It started with the pitter-patter of large droplets of rain last Tuesday morning at 10:51 a.m. Dark, ominous clouds with underbellies of black velvet had moved off the Pratomagno Mountains, heading toward my small office on the estate of Il Borro, in the Italian wine region of Tuscany.
Within seconds, the rain had turned into hail, and the sounds of ice hitting the red-tile roofs, automobiles, stone buildings and roads sounded like maniacal steel-drum music. Ping. Bing. Bong. Ting. The tiny piazza in front of my office began to look like a slushy ski-run as the hail -- now about the size of golf balls -- continued to pour down.
Then, after about three minutes, it was over.
The handful of people in the tiny hamlet of Il Borro came out to assess what had happened. One said his year-old black Peugeot 305 had been dented, while an older woman stood in dismay looking at her flower boxes of shredded orange geraniums. My 4-year-old daughter, who was at home, thought the incident was fantastic. She had collected as many pieces of hail in her arms as she could and placed them in the freezer in hopes of playing with them another day.
But about 300 meters away, the damage was more serious. In the vineyards of Il Borro, owned by the Ferragamo family, the hail had hammered 4 or 5 hectares of young vines. Pieces of leaves lay in the muddy soil, and what foliage was left on the vines was cracked or sliced. The grapes themselves were sticky to the touch, with many cracks in their skins.
"The Ferragamos will not be harvesting much from this vineyard this year," said an agricultural engineer with whom I visited the site. Yet nothing happened to other vineyards on the estate.
Our neighbor, Antonio Moretti, who owns Sette Ponti, producer of some exciting new reds, Oreno and Crognolo, said his vineyards were untouched. "The storm apparently hit the Borro and then moved west down the valley, missing my vineyards," he said. "Thank God."
However, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of grapegrowers throughout Italy have not been as lucky over the past two weeks. Although hailstorms tend to be isolated to particular areas, as was the case in Il Borro, hundreds of damage reports have been filed with the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, according to local news outlets.
Northeastern Italy has been particularly hard hit: In the Veneto region, between 10,000 and 12,000 acres have been affected. Producers in Valpolicella, Soave and Bardolino are among the worst off. Sandro Boscaini, owner of the Masi group, which specializes in those wines, reported that, in higher-elevation areas, 70 percent or more of the crop was damaged, while vineyards on lower terrain saw losses of around 20 percent.
"Certain areas have been hit badly," he said, "especially those that provide grapes for our range of Amarones. In some cases, the plant itself has been damaged, which is a problem not just for this year. In other areas there is less damage, and we may be able to recoup something. At any rate, it's not going to be a great year for us, and some of our Amarones we will just have to forget."
Many Italian producers are still trying to assess the damage. Some are still on summer holiday and haven't even been home yet to check their vineyards.
The best-case scenario is that hot weather will set in and dry the damaged grapes, not allowing infections or rot to set in.
However, the weather for most of northern and central Italy has been wet and cool, perfect conditions for vine diseases to set in. Most growers have been busily spraying their vineyards with various treatments to combat diseases.
Franco Giacosa, a technical director for the family-owned Zonin wine group, which owns thousands of acres of vineyards spread throughout most of Italy's major wine areas, reflected the mood of many Italian vintners at the moment.
"The hail has not been a big problem for the whole area of Northeastern Italy. It is more defined or isolated to particular vineyards or areas," he said. "For us, the big problem has been all the wet weather and wind. We need some sunshine now. We are really starting to become worried about the harvest."
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