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Montalcino Harvest Update

Right now we are preparing for one of the most challenging Brunello harvests in years, due mainly to unexpected variations in weather conditions over the past month. But then, can we ever “expect” the weather to do anything?

And that is the nature of the wine business. In a way, you could say that viticulture is a form of gambling, and our estate an outdoor casino, with bets placed and dice being rolled throughout the vineyards. We spend plenty of time, money, and resources preparing to make the very best wine that we can, and in the end, there’s still one factor beyond our control: the weather.

The growing season began late this year, thanks to a cool spring and abundant rainfall. Lower than average temperatures persisted through July, but a heat wave hit in mid-August — thanks to an anti-cyclone above the African continent that drove temperatures well over the 100-degree Fahrenheit mark through early September. The vines had sufficient water reserves to avoid hydric stress, but in vineyards where mature grapes were exposed, strong sun literally gave the fruit a bad case of sunburn. Even if you could apply Coppertone to grapes, it probably wouldn’t have helped very much! That brief but severe heat wave will reduce our yield and require care and attention both in the vineyards and the winery. Does that mean the wines will be lesser in quality? Not necessarily. Thanks to the research and development behind our hallmark ‘pursuit of excellence’, we’re in the rare position to take these adverse conditions and maintain high standards for our estate’s Brunello di Montalcino and super Tuscans.

The weather can be challenging at times, but it’s one of the reasons why wine is so interesting — it’s never the same from year to year — and to be frank, this year wasn’t the easiest. While 2011 was not as perfect a growing season as, say, 2006 and 2007, this year also was dramatically different from the consistently hot 2003 and consistently cool 2002. Looking back, I’d liken the current conditions more to the 2000 harvest, which similarly started cooler than usual and was marked by a brief but severe heat wave in August. We learned from that year, and we’ve learned a lot in general over the past decade, so this unexpected heat wave isn’t a major concern — but, it’s notable.

We noticed the heat wave’s effect immediately. Last week, after we finished harvesting white grapes, we realized the yield was about 30% to 40% less than expected. This week we’ve started to harvest Merlot and Syrah — carefully. Hand picking has been key, and will be even more vital when we begin harvesting the more sensitive Sangiovese over the coming weeks. While we are seeing overall good quality, we have to be judicious in picking fruit from the vineyard, and then scrupulously inspect it again when it comes into the winery. We stay on top of that through a “double triage” sorting of fruit at the winery — something we started only four years ago, in 2007 — where we first inspect the bunches that come in, and then select the individual de-stemmed berries by both further visual inspection and weight-density tests. This process ensures that the best fruit is vinified. It’s more laborious, more costly, and results in less wine, but it’s what needs to be done to uphold our standard of quality.

Of course, we wish every year could be like 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2009 — but our hand is dealt by Mother Nature, and we have no choice but to play those cards. We have a wild card on our side, though — decades of work and research that have prepared us for these vagaries of nature. Our dedicated team knows how to handle harvest conditions like this — we’ve “been there, done that” — and in the end you can bet that Banfi wines will exceed your expectations for the 2011 vintage.

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