Below is our first year diary where we are slowly learning how to work and tend our vines and terrain. We though we would share our experiences with you, so this page provides a sort of diary of what we are doing on a monthly to daily basis (time and event driven). Picture links will appear over time to allow anyone interested to see exactly what we are referring to. We hope our experiences may help readers who are thinking of buying a vineyard in Italy.....
(The diary reads in reverse (latest entry at the top of the page)
As we rocket towards our first full year here at Vecchio Podere Santa Cristiana, I can't believe how fast it has gone by. Clearly we have learned and achieved much, and we are very proud of the completion of our first harvest. What is harder to believe is that we are also winemakers! We had thought we would not get to the point where we would be able to make wine until much later. Of course making wine is at least as challenging as growing grapes, and is equally at the mercy of nature to determine the quality of the grape that goes to make the wine. We are pleased to say that after some stressful days (is the acidity too high; is the pH balance correct; surely the sugar content is higher than that....) our grape must has made the transition to a very promising young Barbera di Asti DOC. The challenging growing conditions of 2005 have produced for us a Barbera of great complexity and structure, and we must now watch and wait as it sits quietly during its development period before bottling next year. Our first harvest, our first vintage and in due course, our first bottling—yes, we are very proud!
You will be able to taste our wine from May 2006 when visiting our luxury B&B and apartments.
You can see the pictures from the Barbera harvest here.
(30 September) – Early morning fog makes for a cool morning as we start the harvesting of our Barbera grapes. This year, we only have a small crop to harvest as we have taken out the older vines and the new planting are two years away from their first harvest. Only 5 of us for this harvest; it takes us a little more than half a day. Once the early morning mist has risen above us and the sun has broken through, it is a very pleasant temperature to work in, and we do not feel too pressured by other peoples' logistics, as we are going to make our own wine with these grapes, so do not have to rush to someone else's deadlines. We are one of the last in this area to pick our red grapes and Edilio has been pushing me for two weeks to get on with the harvest. On the other hand, my winemaking. mentor and teacher, Roberto Urscheler, has been advising that we leave the harvest as long as possible to maximise the late September sunshine, for higher sugar content and lower acidity. This year has been a difficult growing season as we have had unusually cool weather in August and quite a lot of rain, so every additional day of sun is a plus. Of course if it rains then we will have lost any advantage as the grapes then become diluted by water! Most of our neighbours have erred on the side of caution and harvested before the upcoming threat of rain, and in line with the schedules of which-ever cantina they are selling their grapes to.
We are delighted to find that the bunches are in excellent condition, with very little having to be discarded as we work our way through the rows (when we harvest the Moscato we actually discarded in excess of 20% of the bunches). Picking is a messy business; the grape juice is sweet and sticky, and most of us wear plastic gloves to avoid skin irritation caused by prolonged exposure. It does make us look a little strange, as most of the gloves are press-ganged from the kitchen and are yellow!
All grapes harvested, we then transport them to my good friend and neighbour Roberto, where we will be making our wine this year. Roberto has all the specialised equipment and expertise to use it, and he is teaching us the complex skills of winemaking. Later we will transport the finished product to our own cantina here at Vecchio Podere Santa Cristiana where it will sit quietly whilst it matures prior to commercial release.
Within 24 hours of finishing the harvest, the heavens open and we have almost non-stop rain for a week. Anyone who did not finish harvest before the rain will not fair well: diluted grapes and a vineyard awash with mud. We are very happy to have finished just in time.
You can see pictures of our Moscato harvest here here.
We have finished our first harvest. Two days and seven people, lots of sore backs and other aches and pains but a great experience. From our .9 hectare of Moscato we yielded 7,500 kilos of grapes. As far as I can tell that is a very good yield (although the DOC regulations allow a maximum yield of 9,100 kilos). Complex rules mean that only 70% of the maximum is classed as DOGC. After that, it has to be classed as table wine, with a massive drop in the price we can earn per mirriogramme (10 kilos).
