Wine notes

Friday 18 December 2009


12 December
Italian media reported yesterday that scores of Chianti wineries/oenologists (some of which are said to be 'renowned') are going to have to answer questions relating to fraudulent blending/invoicing of 'Chianti' wines from the NAS (Italy's fraud squad).

News emerged yesterday that the Guardia Finanza of Siena in Tuscany is investigating what appears to be a sequel to the recent Brunello scandal.

This time it apparently concerns as much as 10 million litres of blended inferior wines labelled with some of Tuscany's most prestigious denominations, including Rosso di Montepulciano and, again, Brunello di Montalcino. (At a presentation in London on Monday to celebrate Gaja's 150th anniversary, Gaia Gaja, while presenting a couple of vintages of their Pieve di Santa Restituta Brunello, observed about the earlier Brunello scandal that while it was the fault of the producers involved, perhaps the Consorzio was too lax in allowing the extraordinary growth of this denomination from 150,000 to 7 million bottles in the last 40 years - JR.)
No fewer than 17 people and 42 companies are reportedly under investigation. Although the enquiry is currently focused primarily on Tuscany, the scandal seems to implicate some as far north as Trentino.

The news comes just after some Montalcino producers, under investigation in the original Brunello affair, had their wines sequestered and were forced to declassify questionable wines to the lowly IGT designation in order to have them released and avoid further prosecution.

According to one report, a total of five hectares in Castellina in Chianti has been sequestered by the authorities. This is prime Chianti Classico land, but the five hectares are not necessarily denominated as such. Allegedly the land belongs to an operation that had been in the news recently because it was discovered that it was blending wines from Puglia into its Chianti. The police apparently followed a truck transporting bulk wine from Puglia to its final destination, confiscated the wine, and the whole batch was made IGT.

My own interpretation is that to produce the volumes of Chianti or Chianti Classico at the lowest possible price in order to service the large supermarkets, especially Germany and the UK, companies are willing to venture outside the law. I am not saying that supermarkets force them to do, but the fact remains that large retailers can put such pressure on price points, that this is one of the inevitable outcomes, especially when contracts on volumes and prices have been drawn up long before any fruit has appeared on the vines...

Saturday 5 December 2009


The Assoenologi, Italy’s Association of enologists has declared the 2009 vintage as “very good”, a positive assessment in an otherwise less than glorious overall looking picture. Volume is down by 4% in comparison to 2008 (44,5 mio hl against 46,3 mio in the previous year), which surely is a good thing for a wine producing country that still favours quantity over quality, but prices for some wines have fallen by a staggering 40%. Rumours of cellars full of unsold wine, notably in Piemonte, seem to win in credibility against these figures.

Italy has seen its total vineyard plantings fall from 1,230000 ha in 1980 to 684,000 ha in 2008, an enormous decline by anyone’s standard. Assoenologi interprets these figures as a consequence of an ongoing specialisation and monoculture in a country that traditionally treated wine as a part of a mixed agricultural activity, with uproot premiums from the EU doing the rest. However, a factor that puts at least as much weight in the scales is the fact that over the last 20 years or so Italians are drinking less and less wine (45 litres per capita today compared to 100 in the 1970s). Or, as Assoenologi’s director, Giuseppe Martelli explains: “Italian wine has changed from being a foodstuff and part of the diet to something non-essential (“Il vino italiano in vent’anni è passato da “alimento” a “genere voluttuario”).

At this moment Italy’s entire viticultural sector is worth more than13 billion euros annually, with export responsible for 3.6 billion Euros. Currently 55% of the total production is red wine, with the balance being white. Cantine Sociale or Co-operatives are still responsible for 50% of the total national wine production. With the declining consumption at home it comes as no surprise that Italy is relying more and more on exports. But it is especially in its main export market, the United states, that Italy has come to feel the pinch of the recession, with consumer demand shifting towards less expensive wines.

Assoenologi explains this year’s reduced yields as the consequence of a very irregular weather pattern during the 2009 growing cycle. Winter brought lots of rain and unusual heavy snowfall in the North and Northwest, replenishing the water tables for the 2009 season, but also delaying the start of the growing cycle. A very warm spring with temperatures regularly hitting 30 C benefited a quick and regular flower set. Until July the general weather pattern was extremely benign with very warm and dry weather and the occasional precipitation, which budded expectations of an early harvest.

