
Celebrating the Harvest
At Fattoria Petrolo, a top Tuscan producer of red wines, a mass precedes an al fresco lunch held in appreciation of a blessed grape crop and bountiful harvest. Farther north in Merano, beer and wine share the occasion with Tyrolean costumes and Italian customs at the Sagra dell Uva festival. The Alto Adige region's Austrian influence blends with local tradition to praise top-shelf Chardonnays, Merlots and Pinot Grigios.
Grapes, however, yield more than just wine. Nothing is wasted as the harvest contributes byproducts such as verjus, an unfermented liquid from crushed grapes that's a tangy alternative to wine or vinegar in cooking. "Verjus offers freshness, acidity, the complexity of fruit and traces of tannin, especially with pork and chicken," says renowned restaurateur and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich.
Verjus (pronounced vair-zhoo) has a high acidity content, primarily from malic acid, which infuses a green apple flavor and aroma. Other versions have a floral, lemon, strawberry or pear tone. A 375-ml bottle usually sells for around $12.
Wine's Byproducts: Grape Seed Oil & Juice
Possibly one of the most valuable and useful byproducts of winemaking, grape seed oil is popular with chefs for its high smoke point and neutral taste. Grape juice in some cases is also reserved in some vineyards for sale unfermented. In northern Italy, grape juice goes by saba or sapa, depending on the local dialect. In the southern sector, the dark, syrupy liquid is called vin cotto (cooked wine).
Grape seed oils carry a similar price tag, except for the virgin variety selling for up to $40 per 250-ml bottle. These oils can be used to amplify basil and roasted garlic, and are often added to grilled meat, vegetables, pasta and pizza. What's more, grape seed oil offers health benefits because it is high in antioxidents and reportedly helps to lower LDL (bad) and raise HDL (good) cholesterol.
There's an old axiom among pork producers that everything is used in a pig except the squeal. When it comes to the grape harvest in Italy, you could apply the same logic and say everything is used except the wind whistling through the vineyard.
Read our piece on What to Expect on a Vineyard Tour for more information on the vineyard scene.