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

ITALY: Talking Italian

Published:  23 July, 2008

Anthony Rose, The Independent
Alberto Antonini, producer and consultant; Tony Brown MW, product manager for Italy, Spain and Portugal, Meridian Wines; Peter McCombie MW, consultant; Simon Thorpe MW, purchasing director, Western Wines
Claudio Gamberotto, CAVIT

Jane Hunt MW: Do you think that Italy considers the UK market important enough, either regionally or nationally, to support generically?

Alberto Antonini: I think it does. The UK is a country that has 60 million people and doesn't produce much wine. It's very close to us and so it should be very important to us, even if it is very difficult because it is a very competitive market. We are trying hard to succeed. But the wine styles must be more appropriate: diversity is OK as long as the message is delivered to the consumer in the proper way. At the moment it is too confusing. The approach of most of the Italian legislators, politicians and producers is still not market-orientated enough. Too many times you hear the politicians saying, We made it - we have another appellation', whereas I think, So what?' The problem is not to have another appellation but to know how to make it work.

Anthony Rose: Do you see other producers in Italy starting to abandon the UK because they can feel they can get better prices in the US or in Germany, or is there sufficient incentive for producers to say, No, the UK is an important market - we want to export to the UK'?

Alberto Antonini: I see more and more producers wondering why we are not succeeding as much as we do in the US. The problem is also that the UK market has a very high percentage of off-trade, and maybe that's one of the reasons why it's very difficult for us, because the average size of a producer in Italy is very, very small. With the organisation that these small companies have, it's not easy to deal with the off-trade for many reasons. I see more and more small producers getting together, not just co-ops, but different kinds of organisation. We are trying to put small producers together to help them to go through while keeping their identity. But considering how we are structured and considering the UK market, it doesn't make it easy for us. But we are trying hard.

Anthony Rose: What do you think, Jane? You've been running the Definitive Italian Wine Tasting for a number of years now.

Jane Hunt MW: I do feel that this country isn't considered to be an important

enough market. I believe we have huge opportunities here, but the generic support has been misdirected over the past however-many years. We are seeing a bit of regional promotion coming up, but my perception is that Germany, Switzerland, the US and now the Far East are considered of vastly more interest, and therefore that's where the efforts go. But by putting the effort into those markets you are getting the rewards, and if you were to put the effort into this market you would also get the rewards.

Brian Howard, Wine Intelligence: A lot of the other countries are wrestling with how to reach the consumer: the regional route versus the varietal route. We haven't actually directed this issue to Italy. What's the panel's view?

Tony Brown MW: Italy has a huge amount to offer in both areas, and to choose one over the other is difficult. To me there would be a massive benefit if Italy could identify a small number of regions that have the potential, both in terms of the market and the size of their production, to really highlight the regions and work with them. But politically I just think it's going to be incredibly hard to get the kind of support that you would need, especially over the long term, so I think the only way forward for Italy is going to have to be the varietal route, because you side-step these political issues. I think that Pinot Grigio, whatever you think about it, is the driver of the Italian sales in the off-trade. It is combining a relatively high price-point with real volume, and it's probably the only Italian category that's really done that. I think to follow the success of Pinot Grigio with other varieties is the way forward. Which varieties they are, though, is another matter.

Anthony Rose: I don't think it's necessarily impossible for important regions to get themselves together to come up with some sort of promotion and marketing. We've heard that there are budgets. I'd like to see more of the regions putting more marketing effort into promotion, getting journalists over to their part of the world. I think Chianti Classico seems to be moving in that direction. There are some dynamic consorzi around. I don't see why there shouldn't be some encouragement on those bodies to put some budgets and marketing, some interest behind the regional side in addition to the varietal route.

Simon Thorpe MW: If you were to create a brand that was covering the strengths of Italy you would use both varietals and regions, because there is no point in trying to promote Sangiovese from Tuscany, when it's Chianti that people understand. Likewise in Puglia you would choose Primitivo over a regional DOC. Horses for courses. It's the things that would connect with the punter that would work. I don't think there is a regional versus a varietal route there.

