Italians defy the Crisis and Focus on the German Market

Variety instead of naivety – these are the watchwords of the Italian wine business. Italian producers will present themselves in suitably colourful style at ProWein 2010 in Düsseldorf: renowned growing regions and wineries are represented here as are the owners of major wine brands and small, lesser known wine estates at joint stands. With its over 700 exhibitors Italy is the second largest exhibitor nation at ProWein after Germany. Santa Margherita, Conte Collalto, Castello di Monsanto, Trabucchi, Magnas, Canalicchio di Sopra, Poliziano, Pavia Agostino oder Planeta – a mosaic of people and wine from all over the country bringing us closer to that Italian joie de vivre. And the fascination is not diminishing; anyone seeing the popularity of the seminars and interest in the Piedmont region’s joint stand at Prowein 2009 would hardly believe we were in the midst of a financial crisis.

Trends in the Italian Wine Business

Italy would not be our favourite wine nation always surprising us with ideas if it did not come up with new wine trends every five years. At the start of the nineties it was the Super Tuscans, made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varieties, that triggered a little revolution in Tuscany. Then it was the turn of native varieties. Driven by the interest of innovation-seeking wine leaders and sommeliers almost forgotten grape varieties like the red Nerello Mascalese from Sicily’s volcanic Mount Etna or Rome’s Cesanese from southern Lazio were at the centre of interest in the wine sector. This was followed by searches for, and investments in, some growing regions whose wines could stand up to producers in the southern hemisphere in terms of taste and price. Today these red wines from Sicily (Nero d’Avola) and Apulia (Primitivo and Negroamaro) are now popular fixtures in the Italian wine range.

Currently it is the organic wines and – going one step further – biodynamic wines that are causing a stir amongst specialists. Wine growers are convinced this is not just a flash in the pan. “This philosophy is not dependent on grape variety or region making it a sustainable development relatively unaffected by price competition,” says Michael Graf Goess-Enzenberg who converted his winery Weingut Manincor in the South Tyrol to biodynamic viticulture just like his famous vintner friend Alois Lageder.

Usual Market Rules apply Even Now

What will the 2009 vintage be like? This question can be answered for the impatient by the very first white wines. Wine growers were able to enjoy only a few days’ holiday in August as the grape harvest already kicked off at that early stage. In the white-wine producing north of Italy the harvest began relatively early. This was because the hot and dry summer had already driven sugar levels up high. Nevertheless, the quality of the grapes is certainly denoted as very good. However, along the Adriatic coast and in the south several rainy spells in the spring and also in the autumn close to harvest time challenged wine growers in terms of vineyard management – who then promptly introduced lower harvest volumes than in the previous year. This meant a deficit of 44.5 m hl for Italy representing a 5% drop over the previous year.

However, this smaller harvest did not lead to a stabilisation in wine prices. “In all regions from north to south a clear and noticeable drop in prices of 20% to 40% was noted for well-known wines of significant quantities (on the open wine market),” says Andrea Sartori of Sartori wines in Verona. This not only affects the starter-price wine Montepulciano from the Abruzzi or the trendy wines from Apulia and Sicily but also famous classics like Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone del Valpolicella and the Piedmont heavyweights Barolo / Barbaresco.

This development is particularly worrying for the many small wine producers in these growing regions who only process their own grapes. In future, these growers they will have to stand their ground against retreating retail prices for their wines.

Whither Wine?

How are prices supposed to stabilise when sales are paralysed? Almost without exception, wine growers – whether small vineyards or large wineries – are facing losses of 10% to 30% compared to last year. On the Italian market – that is so vital to everyone – this hitherto reliable driver of the restaurant sector is now starting to falter. “We have known that many superior dining establishments are having problems but it is the first time we see this development also affecting simple trattorias and pizzerias,” says Elisabetta Stucchi-Prinetti from organic wine estate Badia a Coltibuono in Tuscany. Scarcely any wine grower is expecting the dark clouds to dissipate this time. Savings are even being made in wine buying at the supermarket. “Downgrading”, i.e. buying cheaper, has long since reached even brand-conscious Italy. Italians are now following US wine consumers’ lead who already started downgrading from the beginning of the financial crisis in October 2008. Weighing particularly heavily on producers is the fact that success-blessed Italians are now also having to deal with the weak and weakening dollar on what they all rank as their most important export market. As with all European wine producers, margins are melting away like ice in the sun. The situation is considered to be more precarious than ever before because real alternatives are not in sight and consumer spending has also dropped on the Asian and Eastern European markets.

Nevertheless, the Italian wine business will feature at as strongly as ever at ProWein and with its usual optimism.

The author Steffen Maus has worked as a freelance journalist and writer since 1998.