The idea behind this section, which dates back years, grew from a desire to establish, at least in general terms, the time of ripening of Nebbiolo in the different MGAs of Barolo (the results of which you will find in the individual detailed information schedules).
To accomplish this, I obviously needed to collect as much information as possible about precise harvest starting dates for each of the MGAs from each winery that produces a Barolo from a single vineyard. Not an average date or a time interval, but rather a date as precise as possible to be analyzed in the light of the many factors that can influence it, such as differences in producers’ attitudes and styles.
The result has gone well beyond my rosiest expectations in a project that led to the accumulation of a truly unique quantity of information, in particular from the 2000 vintage, and even more so from 2007, and on up to recent vintages in which more than 170 wineries regularly contribute to the enrichment of my database.
With so much material available, the subsequent step of realizing a summary by vintage seemed as natural as it was innovative. The use of that descriptive may seem odd, considering that the literature on the subject of each vintage includes information on seasonal trends and quality of the harvest, ranging from popular summaries to the most technical and scientific analyses. Yet none, if not in a vague way, has ever portrayed in detail the last phase of the season, superimposing on the climatic data the actual harvest time trends for the entire denomination. And this seemed to me not only of interest to enthusiasts, but also useful for producers, who often find it a challenge to get an overall picture of the vintage because they are forced—by necessity—to focus on their own vineyards and cellars.
That said, far be it from me to declare this a “definitive” study on the subject. On the contrary, I am fully aware of how the harvest dates in my possession may in some cases reflect a certain elasticity. However, after carrying out consistent checks and skimming of data, I can say with certainty based on my experience that the fundamental premise and the resulting picture that emerges are completely reliable.
THE CLIMATE DATA
Here more than in other cases the guiding concept was “simplify”. The modern weather stations, in fact, register and calculate an important number of parameters whose significance would truly be difficult to explain in addition to being pointless for the ends of a work of divulgation such as this.
Among the many parameters I therefore chose only the three most obvious: the days in which it rained, the total rainfall, and the sum of temperatures or heat summation ( those higher than 50° Fahrenheit , or 10°centigrade). The first two are to be analyzed together because – as it is easy to see – the same quantity of rain distributed over two days or ten has a completely different impact and not merely during the months of September and October. The heat summations, instead, give an idea of whether a year was warm or not and are to be read not only in terms of their total values but also month by month because in viticultural terms it is important to know when these sums were accumulated.
And precisely because we are talking about vineyards and wine, the period of time taken into consideration is that between January through October given that November and December, months which fall after the conclusion of the harvest of the grapes, have no particular weight in terms of what interests us (if not, at the most, a certain influence on the months which follow). In truth, for the heat summation I could also have excluded the months of January and February, which I instead included in order to guarantee a certain homogeneity with the monthly rainfall, where January and February, instead, can have some importance in the overall balance of the vintage.
At this point it remains to be clarified how the data was collected and elaborated.
The Agrometeorological Network of the Phytosanitary Sector of the Piedmont Region* (which I thank very much for its collaboration) has several detection stations, seven of which are located in the Barolo area. However, of these only three (Castiglione Falletto, La Morra and Serralunga d’Alba) have historical records covering the time span of interest (2000-2020) and so I am referring only to them. Each of these stations belongs to a specific commune and provides precise data related to the position in which the instruments are located, and for that reason I preferred to process an average of the data provided by the three different control units. Such a generalization may seem approximative in the eyes of a professional, but in the end it is neither better nor worse than the use of precise data from one or three control units as a reference for an entire territory. The important thing is to understand this and reason accordingly.
*Rete Agrometeorologica del Settore Fitosanitario della Regione Piemonte
Before going into the details of the individual vintages it is important to consider some more general aspects, some related to the graphs and tables that you will find on the following pages and others to the in-depth analysis of the data that preceded the writing.
Starting from the latter, the first consideration that arises is that producers today harvest grapes in a rather short time span, at least if we refer to medium and small wineries, which are after all the majority. In other words, barring exceptions related to possible rainfall, once the harvest of Nebbiolo for Barolo has begun, it tends to be completed without major interruptions, starting in those MGAs noted for early ripening to those noted for later ripening. This might not seem to have a particular influence on the annual analyses to be found on the following pages, but on the contrary it could explain the often minimal differences recorded in the next chapter between the average starting dates of the harvest from one MGA to another.
Taking for granted the essential influence of climate on harvest times, I would also point to the important factor of the different styles of vineyard management applied today as compared to the past. Today, the production of grapes and wine is the primary, if not indeed the unique, economic concern of all wineries, so of course everything is focused on the harvest.
Greater attention means fewer problems during the harvest in a time span that is more restricted than in the past. The increasingly widespread use of labor from outside the nucleus of the family winery requires more rigid and rational management of time.
Returning to the numbers, clearly each winery from year to year has its own harvest time window linked to seasonal trends, to the climatic and geological features of each MGA—and indeed of the single vineyards—and, of course, to the individual attitudes with which each producer approaches the vintage. All these windows, taken together, create a single window of time relative to the vintage. That is, to the arc of days in which the harvest, relative to that of the entire denomination, begins and ends. Sometimes this is without interruption or at times with minimal breaks or delays, but almost always the total arc of days fluctuates at around thirty (excluding the most extreme early or late dates).
And this is an intriguing fact.
Equally intriguing has been the subdividing and analyzing of these same data according to the commune of origin to see if some had earlier or later harvests than others. What emerged, and was to a great extent predictable, is that each commune reacts like a scale copy of the entire denomination. In other words, within each commune there are early and late areas which, once combined in a commune-wide average (annual or at ten-year intervals as the case may be) indicates that in the end there are no substantial differences between one commune and another. (However there would be substantial differences, as we shall see in the next chapter, if we considered broader multi-commune areas).
While on the subject of averages it seems wise to clarify some points. When a vintage is defined as late, early or normal, the reference is always to the ten-year average of 2007-2016. If we took another decade as a reference, it is almost certain that the definitions would change, despite the differences between individual vintages (the 2017 vintage, even if we changed the decade of reference, would still remain a vintage earlier than 2008). Then again, the fact that one vintage is on average later or earlier than another does not imply that the same rapport applies from one winery to another, especially for those vintages whose average starting dates are close to each other. In other words, if it is true that the 2008 vintage can be considered on average later than 2010, that does not signify that the exact opposite might be the case for a winery in one or more MGAs.
Also connected to the averages are those cases, apparently atypical, in which a rainy day is recorded as a harvest day. As I have already mentioned, the data related to rainfall are the result of a daily average of three different control units located in as many communes. If in two of them there was rainfall and in the third there was not and harvesting continued, the average daily data would be positive, thus creating a type of inconsistency. In the same way, precipitation at the end of the day, and in all communes, would record that specific day as rainy and unsuitable for harvesting, when in fact the opposite was true.
Obviously, these are just a few of the possible flukes that, if they should take on particular relevance, will be analyzed from time to time in the charts dedicated to individual vintages. Speaking of these charts, deserved acknowledgement goes to the annual publications realized by the Vignaioli Piemontesi from which — I won’t hide it — I have frequently drawn precious information.