We were very pleased to find our measured sugar content (in liquid) to be 24 degrees and 20 degrees respectively for the two trailer loads of grapes we delivered to the winery. The tractor and trailer (camion) we rented to transport the grapes was excellent, but I did manage to lead the driver to the winery without first stopping at the weight bridge in the village. This resulted in Edilio chasing me in his car sounding the horn and flashing his lights – so once again everyone in the village knew we were there! The tractor and trailer are weighed both before and after dropping off the grapes; this then gives us the weight of grapes for future payment. The token-operated weight bridge (another tale finding where to get the tokens) prints out two duplicate reports, one for the winery agent and one for me, to ensure no one makes any mistakes.
The trailer then deposits our cargo of grapes into a receiving funnel that has an Archimedes screw/pump, in turn attached to the grape press by a massive tube that pumps juice, grapes and all for an immediate pressing. After the pressing the vine stalks and grape skins are pitch forked into a container for other uses – and they look like they have been freeze-dried – not an ounce of liquid remains. More about our Moscato wine making at another stage.
We have been extremely busy once again; the weeding in the new vineyard is now a constant – a little like the painting of the Forth Road Bridge – when we finish one pass it's time to start another! I have bought a new machine to help with the "zapping" – a rotovator of sorts, that fits on the end of a petrol-engined brush cutter – the blades point down (rather than at an angle to the soil) so one can get the rotating blades close to the baby vines without (to much) danger of destroying vine with the weeds. The machine is quite heavy, but even so it is quicker than manual zapping and not quite so sapping of body strength, so more can be done in one session.
At month-end we had a major problem in the Moscato vineyard with signs of a malady on the grapes. For three days we had to strip excess leaves from around the grapes in order to get an appropriate treatment spray onto the grapes before the problem became a disaster. This is just one example of how our lives are now driven by the needs of our land. As this is our first year we cannot predict what is required – and rely upon Edilio to detect such problems first. The three days was an intensive and uncomfortable time – we didn't know how bad the problem was (still can't communicate well with Edilio!) – and the high temperature and blistering sun had to be ignored as we worked from 6 in the morning to 8 in the evening with only a few small breaks in between. Very stressful!
(20th August) – The two areas that are destined for new vines (barbatelli) in the Spring (Prima Vera) have been getting some intensive treatment this week. I have written much about stripping out the old Barbera vineyard and also the old orchard just above it. These areas have now had a major terraforming exercise! A giant (what to call it?) digger (see picture) has spent the week turning the soil to a depth of 1 metre, removing unwanted items (tree roots, broken off concrete post footings and a fine collection of other detritus) and levelling some of the worst sloped areas. This is another of those very expensive operations that we hadn't budgeted for but had to be done. I am assured that the work we are doing now prior to planting in the Spring will help to reduce the weed population between the rows of the new vines. This sounds good to someone whose whole life revolves around weeding a hectare of vines planted this year. Apparently the deep plough we did last November (the month we completed the purchase and moved in) was too late in the year and is a major reason for our weeding problems now!
In the mature vines we have completed our last cutting of grass and rotavating of the aisles prior to harvesting. Of course I have heard this "last time" thing before, so we will see if we make it to harvest without more work in this regard.
August has so far been less than the desert conditions we were expecting. As I type, it is raining heavily and there is a distinctly cool breeze (which is very nice, thank you!). Average temperature is somewhere in the mid to high 20s (degrees centigrade) whereas it could/should be mid to high 30s. We would prefer less rain now as the grapes have to produce sugar - not bloat and dilute themselves on water.
As we arrive in July, temperatures are still in the mid to high 30s (degrees centigrade), with very high humidity. I am told that this is higher than seasonal norms. We are now contemplating watering the baby vines, as they are the most susceptible to the current heat and draught conditions. The established vines have no particular problem coping without rain, they have 1 metre plus root systems that reach deep into the clay where moisture is retained.
