Thursday, October 6, 2016

Home Brew

Rolando and Nino unload grapes

      Earlier I mentioned that the Astones were not harvesting this year but rather had bought a large consignment of grapes with which to make their own wine.  But it seems we’re a bit jinxed this year; last Saturday we decided to head out for some exploration and didn’t return until fairly late.  The next day we saw a huge plastic tub out on the terrazza and assumed it was being cleaned in preparation for the vintage.  Nope.  It seems that Rolando is extremely particular about his regimen, and soon after we left, the must fermenting in this vat had reached the right temperature and alcohol level, and the press had proceeded.  Without the two rookies that so much wanted to see it.

But, not to worry, Rolando’s bothers, Francesco and Vincenzo, would be racking their wine Monday afternoon, and a quick phone call had us all set up to go see the process at Francesco’s house down in Agropoli.  Monday promptly at 2:30, Nino, Filomena’s brother and a dear friend, knocked on the door and we all climbed into his van and off we went to Francesco’s.  Francesco lives in an apartment complex off the Via Gaspare, on the outskirts of the town.  We exited the van and found the two brothers sitting out under a pergola in a beautiful vegetable garden.  So typical of Italians; Americans apparently think that Italians eat massive bowls of pasta and meatballs, heaped with cheese, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Most Italians over the age of 30 will gladly forgo meat for weeks on end and rarely eat pasta as a main course, but, take away their fresh fruits and vegetables, and you may have a riot on your hands.  Again and again we have seen where an Italian friend will have a small plot of land where they lovingly nurse the plethora of vegetables that love this climate so much.  Or, barring that, they will have a nonno or tio or cugino somewhere in the country who keeps them supplied with the good stuff.

Rolando's crusher/de-stemmer

Francesco's fermentation tub

Pumping the must to the aging vat

The 100 gal. stainless aging vat

     Francesco led us into the ground floor of his house, a nice workroom with tiled floors and a work counter complete with sink.  Propped up on grape crates was the same sort of tub that Rolando had, some 4’ in diamter and about as deep.  It was covered by a large tablecloth, tied tightly on both sides to keep out the fruit flies, and when we uncovered it, the smell was delicious.  Floating at the top was a large cap of grapeskins, and Francesco explained that he had crushed 550 kg of grapes of the cultivars Barbera and San Giovese.  Since these were the same grapes that Rolando had used, I suspect the brothers all went in together.  The part of the process we did not see was the crush, but Rolando had showed us the hand-cranked crusher/de-stemmer, in this case a hopper which fed grapes down between two rollers operated by a crank, rollers which allowed the crushed grapes to fall through slots at the bottom into the fermentation tub but spat the stems out the front.

    In the corner of Francesco’s cantina was a large, footed, stainless-steel vat which held 400 liters of liquid.  Francesco brought out a small, perhaps one horsepower pump with couplings for an inlet and outlet hose.  Nino hooked up a length of clear plastic hose to the pump’s inlet.  At the other end was a cylindrical screened receptacle to admit must but filter out grape solids.  This end was placed in a a large plastic tub beneath a spigot at the bottom of the fermentation vat.  Meanwhile, Vincenzo hooked up a 15’ length of what looked like garden hose to the outlet, while Francesco placed the other end in the stainless aging vat.  Thus, the must was to pour through the spigot into the plastic tub, the screened housing in the bottom of the tub would exclude the solids but suck up the must and the pump would send it by way of the outlet hose to the aging vat.

    But, as is usual in such operations, there were some glitches.  Most of the grape solids were cooperating by floating on the top of the must, as any good ‘cap’ should, but there were recalcitrants down in the must which kept clogging up the spigot and the screen of the filter.  Eventually Nino brought out a long stick with three truncated branches on one end and ran this down the inside wall of the tub to unclog the spigot.  Meanwhile Vincenzo used his hand down in the must to wipe away solids from the filter screen, fairly effective for five minutes or so, but then the screen became so clogged that the process ground to a halt.  Eventually we used a good old pasta strainer to catch solids as they exited the spigot, and about 40 minutes later, most of the must had been decanted to the aging vat.  

Vincenzo and Francesco break down the basket press to clean it

Nino helps re-assemble it

Followers and chocks are on...

and the yoke is torqued down

Nino scoops the last of the solids

Press wine

At that point the guys rolled out a basket press mounted on casters and placed it next to the tub.  Most parts of this press can be removed, and though it looked spic and span to me, the guys broke it down to its constituents and carefully cleaned the must tray, the staves of the basket, the followers, and anything else which might come in contact with the wine constituents.  Then the press was re-assembled and Nino began scooping up solids with a plastic bucket and pouring them into the basket, while Francesco and Vincenzo distributed them evenly around the central screw.  Eventually the ‘press cake’ reached nearly to the top of the basket, and Nino and Vincenzo carefully fitted two semicircular boards, called ‘followers’ around opposite sides of the screw.  Chocks were stacked on top of the followers, tic-tac-toe style, and then a metal yoke was screwed down, a metal rod was inserted into a ratchet mechanism, and Nino gradually ratcheted down the yoke and followers to exert increasing pressure on the press cake.  Interstices between the staves of the basket allowed must to flow out and drain into a circular channel at the bottom of the basket, and a lip on one side directed the must into another plastic bucket under this lip.  As the bucket filled, Francesco placed a ceramic pitcher under the lip to catch must while Vincenzo poured the buckets into the stainless vat.  Francesco explained that, just as in industrial pressing, some 70% of must could be obtained simply by crushing the grapes and allowing them to exude under their own weight.  Nino torqued down the press cake till it was compressed by about 1/3 and then Francesco told him to stop.  He explained that any more would extract too much of the bitter tannic element in the seeds and skins.  We cranked up the yoke, removed the chocks and followers and loaded the rest of the solids into the basket, Nino in the last instance using a new plastic dust pan to scoop up the last of these.  Then the process was repeated.

    Francesco offered me a plastic cup of new wine, and I will attest that it was a bit on the sweetish side but was absolutely delicious.  Francesco tells me that he obtains about 350 liters from a consignment of grapes, enough to keep the two brothers and their families supplied for a year.  The wine will age in stainless steel until March and then will be bottled.

   There’s a certain amount of historical symmetry there; the Romans also bottled in March, in this case in terra cotta jugs called amphorae which held about 6 1/2 gallons of wine.  And they celebrated this ancient ‘Beaujolais Nouveaux’ with a religious festival in honor of Jupiter, not the god of wine, but the god of weather--with any luck at all, weather of a sort to allow these gentlemen’s ancient ancestors to produce an elixir as delicious and healthful as theirs.

Cleaned, sanitized, ready for next year

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