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Harvest at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe

Viktorija Todorovska (Vik)

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in October in Irpinia, the north central part of the region of Campania. This area has been made famous by the little village of Taurasi and the great DOCG wine to which the village gives its name. The region is also famous for a variety of other products: chestnuts, nougat, olive oil, and even truffles, but most visitors are interested in the wines: the whites made from Fiano, Greco, and Falanghina, all grapes indigenous to the area, and the full-bodied, well-structured wines produced from the aglianico grape in the DOCG zone of Taurasi.

We have been in the area for almost a week and it has rained for most of that time. We are staying in a beautiful agriturismo between the villages of Taurasi and Sant’Angelo all’Esca, surrounded by row upon row of vines, the slopes painted with the beautiful colors of fall: dark red aglianico grapes still ripening on the vines and the red, yellow, and orange vine leaves which, when the sun hits them just so, look like they are on fire.

The owner of the agriturismo, Milena Pepe, an energetic young woman who grew up in Belgium, but whose parents are originally from this area, moved here several years ago and started making wines from the indigenous grapes. We have tasted most of the wines and enjoy both the fresh and crisp Greco di Tufo and the fuller-bodied and rounder Fiano di Avellino. Even the little-known white from Coda di Volpe has personality. The reds run the gamut from a lighter one, San Severino Irpinia Rosso made from 70% aglianico and 30% sangiovese and often served slightly chilled, to several made from aglianico, one (Terra del Varo) with the addition of a little merlot, as allowed by the DOC of Aglianico Irpinia and two made exclusively from Aglianico: Santo Stefano Irpinia Campi Taurasini DOC and Opera Mia Taurasi DOCG. She even makes an aglianico rosé, a darker pink, well structured and flavorful rosé, perfect for a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, and salumi.

On this Saturday morning, the rain that has bathed the vineyards and the almost ripe grapes for several days has finally stopped, the sun is out, and the air feels crisp and fresh, promising a warm and pleasant day. We have an appointment with Milena at 9:30 because we are going to help with the harvest. We are fully equipped: the night before Milena and Luisa, the British-born woman who helps run the agriturismo, provided rubber boots, aprons, gloves, and metal shears, even baseball hats to protect us from the sun. We are dressed and ready to go. I am tingling with excitement. I have been trying to participate in the harvest for a couple of months now, but during a trip to France and Italy the month before, rain thwarted my plans. Now, I am thrilled to see the rain is gone. But things are not so simple.

When Milena arrives, she says the vineyards are too wet: both the soil and the grapes have been exposed to water for the past three days and she doesn’t want to bring wet grapes into the winery. She suggests we wait until the afternoon and let the sun do its work and dry the grapes and the soil, before we go in and harvest. In the meantime, we can walk around and enjoy the beautiful scenery surrounding us and the fall colors and smells around every corner.

We take off our rubber boots and while the morning away, taking pictures and walking around. At noon, we join Milena and Luisa for a picnic at the top of a nearby hill from where we can enjoy wonderful 360-degree views of the surrounding vineyards. The sun feels good on our backs as we enjoy the savory pastiera and baba Luisa has made and some excellent local cheeses and salumi. Just as we are finishing up dessert - a decadent tart with shortbread crust and a filling of chestnuts and chocolate and some delightfully crunchy home-made biscotti with hazelnuts - we feel the first drops of rain. We were enjoying lunch so much, we didn’t notice the dark clouds that had gathered above us. We run for the cars and have coffee back at the agriturismo, hoping that the rain will stop and we’ll still be able to harvest.

Milena makes some phone calls to her uncle, who manages the vineyards we are supposed to harvest; despite their best efforts, we have to put our harvest plans on hold. The rain continues for a while and even though it is not serious by the time it stops the grapes are wet enough on the surface to not be able to be picked.

Our disappointment is palpable, but we know that it is critical for the grapes to reach the winery in the best state possible, so the wines can be of high quality. We spend the afternoon touring the castle in the village of Taurasi, where we have a chance to go through an interesting sensory tour, exploring the smells and colors of the wines made from Fiano, Greco, and Aglianico. At first hesitantly and then ever more excitedly, we open the jars with dried fruits and all manner of things, including dry asphalt and soil, to discover the aromas typical of these three interesting grapes not widely known outside this area.

