As has been the case for years now, it will be Sicily that will start the harvest, which is also the longest in Italy, and this year particularly complex and difficult, between climate and vine diseases, downy mildew in the lead, with an estimated drop in quantities, to date, around -35% compared to 2022, overall, but with the quality of the grapes not compromised, as told to WineNews by the president of Doc Sicilia, Antonio Rallo (in a national overview piece), and as reiterated today by Assovini Sicilia, led by Mariangela Cambria, which brings together the 100 most virtuous wineries on the Sicilian wine continent.
The first bunches of Pinot Grigio, from what WineNews learns, have already fallen in baskets yesterday, among the rows of Cantine Ermès, which covers multiple areas with multiple estates - such as Tenute Orestiadi in Gibellina, where among the vines also dwells the world’s largest work of land art, “Il Cretto” di Burri, to which a wine is also dedicated - and tomorrow Settesoli will also cut the first bunches of Pinot Grigio (among its rows overlooking the sea). Thus kicking off, then, the longest harvest in Italy, more than 100 days, that of Sicily, and of its many territories, among the most authentic of Italy, capable of enchanting wine tourists from all over the world, where the vines overlook the Mediterranean coast and rise up to the slopes of Mount Etna. With 2023, therefore, looking to be one of the most difficult vintages between downy mildew, extreme weather situations, challenging the vineyards.
“Italy’s longest grape harvest, averaging more than 100 days, will begin this year ten days later than the harvest 2022. Despite a succession of extreme weather conditions - from torrential rains in May and June to extreme heat in July - fires and the presence of fungal attacks, including vine downy mildew, the condition and quality of grapes in Sicily does not seem to be compromised. Thanks to the return of cooler temperatures, the initial drop, estimated at up to 40% in some areas, could be less”, a note from Assovini explains.
It starts in Western Sicily, with the harvest of the sparkling wine base, followed by international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, followed by native grape varieties. Closing this long Sicilian harvest will be the producers of Etna, at the end of October. “What makes the Sicilian grape harvest unique”, comments Mariangela Cambria, president of Assovini Sicilia, and also guide of the Cottanera winery on Etna, “is the variety of the Sicilian areas. Each area has unique climatic conditions and soils that result in the extraordinary diversity and variety of Sicilian wine production. With about a week to go before harvest begins, it is still difficult and premature to make accurate production estimates. Surely Sicily is showing that it knows how to govern, thanks to increasingly sustainable agriculture and agronomic techniques, the effect of climate change by focusing on quality and not quantity”, Mariangela Cambria concludes. Looking at the area of Western Sicily, “to date the quality of the grapes is excellent, having had no problems with powdery mildew or botrytis; due to the great heat we lost 40% of the grapes, although as cooler temperatures have returned the unburned grapes are beginning to regain vigor so the drop could be less overall. We are satisfied with how we handled the downy mildew problem, having done so preventively with the help of weather sheds that have the ability to electronically indicate the probability of the disease, avoiding irreparable damage”, comments Filippo Buttafuoco, agronomist and viticultural technician at Cantine Settesoli.
“In the Regaleali (Palermo) wine-growing area, March and April, which tended to be dry and cold, resulted in a 10-day delay in overall sprouting. This delay helped make the subsequent very rainy but tendentially cold period more manageable, and made the pressure of vine diseases, such as downy mildew, less invasive”, explain Lorenza Scianna and Laura Orsi, oenologists at the Tasca d'Almerita label. Who add, “currently the vines have adequate foliage, they are healthy and there is a decrease in average temperatures that portends a good ripening of the grapes starting with the veraison of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is taking place in these days. Concerning quantities, Tenuta di Sallier, in Camporeale, is also expected to meet historical farm averages but it is still too early to rejoice over victory. Good vegetative cover protects the grapes from scorching and helps preserve aromas and freshness. Finally in Mozia, the island is little affected by mainland weather conditions, the alberello should ripen soon after Ferragosto with quantities that fall within Mozia’s historical averages and with healthy, crisp grapes”. Lorenza Scianna and Laura Orsi conclude.
