A rare vintage: Could 2007's grape harvest become one of the greatest ever?

The expectation is growing after the hottest summer for 400 years

The vineyard before la vendemmia, the bringing in of the grape harvest: a scene of frantic, almost random activity, underpinned by a brooding mood of expectation. The tasks in hand seem to multiply in the compulsion to clear the decks before the vital work begins: the bottling machine is working full pelt, turning out 7,000 bottles a day; out in the fields the big digger is clawing at the pale brown volcanic soil, uprooting old worn-out vines, readying the fields for the planting of new ones next spring. You've got to do it now, get it out of the way, get the last of last year's wines in the bottles and the bottles in the boxes and the boxes in the warehouse; get the last of the roots of the worn-out vines out of the soil and burned and the soil turned good and deep. And then the urgent work can begin.

It's a time of constant meetings, phone calls, huddled conversations, exchanges of gossip, guesses, forecasts, bets. Hail, the viticulturist's dreaded enemy, has struck the vineyards in Tuscany, splattering and shattering whole bunches of grapes, whole fields of vines: long faces at the Tuscans' bad luck, with perhaps just a hint of schadenfreude because after all those Tuscans, with the magic name of Tuscany at their back, sell wine of no greater excellence than ours for five times the price ...

When will the vendemmia start, how's it looking in the rest of the country? Up in the north they are already bringing in the grapes for the vino spumante, the fizzy stuff which demands low acidity and alcohol no higher than 9 degrees. In Sicily, after a broiling summer like this one, no rain for 30 days and fierce, dry heat for months now, the vendemmia is set to start on 22 August, less than a fortnight away - 10 days earlier than usual.

Everywhere in the wine lands of the Mediterranean, the hottest summer for 400 years has put the wine men on their mettle. It's another 2003, they say, another summer where the public cursed the relentless heat, the bone-dry forests went up in flames and the Canadair planes dumped their millions of litres of water and the pundits terrorised the population at large with their premonitions for the pitiless, desertified future ... and the wine men nodded absent-mindedly at the terrorising chat and the terrifying predictions; but all the while a quiet smile played around their lips.

Because while 2003 was a brute of a year for the old and poor, the thousands of pensioners who died in France for lack of proper care, the thousands of hectares of trees reduced to smoking stumps ... it was a hell of a year for the wine. Poco ma buono, as they put it tersely here: sparse but good. Anzi, buonissimo. Not good, bloody brilliant. Anyone who knows anything at all about wine knows to look out for the magic numbers "2003" on the label.

And, don't shout it out loud because no year is a good one till the wine is in the cellar, but 2007 is looking to be better even than 2003. Fiercely hot, true, for months now, but without that pitilessly dry, hot spring that we had four years ago. With the mildest of winters, a winter that hardly happened, morphing into a warm, wet spring finished off by a classic Mediterranean high summer of blazing azure skies and hot, hot sun. All across southern Europe the grapes have plumped and coloured at record speed. The tasks that pile up during the summer months have to be dispatched at record speed now. The vendemmia is at hand!

Few places in the world are more in harmony with the world of grapes and wine than the little town of Cori, 50km south of Rome, a venerable cluster of ancient stone houses that brims from an indentation in the steep slopes of Monti Lepini and girded by the ancient town wall. Cori existed as far back as the 8th century BC; looking down from the town walls two millennia ago you would probably have seen a very similar landscape of vines and olive groves, punctuated by pines, cork oak and chestnut, stretching away to the broad dark band of olive trees that marks the town boundary. "Cori is older than Rome," says Marco Carpineti. "They were minting money here before Rome. But Rome had better luck."

Or did it? What better luck do you need than this, to remain intact in the year 2007 behind your medieval town walls, a community of 10,000 deeply steeped in grapes and olives and allied trades. Mr Carpineti's house stands atop an ancient temple, already old when Augustus ruled in Rome. The house itself dates from the 17th century, "though it's only been in the family for 200 years".

