When the summer is almost over and the days are still warm, when the clear skies and the cool nights give energy and coolness to the vines and mankind, it’s harvest time: a ritual that has been repeated for generations on our hills.
Harvest is like a religious ritual, when all the year’s efforts and anxieties.
The rhythms and ways are those that have always been, as if it were today Giacomo Agostinetti, class of 1597 described them: “The grapes of the finest quality, fully ripened and picked at the right time on the sunny hillsides on quiet days, picking the grapes from the stalks using nets, with those not ripe rejected, will give a pleasant juice and, he continues, this juice will give a refined wine easy to keep for a long time, being healthy and shining...”
It was Agostinetti again who stated how white grapes should be picked when the white became green or better still red like Coda della Volpe grapes, that is the soft stalk, and that when you touch them the juice makes your fingers sticky. For this to happen he observes, the grapes must take both frost and dew and then this concentrates them, and if some grapes are not perfect, because too soft, they are not crushed. These notes remind us of our grandparents’ tales when they used to say to us: “Prosecco should be picked when it’s cold, and many times we’ve harvested when our mountain peaks were white with snow”.
Therefore Prosecco should be harvested at the beginning of October with the arrival of the first autumn cold snap. This was extremely lucky and a great help in obtaining healthy fermentation.
But at a certain point the autumn cold and the lack of food for the ferment typical of this variety meant that fermentation would stop, leaving a sugary residue in the wine. This inconvenience would become a valuable ally, because in spring the wine, even if with difficulty, would start fermenting again resulting in a wine 10-11 ABV, with more than 6.5 grams/litre of acidity, but.... sparkling!
The harvest is an almost religious rite, a liberating celebration where the labours and fears of an entire year are finally left behind. Everyone wants to take part: relatives, friends and friends of friends. Everybody is there picking those golden bunches, eager to taste the first nectar coming from the branches. Almost as if an unknown archaic sense were sending information to the brain to take advantage of the liquid, that like milk is collecting in the containers and in the same way, is an incredible source of vitamins, salts, antioxidants and energy. A real purifying nectar.
When harvest time arrived, men and women would gather in the fields, armed with wicker baskets. The bunches were picked with hooks or, where the grapes were fully ripe, they could be detached just by hand. The baskets or, at the more difficult reaches of the hill, conical wicker baskets were carried to the land lord’s house where they were emptied into one or more vats. It was the practice to remove the stem, and so a string net would be hung over the vats where the bunches would be tipped.
Then two workers with rakes would move the stalks until the individual grapes were detached. After this, the grapes were crushed with naked feet turning them into a perfect must of Prosecco quality 62%.
During the crushing, the must would come out of a hole called the candola made at the bottom of the vat, and collected in a container called the ormella. From here in a copper bucket it was poured into the troughs which were then poured using a funnel called a “lora” into a barrel. Once fermentation was complete top ups were carried out in the first month, therefore the first decanting was done on San Martin, in other words in December. Nothing more was done until March when the second decanting would be undertaken. Of course the decanting was undertaken when the day was calm and the moon waning. At last it was time to put the time into bottles. The bottles washed and brushed with horsehair, firstly with hot water, then with acidulated water and finally rinsed with cold, were put to drip.
Before filling they are rinsed again but this time using the very wine with which they will be filled. Finally they were corked using Spanish corks which had first been boiled in water and then washed with the wine while still warm. Bottling was done on quiet and fresh days when the tramontana wind was blowing.
If we follow this traditional methodology of producing and preserving wine and compare it to that of today, we can see that there are many similarities. In fact we can say that we are now producing wine as it has always been done in the traditional way. Modern oenology used from the 1980s on has as its basis the use of artificially produced cold, soft grape pressing, must fermentation and wine conservation at controlled temperatures.
Is it not perhaps no more than the reproduction, but using modern equipment and naturally in greater quantities, of what we used to have by following the seasons and crushing the grapes with our feet? The real innovation has been the fermentation which from the bottle (champenoise method) has moved to the autoclave: from 1960 this method of sparkling wine production has found in Prosecco the perfect reason to develop, refine and evolve technology.