Brian Howard: According to a recent Wine Intelligence survey, 43% of consumers think that Chianti is a varietal.

Simon Thorpe MW: Well I don't see that there's a problem with that. Is there a problem with that?

Brian Howard: Well Chianti may think so!

Simon Thorpe MW: Well Chianti may think so but I don't see that it's a problem.

Tim Atkin MW, The Observer: In Spain at the moment they are concluding a new law that will allow them to produce a pan-Spanish wine, Vino de la Tierra del Espaa, and even the French are looking at Vin de Pays de France as a potential denomination. Would you like to see a similar thing in Italy, something that was a catch-all denomination or IGT that would allow people to blend wines legally from Puglia, for example, with wines from Tuscany? Would you like to see the whole of Italy blended?

Alberto Antonini: That would be very shocking for us. We are still trying to reduce from 60 appellations to 55 in Tuscany, for example. Italians are strange sometimes, because if you look at cars, fashion and design, for example, we have always been very innovative and in a short period of time we've done a lot. I think the problem here is that the way we can operate, from a legal standpoint, is not up to us, but the politicians. Politicians in Italy, especially in this field, are very, very conservative and many of them have never been outside of Italy, or tried to understand what the consumer is looking for, how the market is evolving. When you listen to some of them speaking it is like being back in the 15th century.

Tony Brown MW: If you are going to have a pan-Italian brand, to be able to blend across regions would be a fantastic benefit. Italy has a long history of cross-regional blending. I look forward to seeing the first legal blend of Nebbiolo and Negroamaro on the market!

Anthony Rose: You've got such conservatives to contend with. This question was asked to a group of Italian producers in a survey last year and most of them pooh-poohed it, but some did say, Yes it's not a bad idea.' What do you think, Tim?

Tim Atkin MW: I think if you are going to build volume then you have to do it by blending across regions, and I think you'd end up with some really interesting wines. I'd love to see what a legal Nebbiolo/ Negroamaro/Aglianico blend tastes like. I think if you're going to produce the volumes that will enable you to make a brand that will get into the top 20 brands, it seems to me to be the only solution. I'm not sure any other Italian region, with the possible exception of Sicily or Puglia, would have the volumes to do it, would they? And the consistency?

Paul Merritt, Tria Wines: Tim mentioned Sicily, and I think this is an interesting pointer for the future. In our business, we've seen very strong growth from Sicily. As you probably all know, Sicily produces more wine than the whole of Australia put together, and the permutations within Sicily alone are fairly enormous in terms of blending. To me that seems to obviate the requirement for cross-regional blending. The other interesting point about Sicily is that there are very few wines produced under the DOC regime. Most of the wine produced in Sicily is IGT, which gives the producer or the marketing department of the producer incredible creative flexibility in producing potentially branded wines.

Anthony Rose: I suppose you could say the same about Puglia?

Paul Merritt: Puglia to a lesser extent, because there are very important DOCs.

Anthony Rose: On the other hand, you are still restricted to a certain extent. It would involve companies based in the north moving their production centres to Sicily or to Puglia to make those regional blends or brands, and you wouldn't be able to use wine from any other part of Italy. So there would still be a limitation to some extent.

Paul Merritt: I think the regional route is essentially much stronger. We have a number of enormous bottling companies who bottle wines from all over Italy. They'll offer you whatever label you want, at virtually whatever price you want. That already exists. I think the strong brands of the past are still strong. Like Antinori, they do have a distinctly regional identity, and they may cover one or two regions. In the past we've seen companies like Bolla trying to produce Sangiovese in Tuscany. This might work in the US, but it is damaging to their credibility in this market.

Anthony Rose: And what sort of support do you get in Sicily from any of the organisations, the consorzi or other bodies in helping you build here for example?

