“Disaster” harvest 2014, potentially northern Italy’s rainiest vintage in our lifetime

rain veneto harvest 2014Above: my friend and client Luca Ferraro, grape grower and winemaker in the Prosecco DOCG, posted this photo on his Instagram this morning, noting that the 2014 is a “disaster… I’m losing hope,” he wrote.

As some northern growers have already begun to pick (Franciacorta) and some are preparing to harvest in roughly two weeks (Asolo-Conegliano-Valdobbiadene), incessant rains continue to plague embattled winemakers in northern Italy this week.

Scattered hailstorms have already caused widespread damage this year, particularly in Piedmont and to a lesser extent in Franciacorta and Prosecco country.

The following screen captures show weather forecasts for Valdobbiadene, Erbusco (Franciacorta, where they are already harvesting), Alba (Barolo and Barbaresco, the appellations hardest hit by hail this year), and Asti (Barbera and Moscato d’Asti).

The relentless precipitation is making it increasingly challenging for growers to combat rot and mildew in the vineyards.

My friend and client Luca Ferraro, a Prosecco producer, wrote last week that he’s abandoning in growing sites in the flats this year so that he can focus his already herculean efforts to save his hillside vines.

Piedmont is getting the warmth that it needs but note the cool temperature today in Valdobbiadene just two weeks from expected harvest.





Harvest 2014 begins in Italy, a challenging vintage

coccaglioAbove: the village of Coccaglio as seen from a vineyard owned by Franciacorta producer Arcari-Danesi; photo taken in April 2014.

According to a press release issued this week by the Franciacorta consortium, growers in Coccaglio (Brescia province) began picking Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Nero grapes on Monday.

They are among the first in Italy to harvest in one of the most challenging vintages in recent memory.

According to Coldiretti, Italy’s national farmers union, the month of July saw a roughly 74 percent spike in average rainfall with respect to 2013.

As Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro noted this week on his blog, 1,000 mm of rain fell in the region of Trentino (northern Italy) during the first seven months of 2014 — the average amount of rainfall for a normal year.

Across northern and central Italy, a rainy and cool July has slowed the growing cycle. As Ferraro put it, citing the song by the Doors, winemakers are literally waiting for the sun. The arrival of warmer weather will be crucial: without it, the grapes will take too long to ripen fully and rot and mildew — already an issue for many growers in this wet, chilly summer — will go unchecked.

In Proseccoland, where nearly daily rainfall continues to plague the vineyards, producers expect to start picking in early September.

In central Italy, most are expecting harvest to begin around the middle of September. They cool weather, some have noted, has brought 2014 in line with the growing cycles of the 70s and 80s — the era before climate change delivered extremely warm summers and accelerated harvests.

In southern Italy, where winemakers have experienced a more “classic” growing cycle, many will begin picking their grapes next week.

weather italy harvest 2014Above: a screen capture taken at 3 p.m. Italian time.

Extraordinary 14-year-old Franciacorta & a great post by @ItalianWineGuy

ca del bosco best wineA Texas-sized lightening storm took out my modem and wifi last night (and scarred the crap out of us when lightening struck a few doors down from our house).

But that didn’t stop our dinner guests, Tracie P, and me from thoroughly enjoying a bottle of 2000 Franciacorta Dosage Zero by Ca’ del Bosco.

This still youthful wine was vibrant and fresh with remarkable depth and character. Its fruit was rich and its acidity was perfectly integrated throughout its body.

A truly extraordinary, supreme expression of an often misunderstood and misrepresented appellation. One of the best bottles I’ve had all year…

I’m still recovering from a morning’s work lost (when I got to my cable provider’s office this morning, I discovered I wasn’t the only Houstonian with a fried modem).

But I just had to take a moment to share Alfonso’s excellent post on “Franciacorta’s ‘Little’ Problem.” It’s a great read…

A WOW! Valtellina (and not the one you think)

best valtellina infernoI recently received an exuberant e-blast from a respected colleague, a top wine professional in Los Angeles (for whom I have the utmost admiration). In it, he sang the praises of one of my favorite Valtellina producers.

It’s only available in a handful of New York restaurants, he wrote, and he was thrilled to be pouring it at an upcoming wine dinner at the super hip LA restaurant where he works as wine director.

He even made a very self-aware and bold statement: although it’s virtually unknown to American wine lovers, he wrote, it’s one of the best wineries in Italy.

Italian wine insiders know the wine he was talking about.

But few remember that ArPePe is the current incarnation of the historic Pelizzatti winery. If you leaf through Italian wine monographs from the 1990s, it’s often referred to as the “second label” of Nino Negri (see this 2007 post by Alfonso). Since that time, the new generations (Pelizzatti and Perego) have converted to chemical-free farming and have begun making some of the best Valtellina available today.