We finish trimming the Moscato early on the 4th of July, and immediately undertake another verderama (spray) as we can safely navigate the vines with the cingallo. once again. Much to my dismay, Edilio tells me over a short break that the (rock hard teracotta) west end of the new vineyard needs weeding again.
(5th July) – saved from starting another round of weeding for today – we have had a lot of rain overnight so cannot "get physical" with the vines. Of course the rain is encouraging the weeds to grow; I can see them accelerating skywards as I write this..... Whilst out walking the dogs and inspecting the vineyards a few nights ago, we came across a large melon patch. It's an amazing site for us, as we are not used to melons growing on the ground in the UK – as the owner of the patch is Edilio, we will likely get to taste them too.
Zapping this morning, and I can confirm that the ground is still cement-like in its consistency. The West half of the new vineyard is a "disastro" says Edilio, the soil is certainly causing us many blisters. We also ran a cultivator plough over the entire new vineyard this morning, so at least the weeds have got a headache and the field looks well kept for a while.
We have just had a long weekend of terrific storms! Overnight on Saturday the 8th we were awoken by torrential rain, violent thunder and lightning, and strong winds. At some stage we lost power also, but we were awake long before the beeping of alarms from our "uninterruptable power supply" batteries told us the mains had failed. We were worrying about the vines! This was the direct opposite of our relaxed reaction to a storm a few nights before – then we found out the damage that is possible to a vineyard; only a few miles from us in Fontanile, massive hailstones had devastated vineyards and likely destroyed 30% of this year's crop. Huge amounts of our vineyard soil had also washed down from the hills, blocking roads and causing temporary chaos. So the night of the second storm, we were imagining similar disasters here! Fortunately we were struck by torrential water not hailstones, which did manage to carve deep furrows through the vines, but without any apparent long term defect. It certainly provided much needed water for the new vines.
What was hard and impenetrable clay has become Piemonte mud once again. This is another phenomenon we have not experienced the likes of elsewhere – within seconds one can collect large amounts of mud on feet and tools – so much so that it is almost impossible to walk (or keep shoes attached to feet!) – it is again impossible to work in the vineyards. As the days pass and we regain the clear skies and high heat of the middle of the day, the mud starts to bake its way back to the teracotta slabs I have come to know. I am trying to judge the drying process such that I can get on with the zapping whilst the soil is still workable.
Somewhere over the past two weeks we also found time to finally remove the old vines from the Barbera vineyard that are being replaced. The pile of old vines on the side of the road look elegant and rustic – they will go to make fire wood or woodworking materials in due course.
We have slowed down a little now (20 July); the grapes are maturing nicely and we have a had a couple of "gentle" rain storms. Today we carried out another "venderama" and did a little zapping in the new vineyard, but the non-stop rush to undertake tasks has subsided. Edilio even spend a few minutes washing the cingolo!
The dogs have the knack of finding the foulest smelling substances and rolling in them – today they came rushing up to me covered in horse manure, and wondered why I wasn't stroking them. The hose pipe soon cleaned the worst off but it will be bath time for them later in the day!
For want of a better description, we are now "training" our vines. In the last couple of weeks they have developed embryonic grapes and surged towards the sky. In many cases this surge has taken the growth in an arc across the aisles that we and our cingallo. must tread. All of this growth must now be threaded through the wire trellis in an upwards direction. This becomes our urgent priority as we need to deploy the cingallo. for spraying and ploughing duties.
Now that first stage training has been completed, we have ploughed a single furrow close to and on either side of each row of vines. This turns the soil close to the vine's root system and takes or turns a lot of weeds near to the established vines (something we can't do with the barbatelli).
It's only 7th June but we have a crop already! In this case it's cherries. We have cherry trees scattered around the vineyard – strategically placed for a snack after working a few rows of vines – but we also have a cluster of trees near the cingallo. shed. These all need to be harvested, as they go from almost ready to mush in a couple of days. Ingrid is now busy making jam in large quantities. In the vineyard what will become bunches of grapes are starting their growth.