At the end of our sensory tour, we feel better acquainted with Fiano, Greco, and Aglianico. This and tasting the grapes during our daily walks gives us a sense for some of the aromas and flavors found in the DOCS wines of Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi. At dinner, we continue our tasting tour of the region: after starting with some Tenuta Cavalier Pepe rosé, we proceed to the Aglianico Irpinia, an interesting and very drinkable red, less serious than Taurasi, but much readier to drink at an early age.

We go to bed dreaming of a sunny Sunday and being in the vineyards. And indeed Sunday dawns crystal clear and sunny, the air is warmer than the day before and during our morning walk we can already tell that this day will be different. The grapes we taste during the morning walk are sweet and mostly dry; the drops of rain we saw on them over the past couple of days are gone and only here and there do we see remnants of the early morning mist. Around 9:30, we get the long-expected phone call. Milena says we can harvest! We quickly put on out boots and aprons and even don the baseball hats. Fiano, here we come!

As soon as we get out of the car at the top of the hill above the village, we can hear the voices of the harvest workers. They chat happily as they work in pairs, one on each side of the row of vines, quickly clipping the bunches without crossing the invisible vertical line in the vine canopy that separates one side from the other.

We soon learn that this is the method we will use as well. We will work on the same row of vines, one on each side and only cut the bunches on our side of the vine so as not to hurt the person working on the other side of the canopy. Milena’s uncle shows us which bunches to pick and which to leave behind: we don’t want under-ripe grapes or the green grapes in small bunches higher up on the vine. Those are not good for quality wine production and we have to leave them behind even as we try to be thorough.

Wine HarvestWe start at the top of the hill and work our way down the row, snipping the bunches and placing them in the plastic cases at the beginning of each row. The cases fill up fast: each only holds about 20 kilos (40 or so pounds) of grapes and as soon as it is full, we leave it under the vine where the tractor can pick it up to take it to the winery for immediate pressing. At first, it is difficult to see the bunches hidden in the yellow-green cover of leaves, the color of the grapes blending in with that of the leaves, but soon we learn how to lift the leaves quickly to check for any remaining ripe bunches before moving on to the next vine.

As I work, the sun warms my back and pretty soon I have to take my jacket and vest off. Like the grapes, I am basking in the sun which has been struggling to peak through the clouds for the past several days. Every time I lift a big leaf, the sun hits a shiny bunch of grapes, turning almost light brown with ripeness. The color is so beautiful I can’t help but taste the grapes: one look at them lets me imagine how sweet they will taste. And I am not disappointed. As soon as I bite into the first cool grape, its sweet juice floods my mouth: even the skin is sweet and I can chew through it unlike the skin of the still-ripening Aglianico, which stays in one piece in the mouth, tough and chewy.

Off we go down the hill, tasting as we pick just to make sure the grapes are ready to be made into Milena’s delicious Fiano di Avellino. At first I feel I am working too slow. For every one vine I harvest, the experienced workers have harvested four or five. Not wanting to slow the work down, I pick up the pace and try to keep up. But when I try to work faster, the vine seems to resist: it hides the grapes and doesn’t let the bunches go even when I find them. Pulling on them firmly only makes the little round grapes scatter on the ground, leaving the bunch only half full by the time it goes on top of the others in the case. So, I slow down and try to work with the vine, not against it. And pretty soon I find my pace: lift a leaf, clip, release, move to the next vine.

When for a moment I switch places with Michael and go on the other side of the vine I realize that I am dealing with a lot more leaves on my side. I am working the side that faces West and the vineyard workers have left more leaves on that side to protect the grapes from the strength of the afternoon sun. Grapes love to wake up feeling the sun, which warms them up after a cool night and dries any morning mist, so they can continue to grow healthy and mold-free. But on summer afternoons, the sun can get too strong even in this cool part of Campania. To prevent the grapes from getting burnt and prematurely dry, vineyards workers leave more foliage on the West-facing side of the vineyard. That way, the grapes stay warm, but enjoy the protective shade of the leaves, ripening without getting burnt.

