Harvest time in Italy: the rule is now the exception

In Piedmont, the 2019 harvest is late (compared to recent standards). Most Dolcetto was already picked when I visited last week, but healthy Nebbiolo bunches were still hanging on the vines (apart from those of early-picking maverick Roberto Voerzio, whose harvest finished on 23rd September, before anyone else had started). Most growers started harvesting Piedmont’s noble grape this week (the second week of October). At Gaja this was around a fortnight later than the already late vintage of 2016, which Gaia Gaja cited as similar for its great quality and quantity.

Left: the only grape-free Nebbiolo vines spotted in Piedmont last week, at Roberto Voerzio (with hail-protecting nets that stay on all-year round and last for 15 years). Right: recently picked vines at Tenuta Tignanello in Tuscany.

It has been a late year since the start: the first drought was in February and March, so there was “no energy for vegetation to develop,” explained Gaja. “In April we got rain but it was cold, so no sicknesses developed,” she continued, expressing relief that there was no replay of 2018’s almost tropical spring. There was a “shocking jump in temperature” on 25th June. With the grapes still all green, at 40°C for almost a week, some grapes burned, “even though we hadn’t touched the canopy by then, but very old vines don’t have so many leaves to protect the grapes,” explained Gaja. Then on 7th and 8th July, 200ml of much-needed rain fell. An accumulated delay was increased further by the higher quantity of grapes for each vine to ripen.

At Bartolo Mascarello, the Nebbiolo harvest is starting around now, which is especially late given that Barolo itself – where Mascarello’s vines are – ripens earliest of all the Barolo villages. However, such a late harvest has become an exception with the world heating up. “The rules have become the exceptions,” mused Maria-Teresa Mascarello, when I asked her about the usual timing for malolactic fermentation at Bartolo Mascarello. “There is no normal time for malo’ any more with so many early vintages,” she answered.

Maria-Teresa Mascarello in the Bartolo Mascarello winery in Barolo, explaining that the rules have become the exceptions due to climate change.

The 2019 harvest might seem late compared to recent, hot vintages, but at Pio Cesare, Augusto Boffa tells me that picking in the last week of October or the first week of November used to be the norm. This is why the winery advocates the Barolo “classico” (they understandably prefer this terminology to “basic” or “standard”) – a blend of many different villages. It is “the only way we can guarantee consistency,” although he adds that, “there used to be more worries on this front climatically.”

A five-hour drive further south, in Chianti, harvest is also on the late side. At Castello di Ama, winemaker Marco Pallanti had to postpone the last day of picking due to some light rain on the morning of Thursday 3rd October. The same spring rain and dry August delayed the vines in Tuscany as in Piedmont. Pallanti was very happy with what had been picked and vinified so far. The wines have “good colour and structure,” he told me, likening the quality level to 2015 and 2016, though quantity is around 20% down on last year.

The wet, cold May and torrid summer have also delayed the vines at Tenuta Tignanello, where they were running the risk of rain to achieve the right balance of sugars and polyphenolics. While the season “started very late and is very long,” said CEO Renzo Cotarella, “the vines didn’t suffer,” he continued, leading to “very balanced grapes” and vines “that still look unstressed even now.” He compares 2019 to 2016 and 2010, saying it is “more fresh than powerful”. If 2019 is anything like the 2016s (“the best we’ve ever made”, declares Cotarella) then we’re in for a treat.*

*I was lucky enough to taste the 2016 and the 2009 Solaia side-by-side at the estate, and very excited to hear about an upcoming retrospective at The Ledbury in London being organised by Wine Lister’s partner critic Vinous. It will include those two vintages and go all the way back to 1978. Renzo Cotarella will be there, as will Piero Antinori, with Antonio Galloni as host. Tickets are available here to Vinous subscribers or email info@vinous.com.


Piedmont’s top Value Picks

With its top ten wines by Quality score costing £225 per bottle on average, Piedmont might seem overindulgent for a low key midweek meal. However, with a little bit of help in the shape of Wine Lister’s Value Pick search tool, it is easy to find wines that will deliver maximum enjoyment at reasonable prices. Value Picks represent the very best quality-to-price ratio wines, with a higher coefficient applied to allow exceptional quality to be recognised. With a remarkable average Quality score of 976, and costing £40 on average, these five Piedmontese wines prove that outstanding quality is available at all price points.

If you’re after top Nebbiolo at a fair price, then Produttori del Barbaresco’s 2013s appear a safe bet, filling three spots. However, the trade-off for top value will be patience – none of the three will enter its drinking window until 2023. However, with each of them lasting over 18 years, you will be able to make the most of your prudent purchases for years to come. And what better way to explore Barbaresco’s crus in an outstanding vintage than with these three? The Asili Riserva achieves the top Quality score of the three (987), 75 points above its wine-level average. It is also the most expensive, but £42 per bottle doesn’t seem unreasonable for such quality. The Montestefano Riserva really outperformed in the 2013 vintage with a Quality score of 972, 125 points above its average score. The market is yet to react – the 2013’s price is currently 16% below its wine-level average.

