During week two of my vendemmia, I spent a morning working in la cantina to get a fuller picture of what happens from grape to glass. Conceptualizing a cantina as a place for making wine instead of a place with Coronas, hot salsa, and tacos was tough for me. When I was a kid, I frequented Iguana Cantina, a little Mexican restaurant where a giant iguana perched near the ceiling would always greet you, “Welcome to my cantinaah.” Well, this cantina smelled a lot funkier than his (not bad funky, just ‘fermentation funky.’)
The morning’s first task was clearing out the pomace, a mulch of skins, pulp, seeds and stems. A giant pile of pomace had been emptied from the press that separates it from the mosto (unfermented grape juice), which goes into the barrels to ferment. I had the chance to taste mosto at a few different stages in the process. After de-stemming, on the way to the press, it’s basically very powerful grape juice with a few peels mixed in, but after a bit of fermenting it’s like organic Manaschevitz on draught. At Cascina degli Ulivi, a far cry from more high-tech, high-yield wineries, every step of process is very hands on. Laura, a Neapolitan WWOOFer-turned-worker, and I used a shovel and a hand scoop to fill up big bags of pomace, which they’re required by law to send to grappa producers (grappa, like all hard liquor in Italy, is taxed by the government).
We had the press area clean and clear in time for the day’s first load of grapes, in this case Cortese, the primary grape for Gavi wine. We poured the grapes from cassette to de-stemmer, which sends the largely stem-free grapes to the press by tube. Cascina degli Ulivi sends all their whites except the notably golden-hued Montemarina right to the press, while the reds sit with the skins for a few days pre-pressing.
Next, I helped Sonia with rimontaggio, which basically means shaking things up. As the grape juice ferments in the barrels, the relatively light solids float to the top, and it’s essential that every bit of liquid gets ample face time with the skins. After Sonia watching Sonia demonstrate, I climbed up on the next barrel and stirred its contents with big, heavy hose that circulates the liquid from the barrel’s bottom to top. It’s actually a pretty legitimate arm workout and perhaps even harder on the back than harvesting, pushing the hose through the mass of skins and around the barrel’s edges to ensure that all the solids are equally soft and quenched.
The two barrels of Nibio Pinolo (Nibio is the local dialect for Dolcetto, the grape it’s made from) are smaller than the rest and get the royal treatment: manual rimontaggio. Before leaving for Italy, my mom and I had joked/fantasized about getting some Lucille Ball grape crushing action on.
This was as close to that old school maceration I was going to get, and it was well worth the week of purple hands to follow. Imagine giving a cool barrel of grapes a deep tissue massage; really digging in there, squeezing fistfuls of skins, even laying down on your stomach to make sure to reach every bit of grape inside that barrel. Like living beings, the grapes heat up as you massage them; only it’s the bubbling warmth of sugars turning to alcohol rather than muscles heating up.
After the mixing was done, Laura and I took samples from each barrel to measure the temperature and sugar content. If the temperature is too low, the yeast won’t activate. Excessively hot temperatures can cause many problems, including yeast dying and essential aroma compounds diminishing. As for sugar, when you get down to zero, you have yourself some vino. Meanwhile, Stefano was draining out a 2009 ready for bottling.
Here’s the barrel post-draining, pre-cleaning:
And then, as always, lunch, siesta, repeat.