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With the grapes in the cellar and the first wines, a journey through the Italian wine designations

The 2020 harvest is practically finished, a new vintage is ready to make its way. The photography of WineNews: great quality and quantity in decline

The harvest is coming to an end, the grapes have already been in the cellar for a few days if not weeks, in several key areas of Italian viticulture the wine is already ready, waiting for the period of aging, which will bring it in the bottle. For now, 2020 is a vintage in bands, which in terms of quality has been able to give itself important peaks, but the premises of the eve, in terms of quantity, have not been respected. Nothing serious, however, we are well within the statistical average of the last five years, and in any case, the extraordinariness of the moment means that quantity is really the least of the problems. The first, and in fact the only one, of the headaches that disturb the sleep of the great names of the Belpaese - from Barolo to Franciacorta, from Prosecco to Valpolicella, from Trentodoc to Bolgheri, from Chianti to Chianti Classico, from Brunello di Montalcino to Morellino di Scansano, from Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Matelica to Primitivo di Manduria, from Doc Sicilia to Doc di Castel del Monte - it is the market, both domestic and foreign, that has to deal with the local closures and restrictions that, starting from Europe, risk to stop (again) consumption outside the home.
WineNews, however, for now remains virtually in the cellar, there will be time to think about the great themes of the economy. In the casks and vats, meanwhile, takes shape a vintage with very different nuances, but which enjoys a generally optimal climatic trend, with a few degrees too much in some cases, and the unwelcome guest hail at the end of summer, which has however done limited damage. We start, in this journey in stages, from the most precious denomination, for row quotations and for prices of the most celebrated bottles, Barolo. Where, to make a first point, are the winemakers gathered in the Deditus Association: Azelia, Cordero di Montezemolo, Sandrone, Michele Chiarlo, Pio Cesare, Poderi Gianni Gagliardo, Poderi Luigi Einaudi, Prunotto and Vietti. “I would like this vintage to represent an act of reconquest of normality and consolidation of positivity, with the certainty of a serene future for all those who live the world of wine seriously and generously”, says Gianni Gagliardo, president of the Association. Whose winemakers speak of “a surprising harvest, from an agronomic and managerial point of view, despite the obvious difficulties in terms of manpower and adaptation of safety protocols”.
Nebbiolo is a grape variety suitable for climate change and in fact has responded very well especially in the swinging final phase of maturation. The cycle of the vine began early, and then resisted the high temperatures of August and gave the typical Nebbiolo’s tail blow when the cool nights arrived from mid-September onwards that favored a perfect phenolic ripening of the grapes, preserving their scents. The early spring brought with it an early budding, followed by cooler temperatures in May and June and definitely warmer in August but with a good temperature range. The quality of the grapes harvested is excellent. They are healthy, with high sugar content and the right phenolic maturity. Those who have been able to wait for the right moment of the harvest have not lost the potential, that is the complexity that the Nebbiolo grape brings with it, pruning an amazing grape in the cellar. This has made everything easier even in the cellar with linear fermentation paths after pressing and destemming. A scent of rose, typical of Nebbiolo, which can be smelled in very few vintages, has accompanied the grapes, from white to red and especially the Nebbiolo, since their arrival in the cellar, conclude the Deditus producers.
Moving on to Franciacorta, obviously waiting for spring to understand the quality of the 2020 sparkling wine bases, the first to give WineNews an initial assessment is Silvano Brescianini, head of the Consortium of classic method bubbles, but also general manager of the Barone Pizzini brand. “It being understood that the definitive and official numbers will only arrive in a few weeks, from the information I have had from the various wineries in the area I would say that the harvest went well. The quantities are up 10% compared to last year, in qualitative terms, in spring I will also be able to tell you how they are, but we are optimistic. Right now it is not the harvest that worries us, but the market. Having full cellars does not worry us, ours is an aging wine, but we risk not even being able to play the game: if restaurants and bars close again, in Italy and abroad, we cannot do our job, and this is a problem. We hope that this nightmare will pass quickly, there is no other solution, the moment is difficult, I hope that this is the queue and that it passes quickly, so that we can start again...”.
