Nightmare 2017 - an Italian perspective

Friday, 24. November 2017 - 13:15

Vintage 2017 will go down in history as one of the most turbulent harvests ever. Extreme weather conditions: Hail, drought, wildfires… the list goes on. The quantity of wine produced this year will drop significantly from 2016. People are even talking about a global wine shortage. According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), total global output is predicted to fall by 8%. Italy is taking the biggest hit with a 28% drop, according to estimates from the Associazione Enologi Enotecnici Italiani.

“This year has been quite challenging,” says Pierangelo Tommasi, export director of Tommasi Family Estates. “We had a very hot spring and summer. We started to harvest approximately two weeks early in every wine region, except Basilicata.”

This last region in southern Italy is the fifth and latest addition to the company’s operations, and comes after the acquisition of a majority stake in Vito Paternoster, a well-known producer of Aglianico del Vulture, in August 2016.

Worst harvest in 50 years

Severe drought not only leads to less fruit on the vine but also to lower yields per bunch. “The reduction in production is based on two different factors: fewer grapes and less juice from every grape varietal,” says Tommasi.

Tommasi’s answer to the problem was an obvious one, irrigation, but that was merely for damage control. “We can irrigate the vineyards in most regions, so in years like this, it’s helpful. Did the irrigation make this vintage ‘normal’? No. But it was enough for the vineyards to survive.”

In regions such as Montalcino, irrigation is prohibited but in some extreme vintages, such as this one, the local Consorzio can lift the ban and allow the local producers to water the vineyards. When it comes to a region like this where irrigation is usually against the law, however, the process is not easy. As Tommasi explains, “In Montalcino, we don’t have an irrigation system in place, which means we had to irrigate by hand. It’s very hard work.”

Compared to previous hot vintages, the dry nights in 2017 might have been a blessing in disguise, Tommasi says. The lack of humidity during the night means no morning dew is collected on the grapes and leaves. In a hot year, this moisture can amplify the heat from the sun and potentially lead to the skin of the grape suffering sunburn.

Overall, Tommasi is confident that this vintage will be a good one despite some difficulties. “Between a very dry vintage and a wet one, we prefer a dry vintage,” he says. “In a dry vintage, you can irrigate and actually do something about it. You might lack some acidity, but you gain concentration. So, it’s easier to make good wines.”

He acknowledges the risk of an increase in wine prices, but says that consumers should expect good quality. “I’m curious myself to see how the top wines like Brunello - currently finishing fermentation - will turn out.

Challenging weather conditions were felt throughout the northern hemisphere. Tommasi thinks there are innovations to be made in the within the wine industry to battle climate change such vine nurseries developing clones of certain varieties that could withstand a warmer climate.

“Based on the experience that we have I can say yes, the weather is definitely changing. But on the other hand, I can also say that 2017 was really an exception. You cannot expect such a dry season every year.”

Even if challenging vintages don’t necessarily mean poor wine, for Tommasi, they come as a reminder of the need to adapt to changing circumstances.

“I still remember 2003 like it was yesterday. It was a bloody hot vintage;” he says, adding that the problem was that most of the regions didn’t allow irrigation. “Now, the winemakers have more technology, education, and irrigation. Twenty years ago people thought that if you allow irrigation, the profile and identity of the grape variety would somehow change - that’s bullshit.”
Ilkka Sirén