The grapes look so healthy, colorful and prefect that I want to touch them with my bare hands. But at the sight of the first spider, with legs almost a half an inch long, I am grateful for the gloves and decide to keep them on. Down the row of vines we go, occasionally exchanging a couple of words, but mostly working in silence, letting our brains relax and enjoy the rhythm of the work and the beautiful sunny day.

We are enjoying the work so much, we barely notice that almost two hours have gone by and it’s time for lunch. We see the vineyard workers walk up the rows, cheerily chatting with each other on their way to lunch and a little break before the harvest continues at two. Even though it’s Sunday, they work all day because the grapes are ready and there is never any telling when the weather will turn again and the sun be replaced by the dark clouds that bring rain from the West.

The grapes that thrive in Irpinia are some of the last ones to be harvested in all of Italy. Even the whites, Fiano and Greco, are usually not harvested until mid-October and the harvest for Aglianico often stretches into late November. Most people think of Campania as warm and sunny, after all it is in the South of Italy. But this part of Campania is one of the coldest pieces of Italy; the elevation of the vineyards is between 450 and 700 meters and every winter brings a blanket of snow. But it is this cool air and the elevation of the hills that give the grapes their uniqueness. They ripen slowly: the cool night air helps preserve the acidity and the East and West exposure of most vineyards enables the grapes to get enough sunshine even in lesser years.

This part of Campania is the meeting place of the best conditions for high-quality wine: prefect exposure, cool air, plenty of sunshine, and well-drained soils often rich in minerals. And nature here rewards those who know how to be patient. Since the grapes ripen late, it is necessary to wait for the harvest and not lose courage at the first sight of rain. As wine-maker after wine-maker points out, the biggest issue in this area is not rain, the fact that many harvest the grapes too early, when they are not completely mature even though the sugar may have reached the minimum required level. Even if the rains come, waiting for the grapes to dry and fully mature is important and ensures that the wines can be of high quality. Wine-making in Irpinia is a high-risk trade, but those who have the courage to wait and give the grapes a chance to fully mature reap great benefits: wines of great personality and character, wines that tell the story of a unique region.

When I return to the vineyard after lunch, I immediately understand the exposure issue. I am still on the same hill, just a row or two away from where I was in the morning but the fall sun no longer has an arc high enough to reach the grapes. The air is still warm, but the sun is starting to make its way down the horizon and the cool breeze coming down the rows caresses the grapes, cooling them down. During the summer, the grapes bask in the sun until later in the afternoon, the warm temperature and sunlight building up the level of sugar. As the days get shorter and cooler, the increase in the level of sugar slows down, but the grapes continue to ripen and develop flavor, the skins becoming less bitter and astringent and the flavor components reaching their peak.

Pretty soon it starts to turn cool and the air is filled with the beautiful fall light and the smell of burning fires. We make our way through the last couple of rows of Fiano, working a little more slowly now. We are starting to feel tired, but the excitement about finally being able to harvest is undiminished. The Pepe wines of the 2010 vintage will be special for us.

That evening, as we sip some of Milena’s wines with our home-made pasta dinner, we have a new appreciation for them. Experiencing first-hand part of the process of making wine gives us new appreciation for the effort and energy that go into producing every single bottle. From the worry about rain and fog to the sleepless night during alcoholic fermentation to the constant care and tasting to make sure the wines are aging properly once they are in barrel, the work of a wine-maker is never done. Each year brings different joys and challenges, and if the wine-maker works well, each vintage tells the story of that year: the sun, the winds, the rain, all the elements that shape life of the grapes, and the story of the area, including the wine-making traditions.

In Irpinia, wine-making goes back centuries, but only now is the world starting to discover this corner of Campania and the great range of wines it produces. And at the end of my first day of harvesting grapes, I know I can never grow tired of exploring the wines of this area and learning to understand the stories they tell.

For more information on Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, their wines, and how you can experience the grape and olive harvests, go to www.tenutapepe.it.

Viktorija teaches Italian cooking and wine courses in Chicago and enjoys travel and learning about food and wine. Her first book, The Puglian Cookbook: Bringing the Flavors of Puglia Home, will be published by Surrey Books in April 2011. In the fall of 2010, Viktorija spent three weeks in Basilicata and Campania, learning about the wines of these regions. You can also find Viktorija at My Wine Smarts and Oliva Cooking.

© Viktorija Todorovska, 2011

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