WineWriting.com & French Mediterranean Wine
Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

Italy: Sicily, Ciró, Grillo, Fiano, Falanghina, Lugana, Vernaccia, Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo - Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme; "south by northwest", Cannonau di Sardegna, Brunello di Montalcino, Teroldego Rotaliano, Negroamaro/Puglia, Amarone, Ripasso, Vermentino, Prosecco, Campania...

Archive features on this page below: Sicily, Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo: Barolo, Barbaresco etc., UK wine trade mag market reports...

Latest from Italy elsewhere on the site:
"Is Campania one of Italy's most exciting wine areas? It surrounds the region's capital Naples and spreads up and down the coast and inland, where the best-known vineyards lie on steep hillsides; as well as on the Vesuvius foothills and on the coast and islands of Capri and Ischia. Although it's a very southern region, Campania plays host to several excellent white varieties such as Falanghina, Fiano, Greco and the even more obscure/rare Coda di Volpe. On the red front, there's a fair amount of the sometimes star Aglianico grape planted..." (June 2015).
Nino Franco Prosecco - "Franco's sparkling wines just go to show that there's Prosecco and there's Prosecco..." (Nov 2014)
"Whites of the mo" (Fiano, Vermentino, Grecanico Dec 2013)
"Reds of the mo" (Amarone, Ripasso, Brunello Dec 2013)
Sicily: Bosco Falconeria - August 2013
Pink Port and Amarone: a couple of "headbangers of the moment" (August 2013) featuring Tenuta Pule 2008 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, new at Lidl UK...
Whites and reds "of the moment" south & north (July 2013): "Three Sicilian whites (Grillo 2 Fiano 1), a Negroamaro red from Puglia and Teroldego Rotaliano from Trentino to be precise, all hot off the shelf from Marks, Lidl and Asda..."
Tuscany - San Polino, Brunello di Montalcino  (March 2013)
World Grenache Competition part 3 - Sardinia: Cannonau di Sardegna (Feb 2013)
Italian reds: Sicily, Barbaresco, Amarone... (July 2012)
"Whites of the moment" - Ciró obscure "red of the mo" - Sicily: Valdibella, Camporeale (all three June 2012)
"South by northwest" mini-tasting tour across Italy from London's Armit Wines (Sept 2011).

Spotlight on Sicily

You'll find my notes below on a broad cross-section of 36 Sicilian wines, including a few intense fruit liqueurs too, which must pretty much represent all conceivable styles you'll come across from this island of mystery. Mystery, as I wasn't very familiar with the wines made on this big chunk of picturesque land floating off the toe of Italy, as the cliché goes; except for a couple of unusual and noteworthy, indigenous white varieties and a few very enticing dark and smoky Mediterranean reds enjoyed quite a long time ago. And like other Italian wines, you have to delve a little deeper to work out what's what in terms of grapes, winery name or region on sometimes not very helpful labels (which is part of the charm too, you might well add). And also because Sicily itself somehow evokes vivid images and myths as old as time; I almost went on a wine trip there back in March this year but didn't, in the end, for various reasons (such as empty pockets). So, I contented myself with spending a good hour or two on the Sicilian stand at the London Wine fair in May 2010; much to the delight of at least one producer, who said I should've been awarded "the gold medal for tasting Sicily!" 
My memory of some interesting, and rather good actually, white wines was reconfirmed: the Grillo variety in particular is a real star making quite complex, full bodied yet zingy dry whites (e.g. by Ottoventi and Casa di Grazia: see below). Insolia or Inzolia (it appears that you can spell it with either) is another one with a bit of character in the right hands, or blended with a second variety (as does e.g. Brugnano). Catarrato is widely planted - as is Chardonnay by the way - and wines made from it are perhaps more variable, but I found a couple of nice ones (e.g. Ferreri). There's some good concise info on Sicily's grapes on this page of this site: siciliana.it As for reds, I got a little carried away tasting wines shaped from Nero d'Avola, which can conjure up lovely seductive red wines such as by Brugnano, Ceuso and Santa Anastasia; and as part of an "international" blend e.g. Cristo di Campobello. I wasn't sure about red wines from the Etna area, although admittedly I only tasted a couple; and other local red grapes to get your tongue around include the two Nerellos (one of them also has two names!), grown around the latter volcano, and Frappato... plus there's now a fair amount of Syrah, Cab etc. planted.
In addition, Sicily is home to diverse styles of Muscat, often using the curious pen-name of Zibibbo (actually Muscat of Alexandria), which is incarnated in at least three DOC (appellation) areas. Other worthwhile sweeties are crafted from Malvasia, such as the unique ones stemming from Lipari and the other tiny islands north of Sicily's northeast tip. Not forgetting legendary Marsala of course, whose vineyards are found on the far west coast around the eponymous town. This fortified cask-aged wine, made from a mix of the native white varieties mentioned above, comes in several guises in terms of sweetness and how long aged. As you can see from Pellegrino's 1980 vintage raved about below, some of these wines do mature spectacularly over a long period of time. Take a look too at my notes on Limonio's extraordinary, love-or-hate-them fruit and plant liqueurs. These "natural" alcoholic tipples - they're all only made from the base ingredient, alcohol, water and sugar - won't leave you indifferent, if you ever get the chance to try them: perhaps in a Sicilian restaurant or, better still, in situ!
NB: Nine "profiles" of some of the wineries reviewed here appear below my notes...


Map of Sicily from www.italianmade.com: Italian Trade Commission, NYC
Spotlight on Sicily: wines
Sparkling
2007 Murgo Brut Método Classico (Nerello Mascalese) - attractive lightly yeasty/toasty nose; shows a touch of richness and class with refreshing tang on the finish. Nice "Blanc de Noir Cava" style! 85+


Whites
2009 Murgo Etna Bianco (Caricante/Catarrato) - enticing banana and honeysuckle aromas; floral vs exotic palate with a hint of yeast-lees "fatness" vs again refreshing finish. 85+
2009 Brugnano Kue Insolia/Viognier - nice floral and "mineral" notes vs peach and pineapple; attractive juicy fruit with a bit of weight and body vs zesty "chalky" finish. 85+
2009 Ferreri Catarrato - lovely aromatic profile with lees-y and nutty edges; has attractive juicy texture with richer touches vs fresh bite, tasty and quite intense length. 87+
2009 Brugnano V90 Catarrato - similar profile, although nuttier and more floral with leaner mineral finish; and easier-going too. 80-85
2009 Calatrasi Terre di Ginestra Catarrato - lively aromatic and "chalky" start; juicy mouth-feel with crisp bite, steely and quite intense. 85+
2009 Casa di Grazia Zahora Grillo - delicious exotic honeyed notes vs zesty citrus edges; peachy and a tad oily/creamy, quite concentrated then zingy finish. 87+
2009 Nicosia Fondo Filara Inzolia - again attractive juicy vs exotic fruit, a touch of oily texture with nutty and quite crisp finish. 83-85
2008 Baglio del Cristo di Campobello di Licata Adènzia (Chardonnay/Grillo) - pity about that intrusive toasty/dirty? wood, as this has intriguing white fruit character with minty tones; quite rich and rounded followed by nuttier finish, again that funny wood lingers too.
2009 Ottoventi ".8" Grillo - peach and apricot with juicy lees-y notes; quite rich vs zesty and mineral, again has lively long finish with lingering exotic juicy vs lightly nutty fruit. 87+


