Summer’s over and thoughts in the Maremma turn to vino without exception. The annual vendemmia, or grape harvest, is an all-encompassing state of mind. Even if you’re not a wine drinker, you’re swept up in the euphoria of the vendemmia. It’s a celebration that can be traced back to the first Etruscans who smuggled their grapes across the Mediterranean. In recent years, the locals have become even fiercer and more protective of the tradition in light of the siccità (drought) that has rendered winemaking all the more difficult in this part of the region.
For visitors, it’s a fantastic time to get in on the action and experience a slice of country Tuscany, whether that means picking the grapes or just savouring the fruits of someone else’s labour.
This year’s picking of Sauvignon grapes at Montauto
When does it take place?
The vendemmia in the Maremma is dictated by the weather, but usually runs from late September to late October or early November. A lot of vineyards will hand pick their grapes, preferring to wait for the different vitigni (grape varieties) to ripen over the course of a few months. Some very picky vineyards will actually work row by row, waiting for the slow poke bunches to ripen before picking them.
What is it?
Legend has it that vendemmia comes from the word vendémiaire, coined from an ancient language that was universally known in the Middle Ages. It was part of the French “revolutionary” calendar that called for men to down guns and pick up hoes for the grape harvest. Most Italians would throw their own mini revolution if you ever mentioned this legend though, insisting with their natural aversion to all things French that the word is simply an evolution of the Latin vinum (wine) and demia (from demere, to take).
How can I get involved in grape picking?
Believe it or not, but there are plenty of tourists who love the idea of rolling up their sleeves and helping with the harvest. Unfortunately, you can’t simply walk up to a vineyard and ask to help, especially if you don’t speak Italian. If you’re really keen, stay at an agriturismo with a winery and speak to the owner when booking. Bear into mind, it’s backbreaking and not particularly rewarding work, plus it requires some knowledge of grape maturity, since a few sour grapes can spoil a whole batch of wine.
What if I don’t feel like doing any heavy lifting?
Book a winery tour. While the vineyards are very busy this time of year, you can watch from the sidelines with a tasting. Fattoria La Maliosa in Saturnia and Vino Montauto, outside of Manciano, are smaller family-owned vineyards that organize regular winery tours. La Maliosa specializes in biodynamic and organic wines, while Vini Montauto is one of the few southern Tuscan vineyards to produce whites. For something a little bigger, check out Antinori’s architecturally evocative Le Mortelle estate in Castiglione della Pescaia or Terenzi’s self-described “wine resort” in Scansano.
What am I drinking?
Maremma’s hero is the Morellino di Scansano DOCG, which is made primarily with Sangiovese grapes. It’s a lot like your typical Chianti, if that Chianti wore a leather jacket and rode a motorbike. In other words, the average Morellino is not a drink for lightweights and everyone will tell you to have it with food because it will give first time drinkers one hell of a headache.
If you’re very lucky, you might come across some vino novello, so it always pays to ask. This new harvest wine is a rare sight in stores and is made by placing uncrushed grapes in sealed vats, which are then filled with carbon dioxide, forcing the fermentation process. The finished wine is rich in colour with a fresh fizzy flavour and intense fruity perfume.
It’s tradition to open a bottle of vino novello to celebrate San Martino on November 11, when the farmers end their work cycle for the year.
Can I party with the locals?
The annual vendemmia is not just about picking grapes and drinking new wine. It’s also a great time to catch one of the Maremma’s most beloved celebrations, the wine festival, which always involves at least one float parade for reasons unbeknown to this writer.
The highlight is Scansano’s Festa dell’Uva (September 28-30). Celebrating its 50th edition this year, the festival promises some extra special floats made by the different districts and presided by their own Miss Uva, a coveted title for any eligible young lady. The festival also features pop-up cellars, or cantine, each of which will be serving their own local wines and homemade dishes, usually bruschetta, a play on the Maremma’s favourite soup, acquacotta, and wild boar stew.
Nothing is particularly polished, and like all Maremman festivals, nothing will run to schedule, but it’s still a rare opportunity to relax alongside the locals as they unwind after a hard day’s grape picking with a glass of vino and folk song or two.