Harvest is just getting started in Italy, but the jury is still out on the quality of the wines. Despite reports of a good if earlier-than-normal harvest in several parts of Europe, top wine producers are keeping their fingers crossed for clear weather since there's still a long way to go. The weather in Italy had been excellent throughout the growing season, right through the mid-August start of picking in the country's white-producing areas, but cool, wet conditions set in this week. Nevertheless, vintners remain excited about their prospects so long as the rain moves out as quickly as it moved in.
"It may even be an extraordinary vintage if you took care of your vineyard and cut back on grape yields," said Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy's leading enologists, who consults for a number of top estates in various regions, including Banfi in Montalcino and Feudi di San Gregorio in Campania (as well as running his own family estate, Falesco, in Umbria). "But if the rain goes on, it could spoil everything."
For the past several days the weather in Italy has been more autumnal, with the high air pressure falling to allow clouds to roll in from the Atlantic. This brought wetter, cooler conditions, primarily to the northern and central parts of Italy.
In white wine-producing areas, such as Friuli, the harvest was already underway when the weather changed. "We finished picking the Sauvignon," said Stefano Chioccioli, who consults for one of the region's top estates, Livio Felluga, "and almost finished the Pinot Grigio. At the moment, there's water in abundance and we are keeping our fingers crossed."
Chioccioli added that the potential alcohol levels in the white grapes were not particularly high this year (up to 13 degrees), coupled with a good acidity which, he said, should make for fresh and clean wines. And the report of a combination of lower alcohol levels and relatively high acidity was echoed further south in Tuscany.
Luca Sanjust, owner of Petrolo, which makes a Sangiovese Torrione and one of Italy's best Merlots, Galatrona, said, "We have around 12.5 potential alcohol levels in the Galatrona Merlot. Normally we get around 14 at this stage." He said he would start harvesting the young Merlot vines in the last few days of August, around a week earlier than usual. Sanjust also predicted that the Sangiovese harvest would be up to two weeks earlier than normal, starting in the middle of September.
"It's always a nail-biting time of the year for us," Sanjust said. "When the weather is changing like this, it's like being on a battlefield. You have to be able to act quickly and decisively. The final stages of the ripening process can come very quickly," he added. "And then, there's the weather factor that could change everything."
Consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini, who works with top Tuscan estates such as Casanova di Neri in Montalcino and Sette Ponti in the Valdarno, gave a wider perspective of Tuscany's potential in 2007. "Tuscany on the whole is looking good," he said. "There are no dry grapes and we're ahead between seven to 10 days. Young vines with less-developed root systems were stressed a bit by the recent hot weather, as well as vines in stony ground or in more exposed sites."
To the north, in Piedmont, however, it seems to have been a rougher ride than Tuscany's. Though some parts of Montalcino, Brunello's Tuscan homeland, suffered from hail early on in the season, there was nothing like the violent hailstorm on May 29 that ravaged vineyards around Monforte d'Alba in the heart of Piedmont's Barolo-producing area.
"The hail took away the Bussia vineyard almost completely," said Luca Vietti, winemaker at Vietti, his family's estate, "and caused losses of up to 70 percent in vineyards such as Cannubi and Bricco del Fiasco." (See James Suckling's blog on tasting 2004 Barolo.) Despite the setbacks, Vietti predicted that the harvest would be around two weeks early for all varieties—Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo. The timing, he said, is similar to the superhot 2003 vintage.
"We were early in 2003 too," he explained, "but that was because the grapes were drying out in the heat and amassing relative sugar levels. In 2007, the whole season was early, right from the budding, because of the mild winter and spring."
Vietti reported that both potential alcohol levels and acidity are relatively low in his Nebbiolo grapes at the moment. "Nothing to worry about yet," he said. "The quality should be good, making wines with balanced acidity."
Elsewhere in the peninsula, fortunes have been mixed in 2007.
In Veneto, according to Sergio Castellani, owner of Amarone estate Michele Castellani, the Corvina harvest is due to start on Sept. 5 or 6, around 10 days earlier than normal. And in the south, Campania is reportedly poised for a good vintage for both whites and reds. Harvest is projected to start about a week early (Sept. 20) for the region's late-ripening whites, such as Fiano and Greco, and then move on to Campania's staple red, Aglianico, in the first days of October.
But parts of Puglia and Sicily have seen the worst of the drama in 2007. The combination of hot and humid weather invited mildew and mold into the vineyards. Enologist Cotarella said that there were areas where the vines had lost all their leaves. "It looks more like January than August in some vineyards," he said.
The waiting game continues for most of Italy's producers, but local weather forecasts give a brighter picture for the next few weeks, with a possible return to sunnier weather. If that happens, it will be good news for all.
—James Suckling contributed to this report.