Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Selling Italy in the off-trade

Published:  09 December, 2019

Justin Keay digs deep into Italy in the off-trade, taking his microscope to the supermarkets’ Italian ranges and discovering what indie customers are demanding from their local merchants.

Scouring the supermarket shelves for interesting wines in late 2019 can be a disheartening endeavour for the wine lover, with Italy a prime case in point. Those who love Italian wine for its diversity, nuance and great sense of place are likely to find themselves wading through aisles of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio – Sainsbury’s alone sells at least 15 of the former and 12 of the latter – offset by some cooperative-produced Montepulciano and Barolo, some large-scale producer Chianti and Soave, and perhaps an own-label Primitivo or Orvieto.

The pressures on consumer spending, coupled with efforts by supermarkets to improve margins by reducing ranges, has reinforced this depressing trend towards homogeneity: the gap separating supermarkets from indies, which are increasingly seeking differentiation, has never been as wide.

Marks & Spencer is exhibit one. The supermarket that was once famous for stocking wines from Georgia, Lebanon, Japan and Israel has massively reduced its range, with more than one third of its 30 or so Italian wines now either Prosecco or Pinot Grigio, and the only surprise a DOC Etna Rosso. Asda is trying a little harder, with its highly rated Wine Route Negroamaro and its Extra Special Range, but Sainsbury’s and many of the other multiples generally offer a predictable and unambitious – but, it must be said, well-priced and pretty good quality – range.

Exceptions to the norm

There are, of course, honourable exceptions. Waitrose, for example, has put a lot of focus on less well-known DOCs and varieties, resulting in the most interesting range by far among the supermarkets. Within its latest offerings is Torre del Falasco Lugana (£8.99), the Maree d’Ione Nero di Troia (£.8.79), an organic wine made from this often under-appreciated Puglian variety, a well-priced Montefalco di Sagrantino from Baiocchi in Umbria (£14.99), and from Etna, Le Sabbie, an elegant, quite full-bodied Nerello Mascalese (£12.99).

Alongside these are some well-known old favourites, including the Oddero Barolo and the Terredora Greco di Tufo, available at most of the larger stores, albeit in the fine wine segment. Italy is also a player in the new Waitrose & Partners white own-label range, which showcases lesser-known varieties such as Cannonau from Sardinia and sparkling Sicilian Grillo from Casuzze.

Tesco, by contrast, has taken a different route, investing substantially in its Finest range, with well-regarded producers making the wines and a focus on both quality and price. Alongside the Finest Barolo (made by Fratelli Martini Secondo Luigi) and the Finest Amarone (from Cantina Valpantena, checking in at a full 15.5%) are Finest wines from less obvious varieties.

“Italy remains one of the most popular regions for our customers. There are the well-known styles, which offer excellent quality and consistency year after year thanks to our long-standing relationships with our supplier partners,” says Charlotte Lemoine, Tesco’s product development manager. “It is also home to a rich and incredibly diverse range of lesser-known regions and styles, with much to offer the more adventurous wine drinker,”.

She says that, over the past 12 months, Tesco has introduced new Italian wines to its own-label range and to supplier brands. “We have done this to increase choice within popular styles and to introduce new styles we think our customers will enjoy, for example the new Tesco Finest Pinot Grigio Blush,” she says, suggesting customers are attracted by familiarity with the style and region – the likes of Barolo, Amarone and Chianti – but also, increasingly, to varieties such as Passerina and Pecorino from mountainous Abruzzo.

Often a tiered pricing approach works well. “Chianti is a familiar name which resonates with customers. We offer two tiers of Chianti within our own-label range and more within the range at large. This gives options at different price points, depending on budget and occasion. The popularity of these wines suggests that there is a demand for this approach,” she adds.

Lemoine admits the supermarket is weak in some of the trendy regions popular in the on-trade – such as Alto Adige, Friuli, Sardinia and Campania – but says the range is being continually reviewed. “We are constantly revolving the range in line with our customers’ needs, so there may well be an opportunity to include these in future, if we felt they were the right thing for them.”

While Tesco has balanced old favourites with introducing new varieties, Lidl has sought to supplement its basic Italian range with periodic additions through its regular MW-supported Wine Tours. In the latest one, it offers a well-priced Rosso di Montepulciano and two impressive, full-bodied wines from Passo Mastro, a Negroamaro/Primitivo blend from Salento and a Frappato/Syrah from Sicily.

Indie contrast

The contrast could not be starker with the indie sector, where novelty is an ongoing process and importers seem focused on shaping consumer tastes rather than merely following them.

Simon Taylor of Stone, Vine & Sun in Hampshire says most Italians sell well at up to £15 a bottle. “It just has to taste good. However, we have to be a bit wary of high tannin/high acid reds. We ship a brilliant Nebbiolo d’Alba at under £15, but because it’s authentic Nebbiolo some people get scared of the tannins,” he says.

Taylor adds that rare indigenous and obscure grapes are not a problem. “It’s very much seen as part of the fun in Italy, so we ship Albana, Arneis and Aglianico. Our customers also like the very small producer/often organic viticulture vibe,” he says.

With this in mind, he’s started to look at wines from less-expensive ‘value’ regions, such as Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna, as well as places off many people’s radar, including Umbria. And with regards to higher-priced wines, Taylor says people are prepared to pay for big-name Barolos, Vino Nobile or Chianti Classico, but often baulk at the likes of Taurasi or pricey blends with Cabernet or Merlot.

The experience of Peter Mitchell MW at Jeroboams, which has shops in west and south west London, is not dissimilar, with people still attracted to the classics but open to new regions and varieties.

“Italy has done very well, and we’ve seen double-digit growth in each of the past three years. The diversity of styles certainly is a part of it, as is the general good value available at all quality levels. Most wineries we work with are small and family-owned with a real sense of continuity, and many are run organically. The sustainability of the producer has become increasingly important to customers in the past few years,” he says.

Among the classics, he says Tuscany still dominates, with Piedmont following in behind. “I would love to see more demand for Barolo and Barbaresco as they offer some of the best-value fine wine in the world. We will continue to hopefully add more producers to our range. With the run of good vintages in most of Italy at the moment, I can only see the wines continuing to grow their market share.”