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State of the Wine Nation

Published:  23 July, 2008

The messages from Enotria, land of wine, have been largely grim since 2002, so it is encouraging to report that a sunnier aspect appears to be emerging.

Exports are on the increase - indeed, Italy, according to the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine), was the premier exporting nation in the world in 2005. Of its exports, 72.2% went to the markets of the EU and 15% to the US. This put Italy in pole position among the nations exporting wine to the US in 2005, with 31% of the market, compared with 28% for Australia and a mere 14% for long-suffering France. True, it didn't last long, as statistics for January 2006 from the Italian Food & Wine Institute reveal that Australia has regained the lead it held briefly a few years ago, with Italy's share slipping below 30%. Still, it's not bad, considering the tidal wave of cheap stuff now tsunamiing out of Oz following the massive planting boom that began a few years back (something impossible to imagine in tightly restricted EU countries), and also considering the continuing relative strength of the euro against the dollar.

Other impressive export figures include the following from the new markets of eastern Europe and Asia, to which Italian producers and promotional organisations, such as Verona Fiere, are rightly devoting a huge amount of effort and resources. To India, admittedly a tiny market at present, but one that promises much given its large number of internationally minded English-speaking young people, exports are up 64% in 2005, year on year. To Russia, whose millionaires are still sucking up the quantities of overpriced SuperTuscans and the like that the West has turned its back on, exports have increased 87%. And to China, potentially the biggest market of them all - although hemmed in with import restrictions (now relaxing) and the lack of a wine culture (although the same could have been said of Japan 20 years ago) - the export figures for Italy are up a whacking 117%.

Even in the most unlikely market in the world for Italian wines - France - export figures moved upwards by 4% in value in 2005 over 2004, this at a time when bulk exports to France are falling. Giuseppe Martelli, president of the International Union of Oenologists, commented on these figures: This means that the quality of the products of vineyard Italy and the commercial ability of our producers are conquering markets that until only a few years ago were virtually closed to them.'

A note of warning, though: while Italy is breaking into new markets, so producing nations that were unrepresented in the Bel Paese a few years ago are beginning to make inroads, especially non-EU nations, whose imports were up in 2005 by no less than 269%, to nearly half a million hectolitres (hl). Only 1% of Italy's production, to be sure, but the thin end of the wedge? And do not be surprised if Gallo and other Californian, Chilean and Argentinian producers make a big pitch for significant market share.

It is interesting to compare the performance of today's Italy with that of 20 years ago. In 1986 turnover in the wine sector was the equivalent of 2.5 billion. In 2005 it was 9 billion, an increase of 260%. Exports in the same period have grown from 800 million to 2.8 billion, up 250%. Significantly, in the same period total production fell by 37.4% from 76.8 to 48.1 million hl, while production of DOC/G wines virtually doubled from 7.8 to 15 million hl. (At the same time DOC/G and IGT denominations doubled from 228 to 460 - not such a good thing, as it adds to the confusion of names that has been a growing problem for the promotion of Italian wines internationally. But that's another story.)

Another couple of interesting statistics are that per capita consumption over the 20-year period has decreased by 28.2% from 68 to 48.8 litres per annum, and that consumer health has been taken into consideration by decreasing the use of chemical products employed in vineyards, which have dropped by 68% from 44,681 to 14,298 tonnes.

Positive trends

Leaving the dry world of statistics, there are several other areas in which significant change is happening, arguably for the better. Around the turn of the millennium, it was noticeable that more and more Italian producers, hoping to hop on the gravy train of high-cost, high-profit bottles, were following what might be called the wine pundit's formula: deep colour, massive extract, strapping alcohol levels, lashings of new oak, improving' varieties. The trend seemed to be more and more towards what one can only call the international' style and away from tipicit' and drinkability. Today, something of a backlash to this tendency seems to have developed, led by the wine drinkers of Italy themselves. Italians were never great lovers of extraneous non-vinous aromas, and recent tastings indicate that producers are at least cutting back on excesses in the oak department. They should be glad to save money on extortionate new barriques, bearing in mind that wood chips, staves and certainly essence are not allowed in IGT or DOC/G wines (another handicap under which Old World producers have to work, to the amusement of their New World counterparts). Extract is perhaps less precise a concept in the public mind, but Italians have a word for what they don't like in wines, which, after all, they see primarily as beverages to accompany food and not liquid Titans for the inspiring of awe. Troppo impegnativo,' they will say with a dismissive wave - too demanding.