(10th June) – I was chased out of the vines this morning by Edilio. There had been some rain overnight and the vines were wet – I now know that we must never work on the vines when wet – (danger of contamination or disease – especially when training wet leaves).
There is plenty of vine training to be done; once again we can't get the cingallo. through the Barbera until it is done. This time we are threading the now taller than the trellis vines back down and along the highest wire.
The old orchard that was removed in the winter has now had the remaining tree stumps removed by JCB digger and a large truck. I noticed after they left that they also escaped with a significant part of my cherry harvest!
(13 June) – We are still using the zappa in the new vineyard. Almost done now, thank goodness. The West end of the field is totally clay and has taken on a concrete and diced teracotta consistency now we are in the hotter dryer season.. We even bought a bigger and heavier zappa on Saturday in Asti market – hoping it would make more of a dent in the solid earth. It did! But we have to be careful only to use it in the 1 metre gap between vines – it is too big to manoeuvre safely around the base of the vine. 2 rows to go and then we can at last get our first verderama (spray) onto the new vines; which are now leafing well. There was no point in spraying whilst the small (5–15 cm tall above the ground) vines whilst they were surrounded and choked by tall weeds.
(14 June) – At last finished the weeding. Unfortunately we are now going to have two days of rain that will encourage weed growth afresh, so I expect to be weeding again some time soon! We now spent three days in the Moscato vineyard with hand sickle cutting off the tops of the vines, as they are many feet taller than the wire trellis. Apparently we only do this once and the cut stops the vine from shooting further in that direction. The young grapes are now taking shape and we must also thin out the leaves to allow light to get to the bunches as well as the sulphur when we spray the vines.
We are told by Massimiliano, our technical advisor from the agricultural union, that we must do a provincial government mandated herbicide spray. Doing this also means staying out of the vines for 3 or 4 days until any contamination danger passes. The agricultural union have been very helpful, especially given our still limited Italian – however a visit to their office in Nizza Monferrato is always frustrating. There is no such thing as an appointment or indeed a queue, so it is a free for all in getting attention from the staff, and we have not yet learned the art of pushing in and forcing attention. The union takes care of the reams of paperwork required for DOC status vineyards, completes grant applications (available for replanting vines) and currently they are transferring the legal documents for the cingolo in order that we can then get the papers for our agricultural diesel allowance, which means slightly cheaper than pump prices – every little helps!
(24 June) – the 2nd dry powder coating (spray) of sulphur is applied today. Edilio tried to do this yesterday but there was quite a breeze and the powder was going everywhere except the desired coating on the vines, and the now significant bunches of grapes. Edilio has also removed most of the old Barbera vines that are to be replaced. This involved running down each row of the old vines with a plough, turning the vine and roots out. I am sad to see them go as they looked dignified standing in their rows even as bare vine wood.
It's been another week of early morning weeding with our "zappas" – start about 6.30am finish about 10.30am when it has become far too hot! Each morning I think I will beat Edilio into the vineyard, but each day I am wrong. I don't think he sleeps much so arrives at dawn! We anticipate finishing the 2nd pass of weeding the new vines tomorrow (27th June).
As predicted we finished this pass of weeding early morning on the 27th – not least thanks to Edilio who started this morning at 5am! I joined him at a more reasonable 06.30 and by the time Ingrid arrived at 07.30 we had finished. Next task, thinning out some of the mature nut trees that are growing in the Moscato vineyard. The problem here is that the tree growth becomes so dense that large swathes of vines do not get enough sunlight, so some large scale pruning takes place. Edilio is quite determined to take out a lot of the trees, but the challenge of taking trees from the centre of a vineyard with tight rows of vines all around is currently insurmountable. We are pleased about this as we rather like our nut trees.
The priority this week is now taking off excessive height in the moscato vines (with the hand sickle again) and any stray tying up of vines wondering across the aisles. Edilio tells me this is the last time we will do this – but I remember him saying that last time.