Reds
2008 Paolo Calì Mandragola Vittoria Frappato - aromatic and perfumed with morello cherry notes; light-ish palate with a touch of grip and resin-y dried fruits too, quite nice and easy and different. 80-85
2008 Murgo Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese/Nerello Mantellato) - pretty smoky and rustic vs ripe dried red fruits and perfumed wild herby minty edges; gripping tannins and farm-y finish, but it's still quite interesting!
2008 Nicosia Fondo Filara Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese/Nerello Mantellato or Cappuccio) - unusual nose with baked dark fruits, again resin & wild herbs and a bit oxidised actually; meaty, very firm mouth-feel with dry grip vs some very ripe dried fruit. Not sure, again it's intriguing though.
2008 Calatrasi Terre di Ginestra Nero d'Avola - nice "sweet" resin-y fruit although ends up a bit lean and hard.
2009 Tola Nero d'Avola - juicy "modern" youthful fruit, dark and "sweet" vs firm and wild herby; "nice and easy does it." 80+
2008 Ottoventi ".20" Nero d'Avola - very tasty, up-front blackberries with a touch of spicy oak; nice fruit vs dark chocolate, lively spicy vs firm and rounded finish. Good "modern" style yet definitely Mediterranean. 87+
2006 Mimmo Paone Funnari Nero d'Avola - attractive maturing savoury vs ripe and smoky nose; more subtle style although still intense, showing nice balance of dried fruits, dry tannins and underlying oak. 89
2008 Casa di Grazia Gradiva Nero d'Avola - appealing soft-ish, ripe red and black fruit combo vs a touch of supporting tannin; attractive spicy finish. 85+
2007 Casa di Grazia Collectio Nero d'Avola - slightly reductive notes on the nose? Cleaner palate though with peppery dark cherry, grip and power and lingering dried fruit / black olive notes; has a bit of class too. 88+
2008 Ceuso Scurati Nero d'Avola - delicious dried black cherry and raisin profile, spicy and dark with wild herb edges; solid and powerful mouth-feel vs underlining depth of dried black fruit, very nice. 88-90
2007 Abbazia Santa Anastasia Passomaggio Nero d'Avola + Merlot - lovely ripe black cherry nose with resin and raisin edges; savoury leather touches on the palate with firm backdrop then tasty "sweet" fruit and a bit of oomph. 89+
2006 Abbazia Santa Anastasia Montenero Nero d'Avola + Merlot + Cabernet Sauvignon - darker profile still with raisin and black olive notes; very rich vs very firm mouth-feel, spicy and punchy finish. Wow. 90+
2007 Brugnano Lunario Nero d'Avola - maturing savoury aromas underpinned by ripe resin-y dark cherries, raisins and black olives; lush and quite concentrated with spicy and wild herb tones, delicious finish with nice grip vs dried fruit. 90-92
2007 Cristo di Campobello Adènzia (Nero d'Avola / Syrah / Cabernet Sauvignon) - "sweet" vs smoky notes with red pepper edges; again pretty concentrated with solid chunky palate vs lush prune-y fruit and tobacco tones, a touch overdone perhaps yet "impressive." 88+
2006 Marchesi de Gregorio Gregorio Maximo IGT Sicilia (Nero d'Avola / Cabernet Sauvignon) - scented raisin and wild herb nose, more savoury in the mouth underlined by black fruits; the tannins are a bit extracted on the finish, pity as it's complex and tasty. 87+
2008 Cristo di Campobello "CDC" (Nero d'Avola / Syrah / Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot) - similar dark cherry aromas with smoky resin and wild herbs; delicious dried fruit profile, very concentrated with lush rounded mouth-feel vs attractive solid tannins and weight. 92+


Dessert wines & fruit liqueurs
2007 Ottoventi Scibà Zibibbo "Passito" (14%) - gorgeous "late-harvest" nose with exotic marmalade and spicy greener edges; very rich and Muscat-y vs orange peel and nice "cut" showing super balance. Yummy. 90+
2007 Mimmo Paone Malvasia delle Lipari "Passito di Salina" (14%) - intricate nutty yeasty oxidised nose; quite rich palate but very nutty too with tangy citrus finish, sweet vs attractive "cut". Odd but good! 89+
1980 Pellegrino Marsala "Vergine" - wow, complex caramel and pecan nut flavours, intense and tasty with "sweet/savoury" finish and a bit of kick. Didn't "score" it as I tried it with an anchovy canapé: worked surprisingly well (anchovy is usually a wine killer)!
Limonio Fico d'India liqueur (prickly pear cactus, 30% alc.) - unusual flowery aromas/flavours vs kick and sweet finish.
Limonio Gelsi Neri (black mulberries, 32%) - cough mixture and milk chocolate, nice on ice cream I'd imagine.
Limonio Arancione (orange liqueur, 30%) - wow: very intense orange zest oil aromas and gorgeous orangey flavours.
Limonio Limone (35%) - pure lemon intensity, very zesty and "wake up"! Incredible flavour, if you like lemons.
Limonio Mandaretto (mandarin, 35%) - very different from the orange one actually and, erm, very mandarin-y. Love it.
Limonio Cannella - super cinnamon intensity, Speculoos biscuit flavours!
Limonio Laurel leaves - weird herbal concoction although a great palate cleanser!
July 2010
Sicily: winery snapshots

Latest organic winery profiles here:
Valdibella, Camporeale - June 2012
Bosco Falconeria - August 2013

Abbazia Santa Anastasia
This very old estate - dating from the early 12th century according to their website (I think: the English version isn't live yet and my Italian is extremely limited) - was transformed into a modern winery in 1980 by Francesco Lena. It's located in the historic town of Castelbuono near the coast to the east of Palermo. Their wines are sold in Lea & Sandeman shops in London, and they have a dedicated importer into the US and Canada based in Milan (more details on their site below). I tasted these two seductive reds on the Sicilian stand at the London Wine fair in May 2010:
2007 Passomaggio Nero d'Avola + Merlot - lovely ripe black cherry nose with resin and raisin edges; savoury leather touches on the palate with firm backdrop then tasty "sweet" fruit and a bit of oomph. 89+
2006 Montenero Nero d'Avola + Merlot + Cabernet Sauvignon - darker profile still with raisin and black olive notes; very rich vs very firm mouth-feel, spicy and punchy finish. Wow. 90+
http://www.abbaziasantanastasia.it/



