GROTTAFERRATA, Italy - Patrizia Filippi has no degree in meteorology or any idea how to calculate what scientists call extreme weather change. But the 43-year-old grape picker has been working this area's silky, volcanic soil for nearly three decades, and she knows what she sees:

This is an early harvest unlike anything that Italy, or any generation in her family, has experienced in memory.

"I'm a bit scared," Filippi said, pulling and snipping a thick, juicy bunch of white grapes from the vines of the Castel de Paolis estate. "I've never picked grapes this early in the season. We're used to picking grapes in October. That's when the grape festivals are. Even my father is saying: What the hell has gone wrong with the world?"

The grapes in the Lazio region, around Rome, are ripening at least 20 days early. In the northern regions of Veneto and Trentino, the home of refreshing Prosecco and other sparkling wines, the grapes were ready to pick in early August, three to four weeks early. In Sicily, there is a rush on now to find seasonal workers; red grapes are primed to ripen in early September, a month early.

It may be a simple climate quirk or even a cyclical pattern, but some growers across this lush agricultural region are ready to believe that global warming is taking a toll on their traditions and business.

Two heat waves across Southeastern Europe in June and July broke all records; Bulgaria suffered the worst, with the temperature climbing to 113 degrees Fahrenheit on July 23.

Parallels to brutal 2003

Temperatures in Italy, Spain and Greece also soared, with utilities and transportation links suffering disruptions and delays from the heat. In Italy, the summer of 2007, a strong hot season with little rain, comes almost too close for comfort with the deadly memory of 2003.

That summer was brutal: Unrelenting high temperatures that August left thousands of people dead across Europe, particularly the vulnerable elderly.

For the Santarelli family, the owners of the rambling fields of Castel de Paolis that bear fruit for Frascati, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc wines, this year's early harvest has its surprises.

Fabrizio Santarelli, who oversees the estate, had to leave his family vacation in southern Italy to ensure smooth work on the first days of harvest. Still, he and his father, Giulio, were delighted by their bounty. The grape harvest is smaller, but the quality of the fruit is rich, more flavorful and sweet, they said.

No rain since mid-May

The heat hastened the ripening, and the lack of rain intensified the natural sugars, they said. The constant sea breeze in these hills helped modulate the temperature. The wine from this land, which rests within the ancient Seven Hills of Rome, will be special.

"We haven't had rain since the middle of May, and all that heat went into the grape," said Fabrizio, who at age 44 is among the new generation of winemakers in the Lazio region. "The bunches are arriving very ripe and very clean. The quality is very high."

Castel de Paolis, a vineyard for generations that exports about 5 percent of its wines to the United States, is among 30 vintners in the Lazio region looking for ways to improve and refine its table wines.

In 1991, Fabrizio persuaded his father to pull up acres of old vines and plant grape varieties from France alongside the long-favored Frascati. Today, Castel de Paolis has won kudos within some Italian wine circles for its more distinctive blends.

Fabrizio Santarelli said the summer heat will improve this year's vintage but it is also a wake-up call to consider how or whether the business is changing.

"It was not like the famous summer of 2003," he said. "Then there was really some pain. Now we had the experience of that and we were watching.

"But it is all very strange. To have two harvests like this in four years. It's never happened before. My father, who's 72, and his father were in the business. They've never seen it before. We see this as global warming. I mean, once is exceptional. But to happen again so fast, something must be happening."

Global warming? Maybe not

Experts are yet unsure about the early harvest. Attilio Scienza, a professor of horticulture at the University of Milan with an expertise in vineyards, has advised the Santarelli family on how to experiment with new varieties of grapes. This week, looking at the harvest, he was cautious about blaming global warming - and the effects of human beings on the environment - for the change.

'There are records of early harvest across history,' Scienza said, and those early harvests can affect how growers look at the next season. If the pattern continues, Scienza said, 'this will likely change the variety of grapes in Europe. Growers will have to find grapes that fit the weather cycle.'

Robert Stefanski, an agricultural meteorologist with the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency based in Geneva, said that no one could say whether Italy's early harvest is a sign of global warming.

What is happening in Italy may be a weather cycle, and there is, he said, 'a difference between climate and weather.'

But the example also falls in what Stefanski said is a 30-year trend of warmer temperatures in the world, 'and crops are responding to that.'

In May, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its fourth report, warning that global warming would increase the number of extreme weather events.

Its experts say 2007 has been an active year for such weather, with unprecedented floods in England, high temperatures in Europe and record storms in China and East Asia.

If summers in Italy continue to simmer, the Santarellis and their crew of grape-pickers said they may see other traditions shift. While some workers were wide-eyed about this year's harvest, Fabrizio was sanguine about its opportunities.

'The first week of October was harvest time and the first Sunday of October was always the day of the Grape Harvest Festival,' he said. 'OK, so now we can call it the 'New Wine Festival.''