But Cori is not merely old, it has also found the wherewithal of renewal. Take Mr Carpineti, for example. The vineyards have been in his family for generations, but until 1986 he worked for the local council. Then he chucked in the job and took up the family trade but after some years decided to go the organic route, banishing insecticides and fertilisers. He also adopted other traditional methods and ideas, such as doing critical work only when the moon is waning. In 1997, after three years of work, the authorities gave their official approval. "Our organic methods are more rigorous than the industry norms," he points out. "We don't use herbicides, chemicals or synthesised products of any kind. We control wild grasses with regular mowing and a gentle working of the land."

Mr Carpineti joined an army of organic producers: Italy, he claims, is the biggest producer of organic wines, and of organic agricultural products in general. "Around eight per cent of all Italian farms are organic," he says. The Slow Food movement, which champions organic farming, was founded in Italy and continues to give him and the others who have gone the same natural route vital support and encouragement.

Like other organic farmers in this region, Mr Carpineti is helped by the fact that there is no problem with insects in this area; a mild ailment afflicts some of the leaves of the vines but has no impact on the quality of the grapes, which benefit from Cori's perfect situation. "It's absolutely perfect for the cultivation of the vine and the olive," Mr Carpineti points out, "situated on the slopes of the Lepini hills with a south-west exposure, with a fresh summer and mild winter climate". The volcanic soil is rich in mineral salts which give a good body to the wines. Mr Carpineti's champion wine is Dithyrambus, a red that is a blend of nero buono and montepulciano, named after the chant sung in honour of the god of wine Dionysus (in Greece) and Bacchus (in Rome) by his drunken acolytes, accompanied by flutes and tambourines. "Dithyrambus '01", according to Slow Food's Italian Wines Handbook 2006, is "a generous, graceful, harmonious wine redolent of autumn leaves and giving a nicely tannic finish". His other star, Moro '04, a white made from two varieties of Greco vines long cultivated in Cori, has, according to the same handbook, "a soft, pervasive aroma of summer flowers, and awakens the palate with its sinew, lean yet rounded, and long-lasting eloquence." Neither are wines you will have heard of, unless you are passionate about the subject; they are exported to Britain and a few other countries, but his last British distributor recently went out of business ("but he paid for every bottle," he noted), and they cannot be easy to find. But they are not expensive: his cheapest wine is €6 (£4) in the Italian shops, his most expensive only €15. And Slow Food's high praise is justified.

There are seven or eight wine producers based in this small town, including Mr Carpineti, and despite their small size and the increasingly fierce competition from new wine countries, they seem quietly confident about the future. Nazareno Milita, president of the Cincinnato Cooperative Agricola, Cori's biggest wine maker, explains why. His plant processes the grapes of Cori's smaller growers, but also produces distinguished wines with the Cincinnato label, especially the red Nero Buono. "It's difficult for our wines to become famous because we produce such small quantities," he says. "We produce 100,000 bottles of Nero Buono a year, of which half goes abroad, to Japan, Korea, Germany, the UK, Denmark and the USA. It is a local grape that nearly died out because it is susceptible to disease. But we felt it was a good wine with strong potential and highly specific to this region, so 15 years ago we started a programme of research and recovery, and succeeded in restoring it to health using new technology. We took a bet on it, but it has done well because it coincided with the demand for a greater variety of wines."

That's the reason why cheap Cabernet Sauvignon from Romania or Chile does not cause Mr Milita or Mr Carpineti to lose sleep. "We're enjoying a spell of growth," says Mr Milita, "and we have the potential to grow more. The reason is because we have lots of different wines. France has great wines and they have gone all over the world - and that is what is now making French producers vulnerable to competition. Our appeal by contrast is a rejection of standardisation. The regions that are emerging as forces in wine are not those that are merely copying the French but those like us that have something to offer of their own, as well as being competitive in price. It is wine for wine lovers rather than the mass market, but we are doing fine."

