A heat wave that hit much of the Mediterranean in the beginning of August seems to have affected most of Italy's winegrowing regions, particularly in the south, moving up the ripening of white and red grape varieties by at least 10 days.
Some producers are worried that the weather is too hot, as temperatures have been reaching well over 105 degrees F each day. Grape-sugar levels in some vineyards are becoming too high, at potential alcohol levels of more than 15 percent. This has prompted a few producers to harvest at night, when temperatures are lower and the grapes retain their freshness and acidity.
"This is one of the earliest harvests I have seen in the last 30 years," said Riccardo Cotarella, a top consulting enologist who works for a number of producers, including Sicily's new Morgante winery and Campania's Feudi di San Gregorio, Montevetrano and Fattoria Galardi.
"The high temperatures we've had over the past couple of weeks in the center and south of Italy have led to a fast and early ripening of the grapes and yielded high concentrations of sugar and extracts, which looks very promising for varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon," Cotarella said. "However, I hope it will not have a negative impact on the elegance of the wines."
Most producers in southern Italy started harvesting their white varieties around mid-August. "Last year, we started harvesting our Chardonnay on Aug. 24 and our Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera [red varieties] around Sept. 10," said Francesco Taurino of Dr. Cosimo Taurino winery in Apulia. "This year, we have already finished harvesting our white grapes and will begin harvesting our red grapes around the beginning of September."
"As far as quality is concerned, it is a great year, similar to 1994 and 1997," said Taurino, whose view was enthusiastically echoed by producers in Sicily.
At Regaleali, which has already started harvesting Pinot Noir despite its cool, 2,000-foot altitude, enologist Luigi Gozzo said, "The grapes are perfect this year. Though it is a little too early to make an accurate assessment, we think it will be a great year for both our red varieties, Nero d'Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon."
Planeta, one of Sicily's best-known wineries, has also started picking, and Francesca Planeta is forecasting a better harvest than in 1998 and 1999, though yields are lower than in those two years. She predicted "excellent results with the reds" due to both the good growing season and intensive care in the vineyards.
In Sardinia, Argiolas has already finished its harvesting of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery is currently harvesting its Vermentino (a white Italian variety) and expects to start on Cannonau (a name in Sardinia for Grenache) by early September. Giuseppe Argiolas, who oversees the winery's viticulture, expects a better-quality harvest than last year's, which was very good. But he added that the good results were not just attributable to the favorable weather conditions: "Working hard in the vineyard cutting back yields was important in making good wines."
Read senior editor James Suckling's tasting report on southern Italian wines: