At lunchtime on September 19, 2014, when the sky turned an eerie yellow and Mother Nature pelted down all her pent-up wrath on Florence in the form of facetiously grape-sized hail stones, my wine-loving colleague and I looked at one another and cried, ‘Ma, le uva!’ Granted, our concerns should have extended to the two editors who had just left the building to get their lunch, but as oenophiles our anxiety was palpable. Or should that be pulpable? The issue now, as wineries across Tuscany evaluate their vendemmia, is whether this year’s grapes can yield any quality wine at all.
The Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti estimates this year’s damage to Tuscany’s agricultural industry to be in the range of 200 million euro. The violent hailstorm—with stones as big as lemons in some parts—and whirlwinds that hit the region in late September wreaked damage to sheds and roofs, and left vines bent and grapes lost.
Most of the damage lies in the Empolese Valdelsa area, in the prized Chianti winemaking zone, especially around Vinci, Fucecchio and Cerreto Guidi, where the grape harvest was already underway, and producers were unable to finish their work. For many agricultural firms, an entire year’s work was ruined in just 15 minutes.
‘There’s not one bunch left on the vines; the grapes are all lying on the ground, crushed and ruined,’ said one owner of a Vinci-based firm. ‘It was looking like a promising vintage,’ he observed, noting, with desperation, the ‘big, red grapes, all ruined.’
As workers at Castelfalfi, a recently renovated hamlet and estate between Pisa and Florence, prepared to start picking their grapes, a photo album appeared on their Facebook page with the words, ‘It’s a complicated and still uncertain harvest, but we’ll do our utmost to make it work.’ Castelfalfi’s winemaker explained to me, ‘The problem this year has been the varying weather conditions. We’ve had rain and low temperatures this spring and summer … Botrytis (grey mould) and rot attacked the grapes as soon as the sugar had begun to gather. We’ve had to harvest the grapes by hand to choose the healthy bunches and throw away the rotten ones.’
On the day in question, a friend of mine was at a winery on a bottle-buying mission for her wine bar. Just 25 kilometres from the climatic chaos in Florence, in Rufina there was no sign of the hail and the owner seemed optimistic. A few days before, however, she’d been to see a small producer at Castelnuovo Berardegna, to the east of Siena, whose grapes were not looking healthy at all. ‘They had this whitish tinge to them. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have put one in my mouth.’
But it’s not all bad news, as the 2014 vintage might be saved by the individual vineyard and its position. In Montalcino, certain vineyards are boasting plump grapes thanks to their exposure to light and a gentle breeze. As Donatella Cinelli Colombini of Casato Prime Donne relates on her blog, ‘Our grapes are beautiful. It’s something of a miracle given what happened in Florence and in the surrounding countryside: vines destroyed, cars destroyed, roofs destroyed. We didn’t have a drop [of rain]. It’s always hard to be upbeat while those around you are despairing.’
While this vintage cannot aspire to the highs of 2002 or 1992, there are glimmers of hope in a desperate, rolling landscape. As Pliny the Elder wrote, ‘In wine, there’s truth.’ This year, for most Tuscan producers, that truth is a bitter pill to swallow.
WORDS AT THE WINERY
On October 5, TF’s managing editor, Helen Farrell, will be heading south to talk about the language of wine at world-class winery Feudi di San Gregorio, in Avellino, an hour’s drive from Naples. The event is organized by the Italian Association of Translators and Interpreters, AITI. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.