MONTEPULCIANO, Italy, Sep 26 (Reuters) As a dozen people work their way up a Tuscan hill picking heavy purple grapes, they look at a blue sky hoping no rain will come to spoil what seems to be a top quality wine harvest in Italy.
Italy, Europe's second-biggest wine producer after France, is heading for its smallest grape harvest in 30 years with output falling 12 per cent to 43.5 million hectolitres, according to a recent wine industry forecast.
But with harvesting under way in Tuscany, home to red wine Chianti and its more up-market cousins Brunello di Montalcino and Nobile di Montepulciano, wine growers and makers do not seem to be worried about an estimated 5-15 percent fall in output.
''It will be a great vintage, of the best quality,'' said Luca Gattavecchi, chairman of Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which represents 290 growers and makers of the wine which traces its history back to 790.
Makers of typical Montepulciano wines -- Nobile and Rosso -- have always bet on quality rather than quantity to win consumers' hearts, Gattavecchi said.
These wines are labelled DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) and DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) ''We are not that worried about the output drop,'' he said.
Predominantly dry weather this year has trimmed production yields because grapes developed a thicker skin and less liquid, but it also boosted their sugar content, wine growers said.
''The grapes are fabulous,'' said Aldimaro Daviddi, whose family makes about 80,000 bottles of red wine a year, a small contribution to Consorzio's total output of about 8 million bottles, which include Rosso and Nobile di Montepulciano.
Gattavecchi said vineyards in Montepulciano this year were practically untouched by mildew, a wine growers nightmare as it causes rot. ''Grapes are very healthy this year,'' he said.
By contrast, grapes in the south of Italy, where most table wine is produced, suffered from mildew, with Sicily hit particularly hard and output falling 30 per cent there, according to a study conducted by the industry body Unione Italiana Vini and agricultural research centre ISMEA.
Tuscan wine growers said favourable weather at the crucial final stage of grape maturation from the end of August has also boosted wine quality.
''It will be a five-star vintage,'' said Alamanno Contucci, whose family has made wine in Montepulciano for the past 500 years.
REUTERS SG PM1336