You can smell when the Abruzzo grape harvest is underway.
On southern Abruzzo’s premier wine route, the 10 miles or so between Orsogna and Ortona, as you pass each of the many wineries dotted along the road, you get a hit of a yeasty, heady, fruity, slightly sour scent as endless tons of grapes are crushed and the wine-making process begins.
The other clue is the sight of tractors trundling along the roads, towing trailers loaded with grapes. Right now, white grapes – mostly Trebbiano – are being gathered. The red grapes – the prized Montepulciano D’Abruzzo – still have a two or three weeks left to go before reaching their absolute peak.
The weather here in southern Abruzzo is incredible right now. Just perfect. For the past week – and stretching well into next – it’s been high-70’s/20’s. Clear and cloudless. Even the most demanding grower couldn’t have wished for better conditions.
But as for the season as a whole ? Jury’s out. A unusually long, cool, wet spring was followed by a progressively hotter summer, with just a little rain in mid-August. And now, crucially, a warm, dry spell for the white grape harvest.
A decent vintage in prospect ? One of the delivery bay managers at Cantina Ortona shrugs and delivers his verdict:
You can translate that into, “Potentially pretty good.”
At the Cantina’s gates, there’s a steady stream of arriving tractors. Their load is weighed on arrival. Then an industrial-sized version of a hand-blender’s used to break the grapes up a little to start-off the crushing process. The trailers are all lined with plastic sheeting to stop any precious juice leaking out.
Quickly, the grapes are tipped into giant stainless steel hoppers, where huge corkscrews simultaneously crush them and feed them into fermentation tanks.
And there – for anything from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the grape variety and the whim of the winemaker – the grape juice and the stalks, skins and pips will slowly evolve into wine.
When the winemaker decides, the new wine’s racked-off into tanks or barrels for further development, while the leftovers become compost to get returned to the soil or – as is the case here in Abruzzo and pretty well everywhere else in Italy – mashed-up with the leftover grapes not deemed good enough to be made into wine and distilled into Grappa.
And there’s not long to wait until you discover whether this year’s wine is any good.
Each November, all Italy’s important wine-making regions release their vino novello, which from what I’ve seen always seems to be red.
Why ? Well, red wine’s far more popular in Italy than white – but that in itself is no reason not to make any white vino novello.
Ask an Italian the reason and you’ll get a blank stare. “Well…we just don’t. It’s not traditional…”
Maybe it’s simply not practical; maybe new white wine isn’t ready for drinking – as the red is – a scant month after the harvest.
It’s a rush job. And not always successful.
If the wine’s been bottled before fermentation’s finished, the end product will be slightly fizzy and taste horrible.
If the grapes were under-ripe, the resulting wine will be thin and sour.
But if good quality red wine grapes have been used, the vino novello can be fantastic. Fresh, fruity and endlessly quaffable.
Forget the bubble-gum flavour of the Gamay grape used in Beaujolais Nouveau. A vino novello made with Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is infinitely classier.
Some wineries effortlessly turn out really excellent vino novello every year. Others are variable. Others still – even good wineries whose regular production is top-class – just can’t ever seem to get the hang of it.
The fun is in seeing who’s succeeded – and who hasn’t. Which is what we seem to spend most of November doing. Along with quality-testing new season roast chestnuts and the first of the new season’s olive oil.
Vino Novello. Castagne. Olio. There are some memorable festas dedicated to enjoying this autumn trinity.
But the production of new wine is small – almost as a frivolous aside to making ‘proper’ wine. By early New Year, it’s all gone.
But come early summer, release of much the previous year’s white wine starts, along with some of the reds specially made for drinking young – while the really good stuff sits quietly in deep cellars, maturing into magnificence.
But whether new, young, or old; great, good, bad or simply indifferent, all wine starts with the simple crushing of a grape.