What’s in a bottle of wine? Go grape picking to find out

My expat life in Istria takes me grape picking. In mid-September picking teams start to pop up in the Istrian vineyards, roads clog with tractors trailing mounds of grapes – and I get a phone call late one afternoon. It’s Marija: “Mico says, would you like to go grape picking tomorrow?” I’ve never been and, loving wine, have always wanted to know more, so of course I said yes.

Start by getting lost

Looking for the grape pickers in IstriaTo make the most of the cool of the morning, the proper pickers started work at 7:30 am. Luckily Marija had been told the vineyard was easy to find, so we decided to join them at a far more civilized 8:30 and managed to spend our first half hour getting lost!

After several false starts, phone calls and much debate, we finally found our way. Driving down ever smaller roads, we turned off tarmac onto a gravel track through the woods: this became a dirt path and finally a grass strip through a sea of vines. “I think we’ve found our vineyard,” said Marija, as we eventually came across a group of pickers. So much for it being easy to find!

There were about ten pickers – Mico’s family and friends – harvesting about thirty rows of vines, with a tractor and trailer parked at each side.


Let the lesson begin

Pickers picking grapes in IstriaSun-hat on head, secateurs in hand, I picked up a bucket. “Hello Matulini,” Mico greeted me, ushering me into his row – he was keeping the novice under strict supervision.

Today, we were picking black cabernet sauvignon grapes for red wine, about two tonnes of them: enough for around 1200 litres of wine. Or, as Mico said, “Enough to have a glass a day for the next four years.” Put another way, enough to keep his restaurant (Konoba Kaštel) supplied with red wine next year.

Harvesting is a social business: everyone works fairly close together; chatter and laughter flow over the vineyard. I quickly learned the approved technique and etiquette. Working with your ‘row team’ and starting from the middle of the row, you work back towards the end, clipping off the ripe bunches of grapes with your secateurs and carefully putting them in your bucket. When you’ve picked your section, you move about a metre ahead of someone else and start picking again. When your bucket’s full, you empty it into the trailer.

a classic bunch of black grapesPicking was fiddly work. Grapes often don’t have the decency to hang neatly from the vine, like you see in pictures: they twirl themselves around the vine and supports, so it was a challenge finding where to cut. It was also hard on the back. “Why,” I asked Mico, “don’t you train the vines to grow taller, so the grapes are higher and you don’t need to bend?” Mico wasn’t impressed with my innovation. Tradition is important to Istrians: this is the height they’ve always been grown and always will be. “You need to be shorter,” he replied with a laugh. “I’ll bring a chair for you next year, so you can sit.”

Working on opposite sides of the vine row, I asked Marija about the vineyard. The land has been in Mico’s family since time immemorial and, as well as the black grapes we’re harvesting today, he also has a ‘white’ vineyard, which they picked a few days ago, as well as an olive grove. Together they meet all the konoba’s wine, olive oil and rakija needs.

Nicky harvesting grapesTo ensure the quality of the grapes, Mico periodically ploughs up the old vines and plants new stock, moving the vineyard around, giving the land time to recover. The vineyard we were picking was planted about seven years ago: next to it is a fallow field, where the vines were thirty years ago.

“When would the wine be ready?” I asked, thinking of the long production times of French reds. “In early December,” replied Marija. “In Istria, whites and reds are usually ready about the same time. Teran (red) wines take longer, they’re not usually ready until May, but this cabernet sauvignon will be ready in December and at its best in January.” Great, I thought, not long to wait!


Like generations before

Nicky empties bucket of gapes into trailerToiling under the Istrian sun, as generations have done before, I might have been only a few kilometres from where I live, but I felt a long way from home and very distant from modern, every-day life. “Was I the first Brit ever to pick grapes on this isolated spot?” I mused. I was about to ask when Mico started telling us about the Thomson tour reps, who brought their British tourists grape picking thirty years ago. When it was too cold for the beaches and there was nothing else to do, they’d come for an hour or so, pick grapes, take photos and then have lunch in the konoba.

So I guess I wasn’t the first Brit. It also reminded me I needed some photos myself. “Where are you going?” asked Mico, as I left to get my camera. “Keep picking, there’ll be time for photos later.” He was a hard task master, but generous. “Eat, eat,” he urged, as we picked. And I did, eating black, deliciously sweet grapes, so refreshing in the sun.

Back and forth, up and down the rows we worked, in the ever-increasing heat. “How do they decide when to pick?” I asked, imagining some ancient rite. Wrong again: it’s all very scientific, with the picking date decided by microscope. As harvest time approaches, samples are taken regularly from different parts of the vineyard and analysed to ensure the sugar content is just right. This year, with its long hot summer, the grapes have ripened early and are being harvested about ten days earlier than last year, when the weather was cooler and wetter.


Will it be a good year?

Mico picking his grapes in Istria“Would this year’s wine be a good one?” I asked, positive our lovely summer must be reflected in a fantastic wine. This question provoked a lot of conversation, with the consensus being it would be a good year. But, then again, they all agreed, last year had also been good, with the grapes just a little less sweet, so not quite as alcoholic. This year, with the intense sun, the grapes are far sweeter. “But perhaps,” someone added, “they may be too sweet?” Which led to my next wine-making lesson.

If there is too much sugar in the grapes, the wine will become too alcoholic – not bad, just very strong – while if it is too low, it will be too weak (which is bad news). Wine normally has an alcoholic strength of around 13%. During fermentation it will usually rise to about 19%, before dropping back. If, however, it rises to 21% or higher, you’ve got a problem.

Might this happen if our grapes had got too sweet before they were harvested, I wondered? Mico was quick to reassure me I needn’t worry. “We can determine if this might happen by measuring the grapes’ sugar content before we start fermentation,” he said “and simply add some water. But it must be added at the start. If we wait until the problem occurs, it is too late.”

After all that chemistry, I had a far more practical question, “How do you keep the birds off the grapes?” This produced a laugh and another flurry of conversation. The general consensus was: Mico. It wasn’t that he was scary, he was just always there, tending his vines. “In the Med it’s acknowledged that vine tending is the hardest job,” explained Marija. “Olive trees look after themselves, but vines need constant attention – it’s tough, back-breaking work.”

Mico with tractor & trailer-load of grapes in IstriaShe didn’t need to tell me – so was picking! As the temperatures rose, we all got more and more tired and the conversation trailed off. By this stage, I’d learned another trick and positioned myself on the west side of the vine, so was picking in the shade.

Finally, at 12:30, the trailers were full, we were finished and it was time for lunch. Mico drove one of the tractors, his cousin the other and we all headed off in our cars.


Rewarded with lunch

Pickers eat lunch at Konoba Kastel in IstriaNona Marija and the rest of the konoba team were waiting to reward us with a fantastic lunch – light beef consommé, sprinkled with freshly grated pecorino romano cheese; local green peppers, stuffed with mince and rice in a tomato sauce; and pekar-cooked lamb and chicken. Of course, everything was delicious … and of course, I ate too much. But for once, I’d really earned a good lunch.

And what did we drink? Wine, of course, and this time, as it flowed from the jug, I knew exactly where it had come from and the hard work involved in harvesting it.

But the harvest was just one stage of many. After lunch, Marija and I left the grape pickers, who were off to continue with the next step in the process. Now the grapes had to be crushed … to get the magic of fermentation under way.


Was that the last I saw of the grapes I’d toiled to harvest? It wasn’t. I’ve revisited over the past weeks, following my grapes through their fermentation, tasting it as it went. Soon, so very soon, I look forward to tasting the first real bottle when the wine’s ready to hit the konoba tables.

First posted December 2011


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