Varying reports and striking images from last week’s spring freeze in Italy.

Above: Tenuta di Trinoro burns bucket-sized candles in its vineyards to mitigate frost damage after last week’s spring freeze. Images like this have been common in France over the last decade. They are becoming more common in Italy (image via Thurner PR, Florence).

Inboxes teemed this morning with press releases from Italian wine-focused PR firms and growers consortia. Each had a different take on the impact of last week’s late spring freeze.

At the time of the extreme weather event, budding had begun across most of Italy. When frost occurs at this delicate stage in the vine’s cycle, it can arrest the plant’s fruit production. If the buds freeze, they won’t appear again until the following year. In some cases, growers lost up to 70 percent of their crop.

The Thurner firm in Florence, one of the country’s premier agencies, issued these stunning photos (above and below) from the Trinoro estate in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia.

They show the bucket-sized candles that vineyard workers traditionally use to warm the plants during extreme cold. Images like these from France have not been uncommon in recent years. For northern and central Italian growers, on the other hand, the now more frequent occurrence of spring frost and efforts to mitigate the impact mark the second time in the last four years that they have had to face nature’s heartless caprice. The last late spring freeze came for them in 2017.

The Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani (the Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe, and Dogliani growers association) took a different tack in their dispatch.

“Overall,” wrote the authors of their release, “it appears this early spring frost only affected a few vineyards and did not impact the whole production area — contrarily to what occurred in 2017, when late April frost affected more areas at all altitudes. After a first inspection, we do not believe the vintage will suffer from significant production drop due to recent freezing temperatures.”

They also point out that late-ripening (and late-budding) grape varieties like Nebbiolo were less affected by the extreme weather.

While northern Italian growers have remained mostly silent or have taken a euphemistic approach to the fallout (as above), Tuscan winemakers are reporting significant losses.

The Brunello di Montalcino consortium was among the first last week to issue a statement about the damage and efforts to contain it.

And earlier this week, the Col d’Orcia winery in Montalcino reported in a Facebook post that “budding was advanced” at the time of the frost. As a result, “the damage was extensive.”

All of this comes as nearly all of Italy remains in lockdown. With restaurants shuttered and wine tourism on hold, many wineries — especially small family-owned estates — are struggling to stay afloat. The recent extreme weather event is yet another challenge they must face.

A couple of wonderful new releases from Los Pilares in San Diego: skin-contact Falanghina and Assyrtiko co-ferment.

You can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take Italy out of the grape.

The chiasmus flowed through my mind when Eric Van Drunen and Michael Christian poured me the first of their latest releases from the Los Pilares winery in San Diego, California last week.

The wonderful Los Pilares skin-contact Falanghina from their 2020 harvest — one of their best to date, they said — had all the hallmarks of great Falanghina: freshness, good acidity, and classic notes of citrus and minerality. On-the-skins fermentation gave the wine a creamy texture that made me crave for some grilled fish tacos (mahi mahi, if you don’t mind). But the thing that really impressed me was how clean and focused this wine was.

The fruit for this wine, like all their labels, comes from San Diego-county grown grapes, including vines on tribal lands. It was barely 13 years ago when people would still sneer when the seemingly oxymoronic expression “San Diego wine” was uttered. Eric and Michael seem to have put that old chestnut into the roaster for once and for all, as the metaphorizing goes.

The other wine that had my tongue on its toes was this excellent Assyrtiko-Mission-Barbera co-ferment.

Los Pilares grower Coleman Cooney has been experimenting with new grape varieties for years now and this is definitely one of his best efforts imho.

The Mission, a California native that has been deservedly getting more and more attention in recent years (thank you, Bryan Harrington), seemed to give this wine the “lift” that young sommeliers look for these days. But it was the Santorini grape that imparted the rich saltiness in this wine. Eric and Michael served it cellar temperature: it was one of the moreish wines that you just can’t put down. Vibrant fruit, nice acidity, and best of all, fresh and extremely clean on the nose.

Both wines were 1,000 percent winners on my palate and in my book (sorry for the mixed metaphorizing).

It seem like only yesterday (the now prehistoric 2016 to be exact) that snootiness was still required when discussing the wines produced in “America’s finest city.”

Does anyone remember wine professional Allison Levine writing about a Los Pilares wine for the Napa Valley Register?

