Brunello growers and bottlers association president Fabrizio Bindocci (above) is appealing to the Italian agriculture ministry to reinterpret current appellation regulations and allow emergency irrigation without revising legislation.
As I wrote on Friday for the Houston Press, one thing was achingly apparent during our recent two-week trip from northernmost Italy to the tip of the heel of the boot, traveling through ten of Italy’s twenty regions: prolonged heat and drought have seriously impacted growers and winemakers over the last decade and their acceptance of climate change is no longer subject of debate but rather resignation in the face of an unavoidable truth.
Last week, Angelo Gaja issued the following statement:
Climate change — marked by prolonged summer heat and drought — is the cause for the sharp drop in Italy’s grape production for 2012. It was also the reason behind the light vintages of 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011.
Now, as a result, another scarce year adds to the lack of wine from previous vintages lying in Italian cellars. In the space of just a few short years, we have shifted from a situation in which Italy perennially produced a surplus of wine to the current shortage.
And on Wednesday, Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello growers and bottlers association (Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino) wrote that “To make great wines, one needs healthy grapes at the right point of ripening. For this reason, we are passing through the vineyards of Sangiovese harvesting, selecting the bunches that have suffered the heat, and leaving still the whole grape bunches to ripen. [The 2012 vintage] is surely not an easy vintage, with a reduction of production not yet predictable but surely of 20%.”
Off the record, among the score of growers and winemakers I talked to over the last two weeks, many compared 2012 to the disastrous annus horribilis 2003, when unrelenting heat and drought decimated Sangiovese vineyards in Montalcino, the first in a series of warm-hot vintages that have challenged growers and producers of fine wines.
In Montalcino, the situation is aggravated by the fact that emergency irrigation — irrigazione di soccorso — is not prescribed by appellation regulations.
Above: For growers with ideal vineyard sites, like Laura Brunelli (Podernovi-Le Chiuse di Sotto [Montalcino]), the quality of fruit is excellent. The problem is that there will be less of it in 2012 (as for Bindocci’s Il Poggione). Even Laura conceded that she would have irrigated this year in certain spots if the appellation allowed it.
In the light of the warming trend, Fabrizio has been lobbying for many years (since 2003) to change the appellation regulations and allow for emergency irrigation.
When I met with him a week ago Saturday, he told me that he is currently preparing a request for “clarification” from the Italian agriculture ministry.
Apparently, the appellation regulations make no mention of emergency irrigation (or whether it is allowed or not).
“In another time,” he told me, “irrigation wasn’t included in the appellation because it could have been used to inflate yields. That’s not an issue today: our members consistently deliver yields far below the maximum requirements, which are already low. So the question is no longer quantity but rather quality. By allowing irrigation in vintages like this, we could help to raise quality for the entire appellation.”
Bindocci’s move, if successful, would also eliminate potential bureaucratic delays and headaches: now that EU technocrats in Brussels have to rubberstamp any changes to appellation regulations issued by Rome, a whole new layer of red tape has been added to the process.
“If the minister declares that, according to the letter of the law, irrigation is legal because it is not referenced in the regulations, we could potentially begin right away,” although the Italian government summer recess, which just ended, would seem to preclude that possibility at this point.
A deux ex machina from the Italian government would also resolve another set of local and political issues for the growers association (and these are my words, not Fabrizio’s).
“No one wants to be the first,” said one grower, “to irrigate without the government’s authorization. Theoretically, they could try to since the appellation doesn’t state whether it’s allowed or not. But no one wants to be the first.”