The 2022 harvest was going to be more important than usual: I had convinced the owners of a small, high vineyard outside of Florence to sell me their grapes. In fact, they wanted to sell me their vineyard. I was tempted: 500 meters up, planted on well-draining sandstone slopes–one facing south and one west–the vines were from 15 to 40 years old. The land for sale even included a small building for storing the tools and supplies of what would necessarily be a satellite vineyard for me. And therein lay the reason for my reluctance: the vineyard was a 45-minute drive from home.
Florence and Siena have long argued over which province makes the greater wines: the rocky, limestone hillsides west of Greve-in-Chianti (Florence)? The massive sandstone mother-rock between Radda and Gaiole (Siena)? Montalcino’s partially calcareous Pietraforte and derivative soils (Siena again)? What I knew, in any case, was that Tuscany’s best terrains were not right outside my wine-cellar door near the town of Siena, but rather at the outskirts of the province and beyond. My own vineyard, chosen for its age (76 years) and exposition, was, after a few years of care, starting to produce the light, floral yet juicy wines I like, despite being planted on sub-soils that I could hardly call noble. Maybe because I already owned a vineyard on good land, if I was going to own another, I wanted it to be on the best soil around.
I didn’t know where I was going to find the time to take care of more land, and I was still years from turning a profit so more land would mean more debt, but acquiring another vineyard was necessary. As a farmer, I’m only allowed to buy as many grapes as I produce—no more. 50% of the wine I bottle must be made from grapes I grow, otherwise, I become a wine merchant not a farmer, according to Italian agriculture laws. At the same time, Fanciulle was founded on the idea of making wines out of Sangioveses grown on clay, sand or limestone, grapes from the best soils all over the region. I certainly couldn’t manage vineyards all over the region, so I had to be able to continue to buy small lots of grapes, and, therefore, I had to produce enough grapes on my own land in order to be allowed to do so.
I had told the owners of Quercio that selling me their grapes would help convince me to buy the property: if the wines were delicious, I would be more willing to take on an out-of-the-way vineyard. Of course, the opposite was true, too. If the wines I made from the Quercio grapes turned out to be mediocre, I wouldn’t have to give another thought to raising more money or to managing a steep vineyard plot in another province.
I signed a contract and waited for the grapes to mature, visiting once in August to thin a crop that on the cooler slope looked too abundant to ever ripen. The owner claimed he usually harvested in October, a plausible timeframe for a high-altitude, cool, breezy and therefore presumably late-flowering vineyard. Yet by early September, the grapes looked tired and seemed not to be gaining in sweetness or flavor intensity from one visit to the next. Furthermore, a few grapes on some bunches were starting to wrinkle, as if the sun were drying them out. Rain was forecast for the weekend, but the owner assured me the grapes would survive a shower–would benefit even, from some water.
And then on Monday, he called and told me to come harvest as soon as I could. It was the twelfth of September.
“You said mid-October!” I yelled into the phone. “What happened?”
“I think you should get here soon,” he said. “Otherwise it might be too late.” I wondered for a second whose fault it would be, in terms of our contract, if the grapes were ruined before I could harvest them. How naïve to have trusted a farmer who no longer wanted to farm–who had, I had seen on subsequent visits to Quercio, practically given up the care of the vineyard–on when to harvest his grapes.
As soon as we started harvesting, I realized just how much my naivité had cost me. There were under-ripe bunches, but I had bargained for that. They amounted to five- or ten-percent of the total, I was obliged to pick them, and they would figure in the weighing of course, and therefore in the total price I paid, but I could hardly stiff the owner because I was a fussy customer. I had agreed to buy the whole production because he had told me–typical farmer!–“All or nothing.”
Then there were the “wrinkled” grapes–what I had assumed were grapes turning into raisins. But these few shrivelled grapes made up the same part of every bunch (the middle) and masked, I discovered when I started picking them out to try and save the bunch, a cob-webby little nest, which in turn, masked a space filled with black powder where a grape should have been. In a horrible flash, the pieces came together, and I knew what had gone wrong: there had been an attack of tignoletta, a vineyard pest whose larvae nest inside the grapes and whose moths feed on the grapes.
Effective vineyard management includes monitoring for tignoletta (looking for miniscule, glistening eggs on the young grapes early in the season, setting a trap in the vineyard and counting the moths that get stuck there later) and treating if necessary (organic treatments abound these days)—in short, one of the easier threats to manage. The Tuscan region, too, requires monitoring and treatment, as part of the seemingly interminable list of production and administration regulations to which farms are subject. In fact, the owner claimed to have complied—said, anyway, that tignoletta in his vineyard was “impossible”—he’d never seen a single case. And wouldn’t have recognized it if he had, I thought, to myself.
I could at that moment have backed out of the contract—tignoletta is considered a defect—legally, I was no longer obliged to buy the grapes. I stopped picking, straightened and looked out, away from the rows of vines and out across the country, across the hills around, hills of vineyards, silver hills of olives, dark green ones of woods, to the village of Greve in the distance, beyond it to where I knew Florence lay and farther to the Apennines’ dark tips on the edge of a vast, bright blue sky. Nah, I wasn’t giving up these grapes.
For the next three days, my farm manager, Lush, and his wife, a friend of mine and her son and I picked the Quercio grapes laboriously, snipping off or picking out the wrinkled ones from each bunch, removing the “cobweb,” shaking the powder from the bunches, placing the bunches finally free of any trace of tignoletta, into crates. Back at our cellar, we de-stemmed the grapes and put them in tanks according to the vineyard parcel they came from. And then, fingers crossed, we left them to ferment, aerating the tanks as necessary, monitoring their temperature and checking, at the end, to be sure the musts were dry.
A New Wine Part 3 will be posted on December 7th.