By Nicolas Belfrage MW

With the shortest harvest in 50 years, at just over 43million hl (down 13 percent on 2006), 2007 may be cited in future as the year when the effects of global warming first really began to bite in Italy.

Winter was unprecedently mild and rain-free, and with budding taking place some three weeks early, there were deep fears of spring frosts. Unfounded, as it happened, because the mild weather extended into early spring (April was positively summery), becoming, after a somewhat disturbed flowering period, hot to "stifling" in summer, with daytime temperatures in parts hovering around 40ºC (104ºF). The great difference, however, between 2007 and 2003 - that other famously hot year of the decade so far - was that in the former, night-time temperatures tended to be cooler, the diurnal-nocturnal differences making for more balanced, less jammy/cooked/ overripe wines than in the latter. But that was mainly in the North and center, reminding us that, in a country as large and diverse as Italy, it is not appropriate to generalize.

Piedmontese producers were generally pleased with the harvest, despite a 10-15 percent drop in production, though not all agreed that it was a year to rave about. Dolcetto and Barbera, in particular, seem to have done well, in Monferrato, Asti, and Alba alike, with deep colors and rich, fruity flavors.

What was predicted to finish as an extremely early vintage ended just a few days before the norm, not because sugars were not abundant - they were, too much so - but rather because phenolic ripening seemed more inclined to stick to the usual schedule. As for Nebbiolo, the couple of days of rain around September 22-24 were if anything beneficial. Even so, a major Barolista declined to agree with many of his colleagues that it was an outstanding year, saying it was merely good "because Nebbiolo does suffer water stress."

In such conditions, Piedmont's white wines - from Arneis, Cortese, Moscato - might have been expected to be unbalanced, but early indications instead showed that the flatteringly ripe flavors were well matched by crisp, refreshing acidity. This pattern, for whites, was repeated across the North - in Oltrepo Pavese, Franciacorta, Alto Adige, and Friuli, this last bucking the national trend by increasing production year on year by about 10 percent. Only the whites of Veneto suffered, and in patches because of hail, which hit hard on August 30th, badly affecting some 15 percent of Soave territory. Unfortunately the greatest damage was precisely where the best quality would be expected to come from, in the hills of Classico, on the newer vines trained to guyot, which have less canopy protection than those trained to pergola.

The hail, however, wreaked most havoc in Valpolicella, the August 30 storm devastating large swathes of vineyard where growers were getting ready to pick the bunches destined for appassimento. Instead of one of the great Amarone/Recioto vintages, 2007 was disastrous - at least for those in the hills who got hammered at up to 90 per cent of their crop. The damage in financial terms was estimated at over ¤50million. Earlier in August, too, hail gave the Prosecco fields of Conegliano- Valdobbiadene a good walloping,sending grape prices in an already overheated market spiraling upwards at a rate of 100 percent+, according to some. In fact, significantly if not steeply rising prices have been one of the major effects of the short but (generally) very good harvest of 2007, throughout the land, after several years of uncharacteristic restraint.

Down in Sangiovese country -- Tuscany, Romagna, Umbria -- the heat and lack of water did account for a drop in production (about -10 percent) compared with 2006. But that did not affect quality which, inland and upland at least, was reckoned to be excellent (though the present writer doubts whether the 2007s will have the balance and especially the freshness of the 2004s). The harvest was not as early as originally predicted (again because of the relatively slow ripening of phenolic substances).

Grapes were universally healthy, however, and the classic problem of Sangiovese - uneven ripening - was not a feature. Where the lack of rainfall was particularly felt was on the east coast - Marche, Abruzzo, and Puglia - where production was down between 15 and 25 percent, indeed much more in certain areas in Puglia, where growers decided the battle against peronospera was not worth the little money they receive for their grapes, and allowed their vineyards to go to pot. Water stress was the principal protagonist in the vineyards where growers did bother, and red wines were predicted to be inky and rich, alcoholic and muscular; and very expensive, with prices rising sharply - so not so good for cheap blending with Sangiovese which, as we have seen, didn't need it anyway.

Surprisingly, white wines from these parts - Verdicchio from the Marche, Trebbiano, and the increasingly interesting Pecorino from Abruzzo - turned out reasonably well balanced despite their concentration.

In Campania, land of so much promise and such corruption, the various characterful white varieties like Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano were getting rave reviews, and we may be looking at a 5-star vintage where winemakers have been able to make the most of some excellent raw material. On the black-grape side, Aglianico and Piedirosso seem to have thrived, too, and while it is always difficult to predict the outcome for Aglianico, perhaps Italy's latest-ripening variety, the omens look good for a great vintage.

The area that seems to have lost the most in volume terms is Sicily, down some 30 percent year on year. Main blame has been laid at the door of the Scirocco, the hot air blast from Africa that the good Lord deemed meet to be aimed at Sicilian vineyards precisely at flowering time, reducing the potential crop dramatically. What remained, provided the vines were properly tended, which these days Sicilians can well afford to do, seems to have turned out an elevated level of quality grapes, with areas of excellence.

Climate change? In the North, certainly, we are seeing ever-rising sugar levels with resultant alcohol degrees routinely at 14 degrees and more. In the center, with seven out of eight vintages this decade on the level of good to excellent, we are certainly seeing enhanced consistency of quality. In the south, though, ever a land of heat and high alcohol, it's business as usual.