Waiting, in a different way, and perhaps even more important, is also the leitmotif motivating among the vineyards of Valpolicella, where Amarone is born and, as Olga Bussinello, director of the Consorzio Vini Valpolicella, explains, “we are still in progress, because the grape picking is finished, but the harvest is not finished, we are waiting for the aging time. If we look at the last few years, we have constantly anticipated the harvest, since mid-September we have come close to the end of August, due to the increasingly hot summers that accelerate the ripening of the grapes. This year, on the other hand, we have returned to the normal harvest in Valpolicella, beginning in mid-September and ending in the first ten days of October. It was a swinging harvest, due to the rain, but the heat of the last 15 days led to a positive conclusion, in an “annus horribilis”. There were no problems in the vineyard - adds the director of the Consorzio Vini Valpolicella - and this allowed us to manage the harvest in the best possible way. We are overcoming the first month of drying in the drying room, we keep dehydration under control and then proceed with the vinification of Recioto and Amarone, and it is interesting to note that the sugar levels are higher than last year, so on average. We must consider that climate change can be seen in every aspect, with imponderable weather events and average temperatures rising. Consequently, it also changes the way traditional practices are handled, from harvesting to withering. All in all - concludes Olga Bussinello - it is a difficult year especially from an economic point of view, but from the product point of view we are in the norm. In a climatic parallelism, the vintage 2020 from an agronomic point of view recalls one of the harvests of the early 2000s, in terms of vineyard performance and harvest management. When there will be the vinification, we will understand what will be the right term of comparison at an oenological level”.
Not far away, the president of the Trento Doc Institute, Enrico Zanoni, explains “the 2020 harvest began earlier than last year. In the vineyards, the vegetative-productive balance turned out to be very good, with compact bunches, optimal acidity and low pH. The temperatures, accompanied by the characteristic temperature range between day and night in Trentino, determined an abundant and quality harvest. The altimetric position of the vineyard, in fact, as well as the temperature range affects the ripening of the grapes, influencing the acidity of the bunches in the period between veraison and harvest. The day that marks the beginning of the harvest is determined when the grapes have reached the right degree of acidity, a key factor in determining the quality of the blend destined to become a classic method. The harvest date is also chosen by the analysis of the sugars, mineral salts and aromatic substances present in the grapes”. The sum of factors that have brought to the winery excellent grapes and wines that, as in Franciacorta, only in spring will reveal their full potential.
For two territories on stand by, one, fundamental for the bubbles of the Belpaese in Italy and around the world, already has everything to draw up a balance sheet. In the Prosecco Superiore di Conegliano Valdobbiadene wineries, “the harvest of 2020 ended with a positive sign in particular with regard to the quality of the grapes brought to the winery. In a year that was not particularly hot and that underwent some rainier than average periods, the vocation of the territory to viticulture, once again, made the difference. In fact, thanks to the morphology of the hills, which have very steep slopes, and the exposure of the vineyards to the sun, dangerous water stagnations potentially harmful to the vine were avoided. The vintage in the vineyard - it can be read in the Consorzio Conegliano Valdobbiadene Docg press release - had a very regular course, indeed with a slow progression that benefited the quality of the fruit. It was characterized by a mild and dry climate until the beginning of summer, during which rainy episodes alternated with days of heat that were never excessive. The weather conditions led the vine to develop the fruit and let it ripen gradually until the moment of harvesting, when clement weather gave sunny days, cool and windy nights, perfect for drying the grapes well before entering the cellar. These are the best conditions to start working in the cellar a sparkling wine that will then bring in the glasses that aromatic charge that has made it famous and appreciated in the world”.
“This year’s harvest has confronted us with an important and completely new challenge”, comments Innocente Nardi, president of the Consorzio di Tutela del Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco. “We have worked in the knowledge that we still have many challenges ahead of us and this is why the Consortium has adopted policies based on “healthy” prudence to guarantee the quality and value of the Denomination on the market. Policies that do not jeopardize any particularly positive economic scenarios thanks to the possibility of using the product put into storage. At the moment the market continues to reward the Denomination, the certification trend is in line with last year. The value and positioning of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Docg is defended by continuing to work under the sign of quality, which is the only winning asset to face this crisis and the transformations that await us”.
As usual, the harvest began in the easternmost part of the denomination, the south-east area, on the slopes most exposed to the sun, and gradually moved westwards to climb the cooler shores of the slopes of the Valdobbiadenese, where the harvest accentuates its heroic traits and the characteristics of the territory require a mastery that is true local wisdom. The grapes harvested at the two extremes of the Denomination will lead to equally distant wines, demonstrating the exceptionality of a grape variety, Glera, which within a few kilometers manages to express itself and decline in many facets from ripe fruits to white flowers, from more or less marked acidity and still savory flavors that intensify with the rippling of the hills. Here on the steepest shores, during the year it takes up to 6/700 hours of manual work per hectare. For this reason, the heroic harvest represents the moment of maximum ingenuity of the winemakers of the territory and one of the elements that build the value of the product, its uniqueness.
