Outstanding 2016 Langhe grapes to be thrown away


Bisso Atanassov, now producer of La Biòca Barolo, reports that the Barolo and Barbaresco 2016 harvest is too good and, specifically, too copious for comfort. 

I assume that my opinion might sound strange but nonetheless I think it's worth sharing. When the harvest in the southern hemisphere was coming to an end and the growing season of 2016 was just kicking off in the northern one, my friends and I were discussing how things were going around the globe. All in all it seemed Mother Nature was punishing her misbehaving kids: drought in South Africa; snow in October and hail at the end of harvest in Chile; the frost disasters in Champagne (4,000 ha [nearly 10,000 acres] completely destroyed), Burgundy and the Loire; 160 ha lost to hail in Texas; a particularly aggressive mildew species that hit all of Europe and destroyed many organic and biodynamic vineyards in particular.

What about Piemonte, and particularly the Langhe where you are based, my colleagues asked? Well, I said, feeling embarrassed, it seems we've behaved well in so far as we are having a perfect season. And so it was: just enough rain and perfect temperatures during spring; a hot July but without excesses; cooler August with particularly cool nights; completely dry September and nearly half of October – it just couldn't have been better!

So what's the fuss about? If you remember, the extremely hot 2003 was followed by a particularly abundant 2004. In 2016, the previous year – 2015 – was also very hot, so we were expecting some increase in grape volumes this harvest. The bunches on the vines after the regular thinning procedures though didn't look much more than in previous years. The revelation came when we started weighing them. They were heavier than usual. I assume that no one realised how big or, more correctly, huge and enormous the 2016 harvest would be.

I'll omit some parts of the story. I'll say only that in the Asti area there are whole vineyards left unpicked as people ran out of bollini (the quantity allowed to be grown and picked per hectare). Even the extra 20% that you can harvest for vino da tavola without losing the DOC(G) for the main part of the crop didn't help. A friend of mine recently called me and said he'd be cutting and throwing away grapes since if he leaves them on the vine they would rot and this could damage the vine later on. So would I like to take some Moscato for free? I went to see the grapes and they were perfect (see above), so I took some – but not too much as I was already running out of space in the winery myself.

Then came the Nebbiolo. You may have heard that 2015 is considered the best vintage in the Langhe since 1971. In my opinion (and I've talked with fellow winemakers), 2016 is even better. So at this precise moment we have uncalculated volumes of Nebbiolo of a quality possible once in half a century still hanging on the vines. As the Nebbiolo bollini are used up too, I get three or four calls a day from people offering Nebbiolo from crus I've not even dreamt of working with. But I can't take any as I have no space and all my 20% surplus is covered. 

I called the Barolo and Barbaresco Consorzio in order to find out whether there have been any requests to implement an official 20% increase in the DOC(G) yields during particularly abundant vintages such as this one. I was told that of course not! And it's never been the case. We are a prosperous and rich denomination and anything of this kind would be poorly regarded by everyone else. Well, of course I didn't mean to ask for 20% more for Barolo, but why not Langhe DOC? The Italian law, I was told, permits declassification of 20% of the excess of DOCG grapes to the nearest DOC. In our case it's Langhe DOC. But the regulations of Langhe DOC specifically preclude any declassification of excess Barolo and Barbaresco grapes. We Barolians love to limit and castigate ourselves... So nothing can be done.

Wine growers are frustrated. Many of them remember the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They've seen a lot, they know what's a bad harvest, and they also know how rare it is to have Nebbiolos of 2016 quality. They can hardly accept that in a week or two they will need to cut down all those grapes of outstanding quality with their own hands. I don't know how I will feel about that in two weeks but I already feel bad in my gut.

It's not about the money. We won't get much richer. And neither will a low-price Langhe Nebbiolo ruin the market and the future of the region. But the consumer will be forced to drink mediocre burgundy or bordeaux at double prices instead. I feel sorry that consumers should face such a choice while hundreds of tonnes of excellent Nebbiolo will be just thrown away.

And you don’t need me to tell you how good a good Nebbiolo can be.