Brunello pres moves to allow emergency irrigation

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.”

The Summer Winter of Our Disconnect: 12.5% Cabernet? And other good stuff we ate and drank in California

chino farms

Above: Both my buddy John Rikkers and I ordered the “Market Salad” at Market in Rancho Santa Fe. It’s no longer on the menu but they’ll make it for you on request. All the lightly blanched ingredients are sourced from San Diego’s legendary Chino Farms farmers market.

Everywhere you go in California, people are complaining about the cool summer weather. By most accounts, it’s the coolest summer we’ve had here for more than 70 years.

On Sunday, Vinogirl (who authors my all-time favorite California wine blog, Vinsanity) didn’t mince words: “Actually, I am very surprised that [veraison, i.e., ripening] is happening at all as it only managed a whopping high of 70F today,” she wrote plaintfully. “So far, the weather in 2010 has been pathetic!”

mea culpa

Above: I’d never had the Bouvier grape, known as Ranina in Slovenia, until last night at Market, where sommelier Brian Donegan always has something by the glass that will surprise and delight the adventurous wine lover, like this 2007 Mea Culpa by Kogl. I would have guessed it was a dry Muscat but it had some gentle orchard fruit notes seemed to speak a Slavic as opposed to Romance language.

Yesterday, in a fantastic post, one of America’s wine industry social media pioneers Tom Wark (and all-around nice dude) wrote and asked rhetorically, is this a bad thing?

    If this weather keeps up, it’s entirely likely that some winemakers are going to have to learn how to make good Napa or Sonoma Cabernet with an alcohol content of (brace yourself)…12.5%. […]

    Clearly 2010 is looking to be a better vintage for early ripening grapes like Pinot Noir. But even the Pinots are likely to suffer a diminishing alcohol content. The question is this: is that a bad thing? I think it might be for many winemakers, particularly those that tend to produce big, fat, huge unctuous Pinots with high alcohol content.

ettore germano

Above: The acidity in Ettore Germano’s Chardonnay was, as Tracie P likes to say, “tongue-splitting.” It’s not like me to order Chardonnay from Italy (outside of Friuli) but I must say that I dug this wine completely. Very mineral, very bright acidity. Always something good by the glass at Market.

Of course, the mystery of California’s unusually cool summer begs the question among its “red state” populace: with summer temperatures like these, how can the pinkos still cling to their claims of global warming?

seaweed salad

Above: Seaweed salad at Zenbu in La Jolla.

I’m sure I imagine that Tom would agree with me: anyone who works in the wine industry and spends times with grape growers will tell you that European winemakers — even the most conservative among them — believe that global warming is indeed taking place. In Tuscany, where the grapes used to ripen in October, grape growers will tell you that they now ripen as early as late August (although this year, at least in Sant’Angelo, grapes are ripening about a week behind schedule).

California roll

Above: One of the thing I love about Zenbu is the playful California creativity in the menu, with items like the “Jackie Chan” roll and the “Mexicali” roll. That’s the gorgeous sashimi roll (a contradiction in terms?). There’s nothing worse than boring sushi!

Once, when I interviewed a famous winemaker in Piedmont for a commercial writing gig of mine, he unabashedly told me, referring to the remarkable string of great vintages in Piedmont spanning 1996-2001, “global warming has made me a very rich man.”

Above: French Toast at Jaynes Gastropub in North Park (San Diego).

To those who claim and believe global warming is part of a secret left-wing conspiracy, I say: who cares whether it’s true or not? At 43 years of age, I’m old enough to remember the first “energy crisis” in the 70s: whether or not you believe in global warming, there’s no denying that it’s high-time to “clean up our act.”

bellyup tavern

Above: My childhood and a best friend Charlie George created this “White Trash” gift basket raffle item for a benefit for local musician Michael Muldoon last night at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, where Charlie and a bunch of other friends of mine performed.

So whether (weather) you’re sweating your nuts off in the rest of the country, wearing a sweater in Sonoma, or getting ready to pick grapes in Tuscany, don’t forget to turn off the lights! And be sure to eat your California leafy greens…

Thanks for reading!