Polenta in July: Harvest 2014 update

by Laura Gray on July 31, 2014


For the last two or three days most Italian people I see tell me in incredulous tones about their most recent meal. “Polenta! Would you believe it?” – “Stuffato con porcini… ma siamo matti? Porcini beef stew.. crazy” – “Passata di lenticchie… lentil soup, whatever next?.” We are all in a state of shock because the weather has been so very cold and wet and miserable that everyone has automatically reverted to preparing and eating winter food and wouldn’t touch a tomato and mozzarella salad with a barge pole. This is clearly a very Italian phenomenon but anyone who is used to the rigid culinary seasonality here – not to mention what clothes one wears in what season – will understand what an upheaval this is and why everyone is sharing menus.

And then there are all those long-faced tourists sitting under dripping awnings wearing all their summer clothes in layers, sipping miserably on tepid capuccini and doing the mental arithmetic of what it has cost to spend a week shivering in Tuscany. I’ve already written about the uninterrupted supply of mushrooms from the woods to my fridge. This is not good and has continued and is unnecessary proof of the spores galore and the ideal daily conditions for flourishing fungi; both in the woods and in the vineyards. This July Montalcino has had 8 times the rainfall that we consider normal. Obviously the precise quantities of rain vary in the different parts of the slopes but normal July rainfall rarely exceeds 25-30 mm and can be much less. 35 mm fell on Wednesday 30th July alone and we are looking at a total monthly rainfall of 150-200 mm depending on vineyard position. We started with hot mornings and wet afternoons and progressed to uninterrupted grey days with showers of varied heaviness. The maturation has stalled because of the lack of warmth and light. This is coupled with run-away vegetative growth (tendrils and leaves) that also sucks away power from the fruit, slowing maturation. There is the likelihood of botrytis and peronospera and other hideous member of the mold families, that are all out in force in the air, especially after the warm winter and spring. The grapes themselves are fatter than usual and the vines have two or three times the normal foliage. This means that the vines now have a water “habit” and need a continued supply of what they are used to – so overly warm August and September temperatures could cause trouble. Ironically even with all this water, the grapes could still suffer “stress idrico” if the hot weather comes. At the moment the forecast for the next couple of months is warm (but not roasting) so there’s still a chance for improvement and for good decisions and vineyard husbandry to make a difference. A good September could still save the vintage… and today the sun is shining. What can we do? Today we start the laborious and painful process of aggressive fruit thinning. We need to increase the aeration between bunches and make sure that what we leave on the vine gets the best of the light and ventilation available. The bunches are super-clumpy this year and need to be carefully detached from each other before this second and inevitable green harvest. Inattentive untangling could break the skins of even just a few grapes per bunch and is an attractive invitation for infection to set in. So Marco will be spending the next ten days bent double unravelling bunches and choosing what has to go and what can stay. We are also ploughing alternative rows to try and diminish waterlogging in our least fertile vineyards to try and avoid premature leaf yellowing when August does indeed heat up. And for the visitors? Well, there’s a lot of generous pouring going on in my tasting room since there’s nothing for it but drowning their sorrows – and to be fair, 15° C (yesterday’s temperature!) is perfect for showing Brunello at its best.

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