The morning sun warmed my face. A refreshing mountain breeze rustled shiny leaves as I snipped golden clusters of plump, glistening Chardonnay grapes from their vines. They gently plopped into a circular red plastic pail held in my sticky left hand, which I dumped into a larger container.
At home in New York City, it was the last week before school started. Here, in Trentino-Alto Adige appellation, in north Italy, where puffy clouds peppered cobalt skies over the flanks of the dusty white volcanic Dolomite Mountains (named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009), it was the first week of harvest. I was visiting the area with fellow wine and fitness fans to explore its offerings.
While, I grew up with a wine cellar in the basement of our fieldstone home where wine was much of a food group, until now, I was a grape harvesting virgin. I had dreamed about crouching in vineyards, plucking plump fruit with my hands. But, this vineyard uses a Double Pergola setup, allowing grapes to grow above shoulder level and cutting with shears.
Snipping and clipping alongside some of Mezzacorona Winery's (www.mezzacorona.it) 1,600 grape growing families, who hand-harvest every estate grown grape - making up the co-op that produces nearly 45 million bottles of wine annually - was a pleasant reminder of winemaking's human touch, which is often forgotten in our ready-to-drink society.
In Trentino-Alto Adige, grape growing is the family business. Farmers depend on high quality fruit for their livelihood and glow with pride when discussing their crops. "Winemaking is not engineering or manipulation." Says Lucio Matricardi, the zealous chief winemaker, at Mezzacorona, which, adheres to earth-friendly, sustainable methods - much of the winery is powered by solar and hydroelectric means. "It happens in the vineyard, resulting from the region's terroir and climate."
The strong alpine sun ripens grapes and cool mountain evenings rebuild their acid. While, hand harvesting prevents skins from splitting, resulting in top-notch wine.
Martino Andreoli, vineyard manager since 2003, says it takes about two and half hours to clear one row of grapes with a handful of pickers. After an hour, my hands felt crampy and arms fatigued. When it was time for our group to say ciao, I was ready to pull the cork.
Later that day, we arrived in the bustling resort town of Riva del Garda, on the northern edge of Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake. Towering craggy mountains sprouted out of the water's edge. We weaved past tourists and locals who strolled, shopped and savored gelato along the buzzing promenade to board a small motorboat for the afternoon.
A cool mist sprayed my face as we cruised along the sparkly turquoise water, drinking in the stunning surroundings. We nibbled smoked salmon and sausage canopies - all the while, quaffing aromatic, crisp Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio and bright cherry-kissed Rose', we brought along.
As we approached the beach town of Torbole, named for turbine, swarms of windsurfers cut through gusty winds like fluttering butterflies performing ballet. Torbole sul Garda's constant brawny winds have made it a windsurfing and sailing Mecca, attracting visitors from around the globe.
The next morning, our posse joined Ezio Chesi, a guide from Mountain Friends (www.mountainfriends.it), for a day hike through part of the Adamello-Presanella Mountains to Rifugio Segantini (www.rifugiosegantini.com), a family-run rustic inn on the mountain at 7,785 feet.
Sleepy grey skies hovered overhead with dark clouds in the distance, threatening rain. Under the guise of the massive chalky Dolomites, we traipsed over a tiny wooden bridge to a narrow dirt path wending through the mountainside peppered with wild bushes, boulders and petite purple and yellow flowers growing close to the ground. By mid-morning, a quick moving storm sprinkled soft rain, making the rocky path slick. I planted my Black Diamond folding hiking Z-poles into the damp ground, stepped firmly and powered up steep, slippery sections.
Our group's speed ebbed and flowed and conversation stalled when skies suddenly turned dark and angry. A rhythmic "rat-tat-tat" rain pelted my hood. My purple Ahnu hiking boots turned mud brown. With each soggy twist and turn, the surroundings grew sparse and our anticipation of sighting the refugio heightened.
About 1:00 pm, we crested the final section and slogged across a massive rock field, which at times felt like were on the moon adorned with stacks of grey stone slabs. Through raindrops, the stunning Brenta Dolomites in the distance took my breath away. My admiration and awe was brief, before trotting into the wood-burning warm lodge that felt like a warm hug upon crossing its threshold.
I dug out my dry socks and shirt packed neatly into Eagle Creek Pack-it Cubes and settled-in for well-earned lunch. We rejoiced in the toasty hut, savoring steaming satiny leek-potato soup and local specialties such as potato dumplings, polenta with goulash and their signature apple strudel. Stuffed, snug and smiling, we swiftly descended the mountain under clear skies.
That night, our last, we cleaned up for a lovely dinner in the wine cave at Rotari Winery (www.rotari.it), in Trento DOC. Crafting exclusively sparkling wines, Rotari, which opened in 1997, produces 2.5 million bottles of bubbly, uses Metodo Classico - doing second fermentation in the bottle similar to Champagne (and unlike Prosecco that is wholly tank fermented).
After touring the sprawling winemaking facility, I had a mighty thirst and was thrilled to rehydrate with glass of Brut Rose'. Tiny little bubbles rippled from the bottom. The salmon pink sparkler delighted with fresh strawberry, lively acidity and splash of spice. A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was a crowd pleaser with crispy bacon wrapped prunes and polenta with wild mushrooms.
We sat for supper at a long table in the cool cavernous cellar. Waiters streamed in with plates of creamy Chanterelle mushroom risotto, made with locally grown golden Chanterelles sporting enticing dried apricot and ripe peach aromas and flavors. It was a sensory super star with the stone fruit and earthy nuances in the Rotari Brut, made from 100% Chardonnay.
Next came roasted Artic Char with Porcini mushrooms, paired with Rotari Flavio, also 100% Chardonnay, but rests on yeast for 5 years, developing an opulent structure and rich roasty, toasty peach nuances.
I was stuffed, by dessert. But, couldn't resist indulging in the dangerously delicious local crafted dark chocolates. We lifted a glass to toast our fun, fit and flavorful visit. Salute!