Sunday, November 05, 2017

Assessing the Controversial/ Disastrous/Fabulous Italian Wine Harvest of 2017

Here we are – November 5, 2017 – for the most part the Italian wine harvest is over. And while we’re months and years away from practically determining just how successful (or disastrous) the 2017 harvest was, that hasn’t kept journalists, bloggers, winemakers, even P.R. wonks, from shouting claims from their respective vantage points. Like nervous hens, tut-tutting over every oeuvre, we have heard that it is a “disaster,” a “perfect storm,” a “vintage the likes of which we haven’t seen since the end of World War II” and “Hey, it wasn’t all that bad!” So how bad (or good) was it? What happened? How about a 3-point harvest report pop quiz - let’s see what the experts say?

[Answers below at the end of the post]

1) Who said this and over which vintage did they say it?

a) As the last grapes to be harvested and crushed complete the final phases of their fermentation, Italian producers are beginning to take stock of a vintage which will undoubtedly go down in the annals as one of the most unusual of the entire post-war period, if not of the entire last century. And this not so much as a result of the quality of the wines, which looks to be reasonably good, with more than a few peaks of excellence in various parts of the country, as of the weather, unremittingly and uninterruptedly torrid and dry from the beginning of June until the end of September.

b) "After severe heat and drought in the second part of August, which caused plant stress that greatly lowered yields, 20xx is expected to be 10-25% down in terms of quantity.
‘The Italian 20xx Harvest will probably be at an all-time low’ in terms of quantity, according to harvest reports just released by UIV (Unione Italiana Vini) and ISMEA (Istituto di Servizi per il Mercato Agricolo Alimentare).
The heat in the latter part of August also led to a very early harvest in much of Italy.
‘We started the harvest 20 days earlier than normal this year, the earliest ever for my winery,’ Pio Boffa of Piedmont’s Pio Cesare winery said.
Andrea Cecchi, whose family makes wine throughout Tuscany, says production will be between 10-25% lower this year. ‘Not only were there fewer grape bunches, but the yields from grape to wine are much lower because the grapes held less juice.’"

2) Line up the total wine grape harvest production (in hectoliters) with the year they were harvested

3)The Italian wine establishment is concerned – the Association of Italian Enologists, Assoenologi, issued warnings about low quantities. Which vintage are they talking about when they state, “The poorest harvest since 1950 (La vendemmia piĆ¹ scarsa dal 1950)”
a) 2017
b) 2012

Had enough? We can’t even agree on quantity (and really, how could we determine, to the nth level, such massive numbers with such exacting certitude? “Lies, damned lies, and statistics." And we’re not even talking quality.

Quality, oh quality. The crystal-catnip ball for the online oracles in search of greater eyes, hits, likes. And there are no statistics to refute, just intuition, a feeling, years of divining such things for the unwashed masses. More hogwash. How about, “Your guess is as good as mine.” Or let’s go one better. Take the time. Put the wine in your closet, cellar, under your bed, stashed away with a wine storage service. Doesn’t everyone need a concierge and curate service for their wines? If you have the money, they’ll add the time.

Point in case. The 1996 vintage was one of the largest recorded, 58,540 hectoliters. Huge. Decanter magazine gave the Tuscan vintage 5 out of 5 stars and called it a “Cinderella Vintage.” The wine Spectator gave Tuscany an 87/100 (overall) and cited, “Perfumed, fruity and light.” The Wine Enthusiast gives 1996 Tuscany 90/100 and advises “can drink, maybe past peak.” And Robert Parker’s vintage chart awards 88/100 and recommended to “drink now.”

Now, let’s look at a wine. Let's say, the 1996 Rampolla Sammarco

Antonio Galloni noted in October of 2015, “The 1996 Sammarco is one of the many highlights of the 1990s. The tannins have now softened, but there is plenty of fruit left. Graphite, smoke, black cherries and plums add further layers of nuance. One of the more lithe, mid-weight wines in this vertical, the 1996 is all about grace. I very much like the sense of freshness here. 94/100”

Robert Parker reviewed it back in 2000, stating “The Sammarco (an 85% Cabernet Sauvignon/15% Sangiovese blend aged 18-24 months in wood) offers a Graves-like nose of scorched earth, charcoal, tobacco, and red and black currants. In the mouth, roasted nut flavors add complexity. The wine possesses medium body, a stylish, elegant personality, not much power or force, but fine purity and balance. The tannin results in a slight astringency in the back of the mouth. Drink it over the next 7-8 years. 89/100”

In 1999, reviewers at the Wine Spectator wrote, “A thoroughly caressing and delicious red. Very pretty, with rose, berry, plum and coffee aromas. Full-bodied, with soft and velvety tannins and a long, ripe fruit finish. 91/00”

Last night I opened a 1996 Rampolla Sammarco to go with a T-bone steak, a baked potato and a blue cheese salad, to celebrate my son’s 41st birthday (and the wine’s 21st birthday). Both my son and the wine showed well. The food was perfect, the weather was great, outside grilling in November in Texas, with loved ones. How could a wine be bad? Well, wines have their moments, but the ’96 Sammarco was a perfect wine for drinking last night. All the stars (and the moon) were aligned. So, whatever happened in 1996 with regards to quantity (huge) and quality (“can drink, maybe past peak”/ “Cinderella Vintage”) all I know is what was in front of me, 21 years later sitting, at the family table, where we were immensely enjoying the wine. Yes, it was an 89 and a 91 and a 94. It was also a perfect wine in that time. Perfect.

Don’t get your panties in a wad over the 2017 vintage. No one will remember all these harvest reports and the assertions that are being made. First, they are hard to prove wrong, in today’s overly saturated information deluge. What you and I will remember though, are the experiences we have with the wines that are put in front of us, from any vintage. We will survive, and the Italian wine trade will survive as well. Right now, we are in a wine glut. There is more wine available than there are people to drink it. I’ve seen this many times over the past 40 years. It’s Nature’s way of allocating her resources. Everyone will be fine, we will get through this. Secondly, we have to make sure we survive long enough (the threat of thermonuclear war notwithstanding) for time to determine if the various prognosticators are right or wrong - if the sky really fell, or if it did not. Chances are, by that time, neither you nor I will give a damn what they had to say 15 minutes, or 15 years, ago.

Answers to above:

1a) Daniel Thomases on the 2003 Italian harvest
1b) Kerin O'Keefe on the 2012 Italian harvest


3) “The poorest harvest since 1950? 2012, according to Assoenologi (P.5, 3rd paragraph)

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