Marco Carpineti and Nazareno Milita may seem to be in competition but they give every sign of being the best of friends. The tour of the vineyards over, I pleaded early deadlines and said I must rush to the computer. But you don't do that in wine country, and we ended up in Da Checo, a trattoria with a courtyard shaded by vines in the heart of Cori, with a bottle of Capolemole '06 (by Carpineti) and Nero Buono '04 (Cincinnato) before us, to accompany the linguini served with a sticky sauce of tomatoes and olives. Outside it began to rain. It had been clouding up all morning, by the cheese course it was pelting down. Mr Milita and Mr Carpineti glanced out complacently. "They need some water," Mr Milita shrugged. "It hasn't rained for 30 days."

A few showers of rain will make the grapes yet sweeter and fatter, even closer to the ideal of the perfect vendemmia of which wine growers dream. Just as long as it doesn't turn to hail...

Richard Ehrlich's guide

In the William Goldman film Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), the point is made repeatedly that, in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything". What he means is that even the greatest swami cannot tell in advance whether a movie will become the season's big hit or its biggest flop. To some extent, that's true also in the wine business.

But fortunately for wine speculators there are some things you can tell even when the grapes are still weighing heavy on the vines. By mid-August, you know about the health and the size of the crop. Through a combination of chemical analysis and old-fashioned tasting, you can also tell what ripeness levels are like, and whether that crop will be picked sooner rather than later. In recent years, early (and rich) pickings have not been unknown. Hotter summers mean earlier picking, since the grapes ripen earlier than they used to. That sometimes - but not necessarily - leads to better quality as the heat produces really ripe grapes. And this seems to be the case in parts of Italy, such as heat- and drought-afflicted Tuscany.

In general, berry size tends to be smaller in very hot years. That means there is less wine per hectare, but the grapes should in theory be more concentrated with flavour-forming compounds. That appears to be the case in Chianti.

Will this produce the vintage of the century? Nobody knows, but there are similarities between this summer's heat and 2000 and 2005 in Bordeaux - and both of those were outstanding vintages.

If the predictions turn out to be true, the estates that always make outstanding wine will make awesome wine and the estates making reasonable wine will make much better wine. But remember: nobody knows anything - yet.

CHIANTI

Selvapiana

This lovely estate in the Chianti Rufina district was once a summer home for the bishops of Florence. Today it's a large producer whose wines are almost overshadowed by its wonderful extra-virgin olive oil, but wide availability makes it a good name to look out for.

Badia a Coltibuono

The Coltibuono estate was home to an abbey where the monks made some of the earliest wines known in Chianti. Though they make one ultra-premium wine called Sangioveto, they are more commonly known for their good Chianti Classico.

Fontodi

A family business, on an estate in Panzano, revived in the early 1980s by Giovanni and Marco Manetti. The vineyards lie on a curved slope called the Conca d'Oro, or golden shell. The wines are worth their weight in gold, both the basic Chianti Classico and the top-of-the-range Vigna del Sorbo.

Fattoria di Felsina

Felsina inhabits an estate called Grancia that's at least 800 years old, but its greatness dates to the early 1980s, when the owner's son-in-law took over management. Fontalloro and Rancia are the two top wines.

Isola e Elsena

One of the great stars of Chianti, an immaculate pair of estates combined and transformed 30-years-ago by Paolo di Marchi. Their top wine, Cepparello, is consistently ranked among the top "Super Tuscans" operating outside the official Chianti classifications.

BORDEAUX

Château Léoville-Barton

One of the most famous names in St-Julien and one of the most typical exemplars of the area's character. A second-growth wine in the official classifications, it often behaves like a first growth.

Château Léoville-Las-Cases

Another second-growth star of St-Julien, and outperforming extravagantly in recent vintages. Their 2005 vintage was generally regarded as one of the stars of that great year - which means that prices are now astronomical.

Château Palmer

A third-growth Margaux property in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, Palmer produces wines that most people would rate higher than that. Situated right next door to the famous Château Margaux, it makes wines that are now fiercely expensive - but unforgettable.

Château Rauzan-Ségla

Another exceptional Margaux estate, accorded second-growth status and now living up to the reputation after some years of under-performance through the mid-1990s. Its wines are less expensive than those of Palmer, even though it's officially ranked higher.

Château Sociando-Mallet

This fantastic wine is classified as nothing more than Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, rather than a classed growth, but its quality shows that the classifications don't always mean much.

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