Throughout mainland Italy and even beyond, on remote offshore islands; in every single one of the country’s twenty regions; wherever grapes are grown (and that means almost everywhere), this is the heady time of year: la vendemmia. The harvest is the culmination of a year’s labour, its relative success or failure determined in conjunction with the fickle and arbitrary fortunes of Mother Nature and the weather. A sudden summer hailstorm can entirely strip the grapes and foliage from one row of vines yet leave adjacent rows virtually untouched; torrential autumn rains can dilute and sometimes even destroy an entire year’s effort and toil.
The earliest grapes may be gathered in late August or early September, while the main harvest continues through the autumn months, sometimes even well into November. This is a busy and exciting time. Teams of workers in the vineyards, old experienced farmhands who have worked the land forever alongside a new, younger generation, undertake the backbreaking task of selecting and picking the ripe bunches manually (mechanical harvesting is still a rarity in Italy), putting them into small containers to carry over to the trailers that wait at the ends of the rows. The grapes, once picked, must be transported to the winery as quickly as possible to minimise oxidation and ensure that fermentation does not begin prematurely.
Here’s a simplified primer on what happens next.
I Vini Bianchi – White Wines
Once the grapes arrive at the winery, they are first de-stemmed (la diraspatura), a process done by machine as gently as possible in order not to damage them. They are then usually lightly crushed, then transferred into a press. For white wines this is usually a cylindrical pneumatic machine capable of working at very soft pressure levels to avoid extracting harsh flavours or tannin from the skins and pips. The free-run juice (mosto fiore) that percolates out of its own accord with no additional pressure may be collected and vini-fied separately. Whether free-run or juice from a light pressing, the grape must is next allowed to clarify by gravity, filtration or centrifuge, before fermentation.
Fermentation begins when either the wild yeast present on the grapes or, more normally, specially selected strains of yeast introduced by the winemaker, provoke the miraculous process of transforming grape sugars into alcohol. One of the most important developments in modern white winemaking has been the widescale introduction of the use of stainless steel fermentation vessels that allow fermentation to take place at low computer-controlled temperatures (18 to 20 degrees C). This helps to make white wines that maintain fresh, fruity acidity with the crisp, clean flavours that modern consumers demand.
Fermentation may sometimes also be carried out in barriques (225-litre French oak casks) for a proportion of the harvest, or for select, superior crus (wines from a single vineyard). This is a costly and labour-intensive exercise, but the results, when handled well, can be impressive, adding layers of complexity and structure, alongside the sleek, sometimes buttery, vanilla tones of new oak.
Before bottling, wines are racked (removed from the sediment of dead yeast cells), and fined and filtered to remove any other solid matter and ensure the wine is crystal clear and stable. Most Italian white wines are produced to be consumed young and fresh. Therefore they may be released as early as the Christmas of the year or harvest, or else some time in the early spring. More serious, well-structured whites, on the other hand, might mature in barriques or in vat and bottle for upwards of a year or longer prior to release.
I Vini Rosati e Rossi – Rosè and Red Wines
Rosato and red wines gain their hue from contact with the grape skins which contain all the colouring elements as well as the tannins that allows them to age. Therefore, once the de-stemming has taken place, the grapes are usually lightly crushed (la pigiatura) to release the juice, then pumped into the fermentation vat.
Wine destined to become rosato needs only the briefest period of contact between juice and skin. Depending on grape variety (some are more highly coloured than others), the juice may macerate on the skins for just a few hours before being drawn off to the vat where fermentation proceeds as per white wines.
On many modern wine estates, as for whites and rosato, the use of temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation vessels has become almost de rigueur (though large wooden casks as well as glass-lined concrete and fibreglass vats are also still used). Once the grapes have been de-stemmed, crushed and pumped into the vats, fermentation commences. Temperatures are allowed to rise higher than for whites (26-30 degrees C) but it is important that the permitted levels are neither too low nor too high. As the grape must ferments, colour as well as tannin and flavouring elements are extracted from the mass of skins that remains in the vat. It is important to keep the fermenting grape must in frequent contact with this solid mass. The process known as rimontaggio is one of the most effective means to achieve this. This involves pumping wine from the bottom of the fermentation vessel back up to the top where it is sprayed through a sort of shower-head over the mass of skins once or twice a day, the juice percolating through the wine-drenched skins and extracting colour and tannin but avoiding the harsher flavours and hard woody tannins that can come from over-extraction.
The time taken for the fermentation process varies from one to three weeks, depending on a number of factors, including the weather at the time. Once complete, the wines are racked off the grape residue (provided this wasn’t done earlier) and transferred to clean vessels, either large oak botti (such large casks, made from Slavonian oak or chestnut, don’t lend wood flavours of character), small new or nearly new French oak barriques, or stainless steel, concrete or fibreglass tanks. The wine-drenched mass of skins, known as the vinacce, may be lightly pressed to extract some press wine – which may or may not be added back to the racked wine – or sent to the distillery to be transformed into grappa.
How long a red wine is left to age is determined by whether a wine is destined to be enjoyed young and fresh or in a more mature state after ageing or affinamento e maturazione. Novello wines may be released within just weeks after the harvest. For more serious reds, on the other hand, the ageing may be determined by the legislation for particular DOCs and DOCGs which specify a minimum time in wood and bottle before a wine can be released, often a number of years.
I Vini Passiti – Wines made from Semi-Dried Grapes
In addition to wines made from fresh grapes, a wholly unique range of Italian wines is made from semi-dried grapes: Vin Santo (Tuscany and Umbria), Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella (Veneto), Sagrantino passito (Umbria), Greco di Bianco (Calabria), Moscato di Pantelleria (Pantelleria, Sicily) and more. Selected grapes are carefully taken in small containers (so as not to crush or damage them) to the winery where they are laid out on racks in airy attics or hung up in bunches from rafters or even (in the South) laid out on straw mats in the direct sun to dry and shrivel. This period of drying, which may be only a matter of days or else for weeks or even months, is known as the appassimento, and the process concentrates grape sugars and flavours, while diminishing acidity and lending raisin-like aromas and character. The varied range of passito wines that result can be truly amazing!
In Italy, probably more so than anywhere else in the world, age-old tradition works alongside modern technology, winemaking science and new ideas. Still, when all is said and done, the transformation of grapes into wine remains nothing short of an annual miracle.