Looking at the northeastern slope, however, there are still a few months to go until the arrival of the harvest on Etna, where until the end of June there were low temperatures and continuous rainfall, such that interventions in the vineyard were difficult, followed by the extreme heat at the end of July with reduced temperature ranges between day and night and hot winds. “Thanks to the very well-draining volcanic sands, high altitudes and constant ventilation, there has been no presence of downy mildew and, despite the high temperature peaks, the plants are holding up well”, comments Maria Carella, winemaker at Cantine Nicosia, on the southeastern slopes of Trecastagni, Zafferana and Santa Venerina. On Etna’ northern slope, Patricia Toth, winemaker at Maison Planeta, confirms that downy mildew is under control thanks to the arrival of warm weather and high temperatures. “In the high areas, around 900 meters, we have wonderful grapes because of the different ventilation in these areas and also the structure of the soils. At Capo Milazzo, we are in the Northeast of the island, the winds that so many times can become a challenge this year have found peace, fruit set and also insect control as of today’s date is going well”, Patricia Toth concludes. Moving to southeastern Sicily, “the 2023 harvest will be one of the most difficult in recent times. This year, torrid heat these days aside, we have had torrential rains and strong wind gusts in May and June, which are important for the flowering of our grapes, weather conditions that have brought to its knees the hard work that we carry out every day with my team”, comments Arianna Occhipinti. According to the producer, “the consistent arrival of downy mildew caused considerable damage to 30-35 % of our future production; sulfur and copper treatments (the only treatments we do in the vineyard) in higher concentration were not enough to contain the problem. We will definitely have a smaller harvest than the 2022 vintage. However, this does not mean that the quality of the grapes will be questioned, on the contrary, possibly we will have less quantity but higher quality”, Occhipinti concludes. “In Vittoria”, Patricia Toth (Planeta) comments further, “it is important to emphasize the location and soil of the vineyards. We are on the slope with a pure upper sandy layer, overlooking the sea, above Marina di Acate, where precisely the sand and air movement have not given room for constant humidity. We expect good yields as on Nero d’Avola also on Frappato, keeping a close watch on the vineyards to control the presence of mealybugs and leafhoppers. In Noto, as generally throughout the island, as of today we consider about a week or even 10 days delay in the phenological stages, with healthy and really promising grapes”.
Also giving an overall look, as mentioned, to WineNews, is, Antonio Rallo, president of the Consorzio della Doc Sicilia, and at the helm of the Donnafugata winery: “This has been a particularly complex vintage, because, already starting last fall and winter, we have been working in very particular climatic conditions, which we can define as “un-Sicilian”, comments Antonio Rallo, president of the Consorzio della Doc Sicilia. “More frequent and very intense rains involved an environmental context characterized by a normally much drier climate. The spring and summer rains have certainly been useful in building up water reserves in the soils and reservoirs, an additional safeguard in defending the plants from the great heat of recent weeks. Grape ripening is delayed by about a week. The expected drop in production is around 35%, but we remain positive about the quality level of this vintage”.
Meanwhile, as mentioned, there are those who have already harvested the first bunches, such as Cantine Ermés, a cooperative giant on the island with over 7,000 hectares under vine. “Yesterday we started the harvest, with the earliest grape, which is Pinot Grigio”, managing director Salvatore Li Petri tells WineNews, “and we are more or less a week later than usual. The 2023 harvest is complicated and complex, due to several factors, which did not facilitate the work in the vineyard. First the abundant water in May and then the downy mildew in June, and then in July, with the scorching heat, the non-irrigated vineyards suffered the most. We are a mosaic of identities, we have vineyards and wineries in different areas, most of them in the Trapani area, and things change, even a lot, from area to area. From our analysis of volumes, at the end of the harvest, we will be around a -25% yield per hectare compared to 2022, then there are vineyards that are defending themselves better, especially at altitude and with more temperature ranges, others less so. We are doing everything to better manage the harvest. For example, we are always supporting members to help them to harvest at the right time, helping them to overcome the fear that sometimes there is, in seeing clusters that are not very hydrated, and would push them to harvest as soon as possible, while we with our agronomists suggest to them to leave the grapes still on the plant to allow them to recover, better ripening and higher quality. And then we have a monitoring system, at the time of delivery, to select the highest quality grapes to make important wines”.