I love ArPePe and have written about it here on numerous occasions (the wine is actually available in a lot of states beyond New York, including Texas; and btw, locals pronounce it ahr-peh-peh and not ahr-peh-PEH with a false and hypercorrective stress on the last syllable).

But when I read my colleague’s email it occurred to me: most Americans simply haven’t tasted a lot of Valtellina. And unless they collect Italian wine tomes from the 1950s and 60s (like me), most Americans aren’t aware that Valtellina was the top expression of Nebbiolo before Langa wines — Barolo and Barbaresco — rose to prominence beginning in the 1970s.

On Saturday night, I opened a bottle that was sent to me by one of my clients (an importer for whom I compose tasting and background notes; he likes to keep a low profile and so I am not going to name him here). It was the 2006 Balgera Valtellina Inferno (above) and man, this wine knocked our socks off.

It was lithe and nimble in the glass and its confident eastern spice notes and elegant tannin were perfect for the griddle-fired medium-rare cheeseburgers that we served on toasty wholewheat buns.

We only drank half the bottle: the next night, it was even better paired with some fontina and crusty bread.

Our tasting note: WOW! The freshness of this wine and its depth and nuance of flavor just blew us away.

I don’t want this post to sound like too much of a plug for my client. But if you love Nebbiolo, you need to taste this wine. And it weighs in at less than $30 retail (if I’m not mistaken).

Sadly, it’s not available in Texas and I’m not seeing any availability on WineSearcher.com beyond an older vintage of their rosso at Chambers (one of the best wineshops in the U.S., btw) in New York. But I’m going to try to get my hands on some this fall when my wine club becomes active again.

Prosecco growers under fire in aftermath of tragic flash flood

refrontolo funeralIt was heartbreaking to follow the funeral procession of the four victims of the tragic flash flood that occurred last Saturday evening in the heart of Proseccoland.

Yesterday, a number of social media users from the area posted images in quasi-realtime.

Even before the four men were laid to rest, local activists and politicians began to sling accusations at grape growers.

“The soils have been rendered more fragile,” said Paolo Spagna, president of the Veneto Order of Geologists, in an interview published by La Tribuna di Treviso earlier this week, “by the intensive actions of man, who, in order to grow his coveted Prosecco, intervenes massively with excavations to build new vineyards. The danger for those who live in the area has become a certainty.”

Giuseppe Della Colletta, who owns and runs La Cappuccina/L’Agreste, a farm and popular farmhouse tavern in the village of Refrontolo where the tragedy occurred, was also interviewed in the same article.

“We know all the poor men who lost their lives,” he said. “Saturday evening, I would have gone to the [Croda] watermill [where the flash flood took place] with my children. We have always known that our land is fragile. If you look at a document [preserved] in our parish, dated 1756, you’ll find that it talks about our area and calls it Livina granda, the great landslide. I honestly believe that the vineyards have nothing to do with it… We started to farm here in 1924 and we know that working here is not easy. The ‘crust’ of our land becomes sand under the hot sun and it slips on the hard clay that lies beneath. We know what to do to stop it. All you have to do is to look at our vineyards. True landslides? I’ve seen plenty at the watermill but I’ve also seen them in the woods.”

(Translations mine.)

When he says that he has seen landslides in the woods as well, Della Colletta is referring to the claims that deforestation is what led to the tragedy.

My wife Tracie and I have eaten at L’Agreste. I’ve shaken Mr. Della Colletta’s hand.

I can tell you as a matter of fact that the people who live there are acutely aware of the dangers of hillside life.

The steep slopes, formed by ancient melting glaciers, are part of what makes Prosecco’s topography unique.

It’s true that Prosecco has been overcropped by aggressively business-minded growers. But that’s not where the problem lies.

As I wrote in my own post earlier this week, citing Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro, heavy migration toward urban centers has left Proseccoland a deeply depressed area, where vineyard owners continue to get rich while unemployment continues to grow.

Since the 1990s — for more than twenty years now — I’ve frequented Proseccoland and I’ve watched as Prosecco has become one of the most lucrative appellations in the world and the overwhelming majority of residents has grown poorer and poorer.

There is a sense on the ground that “big business” Prosecco is to blame for this. But there is also a greater awareness that local infrastructure and government services have virtually abandoned the locals. I can tell you this from my own personal experience and my many ties to the community there.

The bottomline is that everyone knew that the Croda watermill was a dangerous place to gather during such a rainy season. But municipal authorities did nothing to stop the event or make the area safe for such gatherings.

Italian readers, please see this subsequent editorial by Luciano Ferraro. And see also this coverage by Slow Food.

Le fol amant du vin à Houston au Texas

Savennieres Chateau EpireWine-bar hopping with a colleague last night reminded me of what an awesome time it is to be a fol amant du vin in the Bayou City.

A visit to my favorite wine bar in town, Camerata, delivered 2004 Savennières by Chateau d’Epiré. We tend to drink classic Chenin Blanc too early in its evolution and I was so geeked to dive into the nutty, “stinky cheese” flavors of this groovy wine.

costa di la prosecco col fondoNext came the current vintages of Mauro Lorenzon’s Costa di là vineyard-designated Prosecco Col Fondo at Dolce Vita, where my good buddy Nathan Smith runs the show.

These wines, which tend toward the radical, polarized some of the other wine professionals who were sipping and munching there last night. The higher altitude wine showed better imho.

But more than anything else, I was stoked to see that these very funky wines are making it Texas.

poggio di gaviNext, Nathan poured us these expression of Gavi by Poggio di Gavi, a winery I’d never tasted before.

I actually liked the entry-tier wine better: it was rounder and its fruit more present while the Gavi di Gavi was more angular and more mineral-driven. They were both excellent.

More and more, national importers are finding ways to get their wines to Texas and the number of small, independent Texas-based importers and distributors continues to expand. When I first got here back in 2008, the situation was much different.

In other Houston wine news…

Seven of the twenty-five Texas wine pros competing in the “best sommelier in Texas” event, to be held at the yearly frat party otherwise known as Texsom in Dallas this weekend, are Houstonians. I wrote a short post about them today for the Houston Press.

Panerai, Gambero Rosso’s purported “silent” partner & top winner of Tre Bicchieri awards

paolo paneraiAbove: publishing mogul Paolo Panerai at his Rocca di Frassinello winery in Tuscany earlier this year (image via Melodia del Vino’s Flickr, Creative Commons).

To this day, Italian publishing mogul Paolo Panerai — the “Bloomberg of Italy” — contends that he is not the owner of the Gambero Rosso, publisher of Italy’s most influential wine guide, including the coveted (and highly lucrative) “Tre Bicchieri” or “Three Glass” award.

In 2008, Gambero Rosso editor-in-chief and founder Stefano Bonilli (who died last week) was abruptly and wrongfully fired by the publication. In 2011, after winning a law suit that he brought against Gambero Rosso for wrongful termination, Bonilli revealed Panerai’s financial relationship with the publication in an interview with the Italian online magazine Il fatto quotidiano. As early as 2006, it had been rumored that Panerai had acquired the Gambero Rosso. Panerai, according to the 2011 article, denied that he was financially involved with the Gambero Rosso.

Even Daniele Cernilli, who took Bonilli’s position as editor-in-chief after Bonilli was fired, conceded in a subsequent interview that Panerai’s publishing group, Class Editori, had bailed out the masthead in 2006. Otherwise, he claimed ignorance, noting that — despite the fact that he was then editor-in-chief — he did not have knowledge of the masthead’s financial dealings.

In October 2013, in its preview of the 2014 Gambero Rosso Guide to the Wines of Italy, WineNews.it reported that Panerai’s winery group won more Tre Bicchieri awards than any other.

Angelo Gaja, whose family owns three of Italy’s most prestigious wineries, was awarded just one Tre Bicchieri award in the 2014 guide.

Italian readers should not miss honorary Slow Food president Roberto Burdese’s profile of Bonilli, published earlier this week by Il fatto quotidiano (Burdese writes that Bonilli was born in 1945 and thus was 69 when he died last week; mainstream media had previously reported that he was 67).

And for Italo- and Anglophones, be sure to watch this YouTube (below), also posted this week. In the short clip, Bonilli tells the story of the birth of the Gambero Rosso and the enogastronomic ethos of the time (the late 1980s) in Italy. He will be sorely missed.

Tragedy in Prosecco: flash floods senselessly claim four lives

vineyard tractor italy proseccoAbove: a view from a Proseccoland tractor by my client, Prosecco grower and winemaker Luca Ferraro.

On Saturday night, four men lost their lives in the village of Refrontolo in the heart of Proseccoland.

While celebrating the “festa degli omeni” (“men’s fest”), an annual festival and dinner held at the picturesque Croda watermill, a group of roughly 100 persons was taken by surprise by a flash flood.

By all accounts in mainstream and virtual media, the festival had not been authorized by local officials and the site was known to be susceptible to flash flooding.

“We’ll remember July as the most rainy month of the year [2014],” wrote my client and Prosecco grower and winemaker Luca Ferraro in an email this morning. “It appears that 370 mm of rain fell [over the course of the month], with continuous rains that were interrupted by forty-eight hour intervals at the most.”

There were a number of flash floods in the area and in some cases, entire vineyards of Glera grapes (destined to become Prosecco) were washed away.

I wrote about the tragedy for Luca’s blog here.

The tragedy resonates deeply within me, in part because it happened in the part of Italy that I call “home.” I’m not Italian, of course, but I spent three summers playing music in pubs and beer halls in the area back in the 1990s when I was a graduate student at the University of Padua.

The flash-flood area spanned a stretch of vineyard-land marked by the townships of Refrontolo and Cison di Valmarino (Treviso province), where we held a reunion concert with my bandmates in April 2013. I have many friends there and many ties to the community (see the map on my post for Luca’s blog here).

One of the men who died was forty-eight years old and had just started a family. I didn’t know him but as a forty-seven-year-old father of a toddler and a one-year-old, my heart sank when I read his bio in the online edition of one of Treviso’s local papers.

Some have laid blame with Prosecco growers: deforestation and expansion of vineyard sites, they say, have made the area more prone to flash floods and mudslides.

But the fact of the matter is that this area is so depressed that its infrastructure has been virtually abandoned.

Yesterday on his blog, one of Italy’s most esteemed wine writers, Maurizio Gily, posted an op-ed in which he refutes the notion that vineyard expansion is to blame. The bottom line, he writes, is that the authorities should have banned events at the site. The rain has been intense over the last four weeks (as per Luca’s note above) and there had already been episodes of flooding at the watermill.

And on Saturday, Corriere della Sera wine writer Luciano Ferraro (no relation to Luca) posits that Italians’ migration to urban centers has left areas like Proseccoland with fewer resources to safeguard their hillside villages (you can read my excerpted translation of his piece here).

When I toured in the area with my cover band back in the 1990s, there were literally scores of pubs and beer halls for us to play. Today, they are nearly all gone (one of my favorites has become a strip club and another a brothel). The vibrant youth culture that I knew has vanished.

The news of the catastrophe really hits home for me (that’s a photo of me and Tracie at the Croda watermill in February 2011, about a month before she became pregnant with our first daughter Georgia).

Thanks for reading and for sharing my grief.

molinetto di croda refrontolo

Stefano Bonilli, founder of Gambero Rosso & inspiration to a generation, dies at 67 69

stefano bonilli mortoAcross the internet today, Italian food and wine bloggers are mourning the passing of Stefano Bonilli, founder of the popular food culture magazine Gambero Rosso and pioneering food writer and blogger.

According to mainstream reports, he was 67 (his friend and colleague, Luciano Pignataro, Neapolitan journalist and editor of one of Italy’s most popular food and wine blogs, writes that he was 69). The cause was a heart attack.

[A profile of Bonilli, published on August 4 by Il fatto quotidiano, reports that he was 69 at the time of his death.]

When he first published the “Gambero Rosso” as a supplement to the leftist newspaper Il Manifesto in 1986, Bonilli established a new category of food writing that would become a model for a generation of Italian gastronomes and food and wine writers.

As Pignataro writes today on his blog, “he was the child of a generation that made politics part of everyday life. His generation knew prosperity but also remembered hunger. Born right after the war, his generation questioned the very pillars of its own education as it dreamed of a better world for everyone.”

When he was abruptly fired by the then new owner of the Gambero Rosso masthead in 2008, Bonilli turned to virtual media and the blogosphere as the main outlets for his writing and causes.

When he founded his blog, Papero Giallo, in 2004, he was among the earliest mainstream food writers in Italy to embrace the new medium.

His online magazine devoted to Italian food culture, Gazzetta Gastronomica, was launched in 2011.

Since its founding, the Papero Giallo has been one of Italy’s most beloved and colorful food blogs.

It was rivaled in popularity by Bonilli’s Twitter, where he masterfully shared his insights and musings.

In his last Tweet, posted on June 29 (on the day of the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul, Rome’s patron saints), he wrote (translation mine):

desert and sun
city of Rome
St. Peter’s festival
the sea is far away
I drift home
reading in the shadows
I call to you via Twitter
an echo responds

At the time of his passing, Bonilli was in the process of organizing a food writers conference to be held in Bologna next month. It was billed as an international dialog on the “new food publishing.”

Myriad testimonials to his life and work, published today across the internet, are testament to his overarching legacy and the immense influence that he had a on a generation of food and wine writers and lovers.

stefano bonilli gambero rosso deadImages via International Journalism Festival’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

Double-digit growth in exports says Franciacorta Consortium panel

best franciacorta“Exports grew by 17.4 percent with respect to the first half of 2013,” write the authors of a press release issued today by the Franciacorta Consortium, “resulting in an overall increase in the number of bottles sold of 12.6 percent.”

“Once again, Japan is the top foreign market for Franciacorta, followed by the United States, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. Growth continues in the United Kingdom where sales have grown notably (100.4 percent) thanks to marketing efforts that began there last year and heightened brand visibility.”

You can read my translation of the entire release over at the Barone Pizzini blog.

My post on Franciacorta yesterday here on Do Bianchi generated a lot of positive feedback. I am a huge fan of the wines and I’m thrilled to learn that the appellation continues to build its market presence abroad.

Thanks for reading. Buon weekend!

Image via FranciacortaBlog.com.