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Making "Rosso" with the Canalis

Gail Spilsbury

The wine process of a small winery, Canalis, in Lazio during their October Fest.

Getting Started

In the Sabina countryside just outside Rome, where medieval towns cap rocky hilltops, family farming follows the same traditions as centuries ago. Farms pass on to sons and daughters who tend the olive groves, grape arbors, and fields of hay and grain. Machinery and standard of living have improved, but the way of life, with seasonal work and family unity, continues as before.

Autumn wine-making is one of those ancient traditions every farmstead carries out in early October. I was fortunate enough to participate in the process at the home of Vincenzo and Secondina Canali, in Casperia. This stone hilltown covers its mountaintop like a sculpted helmet, or royal crown. Valleys surround the town on four sides, with small family farms carving up the undulating land. Ubiquitous olive trees stud the patchwork.

Closer to Rome, this scenic landscape has been transformed into bedroom communities for the city, but here in Casperia, the land remains in family hands, the same families who have tilled the soil for hundreds of years. Their younger members intermarry and add properties to the family holdings. Additional groves or fields can end up a few kilometers from the main household. Often family lands contain a "rudere" or two—ruined cottages of ancestors, with living quarters on the second story and stalls and cantinas on the ground level. Where a house has been maintained over the decades and centuries, as in the case of Vincenzo and Secondina’s home, additions accumulate, such as new cantinas, sheds, and stalls — simple structures to accommodate expansion.

It’s the current generation of thirty-somethings, and younger, who are less likely to pursue the farming of their forefathers. The next twenty years may change the Sabina landscape, as parcels of family land get sold to Roman weekenders and retired foreigners. Already many British, Dutch, and American citizens have settled permanently in the area.

For the moment, though, producing the annual wine supply at Vincenzo and Secondina’s house is much the same as it has always been for the independent Sabina farmer. “It used to be work,” Secondina tells me, “but now it’s amusement,” for the farm has machinery to crush the grapes, though the grapes are still picked by hand. There’s also a pump to transfer the wine from one container to another during the fermentation stages. But the rest, as I witness, is still physical labor: rinsing and moving chestnut barrels, moving plastic bins of crushed grapes or red liquid from one room to another, scrubbing and hosing out numerous containers for reuse, and operating the pump and the antique press.

We get started around 6:30 at night, after regular chores are done. The wine has been fermenting in two gigantic vats, one chestnut and one plastic, for about a week. The heady-smelling wine cellars are on the lower level of the house with a roofed courtyard that has running water and a sink. Here, two large barrels lie on their sides across two-by-fours that serve as tracks to vigorously rock the barrels when partially filled with water, so that the sloshing motion cleans out the wine residue from the previous year. A hole in the side of the barrel lets all the water run out. Vincenzo watches the color of the exiting water; after three rinses, no more red remains. In the dim overhead light, I can’t fathom how he detected “red” in the first two washes.

Cleaning out the wine residue

Pouring and Pressing the Red

The barrels get rolled into the wine room where we lift them onto wooden platforms, still resting on their sides. Vincenzo attaches a sulfur tablet to a bent hanger, lights it, and lowers it into the barrels, covering the holes with corks. The smoke the tablet produces kills any microbes left inside. The cellar is L-shaped with platforms along the walls for the old chestnut barrels and the newer stainless steel containers. The family’s white wine is already stored away for its first fermentation period. Red is the more important product. I get up on the platform and peer into the giant vat we are about to drain off, as it has fermented that week and is ready to load into the barrels. I see a surface that looks like crushed cranberries but smells like a wine bar. Vincenzo is up on the other side of the rack, already scooping out with his hands two inches of the wine-relish. “Per l’aceto,” he says, “for vinegar.” The top layer has been exposed to air, so can’t be used. Out in the courtyard stand tall bins with all the liquid and crushed wine-waste that will turn into the year’s supply of red wine vinegar.

Now we are ready to let the wine out of the giant vat. Secondina places an antique copper cauldron under the plug at the vat’s base. Vincenzo puts a large nugget of iron into the cauldron to counterbalance the chemical reaction of wine and copper, though he tells me this may be mere superstition passed down through the generations. Then he pulls the plug, and as the blood-red wine gushes out, he works quickly to screw in a faucet to control the flow. While the cauldron fills, we ready the pump. One of its tubes goes into the copper cauldron of wine and the other into the empty, disinfected barrel. However, Vincenzo discards the first few liters of wine “because the tube may contain old wine residue,” he says. Not all farmers adhere to the amount of all the washing and rewashing of containers and equipment, the fastidious elimination of old residues, and the several stages of fermentation that the Canalis’ do.

Wine Barrel

We get the vats emptied into barrels, where the wine will ferment for a month. Then it will be transferred out again, so that these containers can be rinsed of residue before the wine is returned to them for a final fermentation period of at least four months. Vincenzo tells me that the wine can age indefinitely after that and still be good to drink. I ask him what wine means to the farming family, and he nods knowingly. “Wine is important, like bread. If we don’t have wine, homemade bread, and olive oil on the table, then it isn’t complete. These are the primary things, the most important materials to our sustenance.”

Pressing the Juicy Skins

Our work continues the next morning. Vincenzo climbs into the giant wood vat, wearing clean rubber boots, and scoops out the remaining grape grinds that fill about eight tall bins, but not to the brim or we wouldn’t be able to lift them to the press in the next room. Secondina and I tip the huge plastic vat so Vincenzo can reach in and scoop out its grape refuse, which fills another four bins. Then begins the press work. The Canalis use an old olive press passed down from their ancestors. Below it stands a slatted wood barrel with a top. As the press lowers on the barrel filled with juicy grape skins, wine gushes out from a nozzle at the bottom of the barrel, filling a stainless steel pan that Secondina repeatedly empties into a clean bin. A second basin catches the running wine when she empties the pan, so that no wine is ever lost. The iron press operates on a thick, threaded screw that Vincenzo turns using handles. When he can no longer muscle the wheel around, he takes a long pole — a sapling tree trunk — and inserts it into a hole that allows him to continue turning the press’s central screw, driving the iron plate down against the grapes in the barrel. At first, it’s simple to push the pole, but eventually it too becomes impossible to move — the wine juice has been squeezed out — only semi-moist skins remain inside the slatted barrel. “These can still be used to make grappa,” Vincenzo tells me, “but we toss them in the fields for the birds.”

Cleaning out the wine residue

This last juice pressed from skins gets added to the chestnut barrels to ferment until the next stage. Out of about 3,000 kilos of red grapes (6,700 lbs), the Canalis will have a supply of 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of rosso. With the wine safely fermenting in barrels, one more labor for the winter, for the year, for the household is finished. Grain seeding comes next, then the slaughter of pigs and calves to store the meat. The months of olive harvesting follow, and the Canalis’ extra virgin oil is organic. In late winter, the olive trees are pruned and the cuttings burned. There is no mulching done on these small farms where tradition reigns along with an unwillingness to spend a euro when a job can be handled for free. Throughout the year, “orto” (the kitchen garden) produces lettuce and winter and summer vegetables. When I asked Vincenzo what of all farm work he enjoyed most, he replied, “Orto ... and the olive harvest.” Even so, the hands-on production of wine, with its heady fumes and importance to human, is an annual ritual few farmers would forsake.

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Gail Spilsbury is the author of two books, Rock Creek Park (Johns Hopkins University Press 2002) and The Washington Sketchbook (Library of Congress, in press) and has lived in Italy on and off for seven years. Gail works with Mangiare Bene, cooking classes and tours in the Sabina Hills.

© Gail Spilsbury, 2008

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