The 2011 vintage in Italy has turned out to be the smallest vintage the country has produced since the 1940s. At the beginning of the harvest, Assoenologi, the Italian Association of Enologists, was still very upbeat and predicted a great year. It also estimated that volumes would be down by 5% compared to the previous vintage. Since then it has had to correct both predictions.
While the quality of 2011 is heterogeneous, to say the least, the total volume harvested was down by no less than 14% (40.3 million hectolitres) compared to 2010. Because of this, Italy has lost its claim to be the world's largest wine producer with France being number two. In 2011 their positions were reversed.
This August Assoenologi was still wildly optimistic, expecting a great year, and if not exactly that, at least an 'interesting' one. Based on an equally precocious start to the growing cycle, comparisons with the outstanding 2001 were made. But although generally a promising sign, early budbreak and flowering do not necessarily guarantee an exceptional vintage. Now comparisons are made with the very hot 2003 vintage instead, with the crucial difference that the heat during the 2011 season was much more widespread and was followed by a cooler September, delaying picking for many producers.
The historic decline in total volume is mostly due to the events in the south where there was a noticeable drop in production, up to 20% in some areas. This drop in overall quantity of wine available to the market had as an immediate effect and grape prices increased by 5% to as much as 30% for the most popular grapes (Pinot Grigio et al). It also indicated that the chronic overproduction Italy has long suffered, which had caused a dramatic fall in grape prices (as much as 30% in 2008), has been completely reversed.
The reduced volume of the 2011 vintage prompted Angelo Gaja to say that it is so small that the state body for fraud prevention should keep its eyes wide open in 2012. He made this remark in a letter he wrote to the online journal Chronache di Gusto, saying that the surplus of wine Italy had been struggling with in the last couple of years was finally a thing of the past. Gaja wrote: 'now that wine doesn't come out of our ears anymore, certain wine styles are starting to become scarce.'
That wine and grape prices have gone up as a result of all this is, according to Gaja, completely new for Italy. Its ongoing overproduction in the very recent past was partially sustained by distillation subsidies (with not a few cases of abuse) and a general devaluation of grape and wine prices. This required Italy's exports to increase year after year, which they did, but it went hand in hand with a decline in value, and to such an extent that quite a few producers were forced to sell their wines under cost just to empty their cellars before the arrival of the new vintage.
Now that this situation has changed, Gaja rightfully points out that Italian wines will finally have an added value. Perhaps for the first time in its history Italy has the opportunity to shake off its cheap, prolific image, but this is considered far from ideal by some of the players in the field.
To understand why not everyone is happy with Italy's trying to bring its production in line with what is economically sustainable, one needs to know that the climatic situation in 2011 was not the most important reason for the small vintage. Under the new OCM regulations, there is the so-called subsidised 'green harvest', encouraging growers drastically to reduce the number of bunches on the vine or not work the vineyard at all for the duration of one year. In Sicily alone the subsidy was requested, and granted, for more than 12,000 ha. This measure, as well as subsidies encouraging extirpation of vineyards, aims at reducing the wine and grape surplus in order to strengthen Europe's competitiveness against the feared New World. But the effects can be disastrous and counter- productive.
In Sicily the green harvest measures have led in several cases to an acute grape shortage, which has had a negative impact on many co-ops in particular. Faced with an international market willing to pay only rock-bottom prices for bottled wine, several of them have been confronted with a shortage of grapes while at the same time being unable to increase their prices to compensate for this loss without risking upsetting their markets.
Another, even graver side effect is that vine pull subsidies mostly affect low yielding, old vine vineyards, the ones that should be protected. The extirpation not only erodes the livelihood of the grower (it is a one-off payment), but also the landscape itself. And the positive-sounding 'green harvest' measures can also have a devastating effect.
Proof of this is already visible in Sicily's extreme west, where vineyards with old bushvines are left to their own devices to die. In this arid and often unirrigated area, if a farmer decides not to tend his or her vineyard for a year, the old bushvines, in their quest for water and nutrients, will literally lose ground to the fast-growing weeds. With a root system close to the surface, the weeds will absorb any moisture before it gets the chance to penetrate deeper into the soil where it can be reached by the deep roots of the old vines, which often took more than 40 to 60 years to grow. All this is now wiped out in one blow under the banner that it helps curb overproduction. The sad reality is that 70 km to the northwest, in Alcamo, there is a sea of trellised, irrigated, high-yielding vineyards left unscathed by these EU measures.
At the other end of the scale are large wine producers and bottlers, the ones that work with near nihilistic margins made possible only by mass production of wine from low-cost grapes. With yields down and grape prices up in 2011, this sector especially feels the pinch. The fact that chaptalisation was requested (see my earlier article) by practically all Italian wine regions and subsequently granted by Rome in the very hot 2011 vintage seems to imply that, rather than putting prices up by an estimated 20%, some creativity in the production process will have to compensate for the smallest vintage ever.
And finally, in the last 10 years the number of wineries Italy has more than halved: from 791,000 in 2000 to 383,000 in 2010, while the average surface of vineyard holdings has grown, from 0.9 ha to 1.6 ha in the same period, evidence that many small holdings are rapidly disappearing.
By Walter Speller www.jancisrobinson.com