"The space shuttle has landed..."
@ www.cristodicampobello.it Sicily!"
Baglio del Cristo di Campobello di Licata
Or Cristo di Campobello for short, was established in 2000 by Angelo, Domenico and Carmelo Bonetta taking in 30 ha (75 acres) of sweeping vineyards planted on the hills around Campobello di Licata, east of Agrigento and a little inland of the south-central coast. It looks like well-known wine consultant Riccardo Cotarella works for them, seeing as he's signed off the tasting notes on their wines on their not very informative (but very dramatic) website: more info when I get it! These three were sampled on at the London Wine fair in May 2010:
2008 Adènzia white (Chardonnay/Grillo) - pity about that intrusive toasty/dirty? wood, as this has intriguing white fruit character with minty tones; quite rich and rounded followed by nuttier finish, again that funny wood lingers too.
2007 Adènzia red (Nero d'Avola / Syrah / Cabernet Sauvignon) - "sweet" vs smoky notes with red pepper edges; again pretty concentrated with solid chunky palate vs lush prune-y fruit and tobacco tones, a touch overdone perhaps yet "impressive." 88+
2008 "CDC" (Nero d'Avola / Syrah / Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot) - similar dark cherry aromas with smoky resin and wild herbs; delicious dried fruit profile, very concentrated with lush rounded mouth-feel vs attractive solid tannins and weight. 92+
The Big Red Wine Co. ships some of their wines into the UK (on-line only).

http://www.cristodicampobello.it/


Murgo
Owned by the Scammacca del Murgo family, whose San Michele wine estate touches the eastern slopes of Mount Etna between Taormina and Catania; and they also grow olives and fruit (for making jam) on orchards lying on Etna's southern slopes. Particularly notable perhaps is that they appear to be one of few (perhaps the only?) producers making traditional method sparkling wines in Sicily, and good ones at that. And in their case, only "Blanc de Noir" styles i.e. made from red grapes, the local local Nerello Mascalese variety (it seems you only find it in the Etna area). They also use the "other" Nerello Mantellato, or sometimes Cappuccio just to avoid confusion, in the blend for their regular red wine, which, as stated below, is certainly worth trying although not to everyone's taste. I also tried these at the London Wine fair in May 2010:
2007 Brut Método Classico (Nerello Mascalese) - attractive lightly yeasty/toasty nose; shows a touch of richness and class with refreshing tang on the finish. Nice "Blanc de Noir Cava" style! 85+
2009 Etna Bianco (Caricante/Catarrato) - enticing banana and honeysuckle aromas; floral vs exotic palate with a hint of yeast-lees "fatness" vs again refreshing finish. 85+

2008 Etna Rosso (Nerello Mascalese/Nerello Mantellato) - pretty smoky and rustic vs ripe dried red fruits and perfumed wild herby minty edges; gripping tannins and farm-y finish, but it's still quite interesting!
http://www.murgo.it/



The Brugnano family from www.brugnano.eu
Brugnano
The Brugnano family (photo) is based in Partinico, where the winery was established back in 1970. Their vineyards lie between Palermo and Trapani in the Castellammare del Golfo region, and are home tolocal and "international" varieties including Tannat (surprisingly) in addition to the more usual suspects (Syrah, Merlot, yawn...). Having said that, it was their Lunario 100% Nero d'Avola that really caught my attention on the Sicilian stand at the London Wine fair in May 2010:
2009 Kue Insolia/Viognier - nice floral and "mineral" notes vs peach and pineapple; attractive juicy fruit with a bit of weight and body vs zesty "chalky" finish. 85+

2009 V90 Catarrato - similar profile, although nuttier and more floral with leaner mineral finish; and easier-going too. 80-85
2007 Lunario Nero d'Avola - maturing savoury aromas underpinned by ripe resin-y dark cherries, raisins and black olives; lush and quite concentrated with spicy and wild herb tones, delicious finish with nice grip vs dried fruit. 90-92
http://www.brugnano.eu/



Lake Biviere from www.sicilyinfotourist.com
Casa di Grazia
Angelo and Maria Grazia di Francesco have 40 ha (100 acres) of windswept vineyards, mostly planted withNero d'Avola, Syrah and Inzolia, around the town of Gela on the south side of the island near Lake Biviere (pic: pinched from http://www.sicilyinfotourist.com/). 
These 3 wines were sampled on the Sicilian stand at the London Wine fair in May 2010:
2009 Zahora Grillo - delicious exotic honeyed notes vs zesty citrus edges; peachy and a tad oily/creamy, quite concentrated then zingy finish. 87+
2008 Gradiva Nero d'Avola - appealing soft-ish, ripe red and black fruit combo vs a touch of supporting tannin; attractive spicy finish. 85+
2007 Collectio Nero d'Avola - slightly reductive notes on the nose? Cleaner palate though with peppery dark cherry, grip and power and lingering dried fruit / black olive notes; has a bit of class too.88+
http://www.casadigrazia.com/



From www.cantinaottoventi.it
Ottoventi
Which means "eight winds" indicative of the breezy climate around Erice in western Sicily, no doubt. From the superb photos in their somewhat prosaic brochure and on the website (a commendably common theme among Sicilian wine producers - the nice photos I mean - even if certain sites are a little too irritatingly "Flash"...), the winery has strikingly modern design pitched against a rugged rock-face backdrop. The curious ".8" and ".20" names might be a digital time reference or something like "version 8" etc. as in computer/website speak? Talking of curiously named, Sicily is home to diverse styles of Muscat often using the pen-name Zibibbo (actually Muscat of Alexandria), which is incarnated in at least three DOC (appellation) areas. Ottoventi's delicious little number, calledScibà, is made from late-harvested then dried grapes ("passito" process). These 3 were also sampled in London in May 2010:
2009 ".8" Grillo - peach and apricot with juicy lees-y notes; quite rich vs zesty and mineral, again has lively long finish with lingering exotic juicy vs lightly nutty fruit. 87+

2008 ".20" Nero d'Avola - very tasty, up-front blackberries with a touch of spicy oak; nice fruit vs dark chocolate, lively spicy vs firm and rounded finish. Good "modern" style yet definitely Mediterranean. 87+
2007 Scibà Zibibbo "Passito" (14%) - gorgeous "late-harvest" nose with exotic marmalade and spicy greener edges; very rich and Muscat-y vs orange peel and nice "cut" showing super balance. Yummy. 90+
http://www.cantinaottoventi.it/



Mimmo Paone
I just couldn't get into their website(s), which just keeps saying "loading... loading... loading..." But I did find him on Facebook and sent a message, so hopefully will be able to add some info soon. "During the meanwhilst," here's a couple of rather good wines (including an unusual aged sweet Malvasia made from dried grapes) to get the juices flowing, tasted in London in May 2010:
2007 Malvasia delle Lipari "Passito di Salina" (14%) - intricate nutty yeasty oxidised nose; quite rich palate but very nutty too with tangy citrus finish, sweet vs attractive "cut". Odd but good!89+

2006 Funnari Nero d'Avola - attractive maturing savoury vs ripe and smoky nose; more subtle style although still intense, showing nice balance of dried fruits, dry tannins and underlying oak. 89
http://www.mimmopaone.it/ / http://www.paonevini.it/



