ITALIAN WINE REPORT 2011
As the economy stabilizes, American consumers are approaching new Italian varietals and regions, as well as engaging with grapes that they have come to rely on from Lo Stivale
Many things have changed in the U.S. over the past year, from the unpredictable ups and downs of the economy to the passage of landmark legislation. But one thing remains the same: Americans still love their Italian wine, as the segment again ranked as the No. 1 imported wine in 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Italian wine was up 9 percent from 157.02 million liters in the first nine months of 2009 to 173.99 million liters over that same time period in 2010, far ahead of Australia at No. 2 and France at No. 3. This volume, while still sourced mainly from reliable places like Tuscany, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, is also being spurred on by consumer interest in other, lesser-known Italian varietals and regions that are perhaps seeing more attention than ever before stateside.
An Exploring Spirit
As the economic downturn took its toll on the wine industry and belt-tightening even struck the collector circuit, U.S. wine consumers looked to find the best bang for their buck in retail aisles and at restaurant bars and lounges. In their search for that magic price/quality ratio in a wine bottle that wouldn’t break the bank, many consumers began to experiment and discover the 20 wine-producing regions of Italy, and the individual varietals and characteristics of each of these regions. The wines from the South, in particular, found favor amongst American consumers, as production quality and availability have increased over the past several years. Complimented by the fact that their price points were in step with consumers scaling back on spending, wines hailing from Southern regions, such as Apulia, experienced an upswing in sales.
“I think the market is changing and consumers are requesting different wines. The panorama of wine is so big in Italy—the culture, the history, the people. Restaurateurs like me, are looking for not-so-well-known varietals to offer consumers—from Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata—areas not as yet well known in the market,” says Gianfranco Sorrentino, owner of Il Gattopardo, the southern Italian restaurant in Manhattan named after the classic Luchino Visconti film. He notes that given the regional nature of his restaurant, he can focus on the wines from these Southern regions on his 220-label, all Italian wine list. However, he is always ready to showcase wines from all over the peninsula and is pleased to participate in the upcoming Shop & Dine Vino 2011 restaurant promotion with a special focus on the wines of Tuscany.
“Wines from the South are still en vogue. One reason is the value/quality ratio, and the general price points of these wines. Now more than ever, there is more than just Tuscany and Piedmont with Italian wine,” says Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino. “But still, people are very aware of price points in this economy. More and more, as there is not a crazy price connected to them, consumers are showing great interest in wines like Negroamaro from Apulia.”
“People are becoming more interested in wines like Primitivo from Apulia,” says Alec Steidl, Wine Director at Babbo. He concedes that the default setting for the majority of American wine consumers when they buy Italian wine is still Tuscany or Chianti. “We’ve noticed that more people are moving away from classical Italian wine districts, and moving towards varietals from lesser-known regions.”
At Vino Fine Wine and Spirits, there is also a concerted effort to introduce consumers to the indigenous grapes of Italy, and acquaint them with some of the lesser known grapes and areas. “Our idea was to go to Italy and travel around and leave aside the over-emphasized wine we’ve known for many years, and focus on wines like Aglianico from Apulia, and people have been very receptive to it,” says Jim Hutchinson, Director of Operations at the Manhattan-based wine shop of their Italian portfolio. “We’ve created a path for ourselves that has not been taken previously.”
This can be seen in the store’s sale of Lambrusco, a varietal that has taken a beating in the past from an image perspective since its heyday in the 1970s. “Five years ago, we brought in Lambrusco from Lini, and it is now the bestselling wine for us,” he notes. “Lambrusco sells well, because we promote it a lot. We have a lot of good clients in New York. We don’t have to hand sell it like we used to two years ago.” Vino is not the only retailer seeing a renewed interest in Lambrusco, as retailers and restaurateurs have witnessed a resurgence in consumer interest in the frizzante wine category in the U.S. market. While it is certainly not on the level with something like Sangiovese, the modest growth is illustrative of consumer interest moving beyond the predictable and better known areas of Italy to try something different.
The Usual Suspects
While American consumers explore the breadth of Italian wine and the indigenous varietals they had not tried in the past, they also continue to drink the wines of Tuscany and Piedmont, long held as the most venerable wine regions of Italy. “Pinot Grigio, Lambrusco and Chianti collectively account for a 72-percent volume share of the Italian wine market in the U.S.,” says James Mariani, co-CEO at Banfi Vintners. “In terms of regions, Tuscany remains a perennial regional favorite among American wine lovers. The strongest share gainers, however, are Moscato, followed by Pinot Noir.”
“There is a lot of red from all over Italy. I think in the mind of consumer, Chianti is the most clearly defined,” say Michael Petteruti, Senior Vice President at Palm Bay International. “If you asked consumers, I don’t know if it’s a lack of knowledge or what, Chianti is the one they would comment on.” He notes that on the white side of things, Pinot Grigio is still the stalwart in Italian wine, with the varietal remaining synonymous with Italy and Italian wine in the mind of American consumers, a phenomenon that shows no signs of waning. “Pinot Grigio is still by far the largest. There is one thing you can’t take away from it: You can’t take away its authenticity,” he notes. “You can plant Pinot Grigio in Tasmania, but it is inextricably linked to Italy.”
