Harvest 2017 / Op-ed

The “crazy” 2017 vintage: How long can we continue like this?

The follow post originally appeared on the popular Italian wine blog Intravino. It has been translated here by our blog master.

That’s a strawberry tree in the photo. It’s a plant that bears its fruit in Montalcino at the end of the year. I took that photo in September, when it shouldn’t have had ripe fruit on it. But it did. This image speaks for itself. It’s a symbol of the anomalous, inexplicable, and truly crazy 2017 vintage.

In Maremma, I picked my red grapes in mid-August and they were a little bit too concentrated. But they had acidity and the right pH. The seeds were perfectly crunchy, like those you only find in perfectly ripe fruit.

Had they dried on the vine? No, just a small amount had. It’s not possible but it actually happened.

In Scansano (in Maremma on the coast), I harvested a month earlier than usual. But even though Montalcino lies just a short distance from the sea as the crow flies, I harvested around the same time I do every year. It seems impossible but it happened. Even the rainfall seemed impossible. The amount of rain was the same as usual but it was concentrated into just a few heavy storms that were followed by drought that never seemed to end. It was like Tunisia here this year. But in 2014 it was like we were in Finland: Cold, rain, and clouds of insects. Yet we didn’t leave Tuscany and we are still here.

How can this be? I don’t know if it’s humankind’s fault. The only thing that I know is that it is happening. But what wine do we have in our cellars from this vintage? As far as wine lovers are concerned, it’s the only thing that matters.

The good news is that Tuscan winemakers have grown up (I don’t have enough experience with other Italian regions to be able to determine whether it’s like this everywhere). In 1970 or maybe even in 1990, a year of Finland followed not long after by a year of Tunisia would have had us on our knees. But not now. Nearly everyone has experience in grape growing. Technology has evolved. The vines are mostly on the younger side and they were planted wisely. And Saint Sangiovese has — as always and more than any other grape — held its own. It has suffered recently and even gravely. But it just took a little rainfall for it to get back on its feet and then some. There’s a reason that the Tuscans have been planting and replanting this grape — and nearly always this grape alone — for centuries.

The crazy 2017 vintage is going to give us very little wine. But there is a lot of good wine in many of our cellars. Not all of them. But many of them. In the end, we will make it but we are at our limit. If we experience drought, late frost, or a financial crisis in 2018 or 2019 or 2020, it would be a catastrophe.

This strange 2017 vintage prompts us to ask ourselves heavy questions. What damage has been done to the vineyards (and to the wineries!) by these two extreme vintages that happened so close to one another. What will it take to get back to normal? What impact will it have throughout the lifespan of the vines? And most importantly, can we continue like this, with the vines (and grape varieties) not giving us wine every third year? Maybe it’s time to rethink viticulture. But how?

We could take the technology route. We could use genetically modified vines and rootstock. It would be costly but it would be interesting. People who like this kind of thing really like it a lot. But there’s just one tiny little problem: Even with a high renewal rate of three or four percent, it would take decades to complete the change.

In the meantime, how are we going to feed ourselves? I believe that we need to look at every new approach. But I also believe that we need to invest seriously in adapting what we have to a climate with frequent extreme vintages.

Primum vivere, deinde philosophari. Live first, philosophize later. There are many paths we could take. But the first order of the day is obvious. The taboo about irrigation has to be put to rest. If it doesn’t rain during the summer, we cannot allow for the harvest to be lost. And the second order of the day is just as obvious. We need to use more organic fertilizers. More organic and more of them. Living soil withstands drought better and it makes the vines more resistant. And it also makes for less erosion. Oh and by the way, it also makes for better wines. As far as everything else is concerned, everyone has her/his own recipes. What’s important is to come to terms with the fact that the climate has always changed and it will continue changing.

In the end, the winners will be the ones who adapt best — not the strongest. Given that we are not the strongest, this could become a solution rather than a problem.

Stefano Cinelli Colombini
owner and winemaker
Fattoria dei Barbi

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