(Montalcino, Italy – October 2003) One of the most severe heat waves in European history brought grape pickers early to the rolling hills of the Castello Banfi vineyard estate in Montalcino, Tuscany, with the start of the annual harvest here on August 11.
The range of grape varieties grown at this noted property in the famed Brunello zone of southern Tuscany has always meant that it gets an earlier start than its neighbors, according to Castello Banfi family proprietor Cristina Mariani-May, but the entire process seems to be moving away from its autumnal traditions and becoming a rite of summer.
“We have always started our harvest with a few people working in bathing suits,” noted Ms. Mariani-May, “but traditionally we were closer to the end of August than its beginning.”
“The heat wave broke in early September, giving both the workers and the grapes much needed relief. Most importantly, normal patterns of significant variations between daytime and night temperatures returned, adding finesse and complexity to this very good vintage.
The first grape variety harvested at Castello Banfi is Sauvignon Blanc, used to produce the single-vineyard, barrel-fermented Serena. A week later the harvest moved on to Pinot Grigio to produce the rich and complex San Angelo as well as the crisp, clean Le Rime, a quaffable Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay blend that is fermented in stainless steel and released within months of harvest. The estate’s Chardonnay was also harvested in the third week of August this year to produce a barrique-aged wine named for its vineyard source, Fontanelle. The quality of the white wines is very good, fresh and concentrated, reported Ms. Mariani-May.
Within weeks, the red began coming in, starting with the precocious Merlot Mandrielle and Syrah Colvecchio and finishing up near the end of September with Cabernet Sauvignon Tavernelle and Sangiovese, used to produce the Montalcino Super Tuscan wines Cum Laude, SummuS and ExcelsuS as well as the region’s traditional and acclaimed Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino. Castello Banfi produces three other versions of Brunello: the cru Poggio alle Mura, a single-vineyard Riserva Poggio all’Oro, and an earlier release Rosso di Montalcino.
Veraison, the stage when the berries of the grapes used for making red wine varieties turn from green to purple, took place about two weeks earlier than usual this year, according to Ms. Mariani-May. Spring frosts naturally reduced the overall crop by about 10%, and the summer heat wave produced more concentrated fruit that will yield especially flavorful wines with power and elegance.
Despite the unusually torrid season, berry size is only slightly smaller than usual, she said, thanks in part to relief irrigation for many of the varieties as well as abundant rainfall over the winter and spring. While DOCG production regulations stipulate that water cannot be applied to Sangiovese being grown for the production of Brunello di Montalcino, Ms. Mariani-May pointed out that Castello Banfi has been working for the past 25 years both to isolate and develop clones of Sangiovese that thrive under these otherwise adverse conditions, and to single out vineyard sites with soil types that retain and gradually release the moisture from winter and spring rainfall.
“The grapes are in excellent condition,” she reported. “We can’t control the weather, of course, but we can prepare for the best way to deal with whatever Mother Nature bestows upon us!”