“Pinot Grigio continues to be the big story in Italian wine,” agrees Leonardo LoCascio, Chairman of the Montvale, New Jersey-based importer Winebow. “There are many different varietals of red wine, including domestic sources. But when it comes to white wine, you only really have Chardonnay. So people are looking for something different, and some people find Sauvignon Blanc too aggressive and too strong a flavor.”
The enjoyment of Italian wine though is not limited to consumption in Italian restaurants, their versatility showcased on wine lists at restaurants with cuisine as far reaching as Japanese and New American. For example, Geisha, the Japanese-French fusion restaurant in Manhattan, has its own impressive representation of Italian wines, ranging from Barolo to Brunello di Montalcino to Pinot Grigio from Friuli. Vittorio Assaf, founder of the Serafina Restaurant Group which owns Geisha as well as the Italian restaurant Serafina, notes that he sells about 10 cases of his proprietary Pinot Grigio a week at Geisha. He says though, from a regional perspective, he considers Tuscany and Piedmont to be the best in Italian wine. “There are mostly two areas—Tuscany and Piedmont—and they are by far the best when it comes to wine in Italy,” he says. “The Barolo, the Barbaresco, all the big-bodied Italian wine from Piedmont. From Tuscany, you have the Sassicaia, the Tignanello, which are very silky and aromatic. You have Amarone from the Veneto region. And, the most popular wine, Pinot Grigio.”
“I think Tuscany and Piedmont are still king. I think Amarone has a nice niche of consumers, and the marketing aspect of the Super Tuscans has been really brilliant,” says Jonathan Newman, Chairman and CEO of Newman Wine and Spirits, of the most popular Italian wines stateside. “There are pockets outside of Tuscany and Piedmont that consumers are devoted to, but I think Piedmont and Tuscany are the big growing regions and have the history that goes back 100 years. When I purchase wine, I like to focus on these areas.”
“I think Valpolicella is the most popular Italian wine. Now they want something a little different. I think Valpolicella; it’s one of the ones that is easy to recognize, it’s priced friendly and it is fun for people to say,” says Dan Amatuzzi, Wine Director at Eataly, of what he sees as the most popular Italian wine being consumed stateside. “ I just think in that price range, in a retail wine shop, under $15, there are more reliable bottles of Valpolicella in terms of value and what you are really getting at that price.”
Prosecco Marches On
Prosecco, which came to the fore during the height of the recession as a less expensive alternative to Champagne, continues to garner an active following among American consumers. While there had certainly been Prosecco available prior to the economic downturn, consumers have come to rely on its price point and flavor profile as an alternative to Champagne for their celebratory occasions as well as everyday life.
Prosecco-based cocktails like the Bellini and the Aperol Spritz have also greatly benefited from this interest in the Italian sparkler. In fact, this affinity for Italian ingredients in cocktails has brought Italian spirits and fortified wines into the spotlight in U.S. bars and restaurants as well. With the cocktail culture in full swing and bartenders in search of new and interesting flavors that stand for authenticity, Amaros and Vermouths, among other Italian liqueurs, have been surging. According to Francesco Lafranconi, Director of Mixology and Spirits Education for Southern Wine and Spirits of America, these liqueurs have been growing in the past 10 years, due to the evolution of mixology stateside. “There has been an evolution and sophistication of the American palate so people are more acquainted these days with products like Maraschino and other brands,” says Lafranconi. “Bartenders are getting better acquainted with bitters and have been promoting these types of liqueurs in their cocktails.”
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, consumption of Italian sparkling wine grew 21 percent, up to 13.17 million liters in the first nine months of 2010 from 10.86 million liters over that same time the previous year, beating out French sparkling wine as the No. 1 imported sparkling wine by consumption. This growth includes the breadth of the popular sparkling wines coming out of Italy, such as Oltrepo’ Pavese, Franciacorta, and Talento.
But, many consumers, once introduced, have stayed loyal to this sparkling wine from Veneto, even as the market stabilizes. In fact, Prosecco has become a regular by-the-glass pour on wine lists at Italian and non-Italian restaurants alike.
“Champagne business is good this year, but I think and I know when the Champagne business was not good, many consumers were drinking Prosecco, perhaps for the first time. A lot of people have made new friends with Prosecco and they haven’t gone away,” says Michael Yurch, president of retail behemoth Sherry-Lehman in New York. “I’ve never seen Prosecco sell this well. My Champagne sales are back, but it hasn’t been at the expense of my Prosecco sales.”
“There has been an explosion in the interest in Prosecco. Some of it is self defeating, as there are more producers sending it to the U.S. as there is a growing awareness of this style of wine,” says LoCascio at Winebow of the Italian bubbly’s popularity. “And I think it will continue. Part of the interest is in the price point, but there is an interest in the flavor profile in its own right. People really like the sparkling wine at that price level. It is uncomplicated. I think that it is going to continue beyond the recession. There is nothing like it. It’s not facing the competition that so many reds or whites are facing.”
Italy Continues to Reign Supreme
There appears to be no stopping America and its love