"Azienda" from www.ceuso.it
Ceuso
OK, so building a "profile" on a winery based around tasting one of their wines might look a bit of a space-filler; but it seemed silly not to add a little detail on the people responsible for one of my more-or-less 90 point wines! Ceuso is actually the name of the Melia family's (Vincenzo, Antonio and Giuseppe) top red sourced from a vineyard lying a (long) stone's throw from the celebrated 5th-Century Segesta Temple. Scurati is apparently their "second" wine made from 100% Nero d'Avola, which was the one I happened to taste at the London Wine fair in May 2010 but I'm glad I did. The company appears to be well-distributed worldwide including in the USA, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, UK, Belgium, Netherlands and Malta: more detail on price and stockists when I have it.
2008 Scurati Nero d'Avola - delicious dried black cherry and raisin profile, spicy and dark with wild herb edges; solid and powerful mouth-feel vs underlining depth of dried black fruit, very nice.88-90
http://www.ceuso.it/



"Sicilian lemon tree" from www.limonio.com
Limonio
As you'll see from my notes below, these extraordinarily intense fruit and plant liqueurs, made by Limonio on their 50 ha (124 acre) farm in Partinico, are rather love-or-hate! All their "natural" alcoholic tipples are only made from the base ingredient steeped in alcohol plus water and sugar; and no synthetic chemical pesticides are used to treat the fruit trees or crop, according to their flyer. These liqueurs - some would be best as an after-dinner drink, others with a dessert - certainly won't leave you indifferent, if you ever get the chance to try them: perhaps in a Sicilian restaurant, mixed into a cocktail or, better still, in situ! No surprise to hear they also produce a delicious extra virgin olive oil on the estate. I didn't give them "scores" as, well, why bother really; but it seemed like a good idea to include something this unusual, which were sampled on the Sicilian stand at the London Wine fair in May 2010.
Fico d'India (prickly pear cactus, 30% alc.) - unusual flowery aromas/flavours vs kick and sweet finish.
Gelsi Neri (black mulberries, 32%) - cough mixture and milk chocolate, nice on ice cream I'd imagine.
Arancione (orange, 30%) - wow: very intense orange zest oil aromas and gorgeous orangey flavours.
Limone (35%) - pure lemon intensity, very zesty and "wake up now"! Incredible flavour, if you like lemons.
Mandaretto (mandarin, 35%) - very different from the orange one actually and, erm, very mandarin-y. Love it.
Cannella - super cinnamon intensity, wild Speculoos biscuit flavours!
Laurel leaves - weird herbal concoction, although a great palate cleanser!
http://www.limonio.com/


"Italy's great white hope: Pinot Grigio"
This ran in the 9th June 2006 issue of UK trade paper Off Licence News.

Perceptive readers might have noted with interest the apparent paradox between two items in the 12th May issue of OLN. One story had M&S enthusing: “the sexy and magical words Pinot Grigio… (have) more resonance with shoppers.” The other, from a recent Wine Intelligence survey, stated that “only 55% of monthly wine drinkers can identify Pinot Grigio as a type of white grape.” The first follows some kind of positive, consumer ‘brand’ acceptance; on the other hand, they aren’t necessarily recognising it as a grape variety. So is the Pinot Grigio star phenomenon still in the ascendant, or are there signs that PG is passé? Not according to a report by Barbara Scalera of Eviva Communications (www.skalliandrein.com/winevolution/news): “Italy sold 1,603,000 cases of Pinot Grigio in the UK (March 05-06) representing an increase of 72% over last year’s sales, and setting Pinot Grigio up to soon become Italy’s top-selling wine,” perhaps knocking even Soave off its pedestal.
It’s difficult to put a date on when, where and why Italy’s runaway success took off. Andrew Bird at Sainsbury’s thinks that “sales started to get real traction in the nineties, when consumers started to purchase more wine in supermarkets.” James Griswood at the Thresher Group quite rightly suggests that “part of this success is the ease of pronunciation and easily remembered name, and also the ‘please all, offend none’ style of wine.” Tony Brown MW, of Meridian-Boutinot (also agent for Cave de Turckheim, supplier of M&S’s groundbreaking Pinot Grigio-labelled Alsace wine), hasn’t noticed any of Pinot Grigio’s popularity tailing off: “it’s going very well at every level.” Meridian does a range of Pinot Grigios from Trentino-Alto Adige based producer Ca’Vit, whose export manger Claudio Gambarotto agreed that “the variety is here to stay, if it remains affordable. Most thought sales would decrease, but it’s become an international grape like Chardonnay and Riesling.”
David Gleave MW, Liberty Wines, called it “the only Italian white doing well in the multiples, independents and restaurant trade.” Griswood was more cautious: “there’s the danger of this wine being traded so hard by retailers that overall quality will be affected… also the ‘liebfraumilch effect’, whereby Pinot Grigio becomes so ubiquitous that the consumer gets bored. I don’t see this in the immediate future; however, I can definitely foresee this for the medium to long term.” A natural progression capitalising on this achievement has been to expand the choice of Pinot Grigio from other Italian regions, and even pink wines tagging on to the rosé boom. Sicily is the hot place for richer more New Worldy styles with a couple of visible brands recently launched in the retail sector, such as Inycon in Morrisons at £5.99. But are higher priced and quality ones from the northeast riding in on the wave, or is there a price ceiling the customer won’t go beyond?
Bird confidently claimed: “We sell Italian Pinot Grigio up to £10 per bottle. There’s clearly a market for well crafted wines from cool climate areas such as Alto-Adige. Sparkling Pinot Grigio has also been a successful phenomenon of the last five years.” Griswood added: “We’ve introduced a number of Pinot Grigios over the last couple of years that have added incremental sales to the category, rather than cannibalising established wines.” There may be little consumer understanding of where Friuli, Giulia, Collio or Trentino are, but these regions seem to offer good opportunities for specialists and independents looking for alternative ‘statement’ Pinot Grigios. If you taste a selection of £5-£10 wines, there’s no doubt that you usually get that bit more in terms of quality and personality (see below). Damian Carrington at Enotria Winecellars argued that “there are really two categories of Pinot Grigio in the market place: the commodity wines that retail up to £4.99 and the classic styles, mainly from Friuli and Alto Adige. Commodity wines are selling extremely well, the classics remain niche products. We see a considerable slow down in demand once you pass the £4.99 price point.”
However, Gleave considers that “customers have related Pinot Grigio with a particular area and matched it to price points; we say ‘don’t try to get the cheapest.’ Even wines at £17 do sell in independents.” Ca’Vit has invested time and money into research on Pinot Grigio clones and rootstocks. “To identify the best for Trentino,” according to Gambarotto, “for reliable production, not too low or high nor with too tight bunches. We’re also aiming to significantly reduce the use of pesticides.” Moving on to Pinot Grigio rosé, this is more than just clever marketing, as Gambarotto reminds us. “Few actually realise it’s a pink skinned variety,” thus a logical winemaking step as well. Eight hours cold skin maceration quickly produces the desired blush colour. Or you can add up to 15% of a red variety such as Pinot Noir (to comply with varietal labelling law), as is the case with Boutinot’s vivid and fruity Italia rosé. Others who have introduced Pinot Grigio blush include PLB Wines from the huge Verona winery Pasqua. Alex Canneti reported that “it’s going well through the independent trade at £4.99.”
Given the taut supply and demand situation for inexpensive Pinot Grigio and numerous cases of fraud uncovered in recent times, can we be sure that what we’re buying is the real thing? Bird gave a categorical yes: “we carry out regular technical audits on our suppliers and only buy and ship direct. We wouldn’t trade with an agent whose winery we’d never inspected.” But if there’s simply not enough Pinot Grigio in Italy to satisfy export markets, it’s inevitable that some might turn a blind eye. Canneti commented: “it’s the volume driver because it’s now the only Italian category in plentiful supply. More Pinot Grigio is being produced legally so most is now legal!” Gleave added: “a lot at the lower end is Pinot Grigio as far as the paperwork is concerned. We have our own winemakers on the ground so are very confident.”
So it’s not surprising that German, American, Argentinean, Moldovan and now French winemakers are going for Grigio rather than Gris. Except for those estates around the world, in particular New Zealand, who want to make a statement, as Bird noted. “Non-Italian producers, who wish to distance themselves from the more neutral styles of Pinot Grigio, make a deliberate point of labelling their wine Pinot Gris.” The flipside of Pinot Grigio mania is that it’s arguably overshadowing other Italian whites with more character, which consequently aren’t given prominent, or any shelf space and actively promoted. In the hand sell environment of the independents, obscure yet interesting wines such as Falanghina (Naples area and beyond), Nosiola (indigenous to Trentino, dry and sweet styles), Grecanico or Inzolia (both Sicily) could maybe find a niche. But what about in the multiples?
Griswood said: “If the Pinot Grigio drinker wasn’t buying it, they wouldn’t necessarily be buying other varieties from Italy. Wine consumers are more promiscuous than that and would probably be buying from an altogether different country.” Bird, though, believes in life beyond PG: “There’s no doubt Pinot Grigio is the most recognised variety and we ensure we satisfy the demand. However, we actively market interesting wines made from white varietals such as Vermentino and Fiano.” More upbeat, Griswood also added: “The fact that so many consumers are buying and enjoying Italian Pinot Grigio, however, is a benefit to this country as a whole, and makes the trade-across to more ‘characterful’ varieties easier.” Gleave was on the same wavelength: “if it gets people drinking Italian wines, it’s doing a good job. Pinot Grigio can offer character and drinkability, it doesn’t need to be neutral.” Canneti brought up other issues: “Chianti is restricted to 80 million litres, so it’s difficult to find a red driver from Italy. We need Pinot Grigio but the future will be Sicilian reds such as Nero d’Avola. There’s no white alternative on the horizon.”
The ‘PG phenomenon’ isn’t in any danger of going away in the near future, and consumers do appear willing to experiment with more expensive examples (whether Italian or not) or rosé and sparkling styles. Smart producers and retailers are also putting their money on other whites to further develop Italy’s standing, although it’s hard to see which varieties could depose Pinot Grigio as the volume leader.
Currently hot PGs:
Alpha Zeta Pinot Grigio delle Venezie £5.99 - Liberty Wines
Ca’Vit Bottega Vinai Pinot Grigio, Trentino DOC £6.99 – Meridian Wines
Borgo dei Vassalli Pinot Grigio, Venezia Giulia IGT £7.99 - Liberty Wines
San Angelo Vineyard Pinot Grigio, Banfi, Tuscany £7.99 – Majestic
Le Fredis Pinot Grigio, Friuli-Venezia Giulia £8.09 - Oddbins
i Feudi di Romans Pinot Grigio, Isonzo del Friuli DOC £8.99 - Liberty Wines
Inycon Pinot Grigio, Sicilia IGT £5.99 - Enotria Winecellars
Pasqua Pinot Grigio blush £4.99 – PLB Wines
Sanvigilio Pinot Grigio blush, Venezia IGT £4.99 – Meridian Wines
Italia Pinot Grigio rosé, Pavia IGT £4.99 – Meridian Wines
Via Nova Pinot Grigio blush, Veneto - Enotria

