From North to South, here are some brief reports from our amici produttori (& Me!):
Thomas Niedermayr, Alto Adige
From the stunning, light-filled Dolomitic terraces overlooking San Michele Appiano, Thomas reflects on a smaller than usual crop, the harvest of which started on 20 Aug with the PIWI grape Solaris & finished on 1st October with Souvignier Gris for making their macerated (arancione) wine ‘Abendrot’. He recalls a fresh spring with a notably wet May that meant that the vegetative growth was slow & gradual – a trait across much of Italia it seems. June was hot, so giving rise to humidity in July. Indeed oidium became a threat over the summer, forcing the family to actually treat their vines (with Brdx solution) up to three times! The other pest was the vespa/wasp, that attacked their delicious fruit as they got close to harvest! Sugars were on the low side, while acidity he says was good. He reckons the vintage favoured the Solaris & Cabernet Cantor & Cortis PIWI varieties.
Marco Sara, Colli Orientali del Friuli
From the ponca soils of the pre-Alpi Giulia hills north of Udine, Marco harvested Friulano from mid-Sept & Schioppettino from 1st October. He points to slightly lower yields due to the fresh & wet spring, & then to the particularly dry July, which affected Schioppettino in particular (as Friulano is more resistant); this had the effect of delaying the harvest slightly, which was good for promoting bright aromatics as they vinified during the cooler evenings. He credits the presence of the ponca marne soils & to the Orientali hills for the constant stress-alleviating presence of rain & refreshing winds. So compared to the more homogenous 2018, vintage 2019 was more challenging.
DBG (!), Piedmont
As I write, it’s c. 24 degrees & blue skies on 25 Oct, after a couple of days of soaking rain…perfect then for late harvesting of Nebbiolo! It would seem that the defining moments of the year were a) the cold & wet May/June that caused the flowering to be interrupted & hence growth delayed, whilst providing ample water for the season ahead, b) the July heat spike that seemed less problematic/high than other parts of Europe (Iberia & France in particular), with growers now leaving more vegetation or employing nets to protect their fruit, but which compounded the vegetative delay, remaining at 1wk/10 days behind the new norm c) the rain showers (alas with localised hail on 5th Sept) that ensured that the vine was never stressed & d) the perfect Sept/Oct season, with warm days & fresh/cold nights, notably so from week commencing 7th Oct. The benign forecast encouraged growers to wait, as there is no (reported) presence of peronospera nor of susukii flies (as there were in 2018) & skins are thicker; indeed the start of the Nebbiolo harvest in the Roero on 9th Oct was celebrated with fog! Memories of the season include the comment that growers, thanks to the cool spring, had plenty of time to get behind the vegetative growth; that the sugar levels were modest/less so than 2018; that harvest dates were generally a week/10 days later than in 2018 (Monforte, CF, & Serralunga wc 14 Oct); that skins thickened/ripened crucially during the notably crisp Oct nights; that there was more skin to pulp than in 2018; & it seems most pertinently that phenolic, acidic, & sugar ripening (lines) all came together at the same time! Hail hit on 5th Sept in Fontanazza, Boiolo, Rocchettevini, Rocche dell’Annunziata (top half), then lower Castiglione Falletto (Parussi & Montanello?), Fontanafredda, Gallaretto, Raviole, Castello & the lower slopes of Diano, Madonna di Como & brushed San Rocco Sen’d’Elvio. It seems that while 2018 was a year of (some) peronospera (with producers using lots of copper), 2019 was the year of (some) oidium, causing ‘chickens & hens’ (millerandage)…But talking to agronomist Edmondo Bonelli, he says that 2019 saw more water during the vegetative period (March to Sept) than in 2018, & that while top vineyards should have fared well, lesser sites much less so – so perhaps there’ll be more of a spread in qualita?
Cascina Feipu dei Massaretti, Liguria
On the Mediterranean coast, at Albenga in Liguria, Mirco Mastroianni reports that the Pigato yield was down c. 40% compared to 2018, due he thinks to nature’s way of balancing one abundant year (2018) with a meagre one. The Pigato harvest took place from 9th September, & he senses that the very clean fruit this year – assisted by the dry heat of the summer & the onshore breezes – will give perfume as well as structure. Indeed he recalls an August in which they in Albenga enjoyed a cool temperature difference between night & day, so promoting good aromatics. Compared to vintage 2018, he says that there’s more sugar in 2019 (13.5% for the Pigato), while acidities are slightly lower.
