If the Italian wine industry has one enemy, it is the frost. When it hits, the frost almost halts the growth of grapes. It prevents them vines from growing to their full potential, which leads to the possibility of grapes not reaching the level of quality needed to reach their full potential.
Naturally, this means that Italian wine producers, alongside producers from all over the world, have worked hard to come up with ways to counter the frost. Protection of the grape is paramount if you are to create a quality product and, perhaps along with pests, frost represents one of the biggest threats to this quality.
Still, frost has traditionally been a somewhat manageable enemy.
While damaging, it doesn’t often rear its head until we get to the colder months of the year. By this point, producers have often either started the harvest or have completed it. This means that battling against the frost usually involves protecting vines so that they can start to express their qualities again as the weather warms up.
Unfortunately, April 2021 has bucked the traditional trends.
Throughout the month, widespread and somewhat unseasonable frosts have affected much of France’s wine production. And unfortunately, that frost has now moved on to affect several major Italian wine-producing regions.
The Creeping Frost
Tuscany, Umbria, and Piedmont are responsible for some of the most popular Italian wines ever made. We all know that Tuscany is the home of Chianti and the Super Tuscans, amongst many other amazing Italian red and white wines. Piedmont is another titan of the Italian industry, being the home of the King of Wines – Barolo.
And even Umbria, though perhaps not as renowned as the other two regions, is home to some of the most underappreciated wines in the Italian industry. Sangrantino, which has been referred to by some as the world’s most tannic red wine, calls Umbria its home.
All three are amazing regions…
And all three have been struck with the April frosts that affected France earlier in the month.
This is a worrying development.
Early estimates state that the unseasonal frost affected up to 80% of all French vineyards, causing damage to vines and potentially having an enormous impact on the quality of the wines that French producers will be able to make in 2021.
If a similar thing occurs in Italy, the effects on the global wine industry will be pronounced. Rather than being the year that we see as one of re-emergence and revitalisation, 2021 could be the year that climate change struck one of its biggest blows against the world of wine.
This is compounded by the fact that all three of the regions we’ve mentioned are known for the quality of their red wine grapes. For those who don’t know, red grapes tend to thrive most in warmer temperatures. This is why they thrive in regions that are closer to the Mediterranean. As a general rule, the warmer the weather, the better the quality of the grape.
You can see how frost and the cold weather that causes it can be an issue.
The good news is that the effect may not be as widespread in Italy as it is in France.
Like a Leopard With its Spots
Antonio Michael Zaccheo Jr. of Carpineto operates several estates in some of the worst-affected regions. For him, the gorgeous warmth of March had been replaced by a brief period of frost that affected several of his vineyards.
But he is still buoyant, despite this.
The brevity of the frost has led to it failing to have as wide an effect as it did on vineyards in France. In talking about the impact, he says:
“The damage is like the spots on a leopard—widespread but only hitting early varieties [such as Sangiovese and Merlot] exposed to the warmer sides of the hills and below a certain elevation, as cold air goes down.”
This clues us in to the interesting ways that the dynamics of weather affect wine production.
One of the reasons the April frost has been so damaging is that we also enjoyed an uncharacteristically warm March. This warmth led to the early growth of many red wine vines, which would not be a bad thing in normal circumstances. Unfortunately, this early maturity also made these vines more susceptible to the frost, as they had achieved a greater level of growth and were thus less protected.
Antonio mentions Merlot and Sangiovese as being two of the grape varieties that he’s worried about, as both of these enjoyed the early sunshine that March brought. However, in saying this, he also shows us that the grapes that hadn’t yet started to mature, for whatever reason, are not likely to experience the same level of damage.
Assuming the frost clears, it’s likely that its effects will be temporary.
What Does This Mean for 2021’s Italian Wines?
Truthfully, it is a little early to say.
The frost has started to clear and has not been as impactful as the one that affected France earlier in the month. If nothing else, this means the three regions mentioned are in a better place than 80% of France. And there’s a possibility that much of Italy won’t feel the impact at all.
But there is something in Antonio’s quote that worries us…
He mentions Sangiovese.
And as anybody who knows Italian wine can tell you, Sangiovese is the main grape used in the production of Chianti.
The frost affecting this grape could mean that one of the great Italian wines is set for a less than stellar year. This means it is up to producers to find ways to help these valuable grapes recover if they are to create Chiantis and Super Tuscans that are worthy of the names.
We have full confidence that they will succeed.
Unseasonal frosts are not an unknown occurrence.
Thankfully, the damage does not appear to be as heavy as it could have been. That’s why we still feel that the Italian vintages of 2021 will be able to compare well to any others, despite the frost.
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