Nebbiolo "International Symposium" Alba, March 2006

"Obviously the focus was on northwest Italy, but there were producers from elsewhere too - Sardinia, California, Virginia, Mexico, Australia and South Africa - with their wines made from this "schizophrenic" variety... Comprehensive notes and comments on these wineries: Elvio Cogno, Sandrone, Ghiomo, Burlotto, Oddero, Viberti and giant Fontanafredda; plus a marathon walk-around tasting of Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Valtellina... including verticals of top estates: Ascheri, Batasiolo, Bel Colle, Bussia Soprana, Verduno, Moccagatta, Rizzi, Gresy, Varaldo, Prevostini, Silver..."


Alba 9th-12th March 2006. Obviously the focus was on northwest Italy, but producers from elsewhere were there too - Sardinia, California, Virginia, Mexico, Australia and South Africa - with their wines made from this schizophrenic variety. My notes from the following winery visits are viewable below: Elvio Cogno, Sandrone, Ghiomo, Burlotto, Oddero, Viberti and giant Fontanafredda.
A marathon walk-around tasting of Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Valtellina etc. offered good insight into overall quality, styles and vintages, especially the vertical tasting of top estates. Certain older wines were disappointingly firm and charmless yet some plainly brilliant. For what it's worth, I thought the most impressive vintages were 2001 and 1997: I don't know (or care) how that compares with verdicts from higher authorities. In addition, the best growers have transformed the quality of the Barbera and Dolcetto varieties making some lovely wines at more attractive prices. Last but not least, as a gourmet destination this part of Italy, with its mountain climate (although can be hot in the summer), is beautifully hilly and fun to drive around. Add to that delicious hearty cuisine to match those serious wines...
What do I mean by schizophrenic variety? Well, it's that elusive cocktail of the grape's quintessential sweet yet savoury/sour delicacy, light colour yet gripping mouth-feel and sometimes high acidity. Nebbiolo can perform superbly in the relatively cool climate of Piemonte, although certain other regions may well prove their compatibility (see notes at the bottom). A lot of the debate and work in vineyard and winery revolve around consistent ripening without too much alcohol, taming tannins and, inevitably barrels (yawn). Namely their effect on ageing and character for Barolo etc - new barriques v old large casks - and especially colour. But does the world really need yet more richly purple wines from a variety that naturally isn't?
This in particular came through when visiting the following estates in terms of merits and appeal of traditional and so-called modern styles (details and comments on these wineries might appear in a separate report). Any prices mentioned are ex-cellar, so add on taxes and a retail margin to get a better idea (yes, some of them are that expensive). After this, I've selected my favourites from the monster tasting laid on by the Consorzio. Overall, I got the impression of very high quality in Barbaresco, probably more even than Barolo, with some surprises from Valtellina.


