SEPTEMBER IN TUSCANY & the Untold Secrets of the Harvest Frenzy

September is my favorite month in Tuscany. Stunning weather, perfect for long days at the beach or series of Cappuccinos or Prosecchi on medieval Piazzas. And all of it with much fewer tourists than in overcrowded August. The only downside is that you'll have to sip your aperitivo on your own. At least if most of your friends turn out to be Tuscan winemakers...

Let's get this right: EVERYBODY wants to be friends with Tuscan winemakers. Whenever we invite them over for dinner we're sure to drink some of Tuscany's finest. And the occasional times we throw a party, the least worry is the booze. After the pre-Christmas party we've organised last December, we happily discovered several cases of 'left-over' wine; most of it wonderful Tuscan reds (Sangiovese on its own or blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), the occasional bottle of white (mostly Vermentino or Sauvignon blanc) and the rather rare but oh so delicious Tuscan rosé strewn in. What a memory - it took us nearly three months to drink through the whole lot. Sorry, what did you say?

However the one time you don't want to be friends with Tuscan winemakers is September. Want to invite somebody over for dinner or trying to organise your daughter's birthday party? Forget it. NOBODY around here has time to attend a birthday party in September. People are out in the vineyards harvesting; starting in late August or early September with the white wine varieties and then moving over to the reds. Merlot and other fancy foreign varieties first and last but not least the good old Sangiovese. It's the time of the year where conversations in Tuscan bars turn into an endless loop around two topics: how are your grapes? and what's the weather forecast like? And occasionaly somebody will complain about a backache - a fair price to pay for anybody daring to cut off Bacchus' children.

On some September days winemakers are not harvesting. Instead they talk to their grapes. They monitor them, they taste them (I once attended a full-day seminar on grape tasting - incredible stuff), they send them off to fancy high-tech laboratories, and yes they talk to them. How else are you supposed to know whether the variety from that particular vineyard is ready to go or not? Cut off a bunch of grapes who still wanted to enjoy the September sun for a few more days and you'll taste their revanche once they're out of the stainless steel vat. So yes, you want to know BEFOREHAND whether they'd kindly up their sugar levels if allowed to hang around for another day or two.

With this year's incredibly hot September sun winemakers around here all look as if they are playing endless rounds of Russian Roulette. Leave your grapes on a day too long and your liquid Tuscan gold is going to taste like Straw wine. Cut them too early or too late and you'll find yourself with a totally different wine because of the lack of sugar in the grapes (which is essential for fermentation and alcohol content).

Now, what all of this comes down to is that my children never get a birthday party. My son is born in mid August, close to dreaded FERRAGOSTO, when everybody right in their heads leaves the country (us included), whereas our daughter is born in September when everybody is around but nobody has time. Planning far in advance isn't one of my main strengths, but I do feel quite smug about the timing of my children's births. Or does anybody really enjoy never-ending kiddie birthdays in too small, too loud and over-heated rooms?

Feel tempted to call Telefono Azzurro (Italy's children's help line)? Don't worry, my kids don't get fancy birthday parties but at least they are allowed to go to school - something my parents-in-law could only dream of during harvest time.

For an insider's view on how things are going with the 2011 harvest in Montalcino, check out Il Palazzone's blog post: Fingers crossed: HARVEST 2011.
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