Massaging grapes to produce better wine

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) Italian vintner Stefania Pepe is a supporter of biodynamic agriculture and even massages her grapes before turning them into wine.

A grape picker cleans a bunch of grapes during a day of grape harvest at le Clos Saint Vincent vineyard in Bellet, on the outskirts of Nice, south-eastern France September 21, 2005. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

She believes gentle massage gives the grapes a good feeling and also ensures that only ripe grapes are used in the wine.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I believe you have to make wine special. You have to imbue it with love and energy. I give my grapes my love and my energy,” she said during Italy’s Vin2009 expo.

“It’s not all analysis. It’s not all chemicals. Only love can make my wine,” the 43-year-old insisted before demonstrating how she gently massaged the grapes on a wooden board.

Pepe, who is five-months pregnant, is also enthusiastic and eager to convert others to biodynamic wines.

“Wine is made in the vineyard,” she said, repeating a common adage among winemakers who note that great wine starts with the best fruit.

Biodynamic agriculture is based on the ideas of the Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner, who reportedly was a tea-totaler and never drank wine or spirits.

Supporters of biodynamic agriculture consider the farm as a living system. They use special methods, including burying cow manure in cow horns in the fields and using compost that includes Chamomile and Yarrow flowers, to enhance the soil to produce wines that are stronger, better balanced and have more vibrant tastes.

Its critics say biodynamic methods produce wines that are similar to those produced using organic farming methods.

Pepe’s winery in Abruzzo, Italy was among the more than 200 that were part of Vin2009, which was sponsored by the Italian government to retain and gain more market share in the United States. By the end of November 2008, Italy had exported more than $1.2 billion worth of wine to the United States.

Like many of the wine makers, Pepe was looking for a U.S. importer for her 10,000 bottles of Pepe Rosso, a plumy, jammy red she guarantees will have 20 years of life.

Pepe started in the wine business as a child in her father’s winery stepping on grapes. When she was 18, she bought her first vineyard and, after working in France at Chateau Margaux, she returned to Italy to make her first vintage at the age of 23.

At first, she ignored her father’s method of using concrete vats to ferment the wine, instead insisting on barrels. But after that first vintage she noticed that some of the wine tasted more of wood than of fruit.

“So I went back to my father and apologized. He definitely understood,” she explained.

Pepe still stomps on some of the wine she makes today.

“You know, this way, the grapes are actually gently pressed, not like some hydraulic machine. And also the hard, unripe grapes they won’t crush under foot. So it’s really better for the wine,” Pepe said.

She built her winery 30 feet underground so that she could use gravity at every stage in the wine making process.

“When the grape is pressed, the juice runs down. When you need to keep the temperature cool, you have nature keeping it cool. We bottle by hand. There is no filtering. Everything I do, I do to be in harmony with nature.

“And it shows in the wine,” she said smiling. “I believe that a single person can do one thing to make the word a little better. This is my one thing.”

Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; editing by Patricia Reaney; For the latest Reuters lifestyle news see: