The 2006 Italian wine harvest is being hailed as the best for many years, with producers across the country excited about the quality of their 2006 wines. Michèle Shah reviews the official statistics and garners the views of winemakers from Italy's key regions.

Winemakers from regions throughout Italy are heralding 2006 as an excellent vintage. Some are saying it is the best for five years, while others say 2006 could surpass any of the previous ten or even 20 years.

According to the official report from the Associazione Enologi Enotecnici Italiani (Assoenologi), which gathers and collates data on the Italian wine industry, Italy's 2006 harvest will reach a total quantity of 49.2m hectolitres.

Total volume is down 2.5% on last year, but in line with the average of the past three years. Among Italy's largest and most important wine regions, Puglia's crop is 10% down in volume terms at 7.5m hls, while Sicily's harvest is 10% lower than last year, at 6.6m hls, according to Assoenoligi's statistics.

In the Veneto, the harvest was reported to be on a par with last year at 7.1m hls, with quality described by Assoenoligi as "excellent". The harvest in Emilia Romagna was also described as "excellent", and at 6.6m hls equivalent in volume terms to last year. Tuscany's crop is 5% up on last year at 2.9m hls, as is the harvest in Lazio, which will be around 2.5m hls. Piedmont is up 10% at 3.4m hls.

Giuseppe Martelli, managing director of Assoenologi, says 2006 is one of the best vintages seen by central and northern regions in the past five years, with very good to excellent results. The south should also be good thanks to regular and even climatic conditions.

Most of north and central Italy had a long cold winter, with ice and several snowfalls in Tuscany and Umbria, and a fair amount of rain in northern regions. A warm June and July followed with temperatures above average and with almost no rain, while August was cooler than average, with more rain than usual.

Further south, in Campania, Abruzzi and Basilicata, August was cooler with excellent results for whites. Below average temperatures prevailed throughout the year in Sicily with the exception of torrid temperatures in August, accompanied by hot winds causing some damage to production. A good ripening season with warm sunny days and cool nights lasted in most north, central and southern regions, throughout September and October.

The early ripening grapes, such as Chardonnay, Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc were harvested between 14 August and 1 September, while the greater part of the grapes were harvested between 15 and 20 September and 25 October, with some of the later ripening grapes, such as Nebbiolo, Aglianico and Nerello Mascalese, being harvested in November.

Comments from the wine producers themselves support Martelli's upbeat view of the 2006 harvest. "The best vintage in the last ten years" was the verdict of Roberto Felluga in Friuli. Whites in Trentino and Alto Adige show good acidity and structure, and the Trentino A.A. producer Franz Haas is especially pleased with the excellent quality of Traminer and Pinot Grigio. The Piedmont wine company Ceretto commented on the "structured Nebbiolo with good phenolic ripening".

Most Tuscan producers, meanwhile, are ecstatic about 2006. "One of the best years in the last 20 years for all Chianti Classico," claims Marco Pallanti of Castello di Ama.  Producers in the classic areas of Montepulciano and Montalcino have expressed great satisfaction with the quality of the Sangiovese, which they say shows balance, structure and ripeness with good acidity levels.

There were also very good results reported in Umbria for Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero, Chardonnay and Merlot, as well as balanced Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sagrantino. From the Veneto, Tedeschi reports excellent quality for Amarone.

Further south, Alessio Planeta says the Sicilian reds are "well-extracted", especially for Nero d'Avola and Syrah. In Campania, Piero Mastroberardino says the whites are characterised by "fresh aromas and good acidity, showing higher quality than the previous 2005 vintage".

Over the past 15 years, Italy's total vineyard area has decreased by 178,000 hectares, equal to the total of Sicily and Piedmont combined. While Italy produces 17% of world's wines, its national consumption continues to decrease, down to 49 litres per capita in 2006, against the 100 litres per capita registered in the 1970s.

For the first six months of this year, Italy's exports have grown by 12% in volume and 7% in value, while wholesale prices have fallen by an average of 5.5%, reflecting the pressure on the market.  During the first six months, the US accounted for 50% of Italy's wine exports, having registered an increase of 16% in value and 10% in volume.