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The Vernaccia di San Gimignano harvest gets going under the August sun

The Vernaccia di San Gimignano harvest will be getting off to a start on Monday the 28th of August for many winegrowers (but not all, because exposure, soils and altitudes continue to make a difference).

Fifty years ago, this would have been a front-page headline but now all it gets, if it’s lucky, is a column on the local news page. In San Gimignano, like the rest of Tuscany, Italy, Europe and the world, the climate has changed over the past half-century and certain facts linked to it are no longer newsworthy. It’s all just par for the course and it’s a well-known fact that the grape harvest depends on the climate.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first Italian wine to be assigned the DOC in 1966. Since then, climatic trends and the start of harvesting have been monitored and recorded. The annals state: 1966, start of harvest – last ten days in September, 1967, ditto, 1968, second ten days, 1969, end of September, and so on, until 1974, when very hot temperatures accompanied by drought were recorded from June to September and the harvest was brought forward to the beginning of the month. The same happened in 1975, but from '76 onwards, until 2000, the standard for Vernaccia di San Gimignano was harvesting in the second half of the month, leaning more towards the last ten days.

Since 2000, everything has changed. Without spending too much time on 2003, when we had the hottest and driest summer in the last four centuries (in San Gimignano it rained on just 65 days out of 365 and, in August, temperatures exceeded 35°C for twenty-three consecutive days, with frequent peaks above 40°C) and the harvest began on the 7th of September, the standard for the Vernaccia harvest in the first seventeen years of the 21st century has been within the first half of the month, frequently the first ten days. Only in 2010 was the harvest “late” (compared to this new standard), beginning on the 18th of September.

In 2011, another hot and dry year, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano grape harvest began on the 31st of August: and this explains why the 2017 harvest at the end of August no longer makes front-page headlines.

Looking back at the year’s climatic trend and the vegetative development of the vineyards, we see that, after a winter worthy of the title as far as temperatures were concerned (particularly in January, when the average temperatures were half those of the last two years), spring burst into bloom in March, with hot, sunny weather. What characterised the first three months of the year (and the last month of 2016) was the lack of rainfall. This continued constantly throughout the season, until the beginning of summer, when the lack of rain became an almost complete absence of precipitation for very long periods of time.

The buds appeared at least 15 days earlier than usual, in the last ten days of March, and the weather remained constant for the whole of the first half of April, until the 19th, when temperatures plummeted, falling as low as -1°C on the morning of the 19th and +1°C on the following two mornings. Frost hit the vines here and there, much more severely on the valley floor, causing significant damage to the vineyards which had started budding more than twenty days earlier, with product losses reaching 30-40% in the worst cases. Temperatures remained below average until the end of the month, so much so as to block the vegetative development of the vineyards.

The temperatures gradually began to rise in the first ten days of May, and this increase continued in the second and third ten days of the month, when vegetative development recovered and slowly made up for lost time. The vines affected by frost budded again, from the sub-buds, but produced fewer flowers than the original buds would have, and this explains the fact that there are fewer grapes on the vines than in 2016.

June began and continued with hotter temperatures and an absence of rain, due to the presence of the North African anticyclone. The vines bloomed in the first ten days of the month, in line with average, the early budding having been brought back into line by the cold weather at the end of April.

Despite the reduced number of flowers due to late April frosts, fruit setting was good and well within the norm. Storms in late June helped the bunches to develop, mitigating the heat and enhancing water reserves, but from the beginning of July, the temperatures began to climb again, remaining high – albeit within the average – for the whole month. There were occasional storms but never lasting more than a day.

Veraison began in mid-July, particularly for the red grapes, including Sangiovese, and continued slowly and unevenly until the end of the month.

The month of August brought nothing new: no rain (apart from a storm on the 10th), and constantly hot, muggy weather, with some particularly intense peaks.

This brings us to the harvest: the Vernaccia di San Gimignano grapes are healthy but, as we’ve seen, there are far fewer of them than usual. And due to the drought, it’s easy to see that the grape/wine yield will be below average too. The first thing we are certain of is that the quantity of Vernaccia di San Gimignano wine made in 2017 will be less than average. But we will have to wait until February, and the Anteprima 2018, to say what it will be like!