As for alcohol levels - at 15%+ judged by Italians to be excessive - they are starting to settle back at around 12.5-14%. Tino Colla, of Poderi Colla in Piedmont, puts it thus: People have gone over the top with wood-ageing and concentration. A Barolo is nicely balanced at around 13 degrees. At 15 degrees the wine is out of balance, too full, too pungent.' Fausto Maculan of Breganze speaks similarly: It is not the degree that makes the wine, it's the elegance that counts. For our red wines we should take our inspiration from the great classics of Bordeaux, which with 12.5 degrees have an extraordinary finesse.'

Another concept that has caught on recently with Italians, not just for the home market but for export, is value for money. At last they have begun to understand the difference between cheap' and good value', and more and more wines are coming out of Italy at prices that people are prepared to pay, which doesn't mean low prices. A good example is Chianti Classico, which, two or three years ago, at more than 7.50 per bottle ex-cellars, was piling up in wineries and warehouses because the world regarded it as too expensive for the quality it delivered. Today, at 5 ex-cellars - not a cheap' price - Chianti Classico is moving again. Italy's cantine sociali, or cooperatives, cast another interesting light on this subject. The export market that has risen most in the past five years, in terms of volume purchased (up 57%), is the one that is probably the most exigent in the world when it comes to value for money: the UK. Second is Canada, with a 40% increase in five years. The US is third, at 36%.

Another area in which Italian wine production is beginning to catch up with world opinion is closures. Belatedly, but better late than never, screwcap technology is coming to Italian wineries, synthetic corks having started to appear a few years ago. Somewhat irrationally, alternative closures are banned in DOCG wines, which means that wines like Vernaccia di San Gimignano and inexpensive Chianti cannot use them, while far more expensive SuperTuscans can. In Soave, where the best producers have deliberately stayed out of what they consider a deeply flawed DOCG for Soave Superiore, most of the best wines (labelled Soave Classico for the most part) can use screwcap while the second-raters cannot. But those who know and love Italy have come to expect such anomalies.


2006 is the year of release for the North-west's two most prestigious wines in their least-typical form. After seven fat years for Barolo - an amazing streak of fine vintages stretching from 1995 to 2001, when the longest previous streak on record was a mere three - it was the turn of the 2002 Barolos, product of one of the worst, wettest and coldest vintages ever, and of the 2003 Barbarescos, from the hottest and driest in memory. A more anomalous pair it would be hard to imagine.

But were the 2002 Barolos as bad - as unripe, rot-ridden and hail-struck - as their much-maligned-in-advance reputation purported? And were the 2003 Barbarescos as jammy and overblown as we thought they were going to be? The answers, or most of them, came at the annual Alba Wines Exhibition tastings for journalists in early May, the one weak spot of which was that many of the top producers failed to submit samples, because they didn't make any 2002 Barolo for reasons of hail damage or on quality grounds, or because they regularly disdain such events, or because they thought, probably rightly, that their products would be slammed.

Nevertheless, some 66 Barbarescos, representing the 3.5 million bottles produced, were on show, together with around 50 Barolos, out of a total production of six million, about one-third down on 2001. Neither year, for opposite reasons, proved memorable - predictably. But there were some positive surprises - especially considering the bargain prices on offer - and so it would be a shame to write these vintages off completely, particularly where the producers aimed not at voguish power but at elegance, balance and early drinkability rather than any long-term virtues. (An exception, in long-ageing terms, was 2002 Monfortino, arguably the greatest Barolo of them all, which Roberto Conterno has decided will be released, though his 2002 Cascina Francia Barolo will not.)