Elvio Cogno
2004 Dolcetto d'Alba, Vigna del Mandorlo (13%) - lovely youthful morello and black cherry fruit with notes of spice and light sulphide complexity; leaner tighter palate with attractive tannin texture, firm yet rounded and well balanced. €5.20 87+ points
2003 Barbera d'Alba, Bricco dei Merli (14%) - perfumed coconut and ripe cherries with underlying maturing aromas of smoke and spice; nice depth of fruit and texture, elegance v power plus light grip and bite on the finish. €7 89+
2003 Montegrilli, Langhe (Nebbiolo & Barbera, 14.5%, 1 year in barriques) - similar smoky cherry notes with meaty undertones, tobacco maturity v 'sweet' fruit; again oak is well handled adding nice texture, more power and grip than the above two, but it's still balanced and quite fine. €8 90+
2002 Barolo - quite forward in colour and aromas, liquorice v earthy cherry fruit showing floral 'sweet & savoury', Pinot Noir like characters; more structured with dry grip yet light seductive fruit on the finish. Good for 2002. €10 87
2001 Barolo, Ravera (14.5%) - gorgeous 'sweet & savoury' nose with light oak smoke and volatile
2001 Barolo, Vigna Elena - very different nose with red pepper and herb notes, perfumed and 'sweet' v rustic intricacy; very firm yet rich and silky palate, power and intense bite. Needs 5+ years. €27.50 94+


Giovanni Viberti
2004 Dolcetto d'Alba (from vat) - bright spicy morello cherry nose with light creamy background notes, fruity fresh and elegant length. 87
2004 Barbera d'Alba, Bricco Airoli (from vat) - rich liquorice and earthy black cherry fruit, concentrated yet elegant, fairly soft tannins with light choco texture and 'sweetness', again fresh finish. 90+
2003 Barolo, Bricco Vole (from vat) - quite full colour, lightly volatile complexity and wilder side backed up by spicy ripe fruit; lush yet fresh, firm v rounded texture with refined bite and length. 90-92
2003 Barbera d'Alba superiore, Bricco Airoli (13%) - attractive smoky black cherry fruit with savoury edges; quite concentrated and full on rounded tannins, power and freshness on a lovely finish. 90-92
Vino Mosso, Barbera Vivace - burnt earth dark plum fruit combines with savoury black forest gateau flavours, sweet yet refreshing finish with just a hint of tannin; pleasantly different. 87


Luciano Sandrone
2001 Nebbiolo d'Alba, Valmaggiore (14%) - mature smoky nose showing dried cherry, liquorice and balsamic; turning savoury on the palate with light grip and finish; drinking now. €25 87
2003 Nebbiolo d'Alba, Valmaggiore - estery cherry and earthy biscuit on the nose leading to liquorice and tobacco palate, ripe v firm bite, nice 'sweet & savoury' ('s & s') style. 87-89
2002 Barolo, Le Vigne - closed up and firm, austere start turning more liquoricey, lingering alcohol and acidity; difficult at the moment. 87

2000 Barolo, Le Vigne - richer smoky and more savoury, again tight and firm but has more substance and concentration, liquorice and morello cherry, dry v 'sweet' texture, long finish; needs time. 90-92
1999 Barolo, Le Vigne - complex herbal balsamic aromas with light coconut oak, elegant mature fruit and light tannins & acidity; a bit short. 87


Oddero Fratelli
2001 Barbaresco - attractive liquorice and cooked raspberries, ripe v very perfumed; firm palate with oily cherry fruit, nice freshness and length, dry structured finish. 88-89
2000 Barolo, Rocche di Castiglione - touch of chocolate oak with 's & s' complexity, 'tar' ripeness v red pepper notes; juicy v mature palate with firm coating of tannins, powerful yet finishes with more subtle length and bite; the oak's still a bit dominant, but that smoky balsamic character does come back. 90
2001 Barolo, Mondoca di Bussia Soprana - baked cheese complexity, ripe raspberry and smoke; much firmer and tighter structured, closes up on the powerful yet elegant finish; needs time, has soaked up the oak better than the 00. 92-94
2000 Barolo, Vigna Riondi - balsamic v herbal cherry 's & s' style with perfumed oak notes, quite rich dried fruit and tannins, shows some silkiness but also a little bitterness. 90-92
1998 Barolo, Mondoca di Bussia Soprana - sexy smoky tar and mature cheese notes, firm yet has plenty of ripe fruit too, pretty powerful finish. 94+


Ghiomo
2005 Langhe Arneis (Arneis, 13%) - tad of sulphur but it goes away, very yeast-leesy and mineral v fat citrus fruit, fresh bite and length. 87+
2001 Barbera d'Alba - smokier developed nose, appealing savoury v cherry fruit; firm and strong yet drinking well with chickpea and lamb broth. 90-92
2000 Barolo Marcenasco, Renato Ratti - quite rustic and rich with unusually deep colour, oily herbal 's & s' development; rather firm and more structured than other 00s, but this has good ripe fruit sweetness too. 92
1999 Barolo, Mafero - more complex smoky liquorice v meat aromas, richer fruit than above with perfumed balsamic notes, very firm tannins and powerful finish; this 99 will go as it has greater depth. 92-94
1997 Barolo, Renato Ratti - delicious maturing rustic herbal sweet v meaty aromas, rich and structured with ripe v firm framework; very concentrated, powerful yet still elegant and youthful. 95+


Burlotto
2004 Barbera d'Alba, Avès - richer darker fruit with background spicy oak, quite oak textured palate yet soft rounded tannins, touch of acidity and nice chunky fruit. €10.50 90+
2004 Nebbiolo Langhe - fuller and a tad oakier with underlying earthy intensity, more concentrated and structured with similarly round tannins v bite and grip, power on the finish; the fruit's a bit hidden, it needs a year in bottle. 90+
2001 Barolo, Acclivi - delicious strawberry v savoury tobacco and herbs on the nose, silky fruit and tannins then firm and fresh on the finish, energy v elegance; needs time, very promising. 92-94
2001 Barolo, Vigneto Cannubi - richer and smokier with lovely herbal edged fruit, very firm mouthfeel v meaty cherry flavours, wow on the finish. 94+
1999 Barolo, Monvigliere - farmy yet perfumed, very firm traditional style with pretty rustic finish, ripe dried fruit v dry grip. 92


Fontanafredda
2004 La Lepre, Diano d'Alba (Dolcetto) - earthy cherry and liquorice aromas lead on to a smoky quite chunky palate with a touch of chocolate oak; nice and fruity 'sweetness' with firm bite on the finish, smoother with food. 87
2001 Barbera d'Alba superiore, Papagena - black cherries and perfumed oak with lightly earthy undertones, chunky and juicy with choco texture, ripe fruit v firm-ish tannins; nice commercial style. 87+
1997 Barolo, Vigna Lazzarito - developing balsamic and leather notes, quite rich and smoky set against strong tannins and authoritative finish. 92
1982 Barolo, Vigna la Rosa - holding its colour well, sexy nose of rustic marmite and liquorice, meaty v sweet; good depth of fruit, mature yet still fresh, firm dry tannins but balanced, attractive elegant length. 93-95


Consorzio 'walk-around' tasting 10th & 11th March


Fratelli Alessandria, 2001 Barolo Monvigliero - aromatic cheesy 'sweet & sour' nose with lovely savoury tobacco profile, quite firm yet oily texture with elegant length. 92+


Giacomo Ascheri
2001 Barolo, Sorano Coste e Bricco - complex earthy spicy aromas, rich liquorice fruit v tight firm mouthfeel, long bite on the finish. 92-94
2000 Barolo, Sorano - quite rustic with bags of sweet liquorice v savoury fruit, firm yet maturing finish; attractive now and over the next few years. 90-92
1998 Barolo, Sorano - oily yet structured palate, leading to softer finish with nice fruit, then tighter and closes up again. 92+
1997 Barolo, Sorano - rustic smoky nose goes on to generous fruit, very concentrated with solid grip, 'sweet' v tobacco, long and powerful. 94-96
1996 Barolo, Sorano - fragrant farmyard and liquorice aromas, drier firmer than above and less rich, still very attractive though. 90+


