by Kinta Beevor  ♦

On one occasion, I managed to make my trip coincide with the grape harvest in late September or early October. From pagan times, the vendemmia has always been the favourite festa of the year. It is a truer festival than any of those in the religious or national calendars, for it celebrates not some distant event, but the fruition of hard work.
Vines required attention most of the year round. In March or April, depending on the advance of spring, the rows between the vines had to be hoed. Pruning, which was the next stage, took place early in May, as soon as the danger of severe frosts had passed. The work required skill and experience. The pruner had to know which shoots to leave and which to cut. He then fastened the chosen shoots to a bamboo, or attached them to a horizontal wire running the length of the rows, with raffia or with switches cut from a pollarded willow. Afterwards the fallen clippings were picked up by peasant women, to be dried and stored for next winter’s kindling.
The vines were then sprayed with copper sulphate late in May, once the leaves had sprouted. The men walked up and down with heavy brass tanks on their backs, the leather straps cutting into their shoulders. They held the spray nozzles with one hand and witåh the other pumped a lever at their sides. The spray left the leaves with a blue-grey wash — a colour that makes me think of France rather than Italy.
Once the fruit began to ripen, everyone discussed the right balance of sun and rain, and closely examined the dusty grey must nestling in the bunches of black grapes. But the greatest fear — so great that few dared even speak of it — was of hail. A single storm of great ferocity could, in less than a dozen minutes, decimate a year’s crop.
The ideal moment for picking came during a long period of sun which followed rain. Too much rain would make the grapes rot on the stalk. The old men used to argue that one should also wait for the moon to be on the wane. As the day of the vendemmia approached, the preparations grew more intense. A sound of hammering indicated the repair and renovation of casks — the fifty-litre barile — and the huge vats. A woman’s voice singing was probably that of a contadina, with a broom made of millet stalks, sweeping out the tinaia where the vats, or tini, were kept.
Early on the chosen morning — rumours of postponement often ran round the night before — we would assemble at the tinaia to collect boxes and secateurs. The workforce was considerable since everyone lent a hand. As well as all our family and the indoor staff, the brothers and sisters and cousins of the families on the property had also come to help, some from quite a distance. After receiving our instructions, we set off in chattering groups to work on the rows to which we had been assigned.
It was advisable to wear some sort of head protection — not because of the sun, for the October day was usually a perfect temperature — but to keep earwigs out of your hair. The beefy-armed peasant women always wore their large kerchiefs tied like nurses’ caps, and I followed this sensible example. The brim of a hat got in the way when you were constantly looking up into the yellow leaves at close range, searching for the stalk to cut.
As you took hold of each bunch of black, seemingly overripe grapes with grey powder spreading from the stalks, it was wise to give them a slight shake to dislodge any wasps that might be feeding. Wasps were the curse of the vendemmia, and it was rare to get through the day without being stung. The only other discomforts were sweat stinging the eyes, hands so sticky that you were almost prepared to waste your drinking-water on them, and the weight of the basket on your shoulder as you bore it off when full — a journey during which more sticky juice would trickle down your neck and inside your shirt.
Cries and cheers in the distance announced the arrival of lunch and we all put down our boxes and secateurs and went over to the shade of an olive tree. Fiaschi of wine were passed round. Since there were generally not enough glasses, the previous drinker would empty the dregs with a flick of the wrist, and pass the glass to the next person. Most of the pickers had brought a bottle of wine out with them as well as a bottle of water. While working, it was surprising how much wine you could drink without feeling any effect from the alcohol. It seemed to evaporate effortlessly from your body along with the sweat.
A large round basket contained all the staple elements of open-air eating — bread, tomatoes, a bottle of oil, a paper twist full of salt, a salami and perhaps a mortadella. But from a steaming container came the main component of the meal — beans in a tomato sauce with pinoli. It was a tradition of the vendemmia. Afterwards we bit into heavy, ripe figs and succulent pears, and more juice dribbled down our chins. It was one of those days when, however messy you were, you never felt dirty.
With the conversation and banter came horror stories about trafficked wine — vino sofisticato — and accounts of the often hair-raising variety of additives sometimes used. They ranged from seaweed to ox blood. I could not help thinking that these stories seemed to provide another reason for referring to black wine, as the contadini tended to call it, rather than red.
We worked on into the afternoon, filling our baskets, then emptying them into chestnut-wood tubs called bigonce, placed at convenient intervals along the rows. They, in turn, were loaded on to a long farm-cart with hefty axles.
This farm-cart was drawn by pair of stately white oxen. Their only sudden movement would be the flick of an ear to disperse flies.
When the bigonce were all loaded, the ox-driver made his gentle beasts advance, first taking the strain, then hauling the cart up to the tinaia. The cavernous room was cool and dark after the sunshine outside. Its only light came from a single bulb hanging on a very dusty flex, which had been tacked along a beam. The place smelt of must and damp stone.
A ladder was set up against one of the huge vats at a shallow angle. The young contadini, as graceful as ballet dancers, ran up it holding tubs of grapes on their shoulders. In almost one movement, the grapes were tipped in, then the young men turned and ran down again, without ever losing their balance.
Once the vats were nearly full, the men took off their boots, rolled up their trousers and, having washed their feet in buckets of water, climbed in to tread the ‘boiling’ must. While they trod the grapes they sang stornelli, usually holding on to each other for support on this shifting Sargasso Sea from which vinous fumes had already begun to rise. There were yells of laughter whenever one of their number toppled over. Height certainly helped for, if the worst came to the worst and you were tall, you could always grab at the rim of the great vat and haul yourself up.
Although the dangers of intoxication, even of asphyxiation, from the fumes were always emphasized, the families of contadini used to consider the heady profuma of the fermentation so beneficial that they brought sick children along to the tinaia as if it were some sort of sulphur bath. If nothing else, they certainly should have slept well afterwards.
Little was wasted. When the wine was transferred to the barile, the remaining pulp of stalks, skins and pips — the vinaccia — was refermented with some water added to make a light wine, known as a mezzo vino; or else it was distilled as grappa. This task was performed by a travelling distiller who brought on a cart his own serpente; a tortuous form of alembic. (A grappa of much better quality, however, was made from distilling a spare cask of white wine.) Even the vine leaves lying on the ground and many of those still on the branch were picked by the women as fodder for the cows.
Meanwhile, other bunches of grapes, still attached to their branches, were carried off to be hung in the loggia of the podere. Once the grapes on these branches — known as pendice — had dried, they were added to the wine to increase its strength, flavour and colour in a second fermentation.
Some of the best white grapes, the scelta, would also be put aside for ripening. They were laid on cane mats known as stoie until they were like luscious sultanas, and then added to a white wine to make a special celebration wine for Christmas, which was rich in taste and body like a sweet fortified wine. It was usually served as a treat with almond biscuits.
Other grapes were selected for smoking — usually they were hung in a chimney, high above a woodfire. Wrapped in pacchetti made out of vine-leaves, they would be offered as presents at the end of the year. The vendemmia was traditionally a time of generosity. No contadino or padrone should refuse to give the product of the vine — itself a gift of Providence — to those in need. Wine, usually the mezzo vino that did not keep beyond the next spring, was given to the landless poor — i poveri del buon Dio — who brought empty fiaschi to fill. The grapes that they received as well would be fermented at home, with water added to make a thin mezzo vino known as acquarello.
The night of the vendemmia was reserved for celebration. Long tables covered with sheets were set up in the courtyard of Adamo’s farmhouse, near the south gate. A dinner of many courses included soup; specially filled ravioli, or several sorts of torte made with wild mushrooms, herbs, spinach or even marrow; and another vendemmia speciality of white beans and polpette — little sausages of minced meat and rice. But the real centre-piece of the occasion was, of course, wine. The best wines — each contadino’s vino vecchio — were brought out and tasted and praised in extravagant terms.
Several of those present quarrelled good-naturedly over who was to explain to me the rules of pouring and drinking. The contadino always tried to avoid drinking red and white wine on the same evening. But all the men expressed total contempt for ‘baptized’ wine: that was only for children and women. In a wine shop, nobody would ever dare let a drop of water pass their lips. I learned that drinks there were bought clockwise round the table. I also learned a few of the many proverbs to do with wine. The favourite, and most oft-repeated, was ‘Good wine makes good blood.’ To judge from the consumption of most people who uttered it, they were working towards a total transfusion — yet never have I known a more amiable evening, nor more energetic dancing when it began later.