PICKING FRIENDS 

Here's what drew us to Chianti: the moment our world changed. This is a feature I wrote for Travel Holiday magazine in the USA 

Chianti comes to most of us in a flask covered in straw, or as one of the hand-crafted classics now fetching a fortune in some chic East Coast trattorie.  Raise your glass carefully in the candlelight. Can't you just see the terracotta, old stone, chestnut and cypress hues so typical of this corner of Italy which the world's wine buffs are rediscovering?

They tell us strange perfumes lurk in the luscious reds that hail from this Eden in Tuscany: the hill country between Florence and Siena that still looks like a Renaissance painting.

Mint, lovage, cloves, curry-powder, blackcurrants, prunes and even chocolate are said to be lurking in their dry and flavorful character – but I wouldn't know about that. My recollection of Chianti is of grape juice pouring over my galoshes as I tramped those same inspirational features into the back of an old truck during the very first vendemmia  (harvest) my wife and I participated in. It was quite a while ago now, but we both knew our world had changed because of the experience – just how much, I have to say, and what a profound influence it was to have on our lives, we did not know.

We were ten, toiling in the vineyard, with backgrounds as diverse as the character of Italy itself.  Italian, American, English and Scottish voices mingled in the rows of marching vines ­– Vai!  Go! Ferma!  Whoa! – as the  fruits of our labor stacked up behind our aristocratic tractor, a product of Messrs. Lamborghini, no less.

There was Bruno, the host – known as The Comandante in honor of his years at sea captaining cruise ships, though he is also a Genovese marquis. There were the newcomers ­– John, the Scottish landscape gardener, and Giampaolo and Alessio, leather traders from Naples now looking for a Chianti farm of their own. And the old-timers – Vivian, who had left his London antiques business to assist for the tenth year running;  Resi, in charge of film distribution for Twentieth Century Fox in Rome; Monica, an English gentlelady and veteran Italophile; and Harry, a former college professor from upstate New York, now locally resident. Vintage friends in more sense than one.

The Comandante was preoccupied both with the barometer and the phases of the moon.  Though we were not making wine ourselves this time – he predicted lack of uniformity would mean a poor–quality harvest – locals say it should be waxing to aid the fermentation process. 

Soon the communal cantina (winery) would want to start crushing our grapes, removing the tannic stems and pumping the "must" into large fermentation vats, but if we started picking too early the fruit would be sour, lowering the all-important sugar content which converts to alcohol; too late, and it would over-ripen and ferment on the vine if the weather turned warm. Picking in the wet was unthinkable – and rain would again reduce sugar content, sinking into the soil. 

A dash of folklore added a further restrictive note: an old proverb, designed to ward off the Evil Eye, which Bruno’s wife Gina assured us had been handed down from generation to generation of superstitious sharecropping farmers.

Né di Venere, né di Marte, né si sposa, né si parte; Né si da principio all’arte!

she recited in Tuscan dialect. It was a warning not to get married or go on a journey, or start new work on a Friday or a Tuesday.  Oh well.

A huge anticyclone moving in fast from the Atlantic brought the answer in the end, with brilliant light and sugar-candy clouds to dapple a scene hardly changed through the centuries. The picking could truly commence in a tender climate with church bells tolling in the distance and the gentle harmonies of landscape, architecture and agriculture seductively luring one's senses back to the Middle Ages.

The assault on our hosts’ 10 acres at Radda in Chianti was to fill seven hours a day for the next four days – the standard October ritual on hillsides where grapes have been picked since Etruscan times.

I had read of Chianti Classico having "marshmallow softness pushing through an earthy style" but by mid–morning on that first day this had adopted new significance, my legs having turned to marshmallow by slowly edging up or down the never–ending banks with most of our weight braced downhill ("the down–side risk", someone had only half-joked). My vocabulary took care of the earthy style.  

By coffee break I confess some of the charm of this timeless scene had begun to fade as the physical effort of stooping and stretching to fill basket after basket in time–honored fashion took its toll on a workforce shamelessly unsuited to manual endeavor.  I knew that by nightfall when we had to take the day's pickings to the cantina  in our groaning truck none of us would need reminding that it wasn't only the vines that were growing older each year. 

Katia handed round the flask and the defiantly rich cream cakes ­– forget the prunes and chocolate – which are an unavoidable hazard of The Comandante's harvests at his smallholding. Then it was back to work again, systematically in pairs, one each side of a line, with surprisingly enough surplus energy to chatter and laugh, for the vendemmia  is always a fun affair and we were told this one was likely to be marked by an especially happy event.  Bumpy, one of the prize miniature dachshunds which Gina and Bruno breed on the farm, was expecting pups.

I found myself working a shift with Harry. As we snipped we talked about the wine revolution in progress some 350 years after the Grand Duke of Tuscany first imposed order on Chianti's ancestor, the red wine of Florence which the Medici promoted. New laws of quality control, more careful planting, restricted vineyard yields, new oak barrels and stainless–steel tanks, plus the occasional use of (whisper it) French grapes have taken the region's wines way up–market to everyone's great satisfaction.

