Let’s begin with a typical time-tested and effective procedure. The first step is to ensure we have the proper equipment. I use a state-of-the-art grape crusher complete with an old fridge motor, thereby rendering manual turning obsolete. It’s ear piercing loud, but heck, it beats the numbness in your arms. Then it’s on to the wine press, which in most families is passed down from generation to generation. Lastly, we need containers to store the wine in. Demijohns work, as do old glass water cooler bottles, which can still be found. Glass is the material used the most – never use plastic. Only dépanneur (supermarket) wines come in plastic bottles.
Now we can begin to make our wine. The ideal location is the garage, for the simple reason that we can raise the door a notch to let in some fresh air or push out the know-it-all Zio Giuseppe. We begin, well, at the beginning, with the buying of the grapes. I have a regular supplier with whom I have an understanding: he gives me good prices and I buy from him. Be careful not to buy grapes that “fell off the truck” because, well, they fell off the truck and the end result tastes like a cross between turpentine and vinegar. The choice of the types of grapes can be tricky, and it’s really hit or miss, unless you have Nonno’s recipe, which is the best in the world.
Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start crushing. Keep your shoes on because we have our electric crusher. I like to divide my three types of grapes equally in 10-litre plastic drums that I share with my in-laws and they share with their in-laws. These drums have to be thoroughly washed and cleaned or we get that funky aftertaste. Once the grapes are crushed and separated, the drums are covered, usually with the evening tablecloth, and the mixture is left to ferment or rise for a couple of days. The mixture will rise to the top leaving the liquid or mosto at the bottom. This liquid is siphoned into buckets and is later transferred, equally, into demijohns or old glass bottles.
Next comes the wine press. We begin this part early on a Sunday, break for a nice pasta lunch, and finish it off in the afternoon. After siphoning as much of the mosto as possible and gasping for air, we carefully ladle the mixture into the press, being careful not to drop any or face the wrath of the family members watching your every move.
Unfortunately, our wine press is not motorized and we have to do the cranking by hand. It’s a great muscle builder but forget about lifting anything for a week after. As the first bucketfuls of mixture are pressed, the juice begins to flow. That is added in equal parts to the demijohns and containers at hand. As the mixture is pressed, more is added until all of it is stuffed into the press. But we have to get every last drop, so the wine press is taken apart, the block of lees broken down, shaken up, and put back into the wine press the get one last gallon of juice.
The mosto is left to again ferment in the glass containers for several days, until the wine has stopped fermenting or “bubbling,” as we call it. Adding too much to the containers can result in the mosto overflowing, which is one heck of a mess to clean up, and let’s not forget, heaven forbid, the loss of wine. Once this process is complete and there is no hissing sound when you put your ear to the containers, they are transferred to a storage area or cantina. Every house built by an Italian has to have at the very least two cantinas: one for the canned produce, oils, homemade cheese and fresh meats, and the other for the homemade wine. After the final fermentation is complete, in my case usually 8 weeks, the wine is ready to be served. Some choose to bottle the wines directly while others leave it in the demijohns and siphon a bottle when needed.
At the end of it all, we have taken part in a cherished family custom that is a beloved Italian ritual. And our wine-stained hands serve as a reminder that the wine on our table is ours.
written by Luigi Palazzini