Batasiolo
2001 Barolo, Briccolina - perfumed forward nose paves the way to concentrated 's & s' fruit set against very gripping tannins, powerful with long bite. 92-94
1996 Barolo, Briccolina - mature cheese and liquorice notes set you up for an impressive concentrated mouthful, again firm yet rounded by fruit. 92-94


Bava
2000 Barolo di Castiglione Falletto Scarrone - farmy maturing aromas mix with sweet morello cherries and raisins, soft rustic palate yet finishing firm and strong. 92
2004 Monferrato rosso, Vigneti di Cadodo - pungent black cherry nose, earthy v liquorice; fruity yet chunky in the mouth; attractive 'modern' style. 89


Bel Colle
2001 Barolo, Monvigliero - ripe and smoky, lush 's & s' fruit set against weight and grip, long graceful finish. 92-94
1997 Barolo, Monvigliero - complex herbal development, gorgeous sweet cherry fruit to balance meaty flavours, determined tannins v ripe softness. 94+


Bussia Soprana
2001 Barolo, Vigna Colonnello - scented balsamic cherry fruit, concentrated liquorice and tobacco palate, very compact with fresh acidity but the delicious fruit wines the day. 94+
1997 Barolo, Vigna Colonnello - fine Gruyere intensity v gorgeous liquorice, still carried by unyielding tannins and bright acidity, yet countered by sumptuous ripe fruit, power and length. 95-97
1996 Barolo, Bussia - rustic oily nose with cigar and fig, appealing mature 'tar' fruit layered with firm tannins and long bite. 92


Cantine dei Marchesi di Barolo
1989 Barolo - getting very cheesy with meaty leather and raisined cherries, dry grip v 'sweetness', still fairly alive really. 92-94
1982 Barolo - delightfully fragrant leather and dried fruits on the nose, somewhat firm with gentle fading fruit. 90
1978 Barolo - very balsamic, fig and liquorice; much more ripe fruit v dry tannins than above, fine savoury leather finish. 94


Castello di Verduno
2003 Barbaresco, Rabaja - plenty of 'sweet' cherries on the nose, more savoury and grippy palate with the fruit carrying well; should be good. 92-94
2001 Barbaresco, Rabaja - more subdued and smoky, very structured and concentrated, very tight solid and fresh; obviously needs a couple of years to start revealing itself. 94-96


Fontanabianca, 1998 Barbaresco Sori Burdin - herbal v tar aromas, sweet v leathery; stiff tannins yet lovely fruit and multifaceted flavours. 94+


Moccagatta
2001 Barbaresco, Bric Balin - richer and more intricate than their 2000, delicious maturing fruit v dry grip and texture, subtly underlined by well handled oak. 92-94
1999 Barbaresco, Bric Balin - smoky and perfumed with tar tones, nice ripe raisin and cherry sweetness of fruit v quite austere finish, light oak coating. 92-94


Nada Fiorenzo, 2001 Barbaresco Rombone - more perfumed and herbal than their Barby blend, very concentrated and structured, layer of oak yet generous bright fruit too. 94


Rizzi
2001 Barbaresco, Boito - seductive smoky fruit on the nose, very firm bite on the palate with attractive maturing edges. 90-92
1997 Barbaresco - cheesy v sweet aromas and charming fruit, much softer than other 97s, elegant long finish. 94


Josetta Saffirio, 2003 Nebbiolo Langhe - attractive herbal v 'sweet' nose, quite a bit of oak yet has complex fruit too, grip and bite well balanced by smoky liquorice flavours. 90+


Marchesi di Gresy
2002 Barbaresco, Martinenga - scented mint aromas, ripeness v light oak; balanced fruit and dry grip on the palate. 90-92
2001 Barbaresco, Gaiun - the oak's quite dominant at the moment, although this offers plenty of aromatic liquorice 's & s' fruit, elegant concentration and length with grip and bite too. 94
1997 Barbaresco, Martinenga - fragrant 's & s' fruit, smoky cherry; more elegant palate, solid tannins yet ripe and herby backdrop. 92-94


Rino Varaldo
2001 Barbaresco - very perfumed and graceful cherry fruit, structured and compelling mouthfeel yet supported by sumptuous fruit and classy length; wow and woof. 95-97
1997 Barbaresco - more savoury cherry than above, firm and leathery, pretty big and chewy yet rich balancing fruit; less charming finish than above. 90


Valtellina


Cantina di Villa, 1998 Sforzato Tinaia - delightful 'old claret' nose yet with rich fig on top of the herby edges; full v subtle, maturing fruit v grip and power (14.5%) with long liquorice finish. 90
Giorgio Gianatti, 2001 Valtellina superiore Grumello - aromatic tar and black cherry nose, chunky style showing nice ripeness v might, fine acidity v dry tannin. 90-92
Mamete Prevostini, 2003 Valtellina superiore Sassella Sommarovina - delicious Pinot Noir-esque floral yet ripe cherry and tar aromas, neat yet muscular palate with lovely 's & s' fruity length. 94
Miru, 2000 Ghemme Vigna Cavenago - quite farmy but it works, nice ripe mature fruit with soft-ish tannins and warm length. 89


Rest of the world


Barboursville Vineyards, 2002 Nebbiolo Reserve; Virginia, USA - sulphide farmyard complexity mixes with nice tar, liquorice and morello; good balance of dry grip and length of fruit. 89
Benjamin Silver Wines
2001 Silver Nebbiolo, Santa Barbara County, USA - herbal currant and cherry nose, attractive and intricate with tobacco undertones; quite rich then firm tannins with ripe texture, has energy v elegance, will develop further. 92
1998 Silver Nebbiolo - rustic and volatile v liquorice with complex herbal berry notes, quite concentrated and long with firm bite yet mature fruit. 92
Primo Estate 2002 Joseph Nebbiolo, South Australia - rather too herbal and firm to start, although there's some velvety tobacco and cherry fruit underneath, plus good bite and length. 87