Monte dei Ragni, Veneto
‘Il Mago’ Zeno Zignoli, at his wife Antonella’s family estate in Fumane seems calm as ever despite having withstood 5 hailstorms this year! But then Zeno continues to believe in the ancient, pergola high method of trellising, so protecting the hanging fruit below from hail & sun; the resulting acidities are good too, the yield also (pre-appassimento!) He also mentions two rainstorms in July & August that provided the water required to prevent the plant from going into stress. He would have preferred that it hadn’t rained at harvest, as the thin skinned Corvina began to suffer, forcing them to up the pace & harvest all by 16th October. He notes that there was more sugar than in 2018.
Tenuta del Priore, Abruzzo
Owner & winemaker Fabrizio Mazzocchetti is molto contento (!), the fruit healthy despite yields at his Collecorvino estate being down 30% on 2018. This was caused by the cold May that interrupted fioratura/fleuraison, & also had a knock-on effect of delaying the eventual harvest; he talks of a ten day delay compared to 2018. Yet the cool spring also promoted looser, spargoli bunches (through coulure?) that are then better able to ripen more uniformly & cleanly. Indeed he talks of thicker skins in 2019, to the point that the Passerina & Trebbiano grapes became slightly coloured with full maturation, so imparting a pale hue to the must/wine! Summer was suitably warm, with intermittent rain showers to keep the vines from hydric stress. Invaiatura/veraison was perfect for his main grape Montepulciano, that was then harvested from 1st October onwards. The whites were harvested by 27th Sept (with Pecorino the first on 5th Sept). He stresses that the Montepulciano had perfectly lignified pips & ripe skins, so ottimo phenolics! The harvest was late by about ten days, with sugars a degree up on 2018; acidity is slightly lower than in 2018, but better than 2017. Among the Bianchi, he suggests that Passerina fared particularly well, while his ‘Kerrias’ Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is being macerated for 25 days before being transferred to new ceramic tanks for ageing!
Podere Il Macchione, Toscana
Simone Abram, owner & winemaker at Il Macchione was racing around making the brothers’ Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine from their Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese) fruit grown in the heart of the Vino Nobile zone at Caggiole, on sedimentary, fossil-rich clay soils. He remarks on the October harvest being late in 2019, by approximately two weeks, due to the cold & wet spring. This effect was also compounded by the hot July, bringing plants temporarily to a stand-still, slowing the accumulation of sugars & the overall maturation. The warmth continued into September & even to October, promoting further ripening.
Enrico Esu, Sardegna
Another happy man is Enrico Esu, a Sardo produttore from Carbonia in the island’s sandy south-west corner. He’s the proud owner & winemaker of a tiny estate that includes ungrafted ‘Piede Franco’ Carignano, del Sulcis! Despite yields being down 35% in 2019, due to the cool windy May (during flowering), the rest of the season he says was ‘perfetto!’ The foundations were laid by the particularly cool & wet preceding winter. And the hot summer helped him combat any attentions of resident insects, as the heat effectively dried up any eggs! The 2019 harvest was later than in 2018, with the younger vine Carignano fruit harvested from the middle of Sept & the alberello ungrafted in early October; sugars & acidities he says are similar to 2018. But thanks to the later harvest date, the evenings were much cooler, allowing the fruit delicate aromatics to be preserved, naturally. Macerations (in plastic fermenting tubs) are circa 10 days for the (unoaked) ‘Nerominiera’ & 15 days for the (oaked) old vine ‘Seruci’, so named after the coal mine where his father worked his last shift.
I caught Luca Carbone, brother of Sara, ‘on the hop’ but very felice as he completed the last of the family’s Aglianico (del Vulture) harvest this very week/into next! He wasn’t quite so felice earlier in the year, when he was worried about the cold May. Primavera he said was unseasonally short, if present at all, with June notable for the rain. Summer though was wonderfully hot, but with accompanying cool nights thanks to the presence of the Vulture volcano looming above their Melfi vines. Sugars & acidities are both good, he says. They have recently bottled the 2015 vintage Aglianico del Vulture ‘400 Some’ & also the 2015 ‘Piani dell’Incoronata’ single vineyard Aglianco del Vulture ‘Stupor Mundi’ too.
