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.


Does Bordeaux have a new “normal”?

A new “normal” seems to be developing for Bordeaux.

After a fleeting trip around Bordeaux properties on both banks at the start of harvest, the Wine Lister team is excited to see the 2019 vintage take shape.

We must admit this was not our sentiment on the 23rd September, when, on arrival in a dreary, damp Bordeaux, our first thought went to the poor pickers, and of course to the grapes and potential spread of disease in such wet conditions.

Thankfully this worry was quickly cast aside – “the grapes are in an incredibly healthy state. For grape health, this has been a dream year”, said Château Dassault’s Valérie Befve. This, she further explained, was thanks to the combination of a good spring without too much humidity, budburst that was a little cold but without rain, and a dry summer that was hot without having placed too much water stress on the majority of the vines.

The summer heat wave and consequential drought, similar in timing and nature to 2018 (and to an extent, 2016), will likely result in another year where freshness and caution in extraction are key. Befve put this succinctly, noting that the “skin to juice ratio will require delicate management”. This theme, recurring in several of the last Bordeaux vintages, highlights the importance of careful handling in the cellars, and explains in part the purposeful movement towards a fresher, more approachable style, and away from big tannins and high alcohol that need time in bottle to soften.

Left: Sorting of the first Merlot grapes at Pichon Baron. Right: Pichon Baron now uses small vats on wheels to transport freshly-picked grapes into fermentation tanks, since they cause less breakage of grape skins than traditional pumps.

Comparable characteristics seem in play on the left bank too. At Pichon Baron we tasted some of the very first 2019 Merlot grapes, and though the berries are a little smaller than usual (because of the drought), they are in perfect health. Axa Millésimes’ Commercial Director Xavier Sanchez was quick to say that it was far too soon to speculate on quality levels, but that the very early analyses “resembled 2018 and 2016”.

Grapes of high sugar content will need to be vinified with caution in order to balance potentially high alcohol levels. The rain that has fallen in the past 10 days will likely be a welcome gift to the Cabernet Sauvignon from the “grands terroirs” on this front, the majority of which are set to be picked this week.

Sara Lecompte Cuvelier, Managing Director of Léoville Poyferré and Le Crock echoed the positive sentiment on the general quality of grapes for both her properties, in Saint-Julien as in Saint-Estèphe – “We’re hopeful it will be another beautiful vintage, for both quantity and quality this year”.

While successions of good years are by no means unusual for the bordelais, harvests following heatwaves are becoming a pattern. All that remains to be seen is how the winemakers of Bordeaux deal with this “new normal” in the cellar. We are looking forward to finding out next year!


2018: a super Tuscan vintage?

The 2018 will be a five-star vintage for Chianti Classico wines according to Giovanni Manetti, newly-elected president of the appellation’s Consorzio. The growing season was “very regular”, with no extreme weather events, and normal picking times. Thanks to healthy grapes, ripe yet fresh, Manetti believes the vintage will be characterised by “harmony”. The DOCG appellation is set to produce c.270,000 hectolitres, back to normal production levels after a less abundant 2017.

On Monday 24th September at Fontodi, Manetti’s winery in Panzano, harvest was well underway. It had not rained for 22 days, and the ground was dusty. However, Manetti explained that in Panzano, while hot, temperatures had not risen above 36˚C, and that nights had been cool. At Castello di Fonterutoli, 15km further south, Giovanni Mazzei confirmed the heat had been nothing on 2015, when temperatures rose above 45˚C.

Quality control at Fontodi’s sorting tables in Chianti Classico

However, Mazzei was somewhat less sanguine about the 2018, citing humid mornings as a challenge. Having picked one third of the estate’s production by Monday, the next fortnight will be a race against rot. Mazzei predicts the vintage might fall between the opulent 2015s and the structured 2016s in terms of quality and style.

Towards the coast, in Bolgheri, the Merlot harvest is almost finished, and “the fermenting wines are silky and fragrant,” according to Axel Heinz, Estate Director at both Ornellaia and Masseto. Heinz is grateful for “excellent conditions during September with sunny and mostly dry weather, occasionally hot day temperatures but cool nights”. In Bolgheri, “mildew and humidity have been challenging,” he states, ”but we were able to bring healthy fruit to full ripeness,” recounts Heinz, who says yields in 2018 are normal. He predicts “a more delicate vintage, like 2013.”

Moving down the coast, in the Maremma, Elisabetta Geppetti, owner of Fattoria Le Pupille, spoke of regular climatic conditions leading to “a good year”. The first lot of Merlot for Geppetti’s flagship wine Saffredi is already vinified, and, she says, “marvellous”. She is delighted with her Cabernet Sauvignon too, and relayed the view of Le Pupille’s consultant oenologist Luca d’Attoma, that the grape has thrived throughout the whole southern part of Tuscany. Meanwhile Sangiovese has ripened less evenly.

Back inland, in Sangiovese’s heartland, Montalcino, the picture is less clear cut, due to excessive rain in spring and early summer. “Winemakers had not seen this kind of weather since the nineties,” explained Giacomo Pondini, Director of the Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio.

There has been “too much humidity in the air”, according to Gianfranco Soldera, with an “almost tropical” summer (a similar story to the picture recounted in our Bordeaux harvest report). At Case Basse, Soldera’s cult winery, 2018 has been “a year of suffering”, with mildew, oidium, and “mould in general”. To combat this, a team of 20 people has been combing the vineyard removing bunches non-stop since June.