The first week of July brought rain increasing fungal pressure throughout the country. However, August saw intense heat and virtually no rain at all, a situation that remained until mid September. The heat and lack of water forced many vines to shut down, retarding grape ripening and resulting in the rare occurrence of low sugar levels combined with low acidity, respired by the plants in the heat. With the continuous August heat in some vineyards signs of sun burn and dried fruit became apparent. The situation protracted harvests in large parts of the country as producers were waiting for much needed rain to increase volume in the berries, and to set the plant’s cycle in motion again to trigger ripening, which until then had been arrested. But large temperature differences between day and night prevented 2009 of becoming a 2003, a vintage equally characterised by high temperatures, but with little cooling down during the night. Large parts of the North and Centre were blessed with a sunny September, although with many producers hoping for rain instead, whereas the South and the Islands faced torrential rains.

2009 will be the year of old vines and high altitudes. In general, the older vineyards suffered far less from the weather pattern, as rootstocks are well developed to reach water reserves filled up by the exceptionally wet winter, and with less fruit to support. Young vines, as a consequence suffered more. While irrigation can be a potential aid, and permits in extreme weather conditions can be applied for, the majority of Italian vineyards are not equipped with water systems.
High altitude vineyards, which win in importance not least due to increased temperatures due to climate change, generally experienced the greatest difference in day and night temperatures, allowing the vines much needed rest and alleviating the heat stress.

Because of the heterogeneous character of the year, generalisations are hazardous. Piemonte can look back on early harvested, healthy whites with good acidity levels, and a fairly regular growing season for the late ripening Nebbiolo, especially on the higher sites, while Franciacorta experienced a very early harvest for its Pinots and Chardonnay.

Alto Adige also experience an earlier vintage than usual, and although the grapes were general healthy, the white Burgundian varieties seem to have fared best, as well as the red indigenous Teroldego and Lagrein. The average high altitude vineyards of the region proved a natural advantage this year.
Although Trentino started harvesting more than 15 days earlier compared to last year, hopes are high for both whites and reds.

Veneto’s most important white variety, Garganega was more affected by the unusual large bunches causing potential dilution in the final wines, than the prolonged ripening season. Some parts of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene have been struggling with the long and intense period of heat. Its main protagonist Prosecco had difficulty retaining acidity levels, while sugar levels remained low due to the vines slowing down due to stress.

Also Friuli Venezia Giulia started harvesting a full week earlier compared to last year. Rains fell mid September, which may have been a fraction too late for most aromatic whites, but welcomed for the late ripening Friulano, Ribolla and the red varieties.

Central Italy shows a much more diverse image with some producers, notably in Chianti Classico, showing great enthusiasm for the quality of Sangiovese. Although the fruit was very healthy, some producers struggled with high sugar levels in the berries, caused by a delayed harvest in the hope for rain. Again, higher altitude and old vine vineyards have generally fared best, and some very good wines can be expected.

Campania experienced the same sped up growing cycle, which came to a halt during a very cool September. In some parts this came as a blessing, especially for late ripening varieties. Campania’s most important red, Aglianico, normally not harvested before the end of October, may have fared best, especially on higher altitudes.
The same kickstart in the growing cycle was experienced in Sicily. An advanced harvest of Merlot in the first week of August was followed by Syrah and Nero d’Avola before the arrival of torrential rains interrupted the harvest and delayed further ripening of the grapes.

Although it is much too early to come to final conclusions due to the large viticultural area Italy represents, with many different meso and micro climates, 2009, for the time being, has triggered less enthusiasm and media exposure than Bordeaux. Contrary to popular belief Italy’s vintages rarely reflect France’s and vice versa. Often generalisations on vintage quality of Italian wines by professionals and wine lovers alike are based on France’s and especially Bordeaux’ overall performance. But comparisons between, 1999 (very good to outstanding in Central Italy and the North, less favourable for France) and 2000 (exactly the opposite) as well as 2001 (again, very good for Italy, and less so or France), to name a few, show no linked pattern.