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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Nicholas Belfrage MW & Franco Ziliani

Despite export figures in freefall in the traditional markets, principally Germany and the USA, many Italian producers are determinedly raising prices this year, albeit not drastically. Such are the findings of a survey conducted by Harpers of 40 producers of various zones and sizes, who are seeking to come to terms with the international political and economic climate post-9/11. The period of fat cows and facile successes for Italian wine is over', said Paolo Endrici, a producer in Trentino. It is necessary now, he added, to rethink the place of Italian wine in a world ever more globalised, and in which the emerging countries, favoured by low production costs and enormous tracts of plantable land, have now fully emerged'. The general opinion of the producers interviewed is that, as Luigi Folonari of Ruffino put it, rather than a slowing down, one must view it as a salutary period of assessment, after the boom years of the 1990s'. What is needed, according to Marilena Cocci Grifoni of the Marche, is a veritable detoxification', after the narcotic years of serious overvaluation in all sectors, including wine'; years, said Valentino Sciotti of Farnese Vini in Abruzzo, in which thousands of micro-estates have jumped on the price bandwagon without a thought to the consumer and his requirements'. Meanwhile, the US market is no longer the obligatory solution' for many producers, given unfavourable economic data, the threat of terrorism, the poor performance of stocks and shares and the devaluation by around 20% of the dollar against the euro, not to mention a 2002 which was catastrophic for investors and savers. However, as Sabrina Tedeschi of Valpolicella's Tedeschi pointed out, the problem is compounded by a slowing of demand in Germany, Canada, Belgium, France and Denmark', with a tendency, especially in Germany, to trade down from the best and most expensive wines to less costly substitutes', where competition with the New World is more fierce. Naturally, there are exceptions, not just in the case of a particular product like Prosecco, which continues to sell well in Italy and abroad, but also in that of wines traditionally enjoying a favourable price-quality ratio, such as the Puglian wines of De Castris or Rivera, whose businesses have increased in 2002 by over 20%, or Roberto Felluga of Marco Felluga in Friuli, or Stefano Cinelli of Fattoria dei Barbi in Montalcino, whose profits have been more than satisfactory, the latter due to the great success of 1997 Brunello. But overall, the difficulties are mounting. There is a tendency among importers, whose profits have been squeezed, to pursue a more hand-to-mouth approach, to carry far lower stocks and pay more reluctantly. There has even been a notable increase in bankruptcies, even among established wine merchants. There is no lack of self-criticism, like that expressed by Paolo Galli of Le Ragose in Valpolicella, convinced that the price of Amarone does not reflect either reality nor quality on a general level. If you ask e50 for a bottle of Amarone, you are one of the great producers; if you ask only e20, you appear to be expressing self-doubts'. The same could be said of other top reds, like Barolo, whose present market is static, despite the excellence of the vintages currently on the market, and Brunello, following the one-off 1997s. On one thing all of Harpers' interviewees agreed: there is no chance of lowering prices, partly because of higher material costs and partly because a price reduction could be interpreted as a lowering of quality, leading to a loss of image. Some prices will remain the same for 2003: those of Chiarlo, in Piedmont, of Isole & Olena in Tuscany, of Fattoria dei Barbi. But the large majority will rise by 3-5%, or more.