• L’Annata 2019 Nebbiolo – Valtellina, Alto Piemonte, Roero, e Langhe

    Valtellina, Lombardia – a regular growing season, without excesses, with rain when the vines needed it, & little disease pressure. The harvest occurring later than in 2018, giving more finezza & less alcohol. 

    Alto Piemonte – as per their friends & colleagues in the Basso Piemonte below, 2019 was a classic vintage in the Alto Piemonte, with regular rain showers, no frost or hail (or deer) damage, an importantly warm & dry July, & a perfect September & mid-October harvest. Quantità e Qualità, 2019 is particularly fine in Alto Piemonte! 

    Roero & Langhe – after a relatively normal winter, with some snow in Jan/Feb, a cold & wet May/June that caused the flowering to be interrupted & hence growth delayed, whilst providing ample water for the season ahead. It was thanks to the relatively cool April/May that growers had time to get behind the vegetative growth. In late June/July there was a heat spike that seemed less problematic/high than other parts of Europe (Iberia & France) but which knocked the vine, disturbed the (phenolic) ripening process & compounded the vegetative delay, pushing the harvest date back by 10 days, with Roero & Barolo starting their Nebbiolo harvest wc 9 Oct, while Monforte, Castiglione Falletto, & Serralunga began wc 14 Oct. Regular rain showers influenced pHs – some 15% less rain fell in 2019, with 21% fewer rainy days, than in 2018 but 15% more rain in 2019 than in 2016! – ensured that the vine was never stressed throughout the year.  A regular Sept/Oct season, with notable diurnal shift/temp. excursion (vs. warmer ’18) helping the skins to thicken & phenols to ripen notably from week commencing 7th Oct, with rain setting in from 19 Oct.; peronospera reared its head but no presence of susukii flies. In 2019 skins were thicker, more ‘old school’, with more skin to pulp than in 2018. On 5th Sept. hail swept through La Morra, lower Castiglione Falletto, lower Serralunga d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour & the lower slopes of Diano, Madonna di Como, brushing San Rocco Seno’d’Elvio.  

    Vintage 2019 in four words: classic, fresh, vertical, sinewy? 

  • I Versanti Etnei – by Lucy Barlow

    Leaving Catania airport up towards Linguaglossa, the sea behind you, the rugged, barren, grey, rocky outcrops tell of recent lava flows visible on either side of the hastily mended road.  Wild flowers, yellow with flashes of pink, mix with what resembles giant fennel. 

    Etna seems to buzz.   Perhaps living on the edge of a volcano adds a certain heightened, vibrant energy.  Even the lush green vineyards seemed more alive.  The often ungrafted, ancient alberello vines looked like inverted octopuses with outstretched tentacles and suckers where previous growth has been cut.  And above, glimpses of brooding Etna, streaked black and white still with snow.

    Terroir is super complicated and ever changing.  One Contrada – roughly speaking a ‘Cru’ – can have different soils and characteristics – it is never wise to make generalisations – although they all seem to be blessed with antimicrobial properties from the ash and few chemicals are needed in the vineyard.  Here the age of the lava flow is discussed rather than the age of the soil; and the crescent like shape which makes up the Etna DOC is divided into Versanti (Sides/Aspect).

    On the Versante Est is Milo, the heartland of Etna Bianco, where the wind blows in a funnel down the volcano to meet the moisture-laden ocean breeze.  More rain falls on this side, yet the fast-draining lavic soil means that the wines still maintain admirable concentration and health.  No dilution here where it is too cold and high for Nerello Mascalese to ripen.  Milo is the only place on Etna allowed to call its wines Etna Bianco Superiore.  From their vineyards overlooking the sea just outside in Sant’Alfio, Fabio and Nuna from Tenute di Nuna make a substantial Etna Bianco and a Superiore, the latter with a touch of oak and malolactic, but both with the salinity, savoury character brought by the proximity to the sea.

    Over to the warmer, drier, sunnier Versante Nord, famed for its reds where between Randazzo and Passopisciaro, DBGitalia stalwarts, SRC Vini, make wild, expressive wines with minimal intervention from their contrade.  Roberto Abbate has vineyards in Feudo di Mezzo, tiny quantities of both Etna Rosso, Bianco and an exquisite Rosato.  Feudo di Mezzo is the largest Etna contrada and the soil here is less rocky, deeper and more earthy, suffering less in hot years from the heat radiating from the rocks. 

    And what of these Etna grapes?  Captivating Nerello Mascalese with its unmistakable, orange-tinged wines, seductive like Pinot Noir with its sweet red fruit, sometimes more like Nebbiolo (especially on the Versante Nord), more herbal, structured or vertical but often all of the above, but mostly like itself.  Showing an affinity for oak from botti to barrique ma non troppo.  Then playful chameleon-like Carricante, with its many characters, from steely Chenin/Chablis minerality, through a miriad of honeyed citrus/pineapple fruits, weighty yet so often balanced, via the tanginess of Jurançon through to petrolly Riesling aromas with bottle age.  These wines have energy.

