This is the second of Wine Spectator's reports on the 2011 vintage in the northern hemisphere. All this week, we'll be bringing you harvest details from winemakers throughout Europe and North America.
The 2011 growing season was erratic in Italy. In the north, weather was hot, but occasional rains kept the grapes ripening nicely. In Tuscany and farther south, it was hotter, and vintners with dry soils faced big challenges. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.
• The Northeast
• Southern & Central Italy
Producers in the northeastern corner of Italy seem optimistic about the 2011 vintage. Despite atypical weather, general assessments range from “a very good vintage” from winemakers in the regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Veneto, to an enthusiastic “outstanding” from some in Trentino-Alto Adige.
Spring was very warm and sunny in all three regions, triggering an earlier flowering. June brought varied weather. Temperatures were below average, with warm days but cool nights. In the Veneto, conditions were abnormally dry. In Friuli and Alto Adige, there were periods of heavy rains. Producers are crediting the wet conditions with more aromatic white wines. “Cool, some rain—perfect to develop the aromas,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, whose family owns Friuli’s Attems estate.
Cool weather might have spelled disaster for overall physiological maturity of the grapes if it continued throughout summer, but temperatures picked up. July and August were hot. Both Mara Castellani of Michele Castellani and Sabrina Tedeschi of her family’s eponymous winery report that irrigation was needed to counter dry conditions, though a brief period of rain at the end of August helped keep the vines from shutting down ripening. Alto Adige and Friuli were also warm.
Luckily, harvest in each region was excellent. Andrea Felluga, winemaker at Livio Felluga in Friuli, said the weather was beautiful. September was dry, warm and sunny, with cooler nights. Armin Gratl from the Elena Walch estate in Alto Adige says that the lack of rain made for an easy harvest. "We could constantly monitor [the grapes’] acidity and pH without being pushed by bad weather," he said.
Most winegrowers believe they successfully navigated the year's challenges. “The blossoming and the period when the grapes start to develop happened very early, but then the high temperature in July put everything back to normal,” said Pierangelo Tommasi of his family’s winery in the Veneto. But the challenging weather, especially the heat that assaulted each region at different times, produced a smaller crop—estimates range from 10 percent to 20 percent less than 2010.
Piedmont, particularly the Langhe and Roero, experienced an earlier harvest than usual in 2011. Warm spells in April, June and July accelerated the development of the vines. Though conditions were dry, nights were cool, distinguishing 2011 from the hot 2003 vintage. What's more, water reserves from winter rains prevented the vines from suffering too much.
The early ripening varieties, Dolcetto specifically, experienced some dehydration from the heat. As a result, yields were lower. Arneis was also affected by the high temperatures and sun, with slightly decreased yields. Generally speaking, yields tended to be lower in vineyards on south and southwest facing slopes.
A worker hoists a crate of Nebbiolo grapes at the Produttori dei Barbaresco winery. (Photograph by John Anthony Rizzo)
Pietro Ratti, proprietor of Renato Ratti winery in La Morra, reports that just under an inch of rain at the beginning of September and another light rain Sept. 17 refreshed the later-ripening Barbera and Nebbiolo. Sources throughout the region report an excellent harvest for these two varieties, with the heat tempering Barbera’s naturally high acidity and the ideal weather conditions in September extending the long, slow ripening of Nebbiolo. “A vintage that in May and August we were afraid was going to be like 2003 turned out—especially for the Nebbiolo—more like 1990,” said Ratti.
Alessandro Ceretto was pleased with the quality of his Nebbiolo, describing the young wines as “vibrant, appealing and perfumed.” He adds that the tannins are refined and the textures reflect their terroirs, being silkier from Brunate and Cannubi and more austere from Bricco Rocche and Prapò.
In Gavi, Chiara Soldati of La Scolca reported that the flowering of the Cortese vines occurred 10 days early and harvest was one week ahead of the long-term average. Yields were normal and she believed quality was high, with healthy grapes that achieved, “the right balance between acidity and sugar and a correct aromatic content.”
From Umbria to Sicily, winemakers across central and southern Italy are reporting a warm, challenging harvest. “2011 was not a great harvest,” said Chiara Lungarotti, who manages her family’s eponymous winery in Umbria. "[It’s] one of the toughest vintages of the last decade.”