SRC Vini, Sicilia
Last, but by no means least, comes the family estate of SRC (Sandra, Rosario & Cinzia), who are located on Mount Etna’s stupendous lava slopes in the commune of Castiglione di Sicilia. Rori (Rosario) reports a classic vendemia, with the harvest taking place around the 25th Sept; & with normal yields too thanks to a balanced season. Spring was cool though, followed by a hot Summer. Key he said was the presence, during the lead up to the harvest, of warm 22 degree days & fresh 10 degree nights (as it was for Nebbiolo in Piedmont!). He was particularly pleased with the fruit that came off their old Nerello vine Crasa vineyard, with pH at 3.20, & alcohols at 13%, so similar to 2018.
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In the Roero & Langhe in particular, the winter season was cold but not particularly snowy; in March, while Burgundy was burnt by frost, the Roero & Langhe enjoyed cold temperatures & dry days; April remained chilly & dry (compared to the warmer & damper April 2015); this continued into May, with temperatures mirroring the 2004-2016 average if just below; June was below the average, plotting a gradual curve (versus the heat spikes of June 2015); while July 2015 was dry & hot, July 2016 followed the average 2004-2016 graph, although the Barolo region was hit by hail, notably Santa Maria di La Morra, parts of Cannubi & Rocche dell’Annunziata on 26th & 27th July, bringing with it much needed rainfall too; August was cool & subdued, as it was in 2015, with rain at the end of the month; September 2016 was welcomed for its warmth, dryness & cool nights (2015 had been also but damper); while a normal mid-late October harvest was wrapped up with cold nights & dry, warm days.
Francesco Versio in Barbaresco’s Neive village noted the thicker skins compared to 2015. Stefano Conterno of Diego Conterno points to the balanced season with regular rains, no heat spikes, to the final twenty days pre mid-Oct harvest that were cold at night (5/6 degrees by night & 25 degrees by day) capturing the aromatics & acidities; Emanuela at F.lli Serio e Battista Borgogno in Cannubi recalled the cool August (& the attentions of hail) that gave thicker skins, while Alberto Alessandria recalls that come August there was concern if the (Nebbiolo) fruit would arrive to full maturity – as it happened his 20th October was one of his latest! Barbaresco’s Manuel Marinacci said it was a “strepitoso” (resounding) vintage marked by a long cool humid spring until 20th June, then a dry Summer with no rain (or hail as in Barolo), & perfect harvest conditions into mid-October, with quantity; Gian-Battista Alessandria, il capo of F.lli Alessandria & owner of some of the best-located parcels of Monvigliero, reeled off acidities of 7.50TA alongside 15% alcohols thanks to loose bunches of small berries & thick skins (as the plant was in good health); others point to a harvest that happened a week later than in 2015 (during the cooler mid-October period).
Maria-Teresa Mascarello noted that 2016 recalled a vintage of yesteryear: cold spring until end June, July warm but not hot like in 2015, then the marked drop in temperature on Ferragosto (15th Aug), which then rose up at the end of the month, while Sept/Oct were warm by day & distinctly chilly by night (helping the lignification/ripening of the seeds) with harvesting amid beautiful autumnal weather – storms had hit in July but without inflicting any significant damage (apart from parts of Santa Maria & lower Rocche dell’Annunziata), but serving to refresh the vines, given the fruit a shower & drop the temperature, with notable diurnal shift paved the way to a mid-Oct. classic harvest. So, a classic harvest of relatively disease-free fruit, high quality & good quantity, with the vine functioning well throughout the season to give high values in all departments (abv, acidity, tannins), thick skins, allowing for long macerations (if sought).
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Twenty years on from those initial tremors, when a group of trail-blazing producers – Messrs. Cornelissen, Franchetti, Graci, de Grazia, Foti/Benanti – recolonised the abandoned lava terraces & started making a (new) case for vini dell’Etna, it was time to return with my colleague Chloe, plus four DBGitalia amici produttori (Manuel Marinacci, Martina Fiorino of Bruna Grimaldi, Marco Sara & Enrico Esu) to find out how they were getting on!