“I was told it was from San Diego,” she reported. “Yes, you heard me correctly — San Diego, the beach city at the bottom of California.”

In all fairness to Allison (and beach/bottom alliteration aside), she liked the wine, even though she relegated it to the dust bin of “natural wine,” always a non-starter for the Napa set. But her note still oozes with the disdain that northern Californian natives feel for their southern counterparts (sorry for the Google alert, Allison!).

I grew up in that “beach city at the bottom of California” and it was great to be back and taste some of my county’s most recent viticultural efforts. As the allegorizing goes, BOTTOMS UP!

“Frost even in Sardinia.” Reports of widespread damage as Italian winemakers assess impact from spring freeze.

Above and below: frost-damaged vines in Piedmont, Italy. Photos via Vinarius, the Italian Association of Wine Retailers.

“Even in Sardinia — just think of that! — even in Sardinia they had frost damage,” wrote president of the Italian Association of Wine Retailers Andrea Terraneo in a WhatsApp message yesterday.

As Italian wine grape growers assess the damage from last week’s late spring freeze, when temperatures from Tuscany northward dipped below 20° F., the prospects of a bountiful 2021 harvest grow even more dim.

See, for example, this Facebook album posted by Cantina Berritta in Dorgali, Sardinia where the winemaker reports that up to 70 percent of their grape crop was destroyed by the extreme cold.

Trentino-Alto Adige was the only northern Italian regions that seemed to have avoided widespread frost damage, he said.

“They are telling me that because budding was a little bit behind” with respect to other regions, he wrote, “only a few buds were frozen. But in warmer regions, where the vines had already begun to bud, the frost left its mark.”

In a heartfelt Facebook post addressed to winemakers, Andrea wrote that “it’s going to be up to retailers to explain to consumers just how challenging your work is.” He added: “if frost damage forces you to raise your prices, rest assured that we will be there to explain why to our customers.”

Late spring freeze adds to Italian winemakers’ woes.

Above: a farm in Montalcino burns hay to protect vineyards during a late spring freeze this week across central and northern Italy (image via the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium Facebook).

According to a widely disseminated blog post by the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium, temperatures in the appellation have dropped to nearly 15° F. this week. In order to protect their vineyards from frost damage, many growers have been burning hay to warm the vines (as in the photo above, published this week by the consortium).

This late spring freeze comes at a delicate time for winemakers across central Italy as well as the northern regions, where there have also been widespread reports of damage. Once the plants have begun to bud, an extreme freeze can arrest formation of the clusters.

According to mainstream media reports, this year’s freeze is the latest in a string of three consecutive vegetative cycles that have been affected by frost damage. But the latest extreme weather event appears to be the worst.

The freeze couldn’t have come at a worse time for winemakers. Nearly all of Italy is still on complete lockdown and restaurants and cafés remained closed except for take-away orders. To give you a sense of the restrictions for private citizens living in small towns, most are not allowed to travel beyond a five-kilometer radius from their homes. (Earlier this week, restaurateurs in Rome clashed with police as they protested the continued restrictions.)

“In the middle of the night,” wrote the editors of the Brunello Consortium’s social media, “producers banded together in an effort to keep the temperatures from dipping too low in the vineyards. This is an important period [for grape growing] because the vines are at the beginning of their vegetative [productive] phase.”

The Prosecco ColFondo “10 Commandments.” A new Prosecco ColFondo farmers union takes shape.

Last month, a new consortium of Prosecco ColFondo producers was born in Treviso province, Prosecco’s spiritual homeland: ColFondo Agricolo or the ColFondo Farmers Union.

The project, spearheaded by ColFondo advocate and Italian wine authority Gianpaolo Giacobbo, includes “the 10 ColFondo Agricolo Commandments,” production requirements and guidelines for members (below).

For those of you who missed the ColFondo movement that began to take shape in the late 2000s, ColFondo is a pseudo-historic designation for a style of Prosecco that has been re-fermented in bottle and released without disgorgement. The name means con il fondo or with its sediment. (Most Prosecco is made using the tank method whereby the wines are re-fermented in pressurized tanks and then disgorged before bottling.)

