Sunday, May 01, 2016

Just who are the Italians making wine for?

Alois Lageder
For a wine producing country that makes approximately 25% of the world’s wine, Italy is in a unique position. In 50 years, the market for Italian wine has become globally dispersed in a manner that other wine producing nations envy. Forget about Italian Prime Minister Renzi’s claim of “Our wine is better than French wine.” Italy’s worldwide distribution appears to be a model of diversity.

Start with their neighbor Germany. For years, Germany has been a thirsty market for Italian wines. Items like Montepulciano and Amarone have been a godsend for Italian producers. Even with the world economic crisis, which resulted in a significant slowdown in trade between Italy and Germany regarding wine, there still was the steady, if slow, drip of value-oriented wine from Italy to Germany.

America and China are large markets for Italian wine as well. In recent years French wine, especially the higher end wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy have slowed. The two countries, as different as they can be in their drinking and collecting (and gifting) habits, have seen Italian wine growth through the past 10 years.

So what is it about Italian wine that travels so well? For one, the Italian diaspora 100 years ago saw people leaving Italy for the Americas and Australia. Along with that, they carried their culture with them. Not to say the idea of Italian culture is the same on the Bronx and it is in Melbourne. But the spirit of Italianita is. And with it comes the wines.

Texas winemaker Kim McPherson
Can Americans, both North and South, find local wines that will go with their food? Or Australians? Of course they can and they do. But the lure of the exotic is still pretty sexy. And Italy does do exotic in spadefuls. So what is confounding (the preponderance of Italian wine varieties) to the average person is also very enticing to the wine lover. And that is another key - how Italy turns a liability into an opportunity.

Right now, more than any time I have witnessed in my tenure in this business, the enticement of esoteric wine is greater than ever. Sommeliers go to great lengths to find the unknown wine from Georgia, or Bulgaria, Greece or even France. Where but Italy does one find more odd and interesting wines that have a complementary cuisine and a marketing framework to access these wines on a consistent basis? I can’t think of anyplace (save France) that has the process nailed down as well as Italy. You want a Cesanese? Got it. How about a Timorasso? No problem. Looking for a Carricante? Look no further. In search of Schiava? You’ve come to the right place. Italy has a lot a problems, but unusual and interesting (and accessibility) aren’t on that list.

screen shot from OIV report
The International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) recently held their 2016 conference in Paris and they came up a report and with some interesting data (link here for full PPT presentation). The five top consuming countries of wine in the world are:
1) USA 13%
2) France 11%
3) Italy 9%
4) Germany 9%
5) China 7%

Italy has a great opportunity to successfully market their wines to four out of the top five of those countries. The most confounding one is probably their home market (decreasing consumption and difficulty of getting payment on invoices are chief among the problems). The US (and really, let’s say North America, because Canada is a healthy and vigorous Italian wine market) is poised to use greater quantities of wine as the Millennial generation replaces the Boomers (sorry Gen-X’ers). Likewise, in China, as young people get more economically independent (and worldly, thanks to sites like Instagram and Weibo) Italian wines appear to be accessible and sexy (and affordable).

Older, more mature markets, like Germany, Great Britain, Japan and Scandinavia are still solid channels for Italian wine. How do I read this? How many times do we see a producer posting from a wine dinner on Facebook or Twitter from London, Tokyo, Berlin or Copenhagen?

Nicola Campanile & Ole Udsen
Not to forget our friends in Australia. Years ago, I had no idea that the Italian wine market “down under” was even a thing. And then in talking with a producer from Abruzzo, did I get an awakening. Well, it is a big country (23 million people, many of whom drink some alcoholic beverage) and with a sizable Italian population. In any event, neither a China nor a North America, but a good, solid, dependable export market (I wonder if the US or France can lay claim to that as well?).

All this is to say, there’s been a major shift in who Italians make their wines for. So if the wine came out a little too oaked or high in alcohol along the way, can we not just rack it up to the Italian proclivity to please and experiment? I’ve had more good wine than bad. That’s not something we could have said as easily 50 years ago (or even 30). Globalization of the Italy’s wine market has been a windfall to the quality of wine being made in Italy – and that is a quantum leap , considering this whole wine making process has been going on for millennia.

And as much as I love the idea of “local” – especially when I go out into my back yard and pick fresh artichokes and eggplants, tomatoes and basil – I think the wines that are produced “locally” in Italy are a boon to those of us who look forward to opening them. And that goes if we are sitting in the humblest of trattorias in Rome or in some exotic faraway place like Chengdu, China or Houston, Texas.

Ewa Wieleżyńska

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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