Behind the Scenes: A noble harvest in Piemonte
October 29, 2013
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. Check back next Monday for the final installment.
October is one of my favorite months in Piemonte, in the northwest corner of Italy. It's actually one of my favorite months anywhere on the planet whether it's spring or autumn. In the Colorado Rockies, it's a beautiful time when Mother Nature carefully balances between the brilliance of autumn and the cold, (hopefully) snowy days of winter. In Piemonte, it's a time of gastronomic abundance when game and tartufi bianchi grace market displays and restaurant menus.
Most notably, October is a time when Nebbiolo vines surrender the fruits of their labor to anxious vintners ready to transform the noble grape into Piemonte's emblematic wines. Finally, Nebbiolo is in and, like the autumn fog, tranquility has descended on the vineyards.
In March, when I arrived in Piemonte for work on my book, the weather on my first day was typical of the last vestiges of winter. Monte Viso, with her prominent peak covered in alabaster snow, under azure skies, was clearly visible 50 miles away on the western Piemonte border with France. Green was still a stranger to the palette of the landscape, but it "felt" like spring. That didn't last long.
After providing me with lovely weather for a fruitful day of interviews, Mother Nature drew a curtain on spring with a blanket of fog and a chilly rain, more typical of November. Little did I know, that gorgeous first day of my trip was one of the last days of dry weather in most of Europe until mid-June.
Budburst, when leaves pop out, announcing the vines' awakening, usually occurs in mid-March. I had anticipated walking the vineyards with Jeffrey Chilcott, cellarmaster of Barbaresco's famed Marchesi di Gresy winery, to see 2013's first growth. Unfortunately, the vines were quiet for an additional three weeks, and I missed this special moment. All the ingredients for a nail-biting growing season ominously united in these first cold and rainy months of the vintage.
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So began Piemonte's 2013 vintage.
Sunshine and hard work
Early concerns about the weather faded in mid-June when the sun returned to nurture struggling vines. Warm, sunny days motivated the vines to spread their canopies, and soon the unruly vines needed training. The waiting game ended, and the vines demanded attention.
Summer proceeded normally. August soon gave way to September and the white varietal harvest. Early signs pointed to a successful vendemmia (harvest). As September ended, the vineyards were abuzz with activity, but all eyes were nervously trained on the skies. Nebbiolo harvest was drawing near.
Sleepless in the vineyards
In Colorado, we gladly welcome October's snows that blanket the slopes. In Piemonte, vintners dread all forms of October precipitation. Their prayers are for sunny days until the last of the Nebbiolo reaches the protective environs of the cantine.
After the harvest of the white varietals, clouds appeared and rain fell. Fortunately, the early October rains were nourishing and hail, the stuff of vintners' nightmares that can quickly shatter hopes and dreams of a stellar vintage, failed to materialize. Mother Nature obviously smiled on this vintage and kept her crotchety moods at bay.
The Nebbiolo's in!
Rather than describe the Nebbiolo harvest from my vantage point in Colorado, I thought you'd enjoy hearing the vintners' emotional observations in their own words. Let's start now with a few of the Barolo wineries.
Last week, winemaker Elisa Scavino, of the vaunted Barolo winery her grandfather Paolo founded, alerted me of the successful end of the 2013 Nebbiolo harvest.
"The harvest went well!" she declared. "It was a late one this year. We monitored the grapes carefully through the ripening season, and the maturation went very well. Actually, the rain we had (in early October) has been helpful for the vines. Afterwards, the grapes were ready to be picked. The stems were yellow and well lignified, the seeds crisp and mature, and the skins with beautiful texture and sweetness. No aggressive tannins."
Paolo Scavino's precious Nebbioli from 19 historical crus in six of the 11 Barolo appellation villages safely arrived in the winery. With her cherished days in the vineyards over, Elisa and her father Enrico are now indoors working their magic on their grapes. In four years, corks will be pulled and the quality of 2013 will be a mystery no more.
I met Giuseppe Vaira, his mother and father, Milena and Aldo, and siblings, Francesca and Isodore, 14 years ago. In March, the birth of Giuseppe and Sophie Vaira's daughter, Lucia, marked the beginning of the next generation of Vairas, transforming 2013 into a milestone vintage for them.
"(This year) is the vintage of our daughter Lucia, so you can imagine the expectations, the dreams and the hope of harvesting a beautiful crop. Indeed, nature made us hold our breath until very late in the season. We had no spring: Winter was incredibly long and cold with extraordinary rainfalls in May. Then, starting in June, it was summer weather. This lead to a delay of three weeks compared to any other vintage in the past decade. It seemed that the fruit couldn't make it to ripen, but then the miracle happened. A sunny end of the summer with low temperatures made all varietals ripen, while keeping a beautiful balance and incredible aromas. Now the cellar is full of fermenting juice, and we are enjoying the grace and the richness of these fragrances."
E. Pira e Figli by Chiara Boschis
The feisty, passionate winemaker Chiara Boschis provides a seemingly endless string of wonderful stories for me to share. Her wines are a manifestation of her devotion to the land and its vines. This year, her harvest observations contained palatable joy over the successful end to a trying vintage.
"The harvest is over, and I think it will be remembered as one of the best of these last years (at least for the good farmers and winemakers)," she said. "Even if the rainy spring gave us a lot of extra work (and stress), the fantastic summer closed the the gap with last year.
"I would not say it was a late harvest since in the past the harvests were even later. I would say that finally we got back to the normality! The last vintages were much too early due to very high temperatures. For example, we harvested Barolo Cannubi on Oct. 10 this year (consider that the middle of October has always been the normal time for picking Nebbiolo). Last year, we harvested Cannubi on Oct. 2, which I would say it was a little early. If the weather gives the vines a longer period to take the fruit to maturation, the quality is always better: remember that Nebbiolo is a slow wine! The beauty and the perfect ripeness of the grapes were outstanding. The taste was so intense and sweet like a perfect mature fruit. I am proud of the good work we did in the vineyards all the year long, as you know being organic has been challenging. The quality of the fruit we took in the cellar is simply fantastic. I am so happy!"
Next week we'll continue in Barolo, then wind our way to Barbaresco and the Roero region north across the Tanaro River from the Langhe.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.