Two Weeks in Tuscany

Ottawa Business Journal – Executive Dining Guide

October 3, 2005

“Poco Italiano” has always been my reply when asked if I speak any Italian. “Buon giorno”. “Grazie Mille”. “Prego”. “Ravioli”. “Brunello”. “Barbaresco”. “Moscato d’Asti”. “Chianti”, and “Sangiovese”. The language of Italian food and wine is pretty much the extent of my Italian vocabulary.  This all changed when I worked the 2003 and 2004 grape harvest at a Tuscan winery.

Croce di Bibbiano Winery is guarded by the medieval towers of San Gimignano, just 45 minutes south west of Florence in the heart of Tuscany. Cypress trees, rose bushes and sunflowers surround the endless vineyards of my picturesque classroom that was the setting of my hands-on experience in winemaking and Italian language lessons.

Seven years ago, experienced Italian winemakers Luca Vitali and Marco Poggiolini along with Canadian winery owner, Charlie Pilliterri, established Croce di Bibbiano.  Their goal was simple…to produce traditional Chianti with heritage grape varieties and craft premium Super Tuscan wines styled for the modern wine drinker. 

This dynamic mix of heritage and modern is vibrant at Bibbiano.  A property once owned by Franciscan monks, Marco and his father Gilberto Poggiolini and father-in-law, Mario Del Turco, renovated the monastery ruins into the operations of the winery, cellar and tasting room. Along with the winery, seven agrotourism apartments welcomes tourists to stay on the premise to experience life at a winery.

At Bibbiano, winemaking is done by hand.  Within an hour of my arrival, I was offered a pair of clippers and invited to join the family members in the vineyard.  They have been harvesting grapes for the past 16 days.

“Buon giorno Signora Canadese.” – translation: “Hello lady from Canada”

“Quali citta ha visitato in Italia fino adesso?” – “Where have you visited in Italy so far?”

“Le piace bere vino? “– “Do you like to drink wine?”

These rapid fire questions were asked in Italian by my new language teachers. Although I did not understand every word, I quietly practiced repeating the new vocabulary while I picked the grapes.

Uva = grapes

Grappolo d’uva = brunch of grapes

Le viti = vines

Foglie = leaves

É tempo di vendemmia = grape harvest or crush

É tempo di fare una pausa = time for a break

Fetih, the vineyard foreman, made sure that the rhythm of our conversation kept up to the rhythm of our picking. Empty buckets were spaced along the vineyard rows waiting to be filled.  Once the grapes are collected by tractor, the grape bunches are pitch forked into the de-stemming machine to separate the stems from the fruit and gently break the skins.

The winemaking process for white wines is slightly different to the red wine making process..  To make white wine, after the grapes have been de-stemmed, the grapes and juice are directed into a crusher turnstyle machine.  Inside the crusher, an inflatable bladder gently presses the grapes against the outer wall as the honey coloured juice waterfalls into a large collecting pan. The process takes about four hours as the crusher continuously rotates, inflating and deflating the bladder to ensure that all of the juice is removed. From the pan, the white grape juice is pumped into a stainless steel tank where it will stay to ferment into wine.

In the red winemaking process, the grapes are de-stemmed, the skins are gently broken, the “must” (a winemaking term for juice seeds, skins and pulp) is pumped directly into a stainless steel tank. The weight of the skins is lighter than the juice. Twice a day, the juice is pumped through a large hose from the bottom of the tank up to the top of the tank to keep the skins and juice in contact as the wine ferments.  This routine is called “lees stirring”, or the Italians refer to it as “Rimontaggio”. Each time the stirring is performed, more pigment from the skins is extracted, resulting in a darker red colour in the juice.  “Five days ago, the must was a bland apple juice colour, now that it has been in contact with the skins for over five days, look at the regal purple it has become,” explains Luca.  ”This is the beginning of a gorgeous Chianti.”

The grape harvest at Bibbiano is finally finished on the 18th day.  Managing the grape yield has its chaotic moments.  “The Vidal grapes are producing too much juice”, exclaims Luca with a hint of stress in his voice.  “We are going to run out of space in the tanks”.  No spreadhsheets or measuring tools were used to come to this conclusion, just years of experience and Luca eyeballing the situation.  He calls to me.  “Bella, how much volume is left in that tank?”

“Cinquantotto litri (58 liters)”, I yell back.

Quickly, Luca bolts into action, thinking out loud, (there were new Italian phrases that I learned at this instance!) as he quickly plans for his next move.  True to their goal to create traditional Tuscan wines, Luca reminds me that Chianti used to be blended with a small proportion of white grape juice in with the red wine.  Within minutes, Croce di Bibbiano re-introduced this heritage style by adding the overflow of the Vidal juice to the Chianti tank.  “Tutte le cose vecchie tornano di moda. (Translation – All things old are new again)”, smiles Luca with a tone of relief in his voice. “I always wanted to make a heritage Chianti. I just did not think that it would happen today”.

Even at the end of a hectic day, there is a faint sound as the last of the white grape juice trickles out of the crusher and the aroma of fermenting wine wafts throughout the winery. 

On my final day at Bibbiano, Marco greets me in the morning with an espresso, “Buon giorno bella.  We need your help with bottling today. This is my favorite part of winemaking.”, Marco explains.  “All of our hard work gets bottled and enjoyed by people around the world.” After calibrating the bottling machine to rhythmically, fill, cork, foil and label each bottle, the last stop on the bottling line is the wrapping of the official Italian DOC appellation serial number sticker on the bottle’s neck crafting another piece of Italian art from Mother Nature. It seems fitting that my last job during my Italian lessons and winemaking classes was to bottle and prepare a shipment of Bibbiano’s Tuscio Chianti bound for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

Throughout the two weeks that I spent at Bibbiano helping with every step of the harvest and winemaking process, I am amazed by the number of fingerprints that are involved into making each bottle of wine; from managing the growth of the vines and fruit throughout the spring and summer, to picking to crushing to blending to bottling to packing.  Although a winery is a romantic setting, making wine it is definitely hard work.  My hands-on experience during the harvests gave me a greater appreciation of wine. As the Italians say “Salute e buon appetito!”

Planning on visiting Tuscany?  Staying in an agrotourism apartment at a winery or farmhouse is a unique experience.  Prices vary on style of accommodation and time of year. Photographs of Croce di Bibbiano and the self catered apartments can be seen at www.crocedibibbiano.it

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