It’s grape harvest season in Piedmont; a very special time to be here! The vines strewn along the hillsides are either bare of fruit that has already been harvested, or hanging with plump grapes that are waiting to be picked. Tractors filled with grapes slowly make their way to cellars and the aroma of fermenting grape must fills the air.
This week, on a cool September morning, I drove up the winding road past Serralunga d’Alba in the coveted hills of Barolo. I was on my way to help with the harvest. The road twists and turns up the hillsides with grape vines as far as the eye can see. Among the vines are tiny hilltop villages with medieval castles and towers that stand proudly. It was a clear morning and beyond the village of Monforte d’Alba I could see the impressive Monviso Peak.
At the top of the hill, just before Monforte, I pulled into La Torricella, the beautiful agritursmo where I lived and worked for a month during truffle season two years ago. During that time, the grapes had already been harvested so I mainly worked in the kitchen, helping to dish up traditional Piemontese cuisine to hungry patrons that came to dine in their restaurant. I’ve kept in touch with the family and asked if I could help with harvest this year. Ironically, I have been in Italy every fall for the past 4 years, but I have never had the opportunity to help with harvest. I am usually busy guiding bike tours and the timing has never worked out. I received a message from the family the night before, letting me know that harvest was happening. As luck would have it, I had the day off and was only a half hour drive away. I told them that I would be there.
As soon as I pulled in I spotted Diego, the father/grandfather who grew up here. His humble family home and farm has since become a thriving family business with a wine cellar producing world class wines, multiple vineyards, a 120 seat restaurant and a beautiful B&B. In the summer they host weddings nearly every weekend, taking care of the food, wine, cake and all the logistics. It’s the perfect setting for a wedding and it’s where we bring our guests for dinner and a tour of the winery.
When I walked up towards the cellar, Diego and another guy were busy dumping boxes of grapes into a destemmer machine. The stems were discarded on one end and a tube attached to a pump moved the juice into a giant stainless steel tank in the cellar. His daughter Silvia, now the expert winemaker, was overseeing the process. They greeted me and insisted that I go up to the dining room for a cappuccino and breakfast. Apparently they weren’t ready for me yet. I obliged with slight hesitation, as I was ready to get started and didn’t want to miss out on the action. But alas, this is the Italian way! So I sat out on the patio in the morning sun and sipped on a cappuccino as I gazed out at the beautiful land of Barolo that surrounded me.
Shortly after, Diego came to get me and asked me to follow him in the tractor down to their southeast facing vines. We would be harvesting Dolcetto grapes today, the first grapes to ripen in this area. Soon the Barbera grapes would be ready and then sometime in October, the prestigious Nebbiolo, which is made into the famous Barolo wine. Dolcetto is Diego’s favorite though. It’s what he grew up with, before Barolo became the big and noteworthy wine that it is today. While Barolo is meant for special occasions with a nice meal, Dolcetto makes for a great everyday wine. It has dense dark fruit and medium, round tannins. It was traditionally the “farmers wine”, a simple table wine without much attention. Nowadays, Dolcetto is being treated as a more serious wine and some are aged for 12 months in oak, which affords them the label Dolcetto Superiore. La Torricella makes one of my favorites; it has flavors of ripe blackberries, raisins and jam with notes of cedar and cloves from its aging in french oak. It is the perfect pairing with soft cheeses and salami.
Diego handed me a pair of clippers and demonstrated how to clip the grapes, being careful not to snip my finger, less I want to make a “very special wine”. He called over a man named Tommaso to work alongside me, and together we moved from vine to vine, picking grapes and filling the red boxes. I noticed that some of the grapes had dried out to raisins on the vine and I asked Diego if I should pick those ones as well. He said “of course!” and explained that they are even more concentrated with flavor. He urged me to taste one for myself. He was right! It was so sweet and delicious! That explains why wines that are purposely made with dried up grapes are so rich!
Harvest started early this year, at the end of August, after a hot and dry summer. The grapevines had more of a struggle to get nutrients and moisture from the soil and so the quantities will be less than usual, but the quality will be higher.
I enjoyed being among the vines, picking grapes and feeling like I was part of the magic that happens here every year. Tommaso and I chatted while we picked and talked about enjoying the simple pleasures in life; such an important thing to do since we only have this one life to live!
Time went by quickly and before I knew it, we were already taking a lunch break. I walked over to the restaurant kitchen and nonna (grandma) was knees deep in San Marzano tomatoes! She and three other women were making their yearly batch of tomato sauce! There were piles and piles of tomatoes, multiple pots of sauce on the 8 burner stove and big jars filled with the beautiful red sauce. At the same time she was also preparing lunch for the family and staff. She gave me a hug and kiss and then instructed me to slice up a melon and put bread on the table that was set up for 10 outside. Soon we were all eating fresh pasta with ragù, salad, frittata, carne cruda, foccacia and red wine. This is my paradise!