Going down to the Tyrrhenian coast, where the great wines of Bolgheri are born, it has become a point of reference in terms of quality all over the world, but also a territory capable of giving home to the two main international grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, giving a more and more own and recognizable interpretation, coming out of the styles of the vigneron of Bordeaux. With the vice-president of the Bolgheri Consortium, Cinzia Merli, who arrived here in 1983, founding Le Macchiole, we start from the end, that is, from a market that offers few guarantees and even fewer answers. “Luckily time is on our side, because the first wines of this vintage will be released in 2022, so we will have some breathing space. We hope that the situation will improve, also because, all in all, it was a positive vintage, perhaps with less than expected. We do not yet have definitive data, while the quality, despite the premises that have kept us on alert, is definitely satisfactory. We have wines of great balance in the winery, certainly not a great vintage like 2016, but still very good. If we want to draw a parallel with the vintages of the past, it could look like 2015 or 2008, it was a vintage to manage, as always happens when there are peaks of heat or cold”.
As in every corner and in every crease of the Italian economy and society, even in Bolgheri, Cinzia Merli resumes, “we breathe uncertainty, but we are trying hard. We work and we remain optimistic, but if we look ahead we get a little discouraged, especially for those who, like us, are used to looking away, to making long-term plans, which today is absolutely impossible to do. In the cellar and between the rows, however, the harvest went even better than I expected. People have worked with the safety devices and the spacings, which have already been adopted before. I do not deny that there was concern, because stopping at the grape harvest would have been a disaster, and there could have been the possibility”.
From the coast, staying in Tuscany, towards the hinterland, for the report of the harvest, quantitatively, larger, that of Chianti. That covers a gigantic area, which includes, in whole or in part, the provinces of Florence, Siena, Arezzo, Pisa, Pistoia and Prato. In a flash, “Less but excellent”. That’s how the Chianti of the 2020 vintage promises to be. “It’s a fabulous harvest: the wine production is less than in other years, but the quality is excellent”, explains Giovanni Busi, president of the Consorzio Vino Chianti. A drop in production was in the programs: “We decided to reduce it by 20% to ensure market equilibrium, maintain bulk prices and profitability for businesses, but then there was no need for farmers to intervene in the vineyards”. Nature took care of it: fewer bunches ripened on the vines this year so the decrease was spontaneous. And positive signals come not only from the vineyards, but also from the market. “On August 31, we recorded a decrease of only 0.5% compared to the previous year, months ago we expected losses of 5-10%. Instead we are substantially at breakeven”, says Busi. Chianti is sold for 70-75% in the large-scale retail trade, where it has recorded increasing numbers despite the crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “In the large-scale retail trade, sales have also increased and have compensated for the losses of the Horeca channel, which, on the other hand, is completely at a standstill”, concludes Busi. But the more than 570 companies of the Consortium that have as a commercial outlet only the Horeca channel (restaurants and wine shops) are in a strong economic crisis. “During the lockdown this channel remained completely closed. Now it is reopening, but the recovery is slow, while in the countryside the costs, including those for the grape harvest, are unchanged and can not be reduced and access to credit is difficult”, Busi explains that the national government and the new regional government urges “an important support to ferry our companies to the economic restart safeguarding labor and investments made”.
The heart of Tuscan production, is there, between Siena and Florence, the realm of the history of national viticulture, where for Chianti Classico, 2020 promises to be another excellent vintage. In this very special vintage, the Black Rooster’s territory has not, fortunately, experienced extreme climatic events, as unfortunately occurred in other regions of Italy. A fairly cool spring was followed by a hot and long summer, but with good temperature excursions between day and night (the minimum temperatures were always low both in July and August) allowing the optimal completion of the ripening process of the grapes. The absence of water stress due to the rains in June and September should also be highlighted. All these are the prerequisites for another excellent vintage of Chianti Classico, with great structure and great balance. As far as the quantities produced are concerned, a provisional estimate predicts a decrease of at least 10% compared to 2019 production, a natural reduction mainly due to the nightly cold of early April which had an impact on the budding phase of the vine.
“Despite the tendency in recent years to be surprised by the vagaries of the climate, Sangiovese del Chianti Classico is proving to be a grape that is increasingly capable of adapting to climate change, compared to other more precocious varieties”, Giovanni Manetti, president of the Consorzio Chianti Classico, told WineNews. “The harvest has been over for about ten days now and there is great satisfaction among our winemakers for the excellent quality of the grapes brought to the cellar. Fermentation and maceration are still in progress in many cases, but the wines are rich and well structured thanks to the thick skin but also balanced, juicy and fresh. The vineyards have undoubtedly benefited from the greater attention of the greater amount of time spent in the vineyard by the winemakers forced home by the lockdown and the absence of fairs and events. In terms of quantity, we estimate a minus 10% due to a couple of cold nights in early April that penalized budding in earlier areas”, adds Manetti.