The existing Barbera and Moscato vineyards are filling with new growth and leaf systems. We start our first venderama or spraying using our trusty cingallo. and attached atomiser/bowser. The spray is sulphur-based mix designed to prevent typical vine problems in moist or humid conditions (fungus, mildew and similar).
A small amount of organic fertiliser is also spread throughout the vineyard to replenish soil and vines. We have to be careful with fertiliser.
Rampant vine growth is great but also needs to be controlled. The growth has to stem from the cane and spur we pruned each vine for earlier in the year. By now each vine is sprouting growth from an impossible amount of places – all of which have to be removed. Removal is by hand (no pruning shears this tile) and requires each shoot and bud (other than our precious cane and spur) to be pulled off.
The average day is sunny and very hot. We learn a new routine, starting in the vineyard between 6 and 7 in the morning and stopping when it becomes too hot at around 11. We can venture back into the vines late afternoon or early evening depending upon the temperature.
We are introduced to a new tool – the "zapper" – a hoe actually, for hand weeding on a giant scale! Although we can and do use the cingallo. and various attachments to manage the soil and weeds in each row of the vineyard – the newly planted barbatelli in the "North vineyard" need to be fully weeded along the row of vines themselves, no mechanical solution possible. We learn how to "zap" taking out the now rampant growth of weeds that are attempting to choke our baby vines and turning the soil at the same time. This is hard work and another opportunity to grow blisters.
The North vineyard may be a miss leading title to UK readers. Although it slopes gently facing North, this vineyard gets the sun all day and once again we must start very early to avoid being baked as the sun takes hold on the ever hardening soil and clay. We try working at our "zapping" after sunset with good twilight but rapidly discover this is a mistake due to the interests of the local insect population and their feeding time!
Primavere (Spring) has arrived along with an early heat wave that has us taking lunches outside. What was brown and lifeless is becoming green once more.
In the remaining Barbera vineyard and the Moscato we are now working hard to tie down all the previously pruned vines. Each spur is bent and trained to the wire, thus creating a bow like sprung spur that is tied down using a very handy length of flexible new growth tree cane, that grows in early Spring in our vineyard (you can see these trees in every vineyard here in Piemonte as this is a natural resource for this tying down).
Spring is taking off, as are the weeds and grass. A late April wet spell encourages rampant growth and we are kept busy using the cingallo. and its many attachments to mow, plough, rake and scarify the rows between the vines.
We're a little late in the year, but we have only just received permission to plant our new Barbera vineyard (I will talk more about DOC rights, grants and obligations at a later stage). Last November we had prepared 1 hectare of our land that had been lying fallow (it had at one time been planted with Chardonnay - but had been unused for some time). There are some regulatory requirements, one of which is a "deep plough" requiring a massive tractor and very large plough. The plough turns the field completely to a depth of about 4 feet (1.2 metres). A few weeks ago we had to get in another tractor and plough to transform the giant furrows into a more manageable surface in preparation for planting.
Early one morning 7 people descend upon our empty future vineyard, first task is to start removing the satellite root system of the "barbatelli" or young vines. These 18 month old vines have been grown by our neighbour Luigi, who is an expert in such things; they arrive in large bundles looking a little like thin leeks with a large root stem attached. The roots must be trimmed off almost entirely to enable us to use a strange T-shaped fork to thrust the 45cm vine into the ground to almost its full depth. This is another chance to reacquire blisters with our pruning secateurs. Only 3,500 to trim!
It takes two full days to plant our new vineyard, the method is simple but labour and time consuming. A team of two or three people work along a row marked out with string, one person (measurer) holds a measure (another T-bar of sorts) to show where the vine should be thrust into the ground, allowing each vine to be equally and evenly spaced along the rows. This person also holds a large basket filled with the barbatelli, the one or two persons with the planting forks take a vine and thrust the fork with vine attached into the spot indicated by the measurer. Only 3,500 to go....