The genre represents a link to the not so distant past before the international Prosecco boom of the 1990s. These were the wines that were produced and drunk by the grandparents of the current generation of Prosecco ColFondo producers. Over the last 15 years or so, the style has been embraced by growing legion of small family-owned estates and Italian wine enthusiasts.

“Farmers ColFondo,” wrote Gianpaolo, the group’s tasting committee chairperson, on the Slow Wine blog, “is a slow wine, a wine that respects time and history. It’s a wine that requires patience to be born and patience to be enjoyed. It’s not a drink but rather a sublimation of a human being’s life — the life of a grape grower. It’s the bottle that’s never missing on the table. Without filters, it tells the story of experience and hard work, honesty and sweat, freshness and simplicity.”

The following family farms currently belong to the new group of growers and winemakers: Bastia, Bele Casel, Ceotto Vini, Fratelli Collavo, Leo Vanin, Malibran, Martignago Vignaioli, Masot, Miotto, Mongarda, Moro Sergio, Ruge, Siro Merotto, and Terre Boscaratto.

All members must adhere to the union’s precepts in the form of “10 Commandments” (below, translation mine).

The 10 ColFondo Agricolo Commandments

  1. Your grapes must be grown in the Treviso hills where hillside vines have always ripened in the sun.
  2. You must produce your sparkling wine by refermenting it in bottle without disgorgement.
  3. The wine must be bottled between March and June in the year following harvest and it must be released for sale the following year.
  4. You must use a crown cap.
  5. You must use the following grape varieties: a minimum of 70 percent Glera blended with other historic varieties — like Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta, Boschera, and Rabbiosa — making up a maximum of 30 percent in the blend.
  6. You must use grapes you have grown on your own property. And you must personally select the fruit for the wine.
  7. You mustn’t fear time: these wines deliver pleasant surprises after years of bottle aging.
  8. You must indicate the vintage of the wine with a colored paper strip on the bottle [see below]. The color of the strip will be changed for each harvest.
  9. You must drink Colfondo the way you like it. Cloudy or clear, the choice is yours alone.
  10. You must serve the wines to your friends together with a sopressa [a classic salame of Treviso province], the perfect pairing.

As Gianpaolo notes in his post for Slow Wine, ColFondo wines must be “artisanal with a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll” in the mix.
Photos by Arcangelo Piai via the Slow Wine blog.

Happy Easter from the Parzen family.

Happy Easter, everyone! That’s a photo, above, from the girls’ Easter in 2019.

This year, we’ll be back at their grandparents house in Orange, Texas for the holiday. We can’t wait!

And no Easter would be complete without a song from my favorite Easter movie, Easter Parade (1948) with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire (below).

And btw, Passover is still on so Parzen family also wishes you a happy Passover! Chag sameach!

This Etna Rosso is just waiting to sing its song. Listeners wanted.

On Tuesday of this week, I tasted the above Etna Rosso Lenza di Munti by Nicosia as part of the Taste of Italy Virtual Trade Fair presented by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South-Central (my client).

This wine simply blew me (and Tracie) away. Powerful but lithe in the glass, it had that “unbearable lightness” that makes wines like these stand apart from the crowd. And the wonderful balance between its tannin and texture buoyed its perfectly ripe, delicious red fruit and berry fruit. We drank about half the bottle the night I opened it for the virtual tasting. On day two, all kinds of other aromas and flavors kicked in: cinnamon, nutmeg, and wild sage. A gift that just kept giving, this bottle impressed me on so many levels, including the pricing.

But it was also impressive for how “ready-to-go” it is.

Especially now, as the new normal of the pandemic era settles in, Italian winemakers without U.S. representation are facing an uphill battle as they try to carve out a place for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, so many of them don’t have the wherewithal that the U.S. market demands.

In my book, this wine — beyond being utterly moreish — has so much going for it. The pricing aligns with U.S. sensibilities. The packaging is smart and U.S.-friendly. And the winery has a perfectly bilingual, young Roman wine professional serving as its ambassador for our country. He’s familiar with our market, has already spent lots of time here, and he’s working on putting together a network of regional importers and distributors in the U.S.

