This is a record-breaking harvest.
The Sangiovese grapes of this region, renowned for making Brunello wines, are usually not plucked until late September. But like a mischievous god, the sun has been wicked since late July, and the grapes matured three weeks ahead of schedule.
"This is the first time in history we've picked so early," said Edoardo Virano, manager of the Col D'Orcia vineyards. "The climate is changing so much that every year we have to move the harvest forward. Years ago no one thought of picking Brunello grapes before October. But now the Tuscan climate is like Africa.. . . Hotter. Droughts. The oak trees are dry. The leaves are yellow."
This August was the hottest in Tuscany in 30 years, according to the Italian weather service. During the month, 17 days - including 12 in a row - recorded temperatures above 93 degrees. Rainfall was moderate in July but down by 40 percent for the year as winemakers feverishly coaxed groundwater to root structures meandering through the clay and sandy hillside soils.
Virano and his crew responded in time. By the end of this week, most of the grapes will be harvested, crushed, and, depending upon their pedigree, pumped into stainless-steel fermentation vats or gently poured into oak casks. Col D'Orcia produces 900,000 bottles of wine a year - from the Ghiaie Bianche chardonnay to the prize-winning Poggio Al Vento, whose crop is grown on a "magical" hillside and aged for seven years.
The grape is sacred here. It is a taut little purple bead that is the stuff of legend and history and part of Italy's $10 billion wine industry.
South of Siena, on fields skimmed by sparrows, Montalcino has always been a defiant land of scrappy farmers. It fought unsuccessfully in the 16th century not to lose its independence to the Medici nobles of Florence.
During those wars, the grape was called to action: In 1553, grape juice was rubbed on the pale, scared face of a garrison commander to paint a healthy complexion that would reassure his troops.
In the 1800s, the Sangioveto Grosso grape, a clone of Chianti's Sangiovese, took palates by storm. Brunello wine eventually became world famous.
Today, it is especially trendy as winemakers from the United States and Australia search the dusty, bleached hillsides of Tuscany for its secrets.
But much is left to the whim of nature: Under Italian law, quality grapes such as those found in Brunello are allowed no human help while they grow on the vine.
"It has to be completely natural," said Virano, who, with the air of a suntanned movie director, drove through his vineyards in a Mitsubishi SUV. "Today we are harvesting the Syrah grape. It will go into merlots and cabernets."
Trailing Virano were Andrea Tarnini, an agricultural student from Pisa University; Pablo Harri, the bearded, bespectacled enologist; Giuliano Dragoni, who daily inspects the vineyard's 1,360 acres; and Enrico Furi, the sweaty leader of a band of pickers.
"I was born in the countryside," said Furi, standing at 500 feet above sea level, an ideal height for grape cultivation. "I love to work the land. My grandparents worked the fields.. . . I love to be in the open air, to touch nature."
As Furi spoke, Tarnini pinched a grape between his fingers. He rolled it, cleaned it of its dust, and squeezed it. As he pressed it harder, the juice mixed with the grape's skin, turning a blush of purple in the sunlight. It was the perfect time to harvest: The sugar count, the size of the seed, the acidity, the firmness had all properly converged.
But the pickers were told to move quickly.
Strands of shriveled grapes - victims of the unrelenting sun - lay in the furrows. Virano said that next year Col D'Orcia will need more than this year's 44 pickers. The vineyard could use 50 more, he said, but many young Italians have fled rural life, and Italy's tightening policies on migrant workers are keeping farming ranks thin.
"There are abandoned houses on our lands where the pickers and field hands once lived," Virano said. "But they've moved to the city. I don't know why one would move from this beautiful land. Sometimes, I think it's the wives. The wives like the bustling of the city.. . . We need more immigrant workers. But where can we house them all? How can they afford to live in Tuscany?"
Above the vineyard where Virano was watching the pickers, Col D'Orcia has a 20-acre hillside dedicated to the quest for perfection. It is where experiments are done. Grapes are cloned, hybrids mingled. Science lends what it can to nature. A tweak here, a hunch there. Winemaking is sort of like baseball: A vineyard needs a mix of steady producers and a few long-ball hitters.
"We're working on a super Tuscan wine," said Virano. "We've been experimenting two to three years, and it may take years more. But you can never stop experimenting. You can never be satisfied.. . . 1997 was a good year. Ninety-eight was better. '98 even better. Hopefully in 2000, we'll keep progressing."
But, in the end, the land and the elements, those unpredictable gremlins that have both tormented and blessed farmers for eons, most determine quality.
"Technology is good for wine, but, truly, the art of winemaking is in the vineyard," said Harri, drawing a glass of five-day-old wine from a fermentation vat. "If it is not good in the vineyard, no matter how good a winemaker you are, you can't improve it that much in production. I know that's different than the American Coca-Cola mentality of thinking everything can be improved by technology. But wine is a much more romantic process."
And, so, when the summer swelters and the grapes mature quickly, nature is king in the land of hill towns.
Driving not too far from the Orcia River, Virano left a row of cypress trees and wound down a dirt road. Bell towers and church domes seemed to float in the distance. Deep brown, newly tilled fields abutted the fading yellow swaths of parched wheat. He stopped at a 400-year-old oak tree whose long, droopy branches brushed the ground.
He stood before a quiet vineyard, the one that yields the famous Poggio Al Vento wine. Tarnini walked over and explained that the soil in this vineyard is sandy, allowing roots to go deeper and thrive. Just across the dirt road, the complexion of the soil changed, and the grapes were of a lesser quality.
So mysterious is nature.
"This is the land," said Virano, looking at the Poggio vineyard. "This is the piece of hillside that makes the grape so special. Maybe you could say it's a magical piece of land."
Jeffrey Fleishman's e-mail address is email@example.com