I’m walking up through the cobble stone lanes of the centro Storico of Monforte D’Alba on a chilly, foggy September morning and already I detect there is a certain familiar feeling in the air. When I arrive at the winery 5 minutes later I can feel this same energy here as well, and it is building… minute by minute…hour by hour.
‘What is this feeling, this energy?’ I hear you say. Well, today is the day that we as winery and vineyard workers wait for 10 months of the year for, that short period of time where the next year’s work in the cellar is largely determined ….it is the time to start picking grapes.
Harvest, vintage, vendemmia, call it what you will, this is the period when our industry cranks up the gears, breaks out of what is typically a Monday to Friday, 8 hours a day rhythm, and we work furiously to get all the fruit, which has been laboured over since pruning the previous year, pick at exactly the right moment and brought to the winery to be transformed into that precious liquid we all know and love.
It is, generally speaking, a lot of hard work. Heavy, dusty, sticky, sweaty and messy are a few words which immediately spring to mind. Throw in long hours, potentially round the clock work, potentially no days off for potentially 2-3 months, the fact that you spend this time with minimal contact with your spouse, children and friends and you draw closer to the reality of this time of year. If you ever want to get a real taste of what life is like being a winemaker and/or viticulturist, and to completely smash the often gilt-edged perception of what our job is really like, come and actually work a harvest and witness the reality.
I am making this all sound a bit terrible, but the fact of the matter is I completely love this time of year and most of the people who work in the industry for any length of time do to, and this is a big part of what is causing this feeling of energy in the air as I push through the fog this early morning.
I am working another harvest in the Barolo zone in Piemonte, northwest Italy. It has been a challenging summer for wineries over here with a very wet July (around 27 wet days out of 31 and several big hail events), a cool, cloudy August, and now a pretty good start to September. Through all of this grape growers are still hopeful for a good quality yet lower quantity vintage, especially for the most important grape of the area, the Nebiolo, which in most sites is a real stand out in terms of how much better these vines look in comparison to the other main red varieties of Barbera and Dolcetto.
This year is the first in the 6 or so years I have been coming to work in this area that I will be working with a white grape – Chardonnay, and it is this early ripening variety which we are heading out to begin harvesting…….. once the fog lifts and the bunches get a few hours to dry off a bit. When we make our way out to the now sun drenched hillside to start picking there is a real feeling of happiness in the air. Your hands get sticky as you begin cut bunch after bunch, your back warms under the sun, the jokes (some naughty some nice) start to be thrown around the Italian vineyard team and then a few of the crew begin to sing some ye-olde sounding harvest and country work songs.
After a few hours of this we get the fruit back to the winery, carefully load the fruit into the press, and then the first flow of 2014 juice begins – vintage has arrived in the winery as well.
By the time the day has finished we have all been at it for around 14 hours. I am a little tired and sore, my work clothes are filthy, my boots are soaking wet, but I am happy to have begun. A bottle of bubbles is popped in the cellar and as we are in Italy the obligatory plate of salami, Parmigiano Reggiano and grissini appears. We toast the start of what we all hope is going to be a great vintage. These are the same hopes we have at this same time every year. It is why we all do what we do and it is why we all feel how we feel today, on this first day of harvest…..Saluté 2014!