Wines are like songs. If you write the greatest song in the world but you only play it by yourself in your room, you might as well not have even composed it (unless for your own idiosyncratic enjoyment). Analogously, a wine without the means to reach its target wine lover is like a song sung in the forest without anyone to hear it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Nicosia — pronounced NEE-koh-ZEE-ah — has the right stuff. And while its international suppler rep Fabio has already lined up a few east coast importers beyond New York, he’s looking for partners in other states across the country.

This wine is 100 percent ready-to-go and 100 percent delicious. My recommendation is run don’t walk.

Nearly all of Italy on lockdown through Easter weekend.

Above: a view of the Po River Valley from Montorfano in Franciacorta in Brescia province (to the north of the region at the foot of the Orobic Alps, also known as the Bergamasque Alps, in Lombardy). Restaurants there have been closed for more than four weeks now. They will remain shuttered at least through Easter weekend. Image via the Arcari + Danesi winery.

As of this weekend, nearly all of Italy has been designated zona rossa or red zone. Residents in Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Lombardy, Marche, Molise, Piedmont, Trento, Puglia, and Veneto can only leave their homes for work or emergencies; restaurants are closed for dine-in service and only a few essential businesses remain open.

The following regions have been designated zona arancione or orange zone: Abruzzo, Tuscany, Bolzano, Umbria, Calabria, Liguria, Sicily, Valle d’Aosta, and Basilicata. Residents have slightly more freedom of movement but restaurants remain closed for dine-in service.

Sardinia is the only region in Italy’s zona bianca or white zone. Residents there are restricted from any type of social gathering. But they can travel from township to another and restaurants are open.

The entire country will be designated a red zone for Easter weekend, a holiday when many Italians travel home to visit family in normal years.

According to the New York Times:

    Fewer than two million people in the country have been fully vaccinated so far, partly because of late deliveries from the pharmaceutical industries, but also because of logistical problems in some regions. Italy is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world: The coronavirus has killed more than 100,000 people there, and infected 3.2 million.

In places like Puglia in the south, the new lockdown comes as residents have been enjoying increased freedom of movement and dine-in service at lunchtime. In places like Lombardy, a region now experiencing its third surge in infections (and an epicenter of the first outbreak last year), residents have already been in red zone lockdown for four weeks.

The restaurant closures continue to strain the Italian wine trade, especially among smaller-scale growers who rely on independent restaurants for much of their sales. Those wineries also depend on tasting rooms (now closed) and wine tourism (practically non-existent) to keep their businesses solvent.

After more than a year of rolling lockdowns and restrictions, winemakers there are facing a perfect storm of financial challenges with no relief in sight. Restaurants are a key element in Italy’s social fabric: beyond the economic devastation, the psychological toll of the lockdowns is nearly impossible to overestimate.

Dalla Terra CEO/founder Brian Larky and I discuss the “State of the Italian Wine Trade,” Wednesday 3/17, 10 a.m. CST WEBINAR.

Please join me and Dalla Terra CEO and founder Brian Larky for our virtual discussion of the “State of the Italian Wine Trade” on Wednesday, March 17, 10 a.m. CST/8 a.m. PST.

Click here to register for the webinar.

The event is open to all.

The event is part of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South-Central’s Taste of Italy Virtual Trade Fair, which takes place here in Houston and throughout Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana with virtual tastings and meetings, March 15-19.

Click here to register for tastings.

Brian revolutionized the way Italian wine was imported and sold in the U.S. when he started his company Dalla Terra in 1989. Literally decades before anyone else envisioned an importing model that would save consumers money by working outside of the traditional three-tier system (importer-distributor-retailer/restaurateur), he began setting up regional distribution networks that allowed wineries to sell their wines directly to local vendors. Today, Dalla Terra brokers the sales of some of Italy’s most iconic wineries, including Vietti (Barolo), Casanova di Neri (Brunello di Montalcino), Adami (Prosecco), Selvapiana (Chianti), and so many more.

But he is also so much more: winemaker (he made sparkling wine at Ca’ del Bosco after finishing his degree in enology at U.C. Davis); pilot (shuttling between his home in Napa and his mom’s place in LA in his Cessna); and all-around great guy whose company and conversation I enjoyed wholly in the time before the pandemic and virtually over the last 12 months.

He’s got the right energy for this moment. Man, we need us some Brian Larky right now! And he’s going to share some of his time and insights with us next week. You don’t want to miss this. I hope you can join us. Everyone is welcome.