    We need a  trip back next year in order to continue to explore the South but for now we have a taste of the South West in the historic estate Castello Solicchiata, where classically well made, fine, Bordeaux-style blends grown on terraces surrounding the castle are found.   This was an absolute surprise, but again perhaps that is Etna, full of surprises. 

    From my impression of the wines of the Contrade, I felt that the wine making on Etna has not yet settled down entirely, both innovation and enthusiasm erupting in a slightly unconstrained wild manner.  Etna’s lava flows ironically are mostly slow and controlled.  For the Rosso in particular there was the question of oak.  Nerello Mascalese in my mind is a seductive grape which can wear it well but should be coaxed rather than smothered.  I would prefer exuberant to gaudy – this is not Nero d’Avola after all.  As for the whites, maceration at the Contrade was à la mode but was at times overdone, adding unnecessary background noise and even a tannic finish. 

    But finally, back to the giant ‘fennel’ with its huge stalks, feathery fronds and bright yellow orbs of flowers.  One producer explained that the plant was ‘finta’ (fake), called Ferula, and not to be confused with its much smaller edible cousin which also grew wild in the same spots along roads.  Ferula is mildly poisonous, and fortunately has none of fennel’s unmistakeable aniseed perfume from its crushed leaves.  According to Greek mythology, when Prometheus gave mortals fire, he stole it from Mount Olympus and hid it in the stalk of the Ferula plant which contains slow burning fibres and was often used to transport fire.  Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, was often depicted carrying a stalk of the giant plant topped with a pinecone as a sceptre.   All in all a most fitting plant to cover a volcano where the vineyards are littered with sherds of ancient Greek pottery. 

  • Diary of 2020 Langhe e Roero: the stay-at-home, tend your vines, & make a super wine (CV) vintage!

    Indeed, ‘thanks’ to CV everyone was at home, no flights flew, no cars were on the road, I walked everyday from my Verduno hideaway to Barolo & back, the air was clean, everything felt purified! In fact the 2020 (Nebbiolo) wines – following in the ‘0’ tradition of being round! – have been irresistible from birth, juicy, relaxed, & complete, as if they too needed a (CV) break from the annual grind. Sure, they’re not as vertical nor as sinewy as the ‘19s (that follow the ‘9’ mould), but they have a completeness, & certainly more focus, structure & natural balance than the ‘18s; producers of Barolo may have opted for rimontaggio/pumping over in 2019 (on account of the tannin quality) whereas in 2020 many more will have gone for capello sommerso/submerged cap, rounding off the wine.

    After a mild winter, March ‘20 brought a new lockdown in Italia, while May ushered in 10 days of cool rain showers, continuing the trend of ’18 & ’19 (while in ’21, no May rain!), June also was showery, with hail in Verduno on 15th June – a vertical punch that hit the vyds heading towards La Morra (Riva Bianca, Boscatto, Rocche dell’Olmo) – with peronospera/downey mildew raising its head in Barolo. Week of 20 June saw temps peak at 35 degrees, followed by a re-assuringly warm July at 30 degrees, punctured by the occasional storm; Aug 3rd storm toppled a great Lime tree in Barolo; more hot weather wc 10 Aug, with some 30 degree spikes through wks Aug 17 & 24th.

    Then all change wc 31 Aug, as a cool front descended upon N.Italy. Notable change in September, as the Langhe received c.65% less water than in 2019 while enjoying similar, cooler temps! On 24th September I bumped into super-agronomist & geologist Edmondo Bonelli: “2020 is not unlike 2018 but fresher, more acidity. The regular rainfalls are similar to that of an irrigation system (i.e. just enough/in regular doses!). pHs should be up like 2018 too, so good mouthfeel/softer tannins. Good site will be important, favouring the more free draining soils, i.e. older/Elveziano; while the younger/Tortoniano communes already have good water retention.” Warmer mid-September but much cooler days & crisper nights from wc 21 Sept, perfect for Nebbiolo. Rainstorm on 25 Sept wreaked havoc in S. France (the Var), but caused no damage in the Langhe, bar il vento. Most of Barbaresco & Barolo harvested started wc 28th Sept, finishing wc 5th Oct, while some like Roagna at Pira will wait until wc 12th Oct So a week earlier than in 2019. But good quantity & quality; fruit tannins seem very ripe & resolved. And finally, & importantly, winter ’20/’21 spettacolare: cooler October, then snow on 23 Nov, then again on 10 Dec lasting through to 20 Gennaio, with sub-zero temps slowing the thaw!