In general, the best Barolos hailed (pun intended) from Serralunga, in fact the commune least affected by violent storms of frozen rain. These were wines of solid structure yet with a certain freshness, articulate and lively with good concentration and acidity. Next to them the restricted number of samples from the major communes of Monforte d'Alba, La Morra and Castiglione Falletto, as well as from the more minor ones of Verduno and Novello, were generally lacking in personality and definition, with astringent tannins and little fruit.

Heat damage and drought tend to be more generalised than hail, so the 2003 Barbarescos were, as a group, more uniformly out of balance and unappealing, astringent on the finish, overweight, and lacking in freshness and acidity, with some cooked aromas. In some cases, producers had tried to mask these defects with lashings of new oak, which instead only compounded the problems. Beyond the tastings, however, it is possible to find some enjoyable wines at the cheaper end, where there are fewer pretensions to greatness.


Perhaps the most significant event in the North-east was the triumphant confirmation of Verona's Vinitaly as Italy's premier wine fair. The 2006 edition was a resounding success with (according to their own publicity) an increase of 10% over 2005 figures on the number of foreign buyers. Total numbers went up by less than 1% to 144,000, with several thousand fewer local consumers - usually considered a nuisance by exhibitors and buyers alike - in attendance. Praise was heaped on the event by various big names of the Italian wine sector, including Renzo Cotarella of Antinori, who considered the fair an indication that Italian wine is making a comeback after the lean years; Sandro Boscaini of Masi, who opined that more realistic prices and wines more linked to terroir were responsible for the awakening or increase of interest on the part of buyers from new and established markets alike; and Angelo Gaja, who called the 2006 fair the best Vinitaly of the last 30 years, with excellent contacts and organisation'.

Why is this important? Because 2006 is what is being seen as the make-or-break year for Vinitaly's biggest rival fair, the biennial MiWine of Milan, which opened in 2004 in an attempt to break Vinitaly's near monopoly in the sphere. MiWine's first effort was seen by many as a fairly dismal failure (following an even more dismal failure by the Lingotto fair of Turin), and Vinitaly was keen to show the world that it will be a long time before its hegemony will be realistically challenged.

Central Italy

In central Italy (read Tuscany), after several years of feeling a pretty heavy pinch, they were celebrating an increase, albeit of a modest 1.6%, in the value of exports over 2005. Red wines were up 5.6% in quantity against a fall of 3.9% in value, showing that Tuscans are bringing their lists into line with world expectations after years - at the end of the last decade, beginning of this - of pushing prices ever upwards, to the exasperation of buyers everywhere. Nowhere was this trend more pronounced than in Japan, whose imports of Tuscan wines went up by a whopping 24.8% in quantity against a mere 0.7% in value.

The only exceptions were the UK and Switzerland, where red wine imports fell. On the other hand, white wine sales to these important markets increased.

According to Susanna Cenni, Tuscany's Minister of Agriculture, these are figures in which it is possible to read the first encouraging signs. After years of recession, Tuscan wine is finding its way out of the crisis without having to make any compromises on quality, but rather adapting its price strategy to maintain its competitiveness.'

South and islands

No figures on the South, but the impression is that after years of being seen as the answer to the growing problem of poor value for money in the wines of central and northern Italy, the fight-back on the part of the latter is having a negative impact on southern Italy's low-cost reputation. Campania continues to offer a wide range of alternative grape varieties, but prices are perceived as too high. Expansion continues in Puglia and Sicily, but investment seems to be coming more from the outside and newcomers, who, no doubt wishing to amortise their investments in the shortest possible time, are tending to raise prices too quickly for the liking of markets such as the UK and US, where competition from countries such as Chile, Argentina and Australia, with its wine glut, is stiff (exactly what happened in Tuscany in the late 1990s, with disastrous results). But words of warning generally fall on deaf ears, which only open when crisis descends. Ask the Tuscans.