Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hangin' with the Wine and Cheese Crowd

Albertino and Enzo harvesting Aglianico

 This morning Fernando came by and led us out to a place where we could hang out with the wine and cheese crowd.  No, not the crowd from my alma mater whom a Florida State basketball player famously made fun of.  You know, the ones who sit in their half-million dollar Barcaloungers down near the basketball court at the Smith Center in a stupor, occasionally offering some tepid applause to the home team and perhaps "Oh, très amusement!" and then disappear into the Skipper Bowles room for their wine and cheese.

   The crowd we hung out with, some two-footed some four, are the crowd who produce the wine and cheese rather than consume it.  Our padroni Fabio and Fernando had arranged for us to visit the Polito wine fattoria, owned by Carlo Polito Senior, and up the slope from the buffalo dairy owned by his brother Enzo.

     One of our main goals in coming here to Italy this year was to be here for the vintage and the olive harvest.  In fact, when we first proposed the trip, Fernando had talked to Fabio to ascertain when the vintage was likely to start so we could co-ordinate our visit.  But last week we learned some sad news.  Our hosts, Rolando and Filomena Astone, will not be harvesting grapes this year.  Sadly, both our hosts are reaching an age where they need help around the farm, and two years ago they had hired someone to prune the vines during the dormant season and the guy had made a complete mess of it.  But that was two years ago, right?  Wrong.

     Grape vines are incredibly adaptable, but in their natural habitat they will vine and vine, creating luxurious foliage and only a relatively few clusters of berries which will be extremely sour.  Birds and animals which the vines use to spread their seeds are satisfied with much less sugar than humans.  But at some point in the prehistory of wine, humans discovered that if the vine was pruned back severely during its dormancy, the following growth season it will produce much less greenery but far more clusters to compensate, and these will be of a vastly superior sort.  The Greeks had a myth which purports to show why goats were sacrificed to Dionysus, god of the vine and wine.  It says that goats broke into the god's favorite vineyard and chowed down on the tender foliage, so he took them as his sacrificial animal as punishment for their impudence.  In my book I try to make a case that the myth may have it backwards and that this is in fact a signal honor.  Is it too farfetched to imagine that some bright spark in some prehistoric vineyard found goats nibbling on his vines, severely pruning them back, and after chasing them away thought, "Well, those vines are goners!" only to discover the miracle of pruning the next year?

     There's a similar story in the New Testament where John talks of God pruning back our lives to make us more productive as well.  I've heard that one incorrectly preached three times in my career as a Methodist, but any first-century Judaean would have known exactly what the text means.  But the thing is, this year's non-fruiting shoots (the green ones) becomes next year's woody canes, which in turn give rise the following year to the fruiting shoots.  So if you prune the wrong things, you can screw things up for two years running.  And that's exactly what happened to the Astones.  That, plus the weather was miserable this summer.  To make a long story short, there were not enough decent clusters in their vineyard to justify harvesting, so Thursday of last week they drove Cousin Nino's van over to a local town and loaded up with 400 kilos (that's 880 pounds) of grapes:  red Barbera, one of the noble varieties of Piemonte, and Sangiovese, the red grape of Tuscan Chianti, as well as white Malvasia, the workhorse white grape of the Mezzogiorno.  And Nino and Rolando are vinifying these grapes now.

    So, of course, we were bitterly disappointed, because we really wanted to participate, to the extent out age and stamina will allow, in the harvest.  But, not to worry, Signore Carlo Polito is an old schoolmate and chum of Fernando and he kindly offered to let come to his vineyard and 'help' with the harvest of Aglianico and then come down to the winery and watch the crush.

    Viticolturi Polito is located on a lower slope of the Colle San Marco, the same ridge where we live.  It's a strange sort of ridge that curves around in a U-shape, and we live on the right upright of the U, Ogliastro, where our friends Nunzio, Teresa, Andrea and Maria Teresa live, is on the other upright, and the vineyard is on the curve at the bottom.  We headed down to the valley, through Agropoli and out the Paestum highway to the neighborhood of Mattine where we found a large, modern winery.  Carlo Polito arrived about 8:30 am in a large cargo van with the company logo on the side and greeted us all cordially.  Fernando had business in the town of Campagna, so he said his goodbyes and we two piled into the front seat of the van and Carlo drove us up a long lane past his brother's dairy operation and into one of several vineyards that Polito owns.  As we ambled down an access lane, Carlo explained that they focused on Fiano and Aglianico, the two star grapes of this area.  Fiano is a wonderful white grape, and most whites have been harvested and vinified already, but Carlo explained that typically red grapes like Aglianico are harvested in October around here.  But because of the torrid weather this summer and because he likes to harvest when acid levels are still high, he was starting the harvest now.

