THE VIRTUES OF AUTUMN
In recent years mother nature seems moody and willing to put us on a roller coaster of changing vintage patterns. After the heat and drought of 2017, that perfectly fits the idea of global warming, 2018 turned out the almost exact opposite, one of the rainiest years in the last decade, saved “in extremis” by a glorious autumn of sunny weather during harvest.
THE GROWING SEASON
After a few years that made us forget what winter looks like, 2018 brought back normal conditions with a sufficient number of days with temperatures below 0°C to put the vines to well-deserved winter rest. Bolgheri even enjoyed a rare number of days with snow. After the exceptionally dry 2017, abundant rain allowed to fill the water tables again.
March was almost entirely dominated by record amounts of rain, more than four times the seasonal average, leading to a delayed budbreak the second week of April. Immediately after a period of exceptionally warm and dry weather led to explosive shoot growth in the vineyard, requiring our entire workforce to keep up timely with the operations. In May though rain was back again in unprecedented quantity and frequency. While bringing temperatures back to the norm, it built up a high level of disease pressure, especially for downy mildew, which put the nerves of vine growers to the test for the rest of the growing season. Only through perfect organization and capacity to enter the vineyard for spraying in the few days without rain was it possible to get control of the disease keeping canopies and grapes healthy. Ornellaia’s soil management with frequent green covers between the rows proved once again hugely beneficial, not only by keeping vine vigour in check, but also helping to absorb excess water in the soil, allowing us to enter in the vineyards quickly after the rain.
Although budbreak had been late, the climatical conditions and the rapid shoot growth made the vines recover the delay and anticipate flowering by one full week. While lower than in May, rainfall remained higher than average all through June, keeping mildew active and aggressive.
July only barely gave us a rest with dry and hot weather. Véraison arrived quickly around the 22-25 July, before the vines had stopped growing. While colour changed very quickly in a few days, we observed great heterogeneity within the clusters with a significant number of pink, or even downright green berries.
August got almost as hot as 2017, but slightly rainier than average, with some significant storms around the 15 August, which occurred only in Bellaria, leaving the other vineyard areas of Ornellaia out, thus creating a significantly different ripening pattern for Bellaria. Sugars and acidity evolved at a slow pace, while – due to the high water status in the soils – berry sizes increased. September saw beautiful and warm weather without rain. Temperatures where high for the season but cool nights allowed the vines to recover and preserve their flavours and acidity. Morning mist, only rarely observed in Bolgheri, was frequent in 2018, giving a decidedly autumn feel to the harvest. In order to keep the grapes healthy and help them take advantage of the ventilation we operated leaf removal earlier than usual.
Harvest kicked off immediately after “Ferragosto” with the Sauvignon of the “milleviti” vines sprinkled around some of the red vineyards at Ornellaia. The difference between vineyard sites was extremely marked leading to the longest sauvignon harvest in Ornellaia’s history with the last grapes picked on the 13th September. Viognier came in in the last days of August, while Vermentino and Verdicchio where picked in mid-September.
More than in any other vintage we observed a different ripening pattern of the different terroirs of the estate, leading to a long harvest, especially for Merlot, that was picked from the 31st August and finished between the 29 September.
Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot where harvested from the third decade of September on, Picking was briefly interrupted after a rain storm on first October but resumed with the oldest Cabernet vineyards after a few days of dry and windy weather.
In the cellar a few elements were critical to express the full potential of this vintage. In its third year of use, the optical sorting proved once again a precious tool, this year to remove all imperfectly coloured fruit, allowing to put only homogeneous and ripe berries into the tanks.
The large berry sizes lead us to frequently operate saignées on the tanks. To fully capture the tannin potential of the vintage, without extracting overly harsh and rustic tannins we went through long macerations of about four weeks with soft and moderately frequent pump overs, deciding how to operate on each single lot according to our daily tastings.
After a challenging spring, conditions improved significantly during the summer, culminating in almost perfect weather during harvest which culminated towards the end of September and beginning of October – autumn rather than late summer.
While 2018 at an early stage does not appear to be an extraordinarily powerful vintage it displays good colour, an unusual aromatic quality with incredibly fresh, vibrant and pure aromatics that perfectly reflect the character of each varietal. The tannins are already refined and silky with no hard edges, acidities are well balanced.
The whites are fragrant with moderate acidities, particularly for Sauvignon and Viognier. The later picked Vermentino look very promising with textbook flavours of yellow stone fruit and white flower.