Italian Vintage Report – 2016

Italian Vintage Report – 2016 

Vintage 2016 proved to be a difficult and challenging one in many parts of the Italian peninsula. In areas of southern and central Italy, and at critical moments during the growing cycle, the skies were not exactly benevolent to growers. Despite the climatic challenges faced, those growers who diligently monitored their vineyards and put in the hard work have been rewarded with high-quality grapes and potentially very fine wines, albeit, in many cases, with lower than normal yields. The situation in the north was different. Growers in Piedmont and other northern regions, such as Veneto, Friuli and Lombardy, apart from a soggy early spring, experienced mainly very good to perfect weather throughout the growing season. Producers in northern Italy are very excited about the quality of vintage 2016, many feel it is superior to the much-hailed 2015 vintage – either way, consumers can look forward to two exceptional consecutive vintages.

From north to south, the winter of 2015/16 was unusually mild and generally very dry; Puglia and parts of Campania were exceptions, with both experiencing abundant winter rain. To paint the picture of how mild the winter was, early morning temperatures in the Langhe rarely dropped to 0°C, where -5°C to -8°C is the norm. The same phenomenon occurred in the higher and cooler vineyards of Chianti Classico, where minimum temperatures of 0°C were registered, instead of the customary -5°C for this time of year. In the deep south of Sicily, around Noto, the heartland of Nero d’Avola, winter was so mild that vines didn’t even go into hibernation. 

Vines responded to this unusual winter warmth by bursting into bud up to two weeks earlier than usual in many regions. The risk of severe damage to tender young buds due to a late winter or early spring cold snap was high – this is exactly what devastated many of Burgundy’s vineyards in 2016. Fortunately for most growers, this did not happen. Producers in parts of Abruzzo and Campania, however, were not so lucky, as some vineyards were devastated by frost in early spring. The mood among producers here is justifiably subdued, and many lament that while any climatic anomaly in Burgundy is seized upon by the world wine press, their plight goes unheard.

The warm winter also meant that many latent fungal spores, downy mildew in particular, survived into spring, and when prompted by the warmer weather could explode into life. A cold winter serves to disinfect the vineyard, ridding it of potentially noxious fungal and bacterial spores. In Abruzzo, Campania and the north-east regions of Veneto and Friuli, downy mildew proved to be particularly active, causing significant damage in vineyards where growers underestimated its presence.

Drought conditions throughout winter were also a cause of concern. Growers were anxious that the lack of rain would result in insufficient groundwater reserves during summer, causing hydric stress to the vines and thereby inhibiting the optimum ripening of grapes later in the growing season. When this situation occurs, grapes tend to be high in sugar, low in acidity and with underdeveloped aromatics, in heavy, alcoholic wines that are flabby and aromatically dull. A wet spring and rain at opportune moments throughout summer alleviated this risk. Sicily was an exception to the rest of Italy in that it experienced drought conditions throughout the entire growing season for the third year in a row, and to rub salt into the wound, abundant rain appeared when it was least wanted, during harvest.

In Piedmont, snowfalls in late winter and generous rain in spring alleviated any worries of insufficient groundwater for the vines during their thirsty summer ripening phase. Summer was sunny without ever being too hot, as has been the trend in recent vintages, and drying winds resulted in low humidity and reduced disease pressure. Intermittent summer rains served to refresh vineyards and ensure ripening progressed evenly and constantly. Late summer was characterised by warm days and cool nights, ensuring grapes ripened fully with exceptional phenolics, while maintaining ideal levels of acidity. The quality and health of grapes at harvest was very high. This is a textbook Nebbiolo vintage in which grapes were harvested well into autumn when the morning fog (Nebbia) begins to appear. Despite the early budburst, harvest around Barolo began around the 10th of October, about 10 days later than in 2015, and went on uninterrupted until about the 21st of October, a perfect harvest by all accounts. Initial reports from producers indicate that the Nebbiolo wines will be very fine and fragrant with ripe tannins, great balance and freshness.

In Veneto and Friuli, the climatic conditions were similar to those in Piedmont, the difference being that higher spring rainfall caused some problems with fruit set after flowering, grape bunches lost berries and were less compact than is typical. In Friuli, some vines did not carry any fruit at all. Consequently, yields were lower, but this proved to be a blessing as the fruit that survived reached harvest in an exceptional state of health and ripeness. Less compact bunches were a gift of nature to producers in Valpolicella, where Amarone is produced. Bunches like this are less prone to fungal diseases such as grey rot during the grape-drying phase (appassimento) that is so critical to the making of Amarone wine.

The cool and wet spring weather did however cause downy mildew problems in some vineyards. Many growers in Friuli are converting to organic viticulture, and the wet spring conditions were challenging for those growers who had yet to accumulate experience with organic farming. The cool spring conditions also fooled some seasoned conventional growers into lowering their guard against this fungal disease in the belief that such conditions do not favour its development. In reality, spores were lying in wait to come to life as the weather warmed up. Sure enough, many conventional growers were caught off guard by the blight of downy mildew.

Summer in the north-east was not unlike in Piedmont, not too hot – 32°C was a regular maximum – with light refreshing rainfall at opportune moments. The season was long and protracted with ideal temperature fluctuations between day and night towards the end of the growing season and into harvest. Perfectly ripe and healthy grapes were harvested, albeit with slightly lower yields than 2015. The prognosis is for wines of excellent finesse and balance with good fragrance and pure flavours.