Paul Merritt: Well I think the name of this seminar is quite appropriate - domani'!

Anthony Rose: Good, well that's the answer to that.

Guy Woodward, acting editor, Decanter: First, just a brief aside. You were talking about getting the press out to Italy. In the three years I've been at Decanter, I have never been offered a generic trip to Italy. Second, you talked about the possibility of above-6 premium-branded wine. I would like the panel to proffer one region in Italy that is best positioned to produce wines that have the volume, character and consistency in, say, the 6-12 range.

Simon Thorpe MW: Not an easy question

to answer, but I think it would be in the Veneto, in Valpolicella, because I think you've got a ready-made ladder of wine qualities and styles and price-points. I think the styles are probably more suited to the British punter than Tuscany.

Tony Brown MW: I would like to say something more radical, but it has to be Tuscany. Tuscany has the credibility. Certainly there are wines that are difficult and are not going to hit the mass market, but if you are talking about the Maremma, in southern Tuscany, you have really, really, ripe fruit and very modern styles. Tuscany also has the credibility and people do know the region.

Alberto Antonini: Well I'm Tuscan so I agree the Maremma region is very exciting, because the climate there is very special and consistent, which really helps to get consistent quality of fruit there. For example, the Sangiovese there, when it's blended with small percentages of other grapes, really makes a very, very modern wine that has a Tuscan identity

but is very friendly and can really please the consumer.

Paul Merritt: I think the on-trade is a little bit different, and volumes are less of a problem. The region I'd like to suggest is Campania. I think there are some really exciting grape varieties, certainly again in terms of matching food. There are some noble varieties, both white and red. I think it's a really, really, exciting region, and we need to see more of it, but it's probably early days yet.

Anthony Rose: Well I don't think it's impossible for wines of that price to be coming out of Sicily and Puglia. I think that we talk about the New World of France and the New World of Spain, but there is a New World of Italy. I think Sicily is one of the most exciting regions going. I've been trying to organise a press trip myself to go there for the past two years, but it's virtually impossible unless you take yourself to Italy. I've been to Sicily once, seven years ago. Hopefully Sicily will not need to go the cheap Soave route.

Greg Love, aspiring wine writer: Which Italian wine regions would go well in comparative tastings with other world wine regions?

Simon Thorpe MW: What about Rioja versus Chianti?

Tony Brown MW: The wines cannot really be compared except for Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, which have some similarities. Soave and Chablis would be interesting to compare.

Paul Merritt: There's a generosity about southern Italian reds that wins punters over once they try them.

Anthony Rose: What about talking about level playing fields with the New World, talking about QC and more accessible styles? For instance should Italy be able to use oak chips, should Italy be allowed to irrigate, should Italy be using screwcaps? What about all these New World techniques, the box of tricks, if you like, of the winemaker. Is that something that is retarding Italy's progress in creating these more accessible wines, and if it should be changed, how can it be done? What do you think Alberto?

Alberto Antonini: I have no problems in using all the tools that are widely used in the New World, such as staves, oak chips, micro-oxygenation, as long as they improve the wine quality without losing the identity. We can do it. I mean it's possible, so why shouldn't we? I'm a kind of hybrid because I was born and raised in Tuscany and still live there, but I've studied and spent a lot of time and in the New World, so I'm very open to that. I don't see how all these new tools can damage our image. I mean even screwcaps - why not?

Anthony Rose: But wouldn't the law have to be changed to allow the use of screwcaps, or irrigation?

Alberto Antonini: Absolutely, but why not? The reason you cannot use an alternative closure in DOCG is a political one - there are no other reasons. For example, in an entry-level Chianti, because of these stupid regulations you are forced to use very poor-quality cork, because you can't afford good cork, and you end up with a high percentage of bad bottles, so I don't think that's great for our wines. Why shouldn't we use either plastic or screwcap in Chianti? To me, as long as they don't make excessive changes in terms of style or image, why not?