Harvest 2011: A Year of Leopard Spots

 Harvest "in the middle of the boiling"

Harvest "in the middle of the boiling"

Just as Italians were heading to the beach for their Ferragosto holiday, a torrid heat enveloped much of Europe. The subtropical air mass arrived in mid-August and didn’t budge until October, making 2011 the hottest September in Italy in 150 years.

This had a big impact on harvest. Up and down the peninsula, grapes came in two weeks early. “We harvested our whites at the end of August, in the middle of the boiling,” says Simone Tremiti of ICARIO in Montepulciano. “In 2009, our Nysa white blend was 13.5%. In 2011, we expect it to be 15.5%.”

Quantity was down dramatically. Prolonged dryness preceded the heat wave, leaving the grapes desiccated. Thus the overall volume of grape must in Italy was 10 percent less than 2009, according to the Unione Italiana Vini–Ismea. At 42.3 million hectoliters, it fell below 43 million for just the third time since 1957—leaving Italy in second place worldwide behind France (49 million hectoliters).

More importantly, quality will be spotty. In some vineyards, the grapes were healthy, with high sugar levels and concentrated flavors. In others, the grapes had partially raisinified. In still others, the vines had shut down from the heat spike and grape maturation ceased, leaving the grapes underripe.

“It’s a year of macchia di leopardo—spots of the leopard—even within the vineyards,” says Letizia Cesani, winemaker at CESANI in San Gimignano. “After Ferragosto, there was a exaggerated heat, with Saharan winds and not enough water. That first week, the leaves on the first row of vines in one of our vineyards burned brown. It was over 40ºC (104ºF) for 10 days. Also the nights were hot. Up until that point, it was ideal. So there are places where the grapes are rich with perfume and structure. But the risk is plants with burnt leaves, which means the grapes won’t mature. Sometimes you find green grapes, despite the desertification. How a vineyard will do depends on the overall health of the vineyard.”

That means it’s up to consumers to do their homework and investigate the situation winery by winery. That was the message from Piedmont to Sicily during our winery visits this fall.

Vintage 2011: What the winemakers say

At FANTI in Montalcino’s Sant’ Antimo valley, Filippo Fanti and his daughter were mid-way through harvest when we stopped by on September 22. Asked how la vendemmia was going, Fanti swiveled his hand to say cosí cosí. “Too much hot,” he replied. “Also at night.” But our hostess put a finer spin on the message. “We were lucky, but Mr. Fanti prefers to say smart,” she said. “In July we had to decide whether or not to cut the leaves on the canopy. If you cut, the grapes are exposed to the sun. We decided not to, so the grapes were shielded. Others cut, and their grapes cooked.”

At Fanti’s neighbor down the road, CIACCI PICCOLOMINI D’ARAGONA, winemaker Paolo Bianchetti was downright excited about the quality of his sangiovese grapes, destined for Brunello. “He burst in and wanted me to interrupt my tasting in order to get the camera and take pictures of the grapes during harvest,” says export manager Martina Frullanti. “He was very happy with them.” While Frullanti considers 2011 a “tricky” vintage, she says “we have good expectations.”

That sentiment was echoed in Sicily. “It was very good year, with less quantity but top quality,” said Luisa Melia at CEUSO. Though Sicily is used to hot weather, it nonetheless saw a staggering 20 percent decline in overall production. Nonetheless, says Melia, “we’re expecting a great year.”

Expectations at Cesani are cautiously optimistic. “It’s an annata positiva, a good year,” concludes Letizia Cesani. “It didn’t rain or hail during harvest, so it’s molto buono in general.” She adds, “We have a saying:When the mushroom pickers cry, the winemakers laugh. And this year, there are no mushrooms.”