Vendemmia: a resounding word
September is significant: it’s the month of “resolutions”, of “starting afresh”, of “new goals” that we intend to achieve. It’s the time of year when the light is at its most gorgeous, when the sun sets to the most achingly beautiful colours, when we say goodbye to summer’s happiness and carefreeness, and welcome in the autumn.
And it’s in September that we gather in the grapes.
The grape harvest (vendemmia) is an ancient September rite, full of magic and mystery. The verb vendemmiare seems to come from the medieval Latin words for “vine” and demere, meaning “remove, cut, take away”.
In the French Republican calendar, September corresponded to what now falls between the 22 and 24 September and 21 and 23 October of the Gregorian calendar. For the French revolutionaries, it was the first of the mois d’automne and, indeed, the first month of the year.
We find the harvest tradition mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman accounts, from which we know that the Romans celebrated with a festival on August 19, the vinalia rustica. Marcus Terence Varro tells us about a warning inscribed on the gates of Tusculum - an ancient, now ruined city in Lazio - not to bring wine from the harvest inside the town walls before the vinalia had been officially announced.
Besides the history and the etymology, what has always fascinated us about the vendemmia, and still fascinates us today, is its social and anthropological significance. The vendemmia represents one of the most important economic activities in our local culture, but it was and still is a ritual full of social importance. It stands for coming together, sharing joy and fatigue - elation - at the same time. And the image of vineyard workers up to their knees in the grape must, pressing it down with their feet, has always symbolised communal happiness and pleasure.
For the winemakers who put in a whole year of work for a few days of harvest, the vendemmia is certainly just as crucial today: the outcome of the final product hinges upon it. But regardless of how the harvest turns out, nothing will detract from the emotional power of the moment, when the bond between the soil and mankind is at its closest.
In August and September, drink last year’s wine and leave the must to rest.
[Old Tuscan saying]