Wine notes

Friday, 28 January 2011


Although the Bordeaux vintage rumour mill traditionally starts to spin almost before grapes are visible on the vine, Italy is much more cautious about vintage predictions. This may have to do with the fact that harvest dates on the peninsula extend from one of the earliest in Europe (Sicily's whites) to one of the very last (Piemonte's Nebbiolo and Campania's Aglianico). Hence, a clear general picture tends to emerge much later than for most French wine regions. 

'Interesting' seems to be the word that sums up the 2010 vintage, immediately followed by 'heterogeneous'. At least these are the adjectives most frequently used in the Italian media when discussing 2010. The main reason for what looks like a rather modest vintage in terms of quality was an excessive amount of rain. During the winter and early spring the growing cycle started off with soils saturated with water, which can be beneficial if the season proves to be hot and dry. However, instead of the heat needed, most regions experienced continuous cool weather, which soon indicated a late harvest, in many cases protracted by a cool and rainy end of the summer. Or, in the words of Assoenologi, the Association of Italian Enologists: 'September could have been better'. 

It was September especially that caused such variation throughout Italy, with good and mediocre results side by side, although the vintage on the whole is likely to lack the stuffing for excellence. According to Assoenologi, the total crop is 45.5 million hl, similar to the previous year's 45.8 million hl, and both years were particularly wet. But while the 2009 vintage was one of excesses - high and low temperatures, sun and rain - 2010 in comparison was simply not warm enough in many areas. 

The first to start the harvest was Sicily, for white wine grapes, on 18 Aug. In Veneto, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, considered early-ripening varieties, were not brought in before mid September and Soave's Garganega even later, sometimes as late as mid October. Although in August the situation had looked promising in Veneto, with hot days and cool nights, September brought irregular weather with more rain. 

In Conegliano, heartland of Prosecco, depending on the site and altitude, some perfumed and refreshing wines will result, although the thin-skinned grape was attacked by rot thanks to the protracted harvest and rain, making severe selections in the cellar obligatory. Although more robust than the whites, the red varieties in Veneto as well as in parts of Friuli are characterised by low levels of anthocyanins in the skins. Friuli, also faced with a rainy harvest, seemed to have fared better because of the ongoing ventilation by the prevailing bora winds. 

As always, all eyes are on Piemonte, as this region, together with Tuscany, produces some of the world's most admired wines, Barbaresco and Barolo, and the quality of the vintage is often, even if not always correctly, seen as a blueprint for the whole of Italy. The typical 2010 characteristics of a very cool spring also delayed the growing cycle in Piemonte by more than two weeks. However, this far-north-western region largely escaped the September rains that other regions had to endure, keeping fungal disease at bay. In this vintage much depended on superior sites, the ones that guarantee full sun exposure and higher than average temperatures. Hence expectations for Nebbiolo from prime areas are high, and good sugar levels have been reported in most of the Langhe. More modest qualities are expected from Dolcetto and Barbera from lesser sites. Production levels have remained stable since 2009, which is not necessarily a good thing, considering the street protests staged by producers in Asti just before the harvest, claiming grape prices had sunk so low that harvesting would no longer make economic sense and demanding the return of state-subsidised distillation. 

The growing cycle in Emilia-Romagna was delayed by some 14 days, and the autumn rains made picking dates critical, with some producers expressing great concern at the beginning of September about the ripeness levels of the grapes. While the harvest at the end of August started off with rain, the weather soon changed to sunny warm days, helping increase ripeness levels, and cool nights reducing the risk of fungal attacks for the later-ripening red varieties. 

More or less the same picture emerges in Tuscany, where the beginning of the growing cycle was delayed more than two weeks by cool, wet weather. The whole cycle was determined by cool weather, after an initial spike of high temperatures. Canopy management, including leaf plucking to expose the embryonic fruit to the sun as well as optimising ventilation, and bunch thinning, appeared to be some of the most effective tools. Producers who spent long hours in the vineyards were presented with wines of much higher alcohol and riper tannin levels than could initially have been expected. Although the season has resulted in good rather than great raw material, there will be plenty of suprises, not least in Montalcino, which reportedly received less rain than the rest of Tuscany. 

Not even the south escaped the rains, although here they were more evenly spread. In Campania most of the rains fell before June, replenishing water tables. By mid June temperatures had shot up, accelerating the fruit set and leaf growth, only to be interrupted by cool July, before the season's climate became more regular. Only producers who remained viligant, keeping vigour and yield in check and guarding against fungal disease, succeeded. The rest of the season was more benign than on average in Italy with a hot, dry August, indeed so hot in some areas that fruit burn could have resulted, but owing to very cool nights (with diurnal temperature variation up to 14 °C), the grapes remained healthy and held on to their all-important acidity. Harvest was also delayed by some two weeks in Campania, but the general quality of the grapes seemed to be good to high. Harvest began with the earlier-ripening varieties at the end of September, and the first week of October seeing the beginning of the harvest for Falanghina and Fiano. Aglianico, mostly planted at higher altitudes, was not picked before mid November, which in fact is not exceptionally late. 

Puglia seems to be the exception this year, with an initial delay of the growing cycle of only one week, which was quickly reversed by a warm and even season, with grapes harvested in good health. Although some 2,000 ha of vines were grubbed up in 2010 at the EU's behest, the region somehow managed to produce 20% more grapes than in the previous year. 

Sicily's total production, on the other hand, declined by some 30%, not least owing to the EU subsidies available to those who grubbed up their vines, but a large part was also the result of an intense green harvest to keep fungal attacks during a wet growing season under control. Although some good wines can be expected, overall the harvest was delayed by more than a week, and produced fruit of more modest extract levels than normal.

At the beginning of November, after the harvest was mostly done and most producers were sighing with relief, the rains came back with an unexpected violence, especially in the Veneto between Verona and Friuli, causing dams to break and causing widespread flooding in the vineyards, with the Soave town of Monteforte d'Alpone worst hit. This picture shows a Soave vineyard after the worst of the rains. The main traffic artery between Venice and Milan, the Serenissima Autostrada, was blocked, while large parts of Vicenza disappeared under water (see picture top left). The most optimistic reports of the damage caused by the relentless rain estimate a total cost of 250 million euros, while the bleakest forecast predicts that Italy's especially wet 2010 will cost over a billion euros. 

Although some of the resulting damage to land and livestock was nothing short of tragic, I couldn't help but think that everyone on the plain was affected whereas all those with vineyards on the hillside were not. Surely this is an indication that if this kind of weather pattern persists in the future, terroir specifics will force the grape growers to retire to the hills, where wine quality is so much more assured.