Remaining bunches after extreme selection at Soldera’s Case Basse in Montalcino

Unlike in 1989, the only year when Soldera didn’t make a wine because of too much rain, he was “ready for the challenge” this time round, and believes he will still make a great wine in 2018, albeit in very small quantities. For Soldera, rain is the enemy of vine-growing, and he rejoiced in the exceptionally dry growing season of 2017, “a year of fun”, where the vines drank mineral-rich water from the ground. Incidentally, the 2017, tasted (or rather drunk – as spitting is banned at Case Basse) from its Garbellotto cask, is incredible: alluring, alive, pure, and long.

The owner of neighbouring wineries Caparzo and Altesino, Elisabetta Gnudi puts 2018 somewhere between a four- and five-star vintage. To absorb the humidity, her team used clay dust on the vines, “like using baby powder,” she explained. Again echoing the story in Bordeaux, she reckons that “true organic vineyards haven’t harvested a single grape this year.”

At Argiano, Sales Manager Riccardo Bogi also described a less plain-sailing vintage than in Chianti. On top of the heavy rain, a hailstorm in July wiped out 25% of the crop in some vineyards. However, positioned high up on the hill of Argiano, wind in August meant the winery was able to counter rot with copper and sulphur, although the “agronomist didn’t get a vacation”, quipped Bogi. Like Heinz in Bolgheri, he expects 2018 to share characteristics with the elegant 2013s, saying they won’t have intense colour or structure.

There was a dramatic change in the weather on Monday, with temperatures dropping and strong winds picking up, which lasted throughout our three-day visit. While half of the appellation’s Sangiovese has already been harvested, and wineries are “happy with the quality,” Pondini hopes that, “the other half may benefit from this sunny, cool, windy week”.


The Bordeaux 2018 harvest: another 2010?

As ripe, healthy grapes are being picked across Bordeaux, winemakers are anything but shy about the potential of the 2018 vintage. “2015 and 2016 are five-star vintages, but 2009 and 2010 are five-star plus,” said Olivier Bernard, president of the Union des Grands Crus Classés de Bordeaux. At his own property in Pessac-Léognan, Domaine de Chevalier, “2018 has 2009-2010 potential,” he declared on Wednesday morning, just as the red harvest was beginning.

Bernard is not the only Bordeaux producer daring to hope that the region has another great vintage on its way into the cellars. Part of the Wine Lister team is just back from four days in Bordeaux, where we visited châteaux on right bank and left, from Saint-Estèphe in the very north to Pessac-Léognan south of the city. We tasted lots of berries, spoke to oenologists, and even picked some grapes.

Members of the picking team at Petrus during the 2018 harvest

Producers’ smiles were big, and all the signs were promising, but after such a rollercoaster growing season, can 2018 really match up to the historic pair of 2009 and 2010? I asked straight-talking winemaking consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt if this comparison was justified. “More 2010,” he confirmed, adding, “There are going to be some delicious wines.”

Spring in Bordeaux was interminably wet, and mildew a serious threat throughout the region. “We thought there might not be a harvest at all,” recalls Nicolas Audebert, Managing Director of Châteaux Canon and Rauzan-Ségla. “It rained non-stop, and with high humidity and the high temperatures in June, it was almost tropical,” he said. Some members of Audebert’s team had never seen mildew so rife in 40 years of working the vines in Bordeaux.

Many top producers were affected, especially those practising organic or biodynamic viticulture and therefore unable to treat the vines systematically to protect from the fungus. In Saint-Estèphe, at the top of the Gironde Estuary nearest the Atlantic Ocean, Lafon-Rochet, organic since 2010 (though uncertified), abandoned the practice this year, and for good, in order to fight the rain.

However, mildew “is primarily a problem for quantity, rather than quality,” explained Axel Marchal, consultant and researcher at Bordeaux University, because the affected grapes are easily removed and discarded. “Badly hit vines can see a slight quality impact too, if the stress caused to the plant is enough to delay maturity,” he clarified.

At Canon in Saint-Emilion, quantity lost to mildew was recouped by less green harvesting later in the season. Its larger Margaux sister property, Rauzan-Ségla, was not so lucky, and yields will be lower than average. The two properties are organic (again not certified), allowing them to treat the vines when “really necessary”. However, many strictly organic or biodynamic estates will produce much smaller quantities of wine this year, meaning yields will be very varied from château to château, ranging from around 15 hl/ha to 50 hl/ha or more.

Grapes ripe for picking at Petrus

Potential quantity started off high, with the rain acting as “a signal for the plant to produce lots of fruit,” explained Bernard. The incessant spring downpours had another positive effect: they left the ground full of water, helping the vines to withstand the hot, dry summer that unfolded from 20th June onwards. “Looking at our vines, it’s hard to believe it’s been one of the driest summers in 50 years,” marvelled Bernard.

Audebert thinks the 2018 Canon will be soft and rounded, but livelier than 2005 or 2009, with phenolic potential above that of the 2010 (which of course is renowned for its intense colour and high levels of ripe tannin). When I asked if it could be as good as 2010, my question was met with silence and a roguish smile.