All over Italy, the 2014 grape harvest proved more challenging than ever due to unusual weather patterns and unprecedented amounts of rain. However, Piemonte -- and especially Langhe Nebbiolo -- overcame hurdles with the hard work of producers and the grace of truly noble grapes.
The 2014 Langhe harvest found many producers wiping their brow in relief at its conclusion. Most producers assert it was not a normal vintage. Unseasonable rains from summer to fall meant rapid picking and low yields. Many expressed feeling uneasy, stressed, and hurried in ways they had not experienced before.
“The weather made this a unique growing season. I’ve lived in the Langhe for five years. For the first time a producer told me the experience of his father and grandfather were the most important part of harvest.” Wine Blogger Darryl Baldwin, PiemonteMio.com
Ask 10 producers how harvest went and you are likely to get 10 different answers any year. However, a consistent theme runs through the 2014 Langhe harvest: heavy resource burdens in the vineyard and in the cellar. When all the grapes were in, a collective sigh of relief and satisfaction was nearly audible from Barolo to Barbaresco. Producers were not only glad it was over, but pleased because Nebbiolo showed great promise.
A Resource-heavy Vintage
The heavy rain that fell throughout summer to fall had many winemakers concerned with Nebbiolo ripening. But, just enough blue sky peeked through in August and September to get the grapes on the road to maturity.
The story of harvest does differ from Barolo to Barbaresco. To start, Barolo employed more vineyard techniques to support the ripening process. In Barbaresco, weather conditions were far more forgiving. The ‘Guns of Barbaresco’ remained eerily silent.
The Guns of Barbaresco: Explained. The Guns of Barbaresco are used to limit storm-related crop damage. A series of air cannons shoot sound waves into the clouds. According to wine lore, the sound waves it shatter hailstones in the clouds, protecting crops from storm damage.
During the growing season, rain accumulation in Barbaresco reached about 100 mm – Barolo was almost 2 ½ times that at 260 mm. Barolo producers report up to three green harvests to support grape ripening, to manage excess growth, and to remove unhealthy and hail damaged grapes.
Green Harvest: Explained. Viticultural practice employed to improve wine quality by encouraging fruit ripening. Bunches are removed from the vine to help the remaining grapes ripen more quickly, evenly and fully with the benefit of a greater leaf-to-fruit ratio. Producers perform the expensive practice by hand.
Despite being less than 20 kilometers apart, Barbaresco has a slightly cooler, maritime-influenced climate. As a result, Nebbiolo in Barbaresco tends to ripen sooner, likely due to its proximity to the Tanaro River. Generally, harvest is completed in Barbaresco before it has even started in Barolo. This year, there was overlap with fast and furious harvest on both sides of the Tanaro. Producers rushed to get grapes in during October’s small window of clear skies.
Elio Altare Harvest: Like other producers, Elio Altare in La Morra (Barolo zone) reported a swift, labor-heavy harvest. Silvia Altare said it was the fastest vintage of her life with three weeks in the vineyards. Despite the wet conditions, she is happy with their Nebbiolo. She said that the Nebbiolo crop was 100 percent mold-free thanks to the use of vineyard nets.
Grape Health Varies by Varietal, Yields Down
Many producers are citing a 30 to 40 percent drop in yields due to rain-related issues, like mold and the hail damage in Barolo. Producers also echo similar sentiments when it comes to the health of the region’s primary varieties:
- Dolcetto: Okay.
- Barbera: Moderate.
- Nebbiolo: Very good.
Cantina Del Pino Harvest: At Cantina del Pino in Barbaresco, the grapes came in with thicker skins and smaller berries, which according to winemaker and owner Renato Vacca means more richness in the wine. On maceration, Vacca said, “2014 was perfect.” He explained that unhealthy grapes require shorter maceration, and that wasn’t the case with this harvest.
Nebbiolo, Barbaresco & Barolo: What to expect of the 2014 Langhe Harvest
It’s still too early to say how the 2014 vintage will fare. At this stage, the wines are still finishing malolactic fermentation. But, based on the satisfaction with Nebbiolo, spirits seem high.
Malolactic Fermentation: Explained. Malic acid converts into lactic acid
Evan Byrne with Giovanni Rosso in Serralunga said many producers are happy with their 2014 Nebbiolo-based wines – especially Barbaresco, where there is likely less variability than Barolo. “Acidity is generally on the higher side, but in many cases sympathetic winemaking will give wines a brightness that retains plenty of depth and fruit,” said Byrne. “2014 could be a vintage where vineyard characteristics are clearly apparent.”
Valerie Quintanilla is an American travel and wine writer who lives in the Langhe. Follow her expat chronicles on her blog, www.GirlsGottaDrink.com, Twitter, and Instagram. While marketing is her official trade, she also organizes travel and wine tours around the Langhe.