But if Sangiovese has a king, today, it is Brunello di Montalcino, where the harvest, as President Fabrizio Bindocci tells WineNews, “marks a drop in production of between 5 and 10%. The quality, on the other hand, is high, from excellent to excellent, despite the rains, which only slowed down the harvest period, but without affecting it. If anything, it mitigated the summer heat and gave back energy and breath to the vines. The producers are happy, there are beautiful colors, beautiful scents, beautiful acidity and lower alcohol content of vintages like 2017 or 2019. Overall the feeling is very good, we are moving towards a vintage of elegance rather than power. The climatic trend has guaranteed us healthy grapes and fermentations that had no problems. The first wines have finished the alcoholic fermentation and are carrying out the malolactic fermentation, those from the grapes harvested later, in the upper part of Montalcino, are still finishing the alcoholic fermentation”.
Moving on to the market, “the bands tell us that 2015 is going well. We must always remember where we started from, how we were on March 11. And so, we can say that it is going well, because sales are recovering, the market continues to buy Brunello, if there is a slowdown it is on Rosso di Montalcino. Of course, the world is not easy for anyone today, but we can say that Montalcino compared to many other territories has been a happy island, there has been work during the summer, and we have opened the domestic market, with many Italian tourists who perhaps did not even know the beauty and excellence of our territory, welcoming and uncontaminated. We must and we can be happy, unfortunately it is not an easy moment even for the world of wine”, Fabrizio Bindocci says.
Another historical Tuscan name, Morellino di Scansano, where there is an important drop in volumes, but excellent prospects on the quality front at the end of the 2020 harvest, which collects the first impressions, positive, of most of the producers of the denomination. “This 2020 has put us all to the test, with scenarios that only a year ago were unimaginable. The denomination has been able to maintain its market share, despite everything. Nature seems to have listened to us in this vintage, compensating the reduced yields with a quality that is expected to be high”, explains the director of the Consorzio Alessio Durazzi. The main cause of the substantial drop in production is to be attributed to a substantially dry month of August. The turning point came in September, close to the harvest. “At the end of August and then throughout the month of September, the rains allowed the vines to rebalance themselves and the grapes were directed towards a practically perfect ripening, a fundamental aspect to obtain a superior quality”, concludes Durazzi.
Leaving Tuscany and the Tyrrhenian Sea, we ideally head towards the East, in the Marche region, where there is one of the reference white names for the entire Italian wine sector, Verdicchio (of the Castles of Jesi and Matelica). Also at the center is the Istituto Marchigiano di Tutela Vini, the super Consortium of regional dimension directed by Alberto Mazzoni. Who at WineNews admits: “we have to retouch our pre-harvest estimates downwards, because we had an August that lasted 45 days, which meant that the grape/wine yield was lower. We are fortunately 5% higher than last year, but we are on the five-year average. The quality is good, at a regional level the most evident drop is registered by the reds, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and Montepulciano, while the others are in the expected average. We discount here and there the damages of the hail and the third generation moth, which has given some small problems”.
Looking at Verdicchio, the object of our interest, “in Jesi we have quantities growing by 7% on 2019, however, beyond a few hailstorms, we have a great product. We harvested earlier than usual, from mid-August, and by the end of the month the grapes were already in the cellar. In this way, we saved ourselves from the last heatwave, and the malic acid remained, giving us wines of great freshness. The gradations are still medium/high, the structure is excellent and we are very satisfied. If I have to make a comparison, I would say that it reminds us very closely of 2015 and 2016, because by taking a tour of the cellars, we are faced with beautiful acidity and excellent freshness. In Matelica, on the other hand, we are still harvesting, we are more or less halfway through the harvest, but the important altitudes and temperature changes give us hope, it is a very promising vintage. As for the Bianchello del Metauro, the Pecorino and the Falerio”, concludes Alberto Mazzoni.
Going down along Italy, and remaining on the Adriatic coast, we arrive in Manduria, land of the most prestigious declination of the Primitivo, where the harvest, slightly postponed, proved to be of excellent quality, and with a quantity decreased by 40%, as revealed by the analysis of the Consortium of the Primitivo di Manduria. “The Primitivo vineyards in our area appeared vigorous and in excellent health”, explains President Mauro di Maggio with satisfaction. “The harvest was 12 days late due to a cold spring and a summer that took a long time to arrive. However, from a phytosanitary point of view, the grapes were immediately good and, in order to determine the right ripeness, our warm climate with the north wind and the scarcity of rainfall took care of it. All this prevented the formation of downy mildew and other vineyard diseases. The yield is low, about 35 - 40% less than the previous year - continues May - but the fruit is of excellent quality with a high concentration of sugar”.
