Harvest. For winemakers, no other word is loaded with so much potential and anticipation. After a long growing season of endless work in the vineyards, harvest means pencils down, time's up. And no matter how hard you have labored all year, at the end of the day, nature usually has the last word.
In the fourth of five 2012 vintage reports, winemakers across the Italian boot are reporting a promising vintage after a year of hard work. A wet spring in many regions lowered yields by as much as 40 percent. A long, hot summer put vines under drought stress, which meant growers had to be careful to protect the fruit and let it hang long enough to ripen. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.
The good news: Winemakers across the region are quietly optimistic after harvesting generally healthy fruit.
The bad news: Yields are down by 10 to 20 percent in most areas.
Promising Areas: In Alto Adige, white grapes excelled.
Challenging Areas: Younger vineyards and locations where irrigation was not possible were hit hardest by summer’s drought conditions.
Analysis: Like much of Europe, northeastern Italy’s wine regions—Trentino, Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto—harvested significantly lower quantities in 2012, about 10 to 20 percent below average. Two conditions account for the lower yields: first, cool weather during flowering and fruit set, and second, a long period of dry, hot weather in July and early August. “[It was a] very challenging vintage in Friuli-Venezia Giulia," said Giampaolo Venica of Venica & Venica in Friuli. "What they call the Sahara high-pressure hump kept us without water for months.”
But while these conditions had growers struggling to get more water to their vines, that meant there was little worry of disease. “The positive aspect was the elimination of disease problems, since high temperatures blocked downy and powdery mildew and limited the flight of insects,” said Pierangelo Tommasi, of his family’s eponymous estate in the Veneto. And throughout the northeast, weather during harvest was generally good. Only Trentino-Alto Adige suffered from rain at the end of September, somewhat affecting the area’s red grape varieties. White grape varieties were brought in earlier in the month, under fair skies.
“In general, the vintage was good but not amazing," said Meri Tessari of Suavia in Soave. "The quality of the grapes was very high, but we had very low yields."
Workers pick grapes for Masi Amarone in one of the valleys of Valpolicella.
The good news: Nebbiolo in the Langhe looks very good to outstanding. White grape varieties are also promising.
The bad news: Quantities are 20 to 30 percent lower than average.
Picking started: Aug. 21 for Moscato; Aug. 23 for Arneis; Sept. 11 for Dolcetto; Sept. 20 for Barbera; Sept. 26 for Nebbiolo
Promising grapes: Arneis, Moscato, Nebbiolo
Challenging grapes: Merlot, Dolcetto
Analysis: After a cold winter with ample snow, vines across Piedmont's Langhe jumped out to an early start, only to slow down during cool, damp weather in late spring. This caused some pressure from mildew, but the dry summer reduced most of the fungal disease problems. A hot spell mid-August was followed by two days of rain at the beginning of September that ushered in cooler weather. The snow and rain earlier in the year built up the water reserves, so the vines didn’t suffer too much. There was some sunburn if the grapes were exposed.
Hail occurred in the Roero in May and in the Novello, Barolo and La Morra communes twice in July. Combined with the flowering and heat, this led to reductions in the yield of about 20 to 30 percent. The late August rain and drop in temperature created ideal conditions for ripening Nebbiolo. “There was probably an initial concern as to whether the grapes would reach phenolic ripeness at the same time as sugar ripeness,” said Alessandro Ceretto, the winemaker for his family’s estates. “However, the weather change in late August that brought the cooler nights allowed the grapes to slowly develop ripe tannins and strong varietal characters. While it is early to judge the wines, we are seeing elegance coupled with strong tannins.”
A fresh bunch of Nebbiolo, awaiting fermentation, for Piedmont's Cà da Meo winery.
The good news: A hot year, with late rains bringing needed relief to the vines; overall, a good harvest of very ripe grapes.
The bad news: Excessive heat and drought-like conditions, especially in the spring and early summer, led to lower yields and softer acidity levels.
Picking started: For most, harvest was seven to 10 days earlier than normal, with picking lasting from early August through October.
Promising grapes: Early-ripening varieties like Primitivo excelled. Those planted at higher altitudes, like Fiano and Greco in Campania, also performed well.
Challenging grapes: Late-ripening varieties like Aglianico struggled to balance sugar and phenolic maturation.
Analysis: This was an exceptionally hot, dry vintage across central and southern Italy, with higher-than-normal temperatures, but late rains and cooler conditions brought relief just as harvest kicked off. “We suffered heat in spring and early summer and we also had major heat spikes in the first 10 days of August,” said Feudi di San Gregorio owner Antonio Capaldo. “Luckily we got some rain in September and cooler evenings just before the harvest. This brought acidity to a good level, even if 10 percent lower than last year.”
The best grapes and wines will come from cooler microclimates, as well as from vineyards that either feature heavier, often clay-based soils, which better retain moisture, or vines that have deep root structures and thus the ability to draw moisture up from well below the surface.
Freshly picked red grapes in Valpolicella will soon go into a loft for drying for Amarone.
The good news: Quality appears to be very good to outstanding in Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Montepulciano, with fine results in Bolgheri.
The bad news: It was hot and dry in central Tuscany, causing the vines to slow down, delaying maturity on what was expected to be an early harvest. Quantities are down 10 to 30 percent, and even lower for early-ripening white grape varieties.
Picking started: Ranged from Aug. 16 (Merlot in Maremma) to Oct. 22 (Sangiovese in Chianti Classico)
Promising grapes: Sangiovese, Merlot (Bolgheri), Cabernet Franc (Bolgheri)
Analysis: Tuscany's low yields in 2012 can be largely attributed to two extremely cold weeks in February and cool, wet weather during flowering in May. Warm, dry weather from June to August caused drought concern and it was important to pay attention to working the soil and canopy management. "At the end of June, because of the weather forecast for the coming months, we decided not to remove leaves," said Laura Bianchi, who manages her family's Castello di Monsanto estate in Chianti Classico.
Rain at the end of August brought much-needed relief for the vines and extended the ripening period, particularly for the late-ripening Sangiovese. Guido Orzalesi, marketing and sales director at Altesino in Montalcino, noted that the rain did not increase the size of the berries, but restored moisture to the water-stressed vines.
In the end, it was important to harvest parcel by parcel, as the ripeness was uneven, a result of the prolonged flowering period. Alessandro Cellai, director of Castellare di Castellina in Chianti Classico and Rocca di Frassinello in Maremma, said it was the longest harvest of his 23-year professional experience. Though the summer was dry, it wasn't too hot and by all reports the Sangiovese-based wines show good acidity and fruit. At Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico, initial quality looks better than 2009, another warm year, but it’s too early to tell if 2012 is superior to 2011, another warm year.
It was more difficult for the precocious grape varieties, with the exception of Merlot in Bolgheri, on the Tuscan coast, which benefited from the moisture-retaining clay soils. Nonetheless, quantities were down 20 to 30 percent there.
A worker carefully picks off a bunch of Sangiovese in Montalcino.