Polito winery, with showrooms on the ground floor, a new B&B on top

Carlo Polito Sr. demonstrates shearing

Beautiful clusters of Aglianico

Trying my hand

Sandy's efforts

    Carlo fitted us out with gloves and shears and walked us down a row of vines laden with those beautiful purple grapes and demonstrated how we should clip the clusters and examine them for defective grapes and snip these out.  The French name for the process is triage, just like in the ER room, and it's a process that is labor-intensive and therefore expensive and only done for better quality wines.  Mechanical harvesters are faster and far cheaper, but of course they dump all grapes into the bin, the excellent as well as the execrable, and therefore you can never hope to achieve more than a mediocre wine with such grapes.  Even the most talented winemaker in the world will readily admit that 90% of great wine is made, not in the winery, but in the vineyard.  Polito is one of those southern vineyards I admire so much because they're focused on quality and not quantity at a time when the international market is still blind and frankly more than a little bigoted toward the incredible wines that are being produced in Italy.  Carlo Senior or Junior, if you happen to see this, keep the faith; some of us are noticing.

     The eastern and northern sides of the vineyard, that is, the upslope sides, were encircled with plastic netting and Carlo explained that here, as at Alois, wild boars are a serious problem.  So why only two sides?  Because the boars come down from the uplands at night, try to get through the netting, become frustrated and leave.  It seems boars are none to smart.  He left us to our devices and explained that he was off to Palinuro, about an hour and a half south, where he was sourcing grapes from a retired doctor who grew organically, what they call around these parts biologico.  But that we could harvest as long as we wanted, then mosey down to the dairy where he had told brother Enzo to expect us, and then over to the cantina where son Carlo Junior would show us around the winery.

     Our mates in the vineyard were four young men who appeared to be in their mid 20s, two of whom, Albertino and another Enzo, directed us to the outermost row on the eastern side, I expect because that is where the awful summer heat had produced the worst grapes and we could therefore do the least harm.  Albertino explained that they typically picked 8 hours a day, but only mornings and late evenings to avoid the intense heat that can cause the grape juice, must, to ferment explosively before it is cooled and thereby strip the wine of its subtle flavors and aromas.  So, why not at night, as do some vineyards in California?  Because dews are also bad for grapes; a grape can absorb as much as 10% of its weight through skins, thus diluting those same desirable components.

   Sandy and I set to work with a will, and I can testify that the ragazzi are underpaid at any price; this is backbreaking work, one reason so much of it is done by migrants here as in the states.  Massimo tells me that at Alois, most of his pickers are from eastern Ukraine, of all places.  We made it for almost an hour, Sandy somewhat less than that, but in her defense she was also tasked with photographing the process.  In that hour we managed to harvest perhaps 30 meters of one row.  Meanwhile, the ragazzi were halfway up the row, maybe 90 meters or so, and it was a pleasure to watch them work, so fast and skilled were they at stripping those vines clean while precisely culling bad grapes.

     We made a circuit of the vineyard, admiring the perfect northerly prospect, the slope, and the tilth of the soil.  Then we strolled down to the dairy and introduced ourselves to various constituents there.  First there were the little buffalo calves, curious and a bit shy with strangers as all youngsters are.  Carlo later explained that each would be evaluated for quality and those who made the cut duly noted in the 'herd book' along with names of dams and sires.  Each was tagged on one ear to make this easy enough.  The rest would be sold or slaughtered for meat.  Next to the calves were two bulls, larger than the females but hardly as massive as bulls of the bovine sort and a lot more docile.  Opposite these were the young ladies from 2 to 3 years old, what in cow land would be called 'heifers', who had not yet been 'covered', as the dairymen say; in other words they had not yet been bred and so had not calved and begun producing milk, but were almost ready.

The Mattine vineyard, with Monte Soprano in the distance
Curious buffalo bambini

Enzo Polito's bufale

    In a separate range of stalls we found the real stars, the bufale, mature milkers.  Like most buffaloes they were quiet and curious, gathering near the fence to nuzzle our hands and occasionally allowing a brief pet.  Water buffaloes can look a bit intimidating, what with those massive, spiraling horns, but in fact they have wonderful, placid temperaments and can actually develop close attachments to human handlers.  Buffaloes need shade and/or wallows and/or spraying to maintain optimal body temperatures, and these gals were enjoying a nice shaded barn and some hay, but would be put out to wallow in the afternoon before being brought back to be milked at 5 pm.  We hope to return to see that another day.

    We walked on over to the winery and introduced ourselves to Carlo Junior, as genial and intelligent as his padre, who led us down to the basement cantina and showed us around the massive, refrigerated fermentation vats, the stainless aging tanks, the French, American and Austrian oak tonnes (500 liters) and barriques (250 l.) where the top-end reds are aged, and the huge Italian botti holding 1600 liters.  We were happy to see that these were actually made right here in Agropoli, so cooperage is alive and well in our area.  Carlo explained that the best reds spent from 12 to 18 months in the smaller wooden casks to pick up 'oaky' flavors, especially vanillins, and to ever-so-slowly oxidize the tannins and polyphenols in big, powerful reds to tame the astringency of the tannins and round out all those wonderful aromas.  Then they go into the botti, whose thick walls permit very little oxidation and evaporation.  Here they stay for about a year before being bottled and aged in bottle for another year.  Polito's best reds are released only after 3 1/2 years, adding significantly to quality but also to cost of production; cellar space is capital, and capital is money.