In the late 19th century, the Etna region boasted c.50k hectares of vines (to make vino del taglio/wine for bulk export..). Today the region extends across 1,100 hectares (Etna Bianco, Rosato & Rosso), mentions 133 Contrade (MGAs) & is produced by 120 estates; so quality over quantity. Over the course of three days we visited two key zones, starting on Day 1 with the Versante Est, followed by Day 2 & 3 on the Versante Nord. Had we had an extra day, we should have visited the (hotter) Versante Sud, around Biancavilla. We visited twelve producers: Versante Est – Santa Maria della Nave, Biondi, I Vigneri di Salvo Foti; Versante Nord – Graci, Buscemi, Girolamo Russo, SRC Vini, Frank Cornelissen, Pietradolce, I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna, Tenuta di Terre Nere, Planeta Etna.
Versante Est, where the distance between monte & mare is shortest & steepest, the terraces at their highest, is clearly a zone vocato for the growing of white grapes, & in particular Carricante (& Minella) in the Etna Bianco Superiore zone of Caselle, where pH levels are circa 2.90! It’s also the zone where the lava soils, rich in self-cleansing Zeolite & lapillo/ash, are oldest (i.e. less vigorous) & the rainfall is highest (c. 2000 mm/anno), especially during the harvest period; so perfect for the harvesting of minerally whites! The vineyards of the Versante Est are centred on & around the villages of Trecastagni, Milo, Zafferana & Viagrande. The quality of the Maconnais/Chablis-esque, lemon-pith & racy whites were clearly demonstrated in the wines of Biondi’s ‘Pianta’ & I Vigneri di Salvo Foti‘s ‘VignadiMilo’. The reds from the Versante Est tend to be on the lighter, more restrained side – which to many (incl. me!) is a plus! Standout reds were: Biondi’s ‘Cisterna Fuori’ & ‘San Nicolo’, & I Vigneri’s ‘Vinupetra’; Salvo Foti very kindly pulled a bottle of the 2006 ‘Vinupetra’ that was gorgeous, still primary, plump & pure. The wines of Santa Maria della Nave are newcomers, being currently made at Benanti (by Salvo Foti?), & show potential.
Versante Nord, notably from Linguaglossa to Randazzo, & in particular around the ‘zona rossa’ villages of Rovitello, Solicchiata, Passopisciaro, Montelaguardia, is famous for Nerello & is home to the majority of producers. Here the lava soils are younger, from more recent flows (most recently in 1981?) the soil more vigorous (see phenolic ripening issues). Producers here refer to a phenomenon – ‘un aria speciale‘ – whereby the prevailing humid weather arriving from the south-east stops/dumps on the Versante Est, & at Linguaglossa, after which the warm air current continue their journey down onto the NW facing communes thereby creating a very benign weather system during the key Sept/Oct period. Weather-wise, the growing season on the Versante Nord is longer, allowing a gradual (phenolic) maturation, bathed in light. That said, the seed tannins of Nerello, when compared to cugino Nebbiolo, are clearly difficult to ripen, especially in time before the autumn rains arrive. High density old alberello plantings appear to help in this regard, although most producers have mechanised spalliera/VSP rows too.
Of the Versante Nord producers we visited, all of whom were most generous in their disponabilità, here a few of my impressions (in order of visit):
Graci – Alberto Aiello continues his upward trajectory from circa 25ha of vines in & around the villages of Passopisciaro & Solicchiata. Alberto’s invested in the Feudo di Mezzo/Porcaria, Barbabecchi & Arcuria vineyards, & is now building a bottle store. Traditional vinification in wood tini, cement & stainless steel, Alberto’s wines show a sense of place & also great elegance, not unlike those of the Langhe. Standout were: 2017 Etna Rosso (very fine & pure) & 2015 Arcuria ‘Sopra Il Pozzo’.
Buscemi – Alberto’s wife, Mirella Buscemi is making wine (at the Graci winery) from an ancient vyd, part of the Tartaraci Contrada, in the village of Bronte, once the property of Admiral Nelson no-less. Being so old, & high at 980m asl, (hence lying outside the Etna DOC) the vineyard is ‘co-planted’ with white, red, French, Spanish & Sicilian varieties, making for a fascinating field-blend; the white is mostly made of lime-skin Grecanico, while the red is Nerello plus Granaccia/Grenache. Highlight was the 2017 Tartaraci rosso, of which she made only 4,070 bts, with cement tanks a key factor in this 45 degree hot vintage!
Girolamo Russo – just down the road, past The Blue Moon bar (!), Giuseppe Russo is making classic Etna wines from c. 20ha, using sub-terrain cement tanks (!) & rather too many old barriques for my liking. His Feudo & San Lorenzo appear to be their strongest wines. Giuseppe, a classical pianist by nature, is currently restoring the beautiful premises at their Feudo vineyard.
