Wine and olive oil harvests dwindle to trickle under Tuscan heat

Bending their backs and working hands to the bone, farmers of Tuscany, the heart of Italy’s wine and oil industry, are struggling to salvage as much as possible of this year’s crop as sweltering heat keeps pouring down on their backs.

This year’s lack of rainfall and heatwaves have given a hard time even to the traditionally more heat- and drought-resistant plants.

Olive trees dot the picture-book hillsides of San Casciano, Val di Pesa near Florence, but the sun-scorched soil seems incapacitated to produce enough fruit.

“Climatic issues had a decisive influence,” olive grower and president of the local 'Frantoio Grevepese' cooperative Filippo Legnaioli felt.

“We had a very dry spring with practically no rainfall from March to today and this happened at a crucial time during the transition from flower to fruit,” Mr Legnaioli added.

Fatigued by the sweltering heat, olive trees’ flowers fall to the ground before producing olives.

This year's oil production could fall by 50-60 percent, Mr Legnaioli said, adding that this came after years of problems.

Some olive growers resorted to alternative methods of cultivation such as supplementary irrigation systems.

“This year we use a, let's say, ‘rescue’ irrigation to protect the production of olives on the plants while on traditional olive trees, unfortunately, high temperatures and drought lead to the loss of many olives,” farmer Luigi Calonaci said.

Consisting of a black tube laid by olive tree roots, the system sprays small amounts of water.

The Calonaci farm applied another emergency measure that boils down to coiling a white netting around the plants to protect them from olive fruit flies whose larvae feed on the fruit. This challenge is irrelated to the drought but still poses a significant threat to the harvest.

The changing farming landscape of Italy

The geography and rhythms of the Italian farming landscape have been changing possibly due to climate change. Once the capital of Italy’s olive oil and wine production, Sicily has given way to Val d’Aosta in the very north of Italy – an area famous for its ski resorts and mountains that now can produce its own oil.

Harvest timing has been affected too. In Castellina in Chianti, September is normally the month of the grape harvest, as it is throughout the country. However, with the temperature curve remaining high and stagnant, the bunches of grapes have ripened earlier than expected.

“We have smaller grapes, and we expect the number of grapes to be lower than the average of the last few years, probably in line with last year's”, Deputy President of ‘Chianti Classico’ Consortium, Sergio Zingarelli, told Reuters.

In one of Italy’s most famous vineyard region of Chianti, wine growers had to deal with extreme weather events that damage the crops.

“Extreme weather phenomena are getting stronger and stronger,” said Paolo Cianferoni, the owner of the ‘Caparsa’ wine estate.

“A couple of weeks ago, a hailstorm destroyed 40 percent of grapes here. Luckily the quality of the grapes has not been affected, so we'll see what happens.”