As we move south, vintage 2016 became more challenging. In Tuscany, the prolonged dry winter turned into a very long and wet spring. In July, the rain suddenly stopped and didn’t appear again until late summer. This situation created some vine stress, resulting in uneven ripening. Vines on the lighter soils in the Chianti Classico region suffered the dry conditions more than those on the heavier clay soils. Summer here was never that hot, and this will be reflected in wines with slightly lower alcohol levels than has been the case in recent years. In the south of Tuscany, as well as in Chianti, heavy rain hit in late summer and risked jeopardising what was already a difficult vintage. In Montepulciano, 200 mm of rain fell between the 20th of August and the 10th of September, a literal washout. Just when all seemed lost, the skies cleared and sunshine accompanied producers through to harvest. This heavy late summer rain refreshed vineyards back to life, providing a needed push for the final phase of ripening. Grapes were picked in optimum condition, and the prediction is for fine, well-balanced wines with slightly restrained alcohol levels compared to recent vintages (with the exception of 2014, of course). Some producers in Chianti Classico have noted that the colour of Sangiovese wines is much deeper and darker than is customary.

Producers in Abruzzo were faced with a real challenge in 2016, and those who did not rise to the challenge suffered a harvest of grapes that were not in an optimum state of health and nor were fully ripe. The voluptuous character typical of the wines of this region will unlikely be found in 2016. A severe April frost caused damage to some vineyards. To make matters worse, summer never really arrived. Sunny days were interrupted by periods of dreary grey skies and annoying misty rain; this situation persisted into harvest. Yields are generally lower, and downy mildew caused problems where growers did not exercise the necessary vigilance. Like in Friuli, organic growers with little experience found conditions very testing. Despite the difficult weather conditions throughout the growing cycle, the best growers were able to harvest healthy, ripe grapes, albeit with lower sugar than has been customary in recent vintages. The best wines will be elegant and balanced with fresh acidity but with less body and slightly lower alcohol than we are used to seeing.

Campania, particularly its inland areas, like Irpinia, experienced similar climatic conditions to Abruzzo. A severe spring frost on the 25th of April wiped out up to 50 per cent of the crop in some vineyards. Downy mildew and oidium added to the challenges already facing growers. Just like in Abruzzo, the vintage here was one that sorted out the boys from the men – any grower not up to the task was punished at harvest. While red wines from the region will lack body and structure, the best white wines show real promise; they are lighter in alcohol but balanced, briskly fresh and with good fragrance. The best wines promise good ageing potential, particularly Fiano.

Puglia did not suffer the same climatic inclemencies during the growing season as nearby Abruzzo and Campania. Summer was benevolent, with clear skies and warming sunshine, and temperatures were never too hot. White varieties ripened ideally and were harvested with excellent sugar/acid balance. The resulting wines promise to be fresh and fragrant. As if nature had cursed Italy’s southern regions in 2016, rain set in and showed no signs of letting up before the harvest of red varieties, halting the critical final phase of ripening. This caused a scramble among producers, fearful of ending up with soggy and rotten grapes, to get their grapes into the winery. Where possible, a mechanical harvest facilitated this end. Low-yielding old vines were less affected by the late summer deluge and yielded healthy ripe grapes. Red wines from Puglia will be lower in alcohol in 2016, which is not such a bad thing, as recent vintages have seen more than a few Primitivos with alcohol levels over 16 per cent.

Winter in Sicily was warm and dry. Summer did not bring with it the customary African heat – with the exception of July – nor any of the much-desired rain. The three successive years of drought took their toll on southern Sicily, by now dry like the Sahara. Irrigation, where permitted, was by now a superficial remedy with little effect. Yields were lower due to the hydric stress suffered by the vines, but lower crop levels meant that vines were able to ripen their grapes despite the lack of water. In order to preserve acidity, growers began the harvest early – late July for white varieties, which was up to two weeks earlier than in more typical vintages. The resultant wines show good body with adequate balancing acidity. The dry conditions slowed the ripening of red varieties, like Nero d’Avola, which were also harvested earlier than usual in order to maintain freshness. Old vines suffered less, yielding healthy grapes with ripe tannins and good acidity. Some very fine wines will be produced from older vineyards. This is a vintage that will reward the best producers and penalise those not up to the task.

This report was made possible by the contribution of the following producers (links provided for those exclusive to R&R in Australia):

Vittorio Adriano, Marco e Vittorio Adriano, Fraz. San Rocco Seno d’Elvio, Alba, Piemonte
Claudio Fenocchio, Giacomo Fenocchio, Monforte d’Alba, Piemonte
Alessandro Castellani, Ca’ la Bionda, Marano di Valpolicella, Veneto
Lorenzo Mocchiutti, Vignai da Duline, San Giovani al Natisone, Friuli
Gian Paolo Chiettini, Castagnoli, Radda in Chianti, Toscana
Paolo de Marchi, Isole e Olena, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Toscana
Fausto Albanesi, Torre dei Beati, Loreto Aprutino, Abruzzo
Raffaele Troisi, Vadiaperti, Montefredane, Campania
Massimo Padova, Riofavara, Ispica, Sicilia