Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Lessons about 17th century Tuscan wine from a pretty drawing

"Landscape with Wine Harvest" by Pietro da Cortona,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently made available 400,000 of its works digitally. This was the most interesting drawing about wine I found, made by an Italian artist in the 17th century. We don't have an exact date, but Pietro Berrettini, known as Pietro da Cortona, died in 1669.

Cortona is in the center of Tuscany, and the landscape is recognizable even today. There are a few interesting points about the harvest.

1) Unfinished barrels are front and center, and it looks like the coopers are working on them right out in the fields.

2) That guy on the far right is struggling with a barrel. Is it full of grapes? Did they harvest directly into barrels, without crushing? Or maybe they transported the grapes back to the winery in the barrels. That doesn't seem easy, but ...

3) There's no transport system, which presumably would have been a horse and wagon. Artist's choice? Were the grapes simply going to be carted back all at once at the end of the day? Or were the workers going to carry them?

4) Look how the grapes are growing. Not only is there a pergola system, but some vines appear to be growing on the trees.

We're very romantic about winemaking tradition, but pause a moment to think what this wine might have tasted like. It's coming from one of the world's great winemaking regions. Those grapes might be Sangiovese, which was first described in Tuscany in 1600, and so would have good acidity. If the wine was picked directly into barrels, unpressed, it would be very light in color, and would partially oxidize, so it would probably be a light pinkish-brown.

Picking directly into barrels would make sense if the locals wanted to keep some wine year-round.  Some of this wine would be consumed in a Bacchanalian harvest festival soon after it finished fermenting: a Tuscan Nouveau. The barrels might go to the local gentry. They might have resin added, like Greek Retsina, and as soon as December the wine might have been served with spices to cover up its vinegarization.

If you want to imagine what the wine tasted like in January, you might buy a bottle of cheap Chianti and a bottle of retsina, pour them in a pot and add mulling spices like cinnamon and clove and allspice.

Sure looks like a nice day out in the vineyards in Tuscany in August. At least that hasn't changed in 400 years.

You can see the original, larger drawing here

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Jack Everitt said...

So any winery from Tuscany calling themselves authentic must have their grapes growing up trees.

Unknown said...

Yes, that's right, they do need to be growing on trees if they are to authentically rustic.

Unknown said...

sorry, I meant to say to be rustic..stupid crap keyboard..

Larry Brooks said...

If you look closely at this drawing you can see a line of donkeys with grape baskets on them. So then like today the grapes would have been moved from the field to the winery. Anyone who has tried to fit hoops onto barrels will recognize the struggle the cooper is having with his barrel, which of course would be empty at the time he was fitting the heads.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry: Your eyes are better than mine, I see no donkeys. Are they on the left side under the awning? Geez, I need red glasses.

Larry Brooks said...

Just above where the coopers are working on the barrels. It isn't the eyesight it's the 45 years of intense interest in the visual arts begun under the tutelege of a great art historian. He taught me that visual art should be given the same attention and time that we automatically devote to literature and music. While the gist of an image may be apparant at first glance, there's often much more there than what immediately meets the eye.

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh, you're right, how did I miss that? You had a good teacher.