Actually getting to grips with the red and white grapes which account for Chianti's unique character was quite a tussle, as we found. The corkscrewed stalks of the principal red varietal, Sangiovese, were unwilling to unclench their knotted hold ­– and finally surrendered in a rush, squirting thick, rich, purple juices in our faces when least expected. Its partner, the fragrant Canaiolo Nero, turned out to be just as perverse – a lovely russet color but wrinkled and equally unwilling to leave home. Other surprises on this voyage of discovery came from the whites:  Malvasia, tripping us up by looking so mouldy, green, unappetizing – but turning out to be the sweetest by far. And finally golden Trebbiano, fat and juicy, bunched up like pineapples with whiplash vines that flew in our faces.

But there were remarkably few bugs; and horror stories of frogs, lizards and snakes lying in ambush to scare the daylights out of rookie pickers turned out to be just a vicious lie put about by the Chianti barons who long ago switched to industrial methods. The larger estates are now thoroughly modernized with mechanical combines that do the job of seven humans, de–stalking as they go.

We just happened to be friends, giving our time in exchange for good food and good company, but picking has its own professionals who work the fields behind slow–moving tractors or climb the trees as in antiquity to pick promiscuo (mixed) vines, and the diligent traveler can find them in the fall by looking in the least likely places, down empty country lanes. Mysterious clusters of abandoned Fiats in the middle of nowhere are a tell-tale sign. 

I had gone in search of them before our harvest began and once again had the distinct feeling that I was part of a living, 15th century tableau as grand as anything Leonardo painted. Field after field of vineyard and olive grove are interrupted only by pretty fortified villages perched on hilltops, pencil pines and battlemented castles.

Wayside shrine near GreveThere is no official Chianti Trail, and well–meaning local attempts to guide the traveler to remoter parts often lead to dead–ends and unmade roads, of which the region has plenty. With the giveaway scent of mashed grape and diesel fuel permeating the air it's best either to follow your nose or the trickles of grape juice that stain the roads. Signs announcing a Strada dei Castelli del Chianti, showing interesting tracks forking off the Siena-Montevarchi road (Route 408 between Gaiole and Pianella), merely point out where Chianti Classico is made rather than indicate a continuous itinerary, for instance. The color–coded routes do lead to castles, abbeys, churches and rewarding views, though.

I stopped first in the charming, cloistered square of Greve in Chianti, the regional market town near which Verrazzano,  discoverer of New York, was born. (Hudson River Valley pride will be hurt: it is unforgivably twinned with Sonoma County, California). Then I took the scenic Via Chiantigiana—the umbilical wine cord linking Florence and Siena (Route 222) along which numerous signs invite you to stop, taste and buy both wine,  excellent olive oil and sometimes honey, south via Panzano to Castellina in Chianti.

The three medieval villages of Castellina, Radda and Gaiole (all of which are "in–Chianti" and form a flat triangle)  give as good a touring base as any. They were home of the Chianti League's feudal barons in the 13th century and you can't get anything more authentic than that.

Castellina in Chianti rooftopsThere is still a considerable resident aristocracy, enriched over the years by a steady flow of artists, designers, film directors, politicians and writers. The influx of foreigners who have invested here – the British more than most –has brought prosperity. And planning laws which state that you can restore but cannot build have played a vital part in conserving Chianti's unique character.  

Chianti seems to bring people together rather than divide them – and there is no better time to witness this than at the vendemmia, eating and chatting together, elbow to elbow, at long tables during the break from picking.  In olden times the farmer's wife cooked endless dishes of soups, pasta, beans, salads, vegetables and grilled or roast meats for the laborers – usually numbering about 25 – who would sleep at the farmhouse at harvest-time. True to tradition, Gina, our tireless hostess, unflaggingly supplied such treats as spaghetti alla carbonara, wild boar and apple crumble for our army, for the duration, complemented by Bruno's excellent wine.

In the end our team did a workmanlike job despite a last-minute glitch in our geriatric support system.  On its last run to the cantina, overladen as usual with a three–ton cargo practically spilling over the sides, our 25–year–old ex–milk truck started a slow puncture. It limped in, very late, leaning like the great tower of Pisa whence it originally came, with the juices gushing down one side.

Giampaolo and Alessio, my singing Neapolitan pals whose pitchforks were the only means of unloading it, were crestfallen at losing so much valuable cargo. But The Comandante was content enough. We had picked and delivered a grand total of 12 tons in record time.  Although sugar content had gone down to 13.75% at one time (it should have been around 16% ) there was a chance the co-operative would pay around $70 per quintali  (100kg) and leave him with a small profit, having just about broken even the previous year.

The moon was full by the time we finished, rising above the ramparts of Radda to illuminate the last blessed moment. Was it her sixth sense, I wonder? For just at that moment, right on cue, Bumpy chose to give birth to four puppies.

Pink and blue ribbons fluttered on the gatepost the following morning when we said our goodbyes for yet another year. No matter what fruity words the wine experts would eventually pick to describe the vintage, we said, our visit had given us a great deal of pleasure to go with the backache. The quality of the grapes may not have measured up to last year's bumper crop. But it certainly had been Bumpy's Harvest.

 

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