Alba When It Sizzles

A couple months ago in this column, I noted the difficulty of predicting wine quality based on the weather during the growing season and harvest.  And then came 2011.  Having recently returned from a tour of the top Barolo and Barbaresco producers in northwest Italy's spectacular Piedmont region, I can tell you one thing for certain:  2011 will be an even more complicated vintage than usual, and not just in Northern Italy.

Why so tricky?  As in most of Western Europe this year, the flowering of the vines in the Piedmont's Langhe area took place way ahead of normal.  As far back as late May, most vineyard owners were already planning for a very early harvest.  For example, nebbiolo grapes used to make Barolo and Barbaresco are normally picked in October, but the growers this year figured they'd need to be ready to harvest in mid-September.

As it happened, after the very early flowering, much of June and July was overcast and cool, with on-and-off rainfall, and the ripening process slowed down.  The weather didn't really turn summer-like until mid-August, and then the next five weeks were extremely hot--and quite dry.  A number of locals in the old town of Alba, the commercial center of the Langhe hills as well as Mecca for white truffle hunters, told me that daytime temperatures in town often reached triple digits in late August and early September.  The freakish heat was as unbearable for vines as it was for humans:  in some prime south- and southwest-facing vineyards, the vines shut down or the grapes suffered from sunburn, especially where growers had removed leaves in early August in the hope of getting more sun on their fruit.

I should know.  I sweated through the first week of my recent tastings (September 12 through 16), when afternoon temperatures exceeded 90 degrees and nights felt like Manhattan in July.  That week, some growers told me they were optimistic about making extremely rich wines in 2011.  Others worried aloud about the vintage, noting that grape sugars were already fairly high but that the skins and seeds were not yet ripe.  Because the fruit wasn't ready to harvest, producers feared making grotesquely alcoholic or overly tannic monsters from small, dehydrated berries and roasted grape skins.

Then a half inch or so of rain fell on the weekend of September 17 and 18, refreshing the nebbiolo grapes, stimulating the foliage, and carrying with it the promise of fat white truffles by late fall.  The water on the grapes was a godsend, softening the tough skins a bit and giving the berries a little more juice.  Magnificent late-summer weather followed, with brilliant sunshine, much more moderate daytime temperatures and very cool nights.  Suddenly the Alps, invisible for weeks in the hazy air, popped into view.  For the most part the weather after that was perfection, offering growers who had not yet picked the option of letting their fruit hang longer.

So, how to characterize 2011?  An early year?  A rainy year?  A summer marked by extremely heat and drought?  And what about the grapes that were harvested in a rush, under hot conditions, in late August or early September, whether it was dolcetto in Piedmont or pinot noir in Burgundy?

You'll start hearing early reports on the 2011 harvest any minute now.  But the real story won't be known for many months, if not years.  And by then the early vintage generalizations will turn out to look foolish.  So stay tuned.