According to Lungarotti, hot spring weather was followed by rains that lasted through July. She feared that some grapes, like Chardonnay, would burst on the vine. But a heat wave arrived in August and lasted into September, drying out the grapes and allowing for proper maturation of early-ripening varieties, like Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Late-ripening varieties, such as Sangiovese and Sagrantino, suffered in the excessive heat, with some berries drying on the vine. Lungarotti said that her yields are down 25 percent.
Harvesting grapes on the steep terraces of the Southern Alps. (Photograph courtesy of Alois Lageder)
Further south in Campania, Antonio Capaldo, president of Feudi di San Gregorio, also reports difficult weather conditions and lower yields. “We had continuous rains in April and May [during] pollination,” said Capaldo. “If the pollination is impacted by rain, it happens in a discontinuous way—or does not happen at all.” Yields in general, he said, are down 20 to 40 percent. Aglianico yields are down as much as 60 percent.
Late summer brought heat that lasted through harvest and accelerated maturation by seven to 10 days. According to Capaldo, average temperatures were 5 to 7 degrees warmer than average during the days and up to 10 degrees warmer at nights, pushing alcohol levels up.
For white wines, Fiano was not affected by the heat, but the late-ripening Greco is more delicate and required meticulous vineyard management to preserve the grape’s natural acidity. The red grape Aglianico withstood the weather better. “We consider the quality spectacular for Aglianico, even if we need to verify this in the next few months,” said Capaldo.
Weather conditions in Sicily were slightly more consistent. A cool spring was followed by moderate temperatures in summer, according to Diego Cusumano of Cusumano winery. Warm, sunny weather arrived on the back of the African Scirocco wind in mid-August, but Cusumano says temperatures stabilized, allowing for a normal harvest of whites and Syrah. Late, persistent rains forced an early harvest of late-ripening reds Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon, however. “I personally think that the white grapes and Syrah are the best expression of the vintage,” said Cusumano.
The story of the 2011 harvest in Tuscany is the heat wave from Africa that settled over central Italy in August. It resulted in a harvest roughly three weeks earlier than usual, challenging vintners to retain freshness and elegance in early ripening grape varieties.
After a warm April, the weather turned cooler than average, with some rain in late spring. When the heat descended on the region on August 18, there were plenty of water reserves from the winter rains, although younger vines suffered and ripening stopped in some cases. The intense heat also caused some sunburn and dehydration of grapes.
Andrea Cecchi, whose family owns several estates in Tuscany noted that nearly 4 inches of rain July 27 and irrigation provided ample water reserves at his Maremma estate Valle delle Rose. And unlike 2003, nights were cool, which helped keep white varieties fresh.
Winemaker Renato Vacca punches down the must in a vat at Cantina del Pino in Barbaresco. (Photograph by John Anthony Rizzo)
Nonetheless, most estates began harvesting about three weeks earlier than normal, starting with the white grapes to preserve acidity. Leonardo Bellacini, enologist for San Felice in Chianti Classico and Campogiovanni in Montalcino, commenced harvesting the young vines at Campogiovanni in mid-September. “The Sangiovese was less affected by the drought, but we lost part of the potential,” he said.
Merlot suffered the most in the heat, with sunburn, dehydration and excessive sugar levels that resulted in high alcohol levels and fermentations that had difficulty finishing. The early harvest also meant temperatures were high during fermentation; dry ice was used at one estate to cool grapes arriving from the vineyards.
Cristina Mariani-May, co-proprietor of Castello Banfi in Montalcino, compared 2011 with 2000, which also brought excessive temperatures in August. This year, yields for white varieties were down by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent at Banfi. Yields for Sangiovese and other red grapes at Banfi were 10 percent less than average. At Carpineta Fontalpino in the southeastern part of Chianti Classico, winemaker Gioia Cresti reported yields 15 to 20 percent lower than usual.
In the end, Montepulciano, with its deeper soils, Montalcino with late-ripening Sangiovese and Maremma fared the best; Chianti Classico, with poor, stony soils, was more of a challenge in the heat, even at high elevations.
“I’m positive about the 2011 vintage, but at the same time disappointed because the grapes looked really outstanding until the 18th of August," said Bellacini, "I watched part of the quality evaporate under the sun.”