Vino Novello: something else

Over the last few days, we have seen the first flakes of snow fall on a number of Italian regions. And with the mercury dropping, and the fire blazing in the grate, I decided to pay tribute to one of Tuscany’s classic culinary traditions: the last roasted chestnuts of the year (bruciate, as they are called here), paired with a nice glass of vino novello.

Vino novello is often confused with vino nuovo. The name of the former, however, comes from the French vin primeur or vin nouveau, meaning first wine or new wine. Whatever its name, it belongs to a particular typology of wine that makes it unique in the wine world, with its own set of characteristics and production norms. The first big difference lies in the vinification technique that it uses: carbonic maceration.

This technique was invented in 1934 by a group of French researchers in the science faculties of Narbonne. They were looking for a way of preserving grapes via the use of carbon dioxide: what they found was that, instead of keeping, the grapes fermented spontaneously, making them unsellable. So they went with it, and let the grapes vinify. The result was a wine like no other, highly aromatic and pleasant on the tongue, and drinkable a mere few weeks after the grape harvest.

But what exactly is carbonic maceration? And what makes it so different from other vinification techniques?

After the grape harvest, whole bunches of grapes are put into a hermetically sealed tank, which is pumped full of carbon dioxide. When the temperature reaches the 30°C mark, the lack of oxygen and the grapes’ intracellular anaerobic metabolism combine to cause alcoholic fermentation, which is fuelled by the sugar and malic acid inherent in the fruits. The malic acid immediately degrades into pyruvic acid, then to acetaldehyde and finally to ethanol. Compared to traditional vinification methods, this process also produces high quantities of glycerol, which lend the wine a real softness and a number of volatile compounds: these include cinnamic acid, which brings a distinctive aroma of strawberries and raspberries. As these chemical transformations play off against one another, the grapes’ skins slowly decay and the grapes are crushed under their own weight, making them release their juice. The length of time the grapes stay inside the tank depends on the choice of the winemaker, but the wine that results is always a bright red, leaning towards violet in colour, with fruity aromas and a low tannin content. Then the traditional pressing method completes the process, and the remaining sugary residue is turned into alcohol by more conventional means.

Unlike our neighbours across the Alps, who each year welcome the arrival of the Beaujolais nouveau with huge, nationwide celebrations, we in Italy still haven’t really taken note of vino novello. It isn’t widespread: it represents less than 2% of Italy’s oenological output.

Tradition dictates that it should be paired with roasted chestnuts, but for them I have other plans. We can grind them into flour, sweet or savoury; we can use them in handmade pasta or in soups, where they go particularly well with legumes and seasonal vegetables. They are also ideal with charcuterie and mushrooms.

Vino Novello, meanwhile, is comfortable with its “different” label. It has its own dignity and its own character, which should be appreciated as a complement to the already vast wine scene in Italy, and indeed the world. It asks nothing more than it can offer: it’s a light, stress-free drink, and a jolly accompaniment to the winter spread.