While harvesting the fruit of the vine is always a physical challenge, these days harvesting the data flow that runs in parallel is an altogether mind-bending one.

The TECH TEAM at the Consorzio Friuli Colli Orientali & Ramandolo are by now the smoothest of operators in what is ‘The Art of Agridata Picking’. However, more than simple data gathering, it’s the analysis and final interpretation that transports us into an entirely new realm as we traverse both the growing and dormant phases of the vines life.

As consumers, we “vino-imbibers”, in our passion for taste often quickly make the headlong rush to talk about the wine with little if any deep regard for the events that make up the vintage cycle.

At the FCO Tech Team HQ, not only does their research bring the vintage back to life, they now give it everlasting meaning. And though their exemplary work relates specifically to yards in the eastern hills that border Slovenia, with the myriad of mesoclimates that they have at their disposal, the data collection provides us with a very meaningful reference for the entire region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

It’s late January 2020 and growers and winemakers have gathered at the Villa Toppo Florio in Buttrio for the presentation of the Friuli Colli Orientali Tech 2019 Fest. In so many ways, 2019 was what one could call a bonkers vintage. Bonkers in that, if you were growing and winemaking in these parts, what transpired might well have driven you bonkers.

Though always key vintage players, weather and climate are progressively steering the Friuli-Venezia Giulia (F-VG) region away from its classical recorded patterns to entirely new norms. The fact of the matter is that today, as a farmer, you can longer continue following the path that your grandad may have done. Climate change is real and visible and evidenced by the work of ARPA meteorologist, Andrea Cicogna. Winters in F-VG are increasingly warmer and drier. So too early Spring, with unseasonal like warmth inducing much earlier budding compared to 20-30 years ago. On the other hand, late spring (late April & May) is now frequently kicking back to wet and wintery climes, with all the ill-effects that such weather can bring in that crucial growth period.

You see this early vegetative phase is when the vines and their new shoots and flowers are at their most vulnerable.

So it’s precisely this moment when growers are seeking stable, indeed predictable weather patterns. In 2019, the weather behaved more or less as the weathermen now believe it will continue to behave in the future. But this is not what growers necessarily want to hear. It’s not traditional weather, particularly when the stats point to the increased likelihood of cool to cold April & May’s. Infact the weather in May 2019 was akin to that of a traditional November/December.

With significant rainfall and temperature drops, Andrea Cicogna was drawn to call it Mayember! According to Davide Cislino & Francesco Degano, these cold and wet conditions brought with them a variety of maladies including a noteworthy increase in Mildew attacks towards the end of May. Growers who have long since adopted a biological path in the yard, visibly suffered.

And then the weather completely flipped.
In June the summer arrived with booming heat, with little or no precipitation, and these conditions continued to prevail, rising and spiking through July and August, with temperatures reaching highs only previously recorded in the early 1900’s. This summer pattern, even though hotter and drier than the expected historical norm, did contribute to recovering some of the earlier imbalances. Certain lost ground was therefore made up, but not all. The lack of uniformity in budding and flowering sadly impacted on fertility meaning bunches and berries were less and smaller. There will consequently be higher fruit concentration and lower output. And yet, the bunches that did make it through appear to have reached healthy maturity. On the ground winemakers were pleased (perhaps relieved, if the truth be told) with the quality of the fruit they picked, even if the yield was understandibly down on the bounty of the previous 2018 vintage.

September and October were considered pretty good months for harvest, with the RED varieties benefitting most from the prolonged spell of dry & warm conditions. This seems set to become part of the new norm.

And to cap it all, November 2019 rolled in.

Just like the cold, wet and abundant downpours of Mayember 2019. It rained almost non-stop and in a way it topped & tailed the topsy turvy 2019 vintage. You could describe the vintage almost like a game of two quarters (May & November) and one half (June/July/August/September). On paper amazingly the stats indicate the total seasonal precipitation was in line with the 20 year average. However, as Andrea Cicogna noted, it’s in the detail that you find the significant differences. To have so much rain in November, without those temperatures for SNOW, means this precious water reserve ran off quickly. It hasn’t hung around on the mountains over winter to become the melting source for spring growth. Added to which the drier, warmer winter equally means no additional water reserve have been built up. So as spring growth naturally advances with increasing warmth, when followed by cold and wet conditions in April/May, the potential recipe for blight and much more besides, is what lies waiting in the taller grass.

In Italy, F-VG is historically known for its rainfall numbers but these days, with climate change, and with liquid blessings hastely leaking into rivers and out into the Med, what will the growing vines have to sustain them through the longer drier summer months?

As winemaking regions go, California, for one, knows only too well what this means. For F-VG, thanks to both fortunate geographical positioning and the Universe’s enduring mercy, it appears the region is far from such a bleak scenario. And yet, the words of Nobel Peace Prize winning Climatologist, Prof. Filippo Giorgi, continue to resonate from the time I was lucky to listen to him speak on a balmy July 2019 night at Castello di Spessa. In his presentation Prof. Giorgi remarked how F-VG’s climate is becoming increasingly similar to that of Italy’s more southerly regions. If I heard him correctly, he recalled the regions mega-heat burst of 2003 as being a once in 10,000 year event. And there we all were in sweltering July 2019, only 16 years on and we were experiencing something similar all over again. It is clear we are immersed in change, in a flow to which we must absolutely adjust.

To adjust, we need to understand the signs of our times.
Being increasingly able to taste change, one imagines that vintage 2019 is likely to be recognisable in both WHITES and REDS. Of course the burning question remains, without any adjustment on our part, for how much longer will such changes continue to be considered ‘acceptable’?

Congratulations to the team at FCO Consorzio, Andrea Cicogna & to Giovanni Bigot for their ‘inspiring, enlightening and attitude adjusting work’. Whether the world chooses to follow or not, your signposts are invaluable pointers, without which we’d be hopelessly lost.


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