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Published:  23 July, 2008

In the land of the winemaking consultant, Riccardo Cotarella is king. Here, Italy's premier freelance expert talks to Tom Bruce-Gardyne about why his antennae point south, how he would reform Italy's classification system, and the similarities between the American and UK markets

People have mixed views about flying winemakers. On one level they are seen as having brought some commercial reality to backward corners of the wine world - places that had only the vaguest idea of what a foreign consumer might want to drink. On the other hand, aided and abetted by the UK supermarkets, they are accused of helping to create a depressing uniformity in wine: a billion bottles all fashioned in the same fruit-packed' style, with very little sense of provenance. With this in mind, I wonder if Riccardo Cotarella, one of the top hired guns in Italian winemaking, feels part of this vinous jet set. If "flying" means following the wineries and having the wines in your mind and heart, yes,' he says. If it means not losing contact, then I consider myself a sort of flying winemaker in that sense.' This nomadic tribe once tended to be Australian, but the 55-year-old consultant from Orvieto is now the best known of a growing number of Italian freelance winemakers. But though he and his team look after more than 40 wineries, any flying is strictly short-haul. Apart from two chteaux in the Mdoc and one in Gaillac, everything else is Italian. The thought of making wine' by mobile phone has no appeal, nor does pursuing Michel Rolland to the far side of the world. No,' says Cotarella. I have refused many opportunities. Not because it's not interesting, but because I have my Chile, my Australia, my California all here in Italy.' This is a reference to the almost infinite range of altitudes, grapes and microclimates the country offers. The one exception was France. That was a challenge to myself, because you know about the chauvinism of French people.' Cotarella went freelance in 1968 and now makes wine right across Italy, with his team of seven winemakers and agronomists. Every two months there's a meeting with all the winemakers and we share our convictions and ideas. It means that the guy working in Sicily knows the problems in Piedmont.' This gives the wineries a wider perspective and helps them escape the parish-pump mentality of Italian life, a syndrome known as campanilismo. Being parochial makes the wines more quirky and individual than those produced for the global village by the big corporations Down Under. Yet in commercial terms it has done Italy few favours.

Following the market The Cotarella family has been making wine in central Italy for several generations. It's an area where the most important wines were Orvieto, Frascati and Est! Est!! Est!!!', Cotarella explains. A place where Trebbiano is king, and you know that Trebbiano means nothing, just water, acidity and alcohol. It is very difficult to distinguish between my Trebbiano and one from Tuscany or Campania.' In the late Eighties, he spent three months in the United States trying to discover what people were looking for. I realised American customers wanted something different, something that could help them recognise not just the variety, but the terroir.' With a blank canvas as far as reds were concerned, he planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are blended with Sangiovese to produce his most popular red, Vitiano. Launched in the mid-Nineties, Vitiano has proved a huge hit among Americans, who swallow up to 120,000 cases a year, or a quarter of the entire production. It retails for around $8-10 and has become a popular choice of house wine in the on-trade. Cotarella reckons that 70% of the restaurants he visited on a recent trip to California were selling Vitiano by the glass.

UK prospects As for the brand's potential in Britain, Cotarella says that it's too early to comment. I see the UK like the USA was ten years ago, where we had to convince the Americans that price is not the only thing. And I had to explain what Vitiano is, otherwise to the buyer it could have been potatoes or tomatoes.' Earlier, he told me he found Britain one of the most difficult markets in the world. But we just have to explain; it's not impossible.' Though Italian sales had been growing strongly, especially in Sainsbury's, which has a hefty 26% of the off-trade, Italy has recently come off the boil in the UK. According to AC Nielsen, retail sales fell 6% last year, with Italy suffering from New World competition in its traditional stronghold, the sub-4 sector. So, how can Italy claim its rightful share of the all-important mid-price sector? I think we can't just compete on price. I think we have to spend time and money to convince English customers that Italian wine is this,' he says, slapping the table, with its story, its territory, its art. Wine is not just a liquid, it's many, many things.' To get the message across and explain new' varieties like Sicily's Nero d'Avola, a grape in which Cotarella has great faith, he says the Italian Government is starting to splash out. I think that today, at last, the politicians have understood the importance of wine in my country. We're trying to make up for lost time.' Though whether there's really the will to co-operate is debatable. It is not so easy, with the Italian mentality.' And when offered the chance to take a swipe at ICE, for its failure to effectively promote Italian wine in the UK, he declines, with a diplomatic shrug.