Italian wines: Off Licence News April 2003

Keeping their fingers crossed was never going to be enough for Italian wine producers with a presence on UK off-licence shelves. After at least two successive years of increasing their market share, the figures suggest a downturn in sales. In 2002 Italy lost about 5% of its value share of the take home market, but still occupied third slot with 10-11% in value and 12% in volume. Jan/Feb. 2003 MAT data confirms a further slightly downward trend (all stats ACNielsen). In addition a difficult 2002 vintage resulting in lower volumes and possibly quality isn’t going to help.
This makes Italy vulnerable to the USA (world politics aside), in fourth slot in value terms and nearly 9% of volume, with experts there predicting 2-3 years to absorb the excess production of Californian wine (www.winebusiness.com). So we can expect a revitalised export drive at keen prices from across the Atlantic. Sensationally South Africa stole fourth position in volume share last year at 9.5%, by successfully unleashing a host of well made, priced and targeted brands, as well as more premium wines.
However it’s certainly not all doom and gloom for Italy. Clued up producers have made major inroads with attractive new wines at all price points, and certain high profile regions and grape varieties already have wide consumer recognition and following. Then there’s the South and Sicily: enthusiastically hyped but arguably still has plenty to offer and deliver in terms of appealing styles, quantity (particularly reds) and quality. So let’s delve deeper into what’s hot from Italy, and the problems and triumphs that lie ahead for retailers and importers.
Even with production down by perhaps 12% (rather than the 20%+ horror stories circulating late last year) in 2002, let’s not forget Italy still makes way over 500 million cases of wine a year. So possible supply difficulties in relation to competing countries have to be put in context, as Pierpaolo Petrassi, Commercial Manager at International Wine Services, touches on. “The US could leap ahead if they continue at the same growth, but their average bottle price will also soften. The problem with Italy is Tuscany sees Umbria as the biggest competitor, for example; they’re not thinking globally.”
Tony Brown, M.D of Meridian Wines adds: “This year Italy could see a further volume decline with reduced availability and higher pricing on many wines. But there are some good 2002 whites and excellent 2001 reds out there, which should provide the opportunity to consolidate its quality position.” No wonder Italian wine has declined in value with an average retail price of about £3.25 compared with the overall figure of £3.75. Petrassi cites some reasons: “Australian wines at sub £3 have eroded Italy’s and other Old World producers’ presence.” Brown rightly foresees the positive side, “to move away from the bargain basement where Spain and southern France can offer a better deal.”
Producers outside the ‘classic’ areas have realised the need to create effective Italian brands to broaden the appeal of their wines, and hence customer base, and improve margins longer term. Canti Rosso and Bianco, priced at £2.99-£3.29 and developed especially for the UK market, were launched last year by family-owned winery Fratelli Martini. These were recently followed by Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio from Veneto and Merlot/Sangiovese from Sicily at £3.99. Gianni Martini remarks: “I have always dreamt of producing ‘Brand Italy’… to create a brand that will place Italian wines in the same position of respect as Italy already holds for design, fashion and food.” He’s putting his money where his mouth is too: Dermot Magee, Sales & Marketing Director at their UK agent D&D, confirms: “A major press campaign will break in May for Canti, and a series of tailor made promotions are being organised with key customers to maintain the high growth rate the brand has achieved to date.”
Other brand owners have looked south as well. Casa Girelli’s Canaletto range has expanded from the Veneto and Abruzzo to include reds from Sicily and Puglia too. So why is the South so sexy? “Southern Italy is the place to be for innovation,” says Claire Whitehead, Italian Agency Executive at Western Wines. “The region has huge potential for producing large volumes of high quality wines at a great price. Following heavy investment in both vineyards and wineries, the opportunities are endless. The ‘IGT’ denomination and its flexibility (allowing identifiable region and variety) are put to good use in the south, the birthplace of many emerging brands.” Western Wines recent offerings include Da Luca from Puglia, a Primitivo-Merlot retailing at £4.99, and a new brand from Sicily, Montalto Sangiovese-Nero d’Avola at £4.99 plus Reserve at £6.99.
Gerd Stepp at M&S is equally excited: “Southern Italy has been really successful because of its potential to produce outstanding wines from regional grape varieties in considerable quantities. Southern Italy will continue to grow and reach a very significant status, especially for production of red wines in the every day category.” Petrassi, who handles Marc Xero amongst others, adds: “When looking to create brands, in southern Italy you really get what you pay for. They can punch their weight at £4.99 and allow for promoting down, as there’s more margin.”
Brown agrees, cautiously: “The potential of southern Italy, Sicily and Puglia in particular, for world-beating mid-priced reds is much discussed, but there’s still a long way to go. The key will be establishing names of varieties, brands and (possibly) regions in consumers’ minds, and this will be a slow process. Varieties such as Negro Amaro, Primitivo, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico all produce wines of quality and individuality.” Meridian’s 2001 Italia Negro Amaro has RRP of £4.99, and they also claim great success in the independent sector with Primario, a limited production 100% barrel-aged Negro Amaro (RRP £6.99).
It’s encouraging to see indigenous grapes are gently taking off with off-licence visitors. It’s also easy to grasp the reasoning behind opting for dual varietals on labels – one of them ‘international’ to woo these buyers – apart from stylistic and viticultural considerations. Another hotly debated topic is the Puglian variety Primitivo and the fashion for labelling it as Zinfandel (genetically they’re the same). Stepp states his preference: “I don’t see an obvious reason to use the Zinfandel name, apart from exports to the US. Primitivo gives the wine a uniqueness and its unmistakable origin of Italy.” Whitehead resolutely agrees: “Currently all of our Italian Primitivo is labelled as such, and this is something we are not looking to change.” Petrassi differs a little: “We’re still getting behind Primitivo with a lot of wines; the Trulli label switched to Zin to give it a point of difference… it’s more recognisable.”
Sicily finally seems to be matching up to expectations, and, unlike many other areas, had a very good 2002 vintage. “Stunning Sicilian wines offering excellent value are there for the taking,” claims Whitehead, “it’s now down to the trade to change the consumer’s perception.” Petrassi is similarly categorical: “Without a shadow of a doubt, at £3-5 nobody can touch Sicily.”
This doesn’t mean buyers are moving way from established classics like Chianti. Taking Tesco as an example, they list seven different Chiantis from basic to icon (Fonterutoli), own and proprietor’s brands; an independent may well list more. “Melini has done very well,” comments Petrassi, “but is the brand Melini or Chianti?” It’s also interesting to note reds from the Marche feature strongly in Tesco’s range.
As for white wines, Pinot Grigio is still the big story but “grape prices are unsustainably high, sooner or later the bubble will burst,” predicts Brown. “Soave, Orvieto or even Frascati could benefit but my money would be on wines with less historical baggage – Gavi has great potential if prices remain at current levels.” Trentino in the north is underdeveloped and offers many fine wines, such as Cavit’s new range ‘Bottega Vinai’ at around £7.50, including a barrique-aged Merlot, Pinot Noir and ripe honeyed style of Pinot Grigio.
Does all this talk of regions and varieties help or confuse the consumer? IGT simplifies marketing by focusing on grape variety, perhaps brand name and a broader saleable area, such as Toscana or Sicilia rather than one of hundreds of minor sub-districts the Italians specialise in. And what of education? “Italy needs to be promoted as a whole, then the regions,” Petrassi sums up. “It’s the only major one who doesn’t have a generic campaign.” This is a high hurdle for Italy: centred on complex local issues and funding, spent on increasingly obscure regional showcases in London, what is the Trade Centre’s role and why isn’t it focusing on a concerted Italian wine campaign? The main annual tasting event – the heavily attended ‘Definitive Italian’ in July – is organised and paid for by UK importers and their principals.
Nevertheless all this enthusiasm, innovation and potential, backed up by well-established names, decent quantity/quality of wines and positive lifestyle images; coupled with the hard work and success previously seen here, should ensure that longer term Italy can again overcome any temporary decline.