In terms of quality, “it is certainly a vintage that will be remembered as one of the best. It started by giving space to the harvest for the saplings that immediately presented a low load and then continued in the coastal areas and, finally, in the inland areas. There are all the prerequisites to find in the glasses excellent, full-bodied wines with a typical bouquet of Primitivo di Manduria DOP - concludes May - The work in the vineyard has been carried out in recent months in a regular manner, consistent with the restrictions and new regulations issued for the management of the Covid-19 emergency. I would like to thank all our winegrowers for the commitment that this year was even more intense immediately after the lockdown. A work that has guaranteed the usual care of the vineyards and the final quality of the product. The credit goes above all to them”.
Less known, but numerically even more important in terms of production, the other great Apulian reality is that of the Consorzio Castel del Monte, which represents the Doc Castel del Monte and the Docg Castel del Monte Bombino, Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva and Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva. A few days before the end of the harvest, as the president of the Castel del Monte Consortium, Francesco Liantonio, says, “the quality of the grapes is excellent, thanks to an almost perfect climate. This year the seasons have marked the weather very well and have allowed the grapes to ripen in a fair and balanced way. The excellent quality unfortunately does not correspond to the same quantity. We have already found a drop in production in white grapes, bombino bianco, chardonnay, moscato. From a first hypothesis related to the harvest of black grapes, which is about to begin, we can estimate a decrease in yields of 20% relative to bombino nero and nero di troia. We are very optimistic and positive about the 2020 production, certainly a vintage that will remain in the hearts of consumers”.
Going into more detail, “Nero di Troia expresses its maximum potential especially in the vineyards on high ground; this condition facilitates the quality path of this vine, increasingly appreciated by Italian and international consumers. This grape gives life to wines with a round, harmonious, important and elegant taste. A wine that tells thousands of years of history of our land, which rises on the slopes of the Frederician manor. A land that always sees the sun and that allows the development of luxuriant plantations. The Bombino nero on the other hand, in 2020 will be the prince of Italian rose wine, fragrant, rich, vanilla-flavored, acidulous. An exceptional quality, although even in this case, the quantity will not be in line with expectations. It will literally go like hotcakes. Wine lovers will love it”.
Our tour of Italy, strictly in the cellar, ends in Sicily, home of the homonymous and very extensive DOC Sicily, with excellent grapes of Grillo and Nero d’Avola, able to ensure the excellent quality of all other varieties of the “continent of Sicily”, which have benefited from generally favorable climatic conditions. The forecasts for the beginning of the harvest are essentially confirmed, with a drop in quantity, already initially estimated, of 15% on average compared to 2019.
According to the growers of the Consorzio Vini Doc Sicilia, the outcome of the 2020 harvest,
“the balance of this harvest is quite positive for several reasons. The first of all is that we have been aiming for a long time to privilege the quality of our wines - comments Antonio Rallo, president of the Consorzio di tutela vini Doc Sicilia and Donnafugata-. The drop in the number of grapes harvested, recorded on average throughout the island during the campaign which is now coming to an end, confirms to us that even in 2020 we will not have a great production. The wine that will be packaged will be of excellent quality”.
Important signals also come from the stock data of Sicilian wine, both IGT and DOC. On September 11, 2020, between bottled and bulk, 18% less wine is in stock in Sicily compared to the same period of 2019: from 2.52 million hectoliters to the current 2 million hectoliters. In addition, from July 1 to September 15, compared to the same period last year, there was an increase of 15% of bottles produced by the DOC Sicily. “The quality of the grapes this year has an extra gear. A harvest with such good results has not been recorded for at least ten years”, says Alessio Planeta, at the head of the Sicilian wine label and in the Board of Directors of Doc Sicilia. “The weather conditions have been fantastic: it has been a not too hot summer and the recent rains have helped the late varieties. In the Mamertino area the harvest ended on Friday with the harvest of Nocera. In Menfi we are finishing the harvest of late grapes like Grecanico and Cabernet. The general decrease in quantity is in line with the current moment in which there is prudence in wine consumption, and this allows us to see the glass...half full. Nero d’Avola and Grillo, especially in western Sicily, have an extraordinary quality, with great concentration and freshness of the grapes”.

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