Grape harvest in full swing Italy 2012

As Tracie P and I prepare for our fall trip to Italy, we’re watching harvest reports carefully.

Today, my friends at Berlucchi sent me these photos, snapped on August 8, the day they began picking.

It’s been a summer of prolonged high temperatures and rainfall has been scarce. In appellations where emergency irrigation is not allowed, growers will be facing some tough decisions in coming weeks.

I’m eager to talk to winemakers and to hear their thoughts.

We don’t leave for another few weeks and in the meantime, I’m just glad to be getting back to Austin for some family time after a week of working the California market with Zanotto. :)

So much to tell about my trip to San Francisco, all the cool folks I hung with, and the meals we shared… stay tuned!

Franciacorta “reset” applauded by winemakers

Above: The gorgeous Lago d’Iseo (Lake Iseo) provides maritime influence for the vineyards of Franciacorta. The beauty of Italy’s topography is immeasurable.

“No inflated numbers this time. No triumphalism. And not even any orgasms during a ‘Ring Around the Rosie,'” wrote my good friend, winemaker, and Franciacorta superhero Giovanni Arcari on his blog yesterday. “Nonetheless, it feels like a good moment to celebrate a success, even if that success was generated by a problem.”

Giovanni was referring to newly announced Franciacorta appellation regulations that will lower yields, raise the minimum vineyard age, and help to raise production standards throughout the appellation, where Champagne-method sparkling wines are produced.

By all accounts, Italy produces more sparkling wine than any other country: at latest count, “400 million bottles with Euro 1.7 billion in sales.”

Despite the generally bleak outlook for Italian winemakers, these figures have resulted in robust chest-beating, fist pumping, and a surplus in funds devoted to marketing (the “triumphalism” to which Giovanni refers).

But Franciacorta, an affluent appellation created in the 1960s and funded by Italian steel magnates, has suffered the economic crisis more acutely than any other sparkling wine producer: as Franco Ziliani reported on his sparkling wine blog earlier this year, prices for Franciacorta — a luxury product — have reached alarming lows, with wines being sold in Europe for as low as Euro 4.

Above: One of the most interesting tastings I attended during the 2011 European Wine Bloggers Conference was a flight of nearly 30 Franciacorta crus at the Berlucchi winery. I think that many would be surprised at the diversity of growing sites in the appellation (but more on that in a future post).

The new appellation regulations were approved by an overwhelming majority (by Italian standards) of 80% of consortium members, reports Giovanni.

And the measures will deliver significant change in an appellation dominated by large commercial producers whose bottom line often trumps character and originality in the wines they bottle.

Of all the sparkling appellations in Italy, Franciacorta — there’s no doubt in my mind — has the potential to deliver truly great and original wines: even though very few of the top bottles make it to the U.S., I’ve tasted some stunning wines in Franciacorta, where fresh, clean, bright Pinot Noir and Chardonnay take on an intensely saline quality that pairs superbly with the fresh water cuisine of the Italian Lake District.

And the new appellation regulations, everyone seems to agree, are a step in the right direction. [We must] “improve to grow and grow to improve,” wrote Giovanni in the chiasmus of his title. And they are sure to do more than consortium president Maurizio Zanella’s recent appeal to the Italian media to stop using the term bollicine (tiny bubbles) when referring to Franciacorta.

Franciacorta and sparkling wines from Italy have been on my mind lately because I’ve been asked to speak on a panel devoted to the subject at the upcoming Viva Vino conference in Los Angeles.

The Holy Grail quest to produce sparkling wines has played an enormous role in shaping the history of Italian wine in general. And I’ll devote an upcoming post to my research.

In the meantime, if you want to get the discussion rolling, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

What is it, after all, that makes sparkling wine play such a powerful role in our vinous psyche?