La vendemmia, translates to the harvest or vintage, but it means more than just the year a bottle of wine was produced. Discover the mission of defining the deeply-rooted word or idea in Italian vineyards.
By Colin West
La Vendemmia means "Harvest" or "Vintage" in English. But what it means to the Italians in every corner of their country is something else. La Vendemmia is full of culture, history, people, terroir, festa and much more. Check out this short documentary to get a great insight into the Italian wine industry and hear some of Italy's top producers as they describe what La Vendemmia is all about for them.
Vintage is something yet to be defined. If it was French, people would relate it to the term terroir and tell us that there is in fact no direct English translation. There are those that of course attempt to define vintage as the year a bottle of wine was produced. Some feel the term simply refers to the 2 to 4 month span of the year when grapes are harvested and wine is made. Irregardless of all of those so called “definitions” to vintage, there are few that dig deeper to find it’s more symbolic meanings. My mission was to define the meaning of vintage in Italian. The meaning of,“La Vendemmia“.
To understand the importance of my objective with this video production, one needs to understand that it would be in this very instance where my two worlds would truly meet. After studying with the Marchesi d’Frescobaldi wine family inTuscany during the year 2006, I eventually left the country and spent ten years creating a career for myself in the form of a film production company that is based off the wine-related inspirations I first had in Italy. Ten years down the road I received a Facebook message from my new found Italian friend named Salvatore. He had written to tell me I had the opportunity of bringing the Director of Photography of my choice back to Italy and showing him what we were made of.
It was on. I was taking all of the film knowledge I had gained throughout an entire decade back to the spot where I first learned about wine. This meant that my creation had to be most beautiful and the most emotionally engaging piece of content I could make. It was the moment I had been waiting for. The anxiety, the excitement and the stress pulsing through my body became easier to bear knowing this moment had finally come. I knew that defining “La Vendemmia” in Italy wasn’t going to be easy, but where would I start? Who would I interview? I had to dig deep, past the debilitatingly delicious food and wine I was consuming at every corner and into the roots of these indigenous varieties and further down to the roots of Italian culture.
Pantelleria Harvesters Snipping Away
I brushed off my Italian from my stint in 2006 and began to speak to a group of older men harvesting Zibibo grapes at the Donnafugata estate on the island of Pantelleria. Pantelleria is a small Sicilian island just over 30 miles east of the Tunisian coast of Africa and even further from the coast of Sicily.The island is famous for an ancient grape variety called Zibibo, also known as Muscat di Alexandria that produces a well balanced, age-worthy Italian dessert wine. I’m not going to lie, there was one night in Marsala, Sicily where the owner of a wine bar didn’t hesitate to uncork at least 4 different 750ML bottles between a few of us. Usually after half a glass of dessert wine I’m done. When I say these wines were “well balanced”, I mean it. If you really want to sit down glass for glass, well then let’s just say, the proof would be in the pudding.
This group of hilarious, joking older men that were harvesting these grapes took more care than I had ever seen in harvesting each bunch, down to checking every grape. While they were snipping away at any underripe fruit and taking out any sunburnt skin or piece that wasn’t perfect in their eyes, I quickly realized that to a harvester in Italy the concept of la vendemmia meant so much more than it did to any harvester in new world wine countries I had met. This group of pickers spent 8 to 10 times longer working with the fruit than I had ever seen. In the USA, even when hand harvesting a $50.00 or $100.00 bottle of Cabernet, pickers are often working as fast as humanly possible to get the largest tonnage they can in the quickest time possible. Some might simply pass it off as a different objective, yet this is where the digging begins.
The tradition and the approach to harvesting in this respectful style was reflected in a similar ways throughout the vineyards ofthe Veneto region when visiting the Prosecco producer of Masottina. Following the visit to Veneto there was another identical style of tender care and attention to the fruit that was witnessed when being introduced to“Le Donne della Vendemmia” (The Women of the Harvest) in Apulia. Le Donne della Vendemmia was a group of women chosen to be the only individuals to harvest the fruit at a winery called Tenute Rubino down in the heel of “the boot” of Italy, or in the Apulia region just outside of Brindisi. The woman here are chosen as they are more gentle with the fruit and have smaller and more sensitive hands to work with the bunches of grapes. The most important reason however, is that it is a tradition that has gone on for decades that needs to be withheld. One quick look down the vineyards that day in the dry heat and I saw a grandmother picking away next to her daughter and they were both accompanied by their granddaughter who must have been 5 years old. Together the three of them were singing, smiling and celebrating the harvest of a native and obscure variety from this region that I can only imagine was destined for one of their high end Negroamaro wines. Such a sight with the history, the culture, the passion and the love for their job is something that I know would be troublesome if not impossible to see in the USA.
It is important to acknowledge that it is not just the way Italians harvest their fruit but it is the values and the traditions these Italians maintain during La Vendemmia that speak so freely to their traditional culture, the history that is strung throughout their land, the people that obtain and carry these beliefs on generation after generation. Together these attributes effect the terroir that some consumer or some sommelier can experience in the wine. Could one really ever argue that terroir doesn’t exist in a wine? We know for a fact that terroir is not just the minerality or the soils structures of a vineyard. It is not simply based on the level of rainfall received or the sunshine hours one ton of grapes gets. This country’s beliefs and values have allowed their harvesters to care more about each parcel of fruit and each bunch their hands touch. This shows in the final bottle of wine. Who’s to say the positive energy of a festa, or the generations of women in Apulia that pass on their teachings and techniques to their grandchildren don’t have such an effect on the fruit the winemakers use that every year it shows up in the wines of Tenute Rubino? Don’t forget that these conclusions have only been drawn simply on how I saw Italians harvesting grapes. In this short article I can’t tell you how their passion affects their wine and I can’t explain the way history has maintained hundreds if not thousands of delicious hidden grape varieties than your mind can only imagine. The video “La Vendemmia” is my attempt at giving you a bit more insight into the meaning of this word or this tradition in Italy.I hope when you are done watching the video that you are still stumped. I hope you buy a plane ticket and head to a small terraced hillside on the Island of Pantelleria and you look out towards Africa while you taste a Zibibo grape. Hopefully Salvatore is there and he is trying his best to explain to you what La Vendemmia is. In the end, you still won’t understand it fully. You will need to find solace that you are one step closer to understanding and the experiences the vintage has brought are priceless. That’s one reason I love La Vendemmia.