Sunday, September 17, 2017

The 2017 Harvest in Umbria and Tuscany - Fear and "Global Weirding" - Pt.I

Italian wine often arrives in a van loaded with emotion. Call me moonstruck from day one. As an observer over the years, there’s something about Central Italy that gets under your fingernails and into your bloodstream. And it ain’t in the usual places.

This year marks a cycle of sorts for this observer. Moved by the floods of 1966, I made my way to Florence five years later. In the summer of 1971 there were still signs of a deluge of Biblical proportions which ravaged the largest town in Tuscany. I spent days walking the narrow streets, huddled in the cool galleries of museums, and sampling the food and wine, on the streets. I fell in love every ten minutes.


Six years later, in 1977, I came to stay for a longer period, in both Florence and in Umbria. It was autumn, the leaves were turning, the air was cooler and the grapes were coming in. It had been a long, hot summer.

Forty years later, I returned. This time, not to the urban centers, but to the countryside. With the floodwaters still rising in Houston and with the thoughts and hopes for friends and family in flood-ravaged South Texas, we traversed the center part of Italy with a somber approach. Yes, back home in Texas, and in Florida, and in the West, and almost everywhere in America, life as we knew it, was under assault - by flame and by water (and towards one another in some cerebral/visceral run-up to the end of the world?). And in the hills of Umbria and Tuscany, immediate climactic challenges were being presented to the vines and the people charged with sowing, reaping and harvesting.

Torgiano - September 3, 2017
Umbria - Torgiano

Lungarotti's vineyards, where we first stopped, were greener than what we would find in Tuscany, Torgiano had a still nervous aspect to it. It was as if the region was collectively holding its breath, just trying to not make any mistakes and get through harvest, unscathed. The 1977 vintage had been similar, in my memory, and the wines came out well enough, if not the longest lived on record. But fine wines, without a doubt. Still, at this point, in 2017 (September 3) the tanks, sat mostly empty, in silent (and nervous) anticipation.

Tuscany - Montalcino

Renieri, was our first stop, and our base for several days. A smallish winery owned and run by the Bacci family (Castello di Bossi), they’ve had a string of vintages lately that have been well received in critical circles. Young Jacopo Bacci is leading the charge here, and his sensibility is one of modulation. Small oak barrique is being replaced with larger botti and the Napa-like alcohol levels are dropping. Going from a flashy, sexy, long-legged blond in a red Ferrari, the wine is showing signs of depth and restraint. Think Caterina Deneuve, less as Séverine Serizy in Belle de Jour, more like Éliane Devries in Indochine.

Giacomo Neri
Casanova di Neri
Giacomo Neri appeared a few degrees short of verklempt. The open top fermenters, lined up and ready, were silent, save for two. Meticulous harvesting, and sorting, had yielded little at this point. But in all fairness, it was still early September. The problem is, they must gear up (with staff) and then Nature puts on a waiting game. It’s a matter of timing. And expectation. What they had picked looked good, but as we heard time and again, the harvest was down (30-50%, low, depending on who you talked to).

Fattoria dei Barbi
Harvesting had begun, but the main body of the crop was still hanging. As were all who were waiting. “We need some rain,” was the common cry heard during the trip. Tuscany was parched. Sandpaper dry. Even the olives were whimpering in their Twiggy-like configuration. Would the 2017 Barbi Brunello be remembered someday like their 1977 Riserva? Too soon to tell, and to be blunt, I won’t be around to say. Our host, Raffaella Federzoni, sent us off with an older bottle of Barbi Brunello to assuage any apprehension in the coming days.

Castiglion del Bosco
One almost needs a Land Rover Defender to climb the dirt goat trail to Castiglion del Bosco. So how did that bright, shiny, new Maserati coupe get up there? Did it also arrive by helicopter? Well-manicured, this is one helluva curated place, from the barrel room, to the vineyard signage. And at the helm, winemaker Cecilia Leoneschi is chipping away at the big marble block of Castiglion del Bosco, looking for her David. As with much of what we are seeing in Italy, she is toning down the wood, the fruit, the machismo, of Castiglion del Bosco, and pursuing a wine with poise, with grace, with sensibility. Not some 1,200 count Egyptian cotton sensibility (that’s for the luxury suites accompanying the estate in the nearby Chateau and Relais property. Not the finely cut golfing green sensibility. After all, Brunello is Tuscan. And Tuscany still has a country side to it, whether you call it rustic, or just normal. And while nothing at Castiglion del Bosco is normal (unless you are a billionaire) the harvest of 2017 poses the same challenges to them as it does to the smallest-batch winery down the dusty road. Cecilia is working hard to make sure she doesn’t break our hearts with the 2017 vintage.


This recent trip was more involved than an 800-word blog post can sort out. So, I will break it up into smaller pieces and attempt to optically sort out the unique circumstances that 2017 vintage poses, now and in the future. Roberto Stucchi-Prinetti of Badia Coltibuono calls this a time of “global weirding,” and for a farmer it is full of apprehension in the short term and as well down the long, green march of time.





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