Carmen’s Corner: Autumn in Italy

Autumn is nice almost anywhere. However, if you are accustomed to the chilly, even frosty nights and rolling gray clouds of a fall day in the northern U.S. (or, for that matter, transalpine Europe), you may be puzzled to put a finger on when it actually begins in Italy. The season that shouts loudly for attention where people customarily talk in moderate tones comes on, in ebullient Italy, subtly. Leaves turn color, but no sugar maples wave phosphorescent orange banners; days grow cooler, but not by that much unless you’re in the mountains; fields are heavy with crops, but those American standbys of the season, apples and pumpkins, are curiously absent.

This is because autumn in Italy is about grapes: worrying about bringing them in today while ever so slightly unripe or waiting a day and risking their ruination by rain; hiring and/or cajoling laborers to pick fruit notoriously impervious to machine harvesting; futzing with farm equipment and arguing with middlemen. Behind the romance of a fine bottle of wine are a lot of headaches.

However, Italians will rarely let you know that. Even while standing in a field grinding away at a grape stem (you, an American, can vacation as a migrant farm worker in Italy, no union card required!), the sun beating down on your head, blisters forming at the base of your thumb, you will be surrounded by good cheer. Grapes take pride of place in Italian agriculture, above wheat, tomatoes, even olives, for each grape represents a tiny moment of alcoholic bliss wrapped up in a tough little skin.

If you would rather leave the harvesting to others, you can attend a wine festival in Italy. The origin of these, the equivalent of the transalpine Oktoberfest, is obscure. Some writers insist that the celebrations are as old as the harvest itself; they are the bacchanilia portrayed in all their crazy debauchery on the sides of ancient vases. In their modern incarnation, wine festivals date only to the 20th century, when Italy was rebuilding its viniculture reputation against the French wine juggernaut.

The most delightful thing about festivals in Italy is that they are put on with an Italian attention to minutiae of appearance and pride in a glorious past. Yes, big wine festivals, at their heart, are county agricultural fairs, celebrating a local product that just happens to have been grown for 2500 years in the same place. Instead of Corn or Apple Queens, tractor pulls, pie-judging contests, and funnel cakes there are young men and women flounced out in gorgeous Renaissance garb, folk dancing, and porchetta. (To be honest, there are also garage bands.) Instead of Grandma Moses, it’s da Vinci.

There are wine festivals wherever wine is grown in Italy (i.e., almost everywhere) in September and October. However, Tuscany is a particularly fertile area to visit because of its experience arranging things smoothly for strangers. Among the biggest festivals are those in Imprenuta (advertised as the oldest but still less than 100 years old) and Scansano, both held this year the last weekend in September, as well as smaller festivals held earlier in September in Manciano, Montefioralle, and Panzano, among others.

And not to worry that you missed this year’s wine season. Truffles are on their way!