Early March – Pruning continues a pace in the Moscato vineyard. Meantime I'm coiling wire in the old Barbera vineyard. What starts off enthusiastically slows down to a swaying heave-ho as the coil gets larger and heavier – and the somewhat mis-shaped wire collects more and more of the vine clippings as it is dragged towards me. Only 144 coils to go......
Late Mar – I forgot to mention the plastic canes that are stuck in the ground at each vine, used to secure the top of the old vine wood and the new spur before it's bent/trained to the wire. So there are 5 vines between each concrete post – so about 1,320 of these have to be removed, collected and bundled in the old vineyard. Its easy at first, but once you have more than 20 of these together they get heavy and unwieldy – time to strap them together with some of my favourite finger-piercing galvanised wire.
Post wobbling becomes a new sport. The concrete posts are stuck firmly into the ground by 45cm or so, impossible to pull out until the sucking and damp clay they are married to is worked loose by gentle swaying in many directions. Another art to be learnt with several snapped posts in the process. Now its time to pull them out, 30lbs a piece, and its all done by hand/back and raw effort. New muscle pains are introduced to my portfolio of experiences.
Playtime – I am at last taught how to drive my cingallo. (a small tracked tractor specifically designed for vineyards and steep gradients). Of course my Italian is terrible, and Edilio speaks no English – the first few minutes are a disaster – I suspect I will be banned from the cingallo. for life! It gets better; I finally realise what the levers do (track brakes) and get the hang of floor pedals and hand lever clutch.
The cingallo. is our essential vineyard workhorse – right now it is the means to shift the concrete posts from the old vineyard, so we attach the trailer and drive up each row pulling out and stacking the posts - only 288 posts to go.....
In the vines we are replacing old wire wraps (a bit like giant freezer bag ties) throughout. These wires connect the previously mentioned plastic poles to the lower wire of the trellis rows at each vine, thus adding support for the vine and future "tying down".
I had better mention, in case you think I am sounding at all negative about this work, that it is an absolute pleasure to be in the vineyard each day. Almost without fail there are blue skies and bright sunshine and it's warm despite the month. Coupled to this I have an outstanding view of the Alps as far as Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) as the early Spring air is fresh and clear for the 90 miles or so that separate us. I have also been learning Italian with my mp3 player and headphones attached when possible.
Pruning continues into the Moscato vines, except that I am still working on the old Barbera – which takes a long time due to my inexperience (Edilio can do three rows to my one) – I also get frequent lessons to show me where I am going wrong.
Following pruning and clearing debris from the old Barbera vineyard we now have to methodically remove all the galvanised wire trellis and then the supporting concrete posts. Sounds easy as I type this – it takes me the best part of two months!
There are on average 8 wires per row of vines, supported along the rows by cast concrete posts, each wire being secured to each post by a 10cm twist of the same heavy duty wire. Per row there are about 24 posts – there are 18 rows to dismantle. Step 1 – snip or untwist each wire twist. Heavy duty wire tool required, only 3,436 twists to go.....
Early January – Snow on the ground and very little happening! The vines are dormant and look to be dead – (I have just been reading about all the diseases and predators that may effect the vines).
Late January – Despite the cold we make a start on pruning. The previous year's growth have been left intact until now. Everything must now be cut back and removed from the wire trellis. Pruning vines is an art form we have to learn. Our mentor for this is Edilio, who actually does most of the pruning while we learn. Each vine must be left with a long cane and a young spur. The cane will sprout this years growth, the spur is for the following years cane and spur.
Edilio tells me I am trusted to prune half of the Barbera vineyard – it transpires the reason for this honour is that the vines here are too old, and are to be replaced this year – so pruning here is no risk to our valuable vines and involves total removal of all annual growth down to the old vine wood. I learn quickly that this is hard work and that a quality pair of pruning secateurs is essential; it takes less than half a day for the first blisters to appear!
I am despatched to the nearby hardware store to buy a set of Felco No. 2 secateurs. I actually return with a set of Felco No 4s – there is little difference, just a slightly larger grip on the No 4 model, which I find more comfortable and imagine (hope) will give me more leverage for the thicker vines.
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