Entrance to the winery

Stainless vats in the cantina

Italian botti

Made in Agropoli

Cases of Aglianico ready for labeling

     Carlo took us around to the large exterior door of the cantina where a paved ramp gives access to trucks from the vineyard.  He showed us the de-stemmer and press and explained that a load was about to be de-stemmed, but would go directly into tanks to be chilled at 0° C and kept on the skins for several days to extract color, aroma and flavor from them before the marc or pomace was pressed.  The winery workers cranked up the de-stemmer, basically a hopper which feeds a spinning drum with holes in it.  The clusters are put into the hopper and an augur feeds them into the drum, where centrifugal force pulls the grapes through the holes but won't accept the stems, which are spat out the front on the cylinder into grape crates to be composted and used as fertilizer in the vineyard.  At the same time, most of the grape skins are gently broken, releasing must. A sump in the bottom of the de-stemmer is connected by a hose to a pump which can deliver the must to maceration or fermentation vats or to the press in the case of white wines.  It was a pretty amazing operation:  1,500 kg of grapes—that's 3,300 lb. for those of you who don't do metric— were off-loaded from a truck, de-stemmed, and pumped to the maceration vat in less than 18 minutes.  Carlo said that the same process in the old days would have required 5 days, perhaps an exaggeration, but probably not much.

Inside the de-stemmer

Grape stems to be used as fertilizer

     Carlo explained that his dad would be returning soon and that the next load would be pressed about 4:30 pm, so we took the opportunity to drive about a half mile away where Enzo has his caseificio, cheese-making operation.  Our first year in Agropoli I had visited here in the middle of the night to watch mozzarella being made, and thus had reason to know that Enzo Polito and his sons Nicola and Francesco are every bit as obsessed with quality as their uncle and cousin.  We scored some bocconcini, and a bottle of Polito's best rosato, Prime Rose, not 'prime rose' as you may be thinking but  'Pree-meh Roh-seh', 'first roses'.  Next we dropped by a neighboring bar for caffè and a chance to collect our thoughts, then headed back to the winery to scope out the last major step in the process, the crush.

     When we arrived, grapes were being offloaded from a small cargo van from another local azienda to undergo the same treatment we had seen earlier.  Carlo Senior had now returned and explained that many of the smaller vineyards in the area cannot afford the expensive technology that Polito has, and so pay to have their grapes vinified and sometimes warehoused at Polito.  This was a small consignment, and within 20 minutes the operation was complete, the van had left and a small flatbed truck was backed up to the door of the winery and some 4600kg of Polito grapes were de-stemmed in the same fashion but in this case pumped to the membrane press behind it.  This press was different from the bladder press we saw at Alois.  Here we had a rotating cylinder housed in a rectangular vat open at the top, all of stainless steel.  On one side of the cylinder there were hundreds of small slits, perhaps an inch in length.  Grapes were pumped into the rear of this cylinder which was about 10" higher than the front, and as the cylinder rotated, the dead weight of the grapes crushed those not broken by the de-stemmer and released their must.  As the part of the cylinder with the slits rotated to the bottom, must poured through the slits into the vat and ran to a sump at its front from which the pump carried it by closed flexible pipes to refrigerated tanks.  Some 70% of all must can be extracted in this way, and is what is called 'free-run' must.  When this process is finished, a membrane on the side wall of the cylinder opposite the slits is inflated to squeeze the remaining marc to exude residual must.  Carlo Junior showed me a gauge which registered atmospheres of pressure, and, just as Alois, explained that they would never exceed 2 atmospheres and kept this 'press must' separate from the free-run as an inferior product with more tannin and less flavor.

The press

Must being expressed

Pomace ready to be pressed

The 'cap' on a huge botte ready to be 'punched down'

    Carlo Senior set a ladder against one of the huge botti, equipped us with a flashlight, and directed us to the top of the cask, where an open hatch revealed a large mass of grape skins.  This is the part of the process vintners call 'punching down', and simply means that when skins float to the top of the must they must be mechanically pushed back into the must so that those precious colors, polyphenols and flavor components can be further extracted.  That's one of the things that makes great red wines great!

     The Politos were nice enough to gift us with a bottle of one of those great wines, a Corsaro Aglianico DOP, vinified at 16°C and aged in barrique for 12 months.  We offered profuse thanks for these gracious gentlemen who had been so generous with their time and expertise at a phase of the winemaking process when they could least afford it.  Then we hopped in little Azura and made our way back to Villa Astone, tired but happy little pups.  And someday soon, when we're with special friends, we'll pop the cork on that Corsaro and drink a toast to Polito for their kindness.

Carlo Polito Jr.

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