The deep south Cotarella says his fact-finding mission to the US (when he came home and planted Merlot) completely changed my philosophy'. But that was nothing to his conversion to Italy's deep south in 1989, which he describes in almost biblical terms. I met a woman called Silvia Imparato. She was a photographer and she's crazy about wine. She called and said, "Riccardo, I want to produce a great wine from the south of Italy at my property near Salerno." I said, "That's impossible! You can produce oranges, potatoes or olives, but please forget wine." Fortunately, she's a woman who it's very difficult to say no to.' Just to appease her, Cotarella grafted some old vines with Cabernet and Merlot and kept some of the local grape variety, Aglianico. With the first production, I realised, "Oh, my God! I'm seeing a miracle." I didn't believe it. I think this experience changed my life completely. After this I started to re-examine all my convictions and ideas about winemaking. I told myself, "Please, start again!"' The job of convincing local producers to change their ways was not easy at first, but after a few years he says there was nothing but enthusiasm. It led to a surge in southern wineries hiring Cotarella to cast his magic spell. At present he consults for nine producers in Campania, Puglia and Sicily. Some people say I have too many, but they don't know that I have a very good team. When taking on a new project, there's just one condition - the winery has to have its own winemaker, because it's impossible for me to follow every winery every day. One important thing is the enthusiasm of the winemaker, and believe me, it's easier to find this enthusiasm among new producers than old producers.' By this he means those in the south, who were previously into high-octane bulk, rather than those in the north, bottling venerable DOC wines. Cotarella's consultancy work in northern Italy is restricted to two wineries in Piedmont and one in Friuli. In the Veneto, he was once asked to help an important producer, only to be told, I have my formula, you cannot change a thing'. At which point he realised that there was no point in hanging around. Life was too short and there were far more interesting things going on down south.

Falesco When not on the road, Cotarella spends much of his time around his home town, Orvieto, looking after his own estate, Falesco, which has 284 hectares of vineyards and straddles the border between Lazio and Umbria. He also lectures at the nearby University of Viterbo, from where he recruits most of his team, and sits on the tasting panel of Orvieto and Est! Est!! Est!!! - a wine with which he has long been involved. In 1978 Piero Antinori asked me and my brother, Renzo [now chief winemaker at Antinori] to produce Est! Est!! Est!!! for him. In 1986, Antinori stopped bottling the wine, but convinced me to continue.' Today, he produces 300,000 bottles of Est! Est!! Est!!!, some under the Falesco label and some for Bigi, the giant Orvieto producer owned by GIV. I think it has a quiet market in every place,' he says. Though not in Britain, where it seems to have completely slipped off the shelf. The Falesco brand also includes a Grechetto, which plays a minor supporting role in Orvieto, and is one of the most interesting white varieties in Umbria', he says. The problem is, it can be a cheap wine and it is very difficult to explain to the customer why my Grechetto is twice as expensive as another one.' Whether this is down to bad winemaking or the wrong terroir is unclear, but Cotarella does not see the grape doing for Umbria what Pinot Grigio has done for the Veneto. How far Falesco can go in the UK depends on its new agent, Berkmann Wine Cellars, which has been importing Antinori for years. Berkmann took on the agency this spring, when commercial director Dinesh Changela joined from Belloni. The brand includes six wines, with retail prices stretching from 7.99 for Vitiano to around 25 for Marciliano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Umbria. The plan is to launch them in the on-trade and see how they develop. Apart from Est! Est!! Est!!!, the wines are all IGT, a type of appellation Cotarella obviously feels at home with. I think giving the name of the region with a well-known brand is easier for the customer to understand. For example, I could call Vitiano "Colli Amerini Rosso DOC", but I prefer "Umbria" and my personal name.'

Appellation blues So, if Cotarella could play God and give Italy a system of regional appellations that actually made sense, what would he do? In Italy we have too many DOCs, and I would stop the production of some of them. When there are so many there is a big confusion. We have wonderful DOC(G)s, like Chianti and Brunello, but we have so many without any meaning. I would like to introduce IGTs with varietals. It's not enough to say "Umbria IGT"; I would like to write "Sangiovese - Umbria IGT".' In the US, Falesco has become a significant brand, at least in the on-trade, so I ask Cotarella if he sees brands as the solution to Italy's fight against New World competition? I think brands are important, as is the name of the wine. Obviously "Antinori Chianti" means more than "Cotarella Chianti".' Having a large vineyard of his own certainly gives Cotarella control, compared to those brand owners forced to buy in a significant proportion of their grapes on the open market. As Julian Dyer, the former Italian buyer at Sainsbury's, said recently: Structurally, Italy is just not set up to produce brands. This year we've had Valpolicella and Pinot Grigio prices going through the roof, and if you're a brand owner you need stability of costs.' To this view, which he shares, Cotarella throws in the effect of wine critics: If you write that 2002 Chianti is fantastic, next year I'm sure that Chianti grapes will increase in price.' With clients like Lamborghini in Umbria and Feudi di San Gregorio in Campania, Cotarella is also very much involved at the top-end of the market. He has an uncanny knack of winning prizes for his wines and for himself as winemaker of the year, first in Gambero Rosso in 2000 and then, a year later, in the American magazine, Wine Enthusiast. But what drives him is the idea of value' rather than cult status. As he told an American journalist recently: I think people are getting a little tired of all this super-this or super-that. People want good wines from Italy that they can drink without worrying about the price.'