Proving that if you’re looking for value for money in Piedmont, it’s not just Barbaresco that you should look out for, Domenico Clerico Barolo Ciabot Mentin 2007 is the region’s number one Value Pick. With a Quality score of 989 – thanks to a 98 point score from Antonio Galloni – it is not hard to see why. What’s more, whereas the Produttori del Barbaresco 2013s require cellaring, the Ciabot Mentin is just entering its drinking window.

Showing that Piedmont is not all about Nebbiolo, Giacomo Conterno’s Barbera d’Alba Cascina Francia 2013 fills the remaining spot. The group’s only Buzz Brand, this would be an excellent way to sample one of Giacomo Conterno’s wines at a fraction of the cost of the domaine’s top cuvées – the hallowed Monfortino Riserva costs £608 per bottle on average.

Prices per bottle are provided by our price partner, Wine Owners, whose own proprietary algorithms process millions of rows of incoming price data from Wine-Searcher to calculate a more realistic market level price – the price at which a wine is likely to find a ready buyer – based on market supply and spread models. As lower retail prices are likely to sell first, the prices you see on Wine Lister may be below the Wine-Searcher average in some instances.


Listed: Barbaresco’s best wines

For some, Piedmont is virtually synonymous with the DOCG appellation of Barolo. While wines from this famous appellation rank amongst the very best on Wine Lister, its understated sibling Barbaresco also holds its own, as we discover looking at the top five Barbarescos by Wine Lister score below.

With an overall score of 924, Gaja’s Barbaresco takes the top spot. It leads thanks to its excellent Brand score (977), over 120 points ahead of Barbaresco’s second-strongest brand. As the only one of the group with brand as its strongest suit, Gaja’s Barbaresco is present in 33% of the world’s top restaurants, has the widest range of vintages and formats on each wine list, and receives over five times more searches each month on Wine-Searcher than the second-most popular wine of the group. Consequently, the wine has the joint-highest Brand score of all Piedmont wines – alongside Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Monfortino Riserva.

Numbers two to five on the list share the same legendary producer. The recently departed Bruno Giacosa has left behind him a formidable legacy, reflected in his four-fold appearance in this top five. The domaine Azienda Agricola Falleto’s and Giacosa’s negotiant arm expressions of Barbaresco excel across all three categories that make up their overall Wine Lister score.

Azienda Agricola Falletto’s Asili Riserva has the best Economics score of all Barbarescos (967), with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.5%. It is also the most expensive at £222 per bottle, and most traded of the five.

Giacosa’s Barbaresco Rabajà takes third place, but holds the best Quality score (963) and best long-term price performance (27.0%). The former is reflected in the wine’s impressive average ageing potential of 22 years, five years longer than the Asili Riserva. Indeed, Rabajà 2004, which achieves an outstanding Quality score of 993, has only recently entered its drinking window, and will be drinking well until 2034.

Fourth and fifth spots are taken by Giacosa’s Barbaresco Santo Stefano (di Nieve / Albesani) and Barbaresco Asili. They display very similar profiles, each performing best in the Economics category, followed by Quality, and then Brand. Both wines still rank as “very strong” on the Wine Lister 1000-point scale, with overall scores of 874 and 860 respectively.

This is a poignant week for Azienda Agricola Falletto, with many of the great estate’s wines being released for the first time since the passing of Bruno Giacosa.


Usher in autumn with Piedmont’s strongest brands

With the days quickly shortening and misty mornings become the norm, we bid farewell to rosé for the year and welcome back old favourites. Autumn is the perfect season for Piedmontese reds, which are not only so redolent of mist-covered hills, but also pair perfectly with the region’s food at this time of year. With that in mind, this week’s Listed section features Piedmont’s top five wines by Brand score.

Listed - Top 5 Piedmont Brand Scores

Whilst Barolo might be the region’s most famous appellation, it is Gaja Barbaresco that tops the table with an outstanding Brand score of 976. It performs extremely well across both of Wine Lister’s Brand criteria – restaurant presence and online popularity – coming first and second respectively. It is visible in 33% of the most prestigious establishments worldwide, and attracts more than 8,400 searches on Wine-Searcher each month.

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva comes next (968). The first of three Wine Lister Buzz Brands in the group, it is by far the most expensive. Receiving on average 9,358 searches each month on Wine-Searcher, it is also the most popular wine in the group. Interestingly, despite experiencing the lowest restaurant presence (23%), it enjoys the greatest depth in terms of number of vintages and formats listed (4.4) – testament to its extraordinary ageing potential of over 24 years.

Bartolo Mascarello Barolo (of “no barrique, no Berlusconi” fame) fills the third spot. This staunchly traditional producer enjoys its best scores in the Brand category, with its excellent search frequency of over 7,000 searches each month helping it to a score of 960.

The last two spots are filled by another wine each from Giacomo Conterno and Gaja – Barolo Francia (formerly Casina Francia) and  Sperss (now labelled as Barolo again from the 2013 vintage after 17 years declassified to Langhe Nebbiolo) [Friday fun fact – Gaja now labels wines under the Europe-wide DOP classification rather than the strictly Italian DOC status]. Both wines have strong restaurant presence, at 30% and 31% respectively. Either would be a perfect accompaniment to Alba’s famous white truffles, which will be starting to appear in some of those restaurants now.