At a brunch party a few weeks ago, a friend said: “Here’s a question I don’t get to ask many people: How was the harvest?” The party was in London, and the friend works in tech. In Tuscany, though, the harvest is the only topic of conversation from late August until Christmas, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him ask about it. And yet, I realised, I didn’t know where to start.
When we had gotten back from vacation in August, I had headed straight for the vineyard. After two years managing the land, I am starting to know my vines, and I was counting on their being fine, despite the excessive (even for Tuscany) heat this growing season. They were planted in 1946, and their root systems are so developed now that the weather’s impact is limited. They find water in the heat; they grow enough leaves to ripen the grapes even in a cooler, damper season. Still, walking along the rows, scanning the vines for signs of health or weakness, I was amazed at all there was to note.
I looked first at the ground, to see if it was cracked and dry, but our late July hoeing had done its job and the soil remained relatively loose. I looked at the trunks, out of habit, and marvelled at the labyrinthine curves grown over the course of more than seven decades, at their thriving despite some scars, signs of misplaced or rough pruning cuts. I examined the shoots, disentangling some from the canopy of green, reading the distance between leaves for signs of sluggish growth or its opposite, too much vegetation—when the plant puts more energy into growing shoots and leaves than into ripening grapes. Other shoots I tucked back into the canopy, so that they wouldn’t risk breaking in the wind.
Looking closer at all that green, I slowed my pace, noting first whether I was looking at Sangiovese, with smooth, pointy, usually not lobed, leaves or at, say, Canaiolo, the leaves of which have a felt-like underside. Each leaf tells a story, especially in terms of disease: if mold struck, its white dust will have left an ashen trail; if a pest has laid eggs or made a cocoon, I will find it, even after the pest has moved on. And last, I looked at the grapes—at their color, to judge how far we might be from the harvest, at how loose or dense the bunches were to estimate the risk of rot later on, at their size which belies the balance or lack thereof that the plant has achieved.
There were decisions to make, too, about whether to remove the leaves below the bunches, so as to expose them to more air and thereby combat the morning dew that can cause problems. De-leafing has risks, too, though—grapes can easily burn in the hot September sun. It’s too early to taste the grapes in mid-August: they are still acerbic, but I came away from my walk through the vineyard with the impression that the vines were thriving.
New Wine – Part II will be posted on November 30th.
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