Almost two years have passed since we first arrived here at Vecchio Podere Sana Cristiana. On one hand we hardly seem to ha ve been here for more than a few months, on the other we feel like seasoned veterans. The truth is somewhere inbetween of course. The challenges of year one were great, an uphill learning curve that at times seemed more like scaling an impossible mountain! Our limited Italian language skills, lack of experience working in vineyards and cantina all compounded together to mean we were always reactive rather than pro-active, and trailing behind the established natural "schedule" for working the land.
2006 brought less surprises - we knew what to expect and were prepared for it. Challenges this year have been more related to scale and hard physical labour. Our expanding footprint of vineyards has created more work and ultimately more grapes to crop and make into wine. It has also kept us very busy and at times totally exhausted, consequently the 2006 diary has been neglected. Our first year diary can be found further down the page but here is a summary of the highlights of this year:
January - Pruning starts in late January. This year I am allowed to prune the "live" vines, strictly under the supervision of Edilio of course. I make some mistakes but after working on over 5,000 well established vines I feel that I have at least an idea of what to look for when pruning a vine for the coming two year cycle. I also realise that it will take many years before I will have the "eye" for getting this artform totally correct.
February - Pruning continues when weather lows. We are distracted this month as it is the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino and the surrounding mountains and we have many guests using us as a base to experience this unique event. The new vineyard planted last year also has to be pruned. This is a simpler job, taking off all but two of the strongest looking spurs from the still small plant at almost ground level. Scale is the issue, with more than 3,500 plants to prune and ground level means a lot of bending!
March - Spring is in the air and we are busy tying down the cane we have left on each vine, this is the guyer pruning method common thought much of Piemonte. Getting the rigid cane to bend as far as the lowest wire on the trellis work is a challenge, spring loaded they can take an eye out if they fly back or (perhaps worse) snap - losing the years crop for that vine. At the edge of our vineyard (and all others in this region) there are willow tree's, these are an invaluable resource which we crop new growth each year - this is a pliable pencil thin branch or tendril that we use like a "tie wrap" to secure the bent cane to the wire trellis.
We take an inventory of the new vineyard, about 10% of the "barbatelli" planted last April have not survived the first year. There can be a number of reasons for this, disease and animal activity (including our dogs sitting on the baby vines whilst we were weeding last year), but also possibly air pockets near the root ball when we first planted stopping the vine from becoming established. A number have also quite clearly lost the battle with weeds and been choked to death. For the next few weeks we will be taking out and replacing these lost vines with new barbatelli. We discover that thrusting a barbatelli into the much firmer ground than a freshly turned new vineyard is very hard indeed.
Now is also the time to plant our second new vineyard. The old vineyard above the house that we spent so much time removing in 2005 is now prepared for planting. This year we rent a very large excavator to turn over the soil by the mandatory 1.4 metres (5 feet). This is a much more satisfactory solution than the giant plough and tractor as all trace of surface weeds are turned over and totally buried - hopefully meaning we will not have the same weed disaster as last year. Unfortunately the solid turning also brings old tree roots to the surface and I spend many long hours wrestling these out of the ground and disposing of them.
Planting the new barbatelli is a pleasure in this freshly prepared ground, most slip in easily and the blister count on our hands is lower than last year (or perhaps hands are becoming more used to hard labour). Some 3,000 vines are hand planted in the old vineyard and above our existing Barbera vineyard in the land that was the old orchard.
April - Both new vineyards (2005 & 2006) are prepared to receive their posts and wire trellis work that they will spend their lives being grown and trained over. For the 2005 vineyard this is essential as this year they will grow substantially and need support, for the new vineyard it not yet necessary but is best to do at the same time for economy of scale reasons. I find this is the best way to increase upper body strength ever known - 1,500 2 metre long concrete posts must be picked up loaded onto cingallo. trailer and then unloaded evenly throughout the vineyards with 5 vines between each post. For the moment we lay each post on the ground parallel to the vines.
May - The vines are all in full growth mode, shoots everywhere, mainly where they shouldn't be all have to be stripped off. Shoots that should be there all have to be trained through the trellis work. A new friend - Pietro arrives with his much larger cingallo. equipped with a special hydraulic ram designed to thrust the concrete posts deep in to the vineyard clay. The process is simple Pietro gets to sit comfortable in the cingallo. whilst Edilio and I lift each post and hold them in place whilst the hydraulics are lined up and thrust the posts downwards. It is rewarding to see the vineyard taking shape and structure but each evening is a revelation of aching muscle groups. We also take the opportunity of Pietro's magnificent machine being here to push down many of the old posts in the established barbera vineyard. Posts all finished we turn our attention to the wire work. Each line of vines and post requires 5 wires stretched along then and secured to each post with a deftly twisted piece of the same gauge wire. It is possible to string the wire directly through holes in the concrete posts and this appears easier to me but Edilio explains that would be fine until the first post is broken (by cingallo. or other passing machinery) when post replacement would be impossible without cutting all 5 wires.
June - New helper Raphael shows his youth, strength and determination by zapping just about all of our new growth vineyards single-handed (Edilio, Ingrid and I help out, but only when we have too). This is a big relief to us as this time last year we were fighting with the weeds single handed (and losing). The new barbera vineyard planted last spring has shot up and is less threatened by the ground weeds. On the upper slope the new vineyard planted this spring is less problematical as the ground contains a lot less weed to start.
July - It is very hot throughout July and we are wondering how we ever survived before we constructed the new swimming pool. After a hard morning working in the vineyard keeping the vines' growth on the trellis rather than over the rows it is great to jump into the pool and cool off! It is also the blast place to float and contemplate the vineyards as it has a great position overlooking them.
September - Later thank last year we start the Moscato harvest. 14 September and for 2 days. We have much more fruit that our first year's harvest. This is a combination of great growing conditions and improved management of the vines during growth (unlike the first year, we knew what to expect and when, and kept on top of all the vineyard tasks better). In fact we have so much fruit that at the end of day two we decide to stop before we have picked all the bunches. This is a complicated issue, but relates to the maximum yield allowed by DOCG laws, after which point the value of picked grapes drops below the cost of picking them. Nonetheless we have had a fantastic harvest and quality and sugar levels are excellent.
October - We start harvesting the Barbera on the 4th. Unfortunately Edilio is ill, so it falls to me to drive the cingallo. with the attached "brentoni", to collect the grapes from the pickers and charge to the waiting trailer and back. The ground is quite soft and muddy and with a full load is it a challenge to control the tractor on some of the steeper rows - and I often find myself sliding sideways.
Due to our expanding footprint of red vines it takes us two days for this harvest. Next year will be much bigger too so there is a lot of logistics we have to plan for over the coming winter. The barbera is safely transported to our cantina in nearby Bazzana, and after some patient queuing to unload the bunches we transfer our precious crop into tanks for the transition into Wine - our second vintage of "Piano Piano".
November - The one time in the year where one does not have to be in the vineyards, but of course there are many maintenance tasks to undertake - hard driven machinery has to be cleaned, maintained and mover into winter storage. Trees and undergrowth around the vineyards can once again be cut back and thinned out. With our ever expanding footprint of land we are now planning some serious ground works to prepare for more vineyards in the future.
December - Monday 4th,with the advent of the full moon we start pruning today. Moon cycles are very much a part of the farming life here as I am learning. It is unseasonably mild and is very pleasant to be working outside again, although the gap between stopping work in the vineyard and starting again seems to have been very short this year! Although I am now capable of pruning my vines, I am still much slower than Edilio. so I work at striping off the old growth after Edilio as made the two crucial cuts.
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