Quality is also the focus of the reflection of Diego Cusumano, who heads the family winery, which has five different estates, between Monreale, Piana degli Albanesi and Partinico, in the Palermo area, and Butera (Caltanissetta). “The harvest is just around the corner and we are happy, all the vineyards like ours that have a good altitude have been saved from this huge heat wave that has been there, there will be a drop in quantity but still to be quantified, while on quality we are waiting for the grapes in the cellar. What matters now”, explains Diego Cusumano, to WineNews, “is not to count how much we will produce less, but to bring home great quality grapes. All the vines, right now, have a perfect phytosanitary state in our five estates, the relationship between plant and fruit is perfect, we start pinot noir for sparkling wine base this week, and then going forward we will start to understand things well, until we get to Etna in a couple of months. But, almost everywhere, the clusters are sparse and healthy, and, therefore, we hope for great quality”.
This, then, is the picture that lies ahead for the Sicilian grape harvest, which is a true journey through space and time. A journey that is recounted in its phases but made possible by a long, constant and demanding work, almost never in the spotlight. And that Tasca d’Almerita has decided to highlight, with a narrative, also video, online, “telling what happens, in the vineyard, between late July and early August, in our estates. Starting from Mozia and crossing the rolling hills of Camporeale, passing through the vineyards overlooking the sea of Salina and Vulcano and to those in the hinterland of Regaleali, until reaching the slopes of Mount Etna. A journey whose final destination will be a moment of celebration: the long-awaited grape harvest”. “It is 5 a.m., the first signs of sunrise can be seen, the countryside is sleepy, the air is still cool and laden with moisture. The team is ready, work begins before the summer heat makes it impossible to stay in the sun. We are in the midst of the period leading up to the harvest, crucial times full of expectation, both in the vineyard and in the winery. You run fast from one estate to another”, the winery, led by Alberto Tasca d’Almerita, explains, “to observe, check and analyze the grapes, make sure the bunches are ripening at their best. It is an exciting period during which all attentions are turned to the plant and the weather conditions of the coming weeks; it is an intense wait, made of hopes and strong emotions. In the vineyard, work is done to keep the vines healthy, making sure the clusters receive enough sunlight and ventilation, while trying to keep moisture under control. Palisading of espalier vines and topping are two key operations at this stage: the former helps to accompany the vine’s growth as the plant develops; the latter is directed at concentrating the vine’s energies downward, cutting off the upper shoots. In short, preparing for the harvest also means combing the rows, says Corrado Maurigi, Regaleali estate manager. And it is precisely among the rows located in the heart of Sicily that at this time the workings help to preserve moisture at the root level, up to 15 cm deep, and to avoid possible cracking caused by the clay soil. In the meantime, on the island of Mozia”, they tell us again from Tasca d’Almerita, “we are preparing for a harvest that is in every way unique, a harvest of men as Costanza Chirivino, manager of the Whitaker estates in Mozia and of Sallier de La Tour in Camporeale, says; a strenuous harvest both physically and logistically, but at the same time fascinating and evocative. Between historic sapling vineyards with Marsala pruning and archaeological finds from the Phoenician era: it will be from this very special islet that our harvest cycle will begin. Costanza also tells us that the ferment is experienced not only in the vineyard but also in the cellar, both at La Monaca, Sallier de La Tour’s Art Nouveau winery, and at Regaleali’s historic winery, where everything must be ready in time for the arrival of the grapes. This year’s mild, low-water winter was followed by a cold, rainy spring: this certainly helped to build up an abundant water reserve and prepare the vines for the strong summer heat. And it is precisely during these days of such high temperatures that the plants are showing incredible adaptability: the vineyard is once again showing us that it can self-regulate, even under extreme conditions. The growth of lush vegetation spurred by June’s heavy rains is now being restrained by the heat as the berries develop and ripen under the sun’s rays. Nevertheless, the incessant rain and low temperatures of May and June are having different consequences on other estates; in fact, they have made this a very delicate period, especially for the Capofaro and Tascante vineyards where even more attention and care will need to be devoted in the coming weeks. On the slopes of Etna, however, the harvest is still a long way off, stresses Giulio Bruni, Tascante manager; we will have to wait until the end of October and, in the meantime, work hard to defend the harvest during the last months of grape ripening”.