SRC Vini – new on the scene since 2013, Rosario Parasiliti, his wife Cinzia & daughter Sandra (SRC) were hands-on garage winemakers until 2016 when Rori built themselves an ‘all-singing’ winery in the heart of their Castiglione di Sicilia vineyards. Complete with local winemaker Fabio & assistant Rossella, this happy team are producing pure Etna wines from the much-fancied Calderara, Pirao, Rivaggi & Barbabecchi contrade; lots of cement vats here, & oak only for the ‘Rivaggi’. The vintage 2018s tasted were juicy & delicious, despite the pressures of the wet 2018 August. The whites & Rosato frizzante also shone.
Frank Cornelissen – has definitely moved on from those full-on Magma days! He’s grown in size, both hectares & winery, & I sense that his 2018s are more ‘trad’, more linear, & less-provocative than when he was a garagiste! But apparently the prices have remained the same! A most generous host, he’s quite a draw & apparently welcomes 2000 visits a year, mostly from Korea?!
Pietradolce – owned by the local Farro family, famed for their nursery business, the c.22ha property was bought in 2005 & lies in Contrade Rampante. In 2019 they completed their state-of-the-art winery, that backs onto Monte Dolce (& nextdoor to the Giovanni Rosso vineyard). Carlo Ferrini makes the wine, & it shows. For me their best wine was the 2018 Bianco Archineri from Milo, versante Est fruit!
I Custodi delle Vigne dell’Etna – an engineer, disciple of Salvo Foti, & one-time business partner of Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, whose vines formed the foundation of Mario’s ‘I Custodi’ estate, the Roman Mario Paoluzi is a charming, irrepressible host & producer, selling a lot of wine in the USA! The recipe is kept simple: fine vineyards in Mascali (Bianco), Calderara & Muganazzi tended by the I Vigneri team, vinified gently in stainless steel (by Salvo Foti) & aged in fresh barrique/tonneaux were necessary. As with I Vigneri, Cornelissen, SRC, total sulphur tends to be at c. 30mg level for the reds. Volatile acidity levels are apparently integral, giving the reds lift (!) Indeed, the standouts were the 2017 Bianco & 2018 Rosato!
Tenuta delle Terre Nere – one of the pioneers, the Italo-Americano Marc de Grazia now devotes (most of) his time to this famous estate, having left his distribution company in the hands of his brother. The estate apparently measures 50ha, producing 15 labels & 500,000 bottles! The impressive Catanese winemaker Calogero Statella has his hands full, as space is clearly short. They rely on (vertical) rotofermentors to push things through. De Grazia obviously has a penchant for Burgundy, as the packaging & indeed wines seem to resemble those of the Cote d’Or: very slick, well-made, a bit samey & not particularly expressive of place. Calogero is also making his own, crunchier wine, ‘Statella’, from contrade Rampante vines.
Planeta Etna – we finished on a high, kindly hosted by Alessio Planeta at their new Sciara Nuova property perched above Passopisciaro. Alessio clearly respects the previous day’s decision by the Etna Consorzio to keep the upper level of the DOC at 800m asl (?), as opposed to extending up to 1000m asl (where they & the likes of Graci, SRC, Cornelissen) have vines; he said, if that’s what the majority wish then so be it! Finely tuned wines by the talented Patricia Tóth, perhaps the 2018 Etna Bianco was slightly compromised by tonneaux, invece the Etna Rosso was divine with raspberry highlights & fluidity (& btw, they make a delicious Nocera from Capo Milazzo, & Nero d’Avola from Pacchino!)
Insomma – Le Contrade are much hyped, but without the substance behind them, yet. It would seem that the Contrade names at this stage are more pertinent from a marketing perspective, to create more market opportunities (e.g. Terre Nere) than to aid consumers differentiate fundamental geological differences (but maybe one will naturally lead to another). There’s clearly a difference between the effect of old & young lava soils, between Versante Est & Nord (& Sud), & from a mesoclimate perspective between the various Versante Nord villages. But otherwise, at present the region is in the hands of some very competent, big personalities, now with twenty years of experience, who are making some very good wines; if slightly split at this stage between those who are more or less natural in their approach! But as per the Langhe in the 1990s, at this stage it’s the brand that’s being touted, rather than objective differences in terroir.
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