At the beginning of August, Italy is already preparing for harvest which is expected to be earlier than usual all over the country from the “metodo classico” grapes of Franciacorta, to the whites and reds of the south. A very hot summer, with very little rain, has some producers already comparing 2017 with the extreme 2003 vintage. It is, alas, a little too early to draw conclusions as the grapes are still on the vine but producers are already sure this will be dryer and hotter than the hot vintages of 2007 and 2011. Tuscany at the moment seems to be the most at risk from the hot conditions, especially due to a lack of precipitation. At the time of writing there is expected to be a brief respite in temperatures but the long-term forecast brings more hot weather. Added to the difficulties of this arid summer are the frosts that hit vast tracts of vineyard in late April, especially in the north of Italy. As fate would have it, these are the coolest parts of the vineyard that would usually be the best to withstand the effects of hot, dry summers. A veritable double whammy. This will no doubt have an effect on the size of the harvest with a considerable drop in production expected across the board, bringing the knock-on effects on prices. However, of more concern, is possibly the qualitative aspect that extreme heat and drought can bring to both whites and reds – doubtless producing “una situazione complicata”.
Each region will be affected differently by the extreme and prolonged heat, although all regions are expected to be affected in some way. The east coast, however, of Le Marche and Abruzzo seem to be the areas which have had the most regular rainfall which has mitigated the effects of high temperatures, despite at times have reached over 40ºc (when I was there mid-July). Franco Pasetti, Contesa, Abruzzo, is relatively optimistic saying, despite frost damage in April and subsequent hail storms causing a drop in production to the tune of 10-15%, at the moment the vines and grapes are healthy. As he states, much depends on August and September but he’s optimistic for a great vintage. Marco Giulioli, La Guardiense Campania has emphasized that this is a very complicated vintage where hillside vineyards will be compromised by the lack of water but irrigated vineyards lower down the valleys should produce good quality fruit. If the soils are drier then the plant shuts down in the hot dry conditions causing a lack of phenolic ripeness and high levels of acidity, combined with high levels of sugar and consequent alcohol. In 2011, another hot vintage, high levels of acidity were the hallmark as the plants failed to metabolise the grape acids. In the Veneto, Chiara Coffele, in Castelcerino, Soave, is cautiously optimistic. They did not suffer any damage during the April frosts being one of the highest vineyard areas of Soave. During this hot period, they have been able to irrigate from a natural lake within their estate helping to avoid the negative effects of hydric stress. In addition, Chiara states that the biggest difference between 2003 and 2017 is the fact that the nights have been much cooler, giving respite to the plants and fruit. At Puiatti in Friuli, the temperatures are lowering as I write, making Andrea Lonardi, Bertani Domains, fairly optimistic that this year will be a good vintage in this region. However, he is bleakly pessimistic when it comes to the Tuscan estates in Chianti Classico and Montalcino as the arid conditions have persisted and temperatures here some of the highest in Italy.
So how did the 2013 Brunellos measure up? Well, the official verdict was 4 stars out of 5, which might be a bit exaggerated; it usually is. Most producers and some journalists found it a year of balance, with good structure in terms of acidity and tannin, an ability to age moderately well, not too big and beefy like the 2012s nor so lush and seductive as the 2011s; but ‘elegant’, to use the ‘in’ word. Given the prevailing negativity of trade and press surrounding the 2014 vintage, due for release from January 2019, growers are inclined to be sanguine about the prospect of good sales on the part of the 13 Brunellos.
It is indeed too early to make sweeping pronouncements especially regarding Italy’s noble red varieties of Nebbiolo and Aglianico which are among the latest grapes to be harvested. However, it is undoubtedly a hot vintage that will be earlier than the norm and with a considerable drop in production. Nevertheless, many producers such as Contesa, Coffele and Puiatti are hoping to make high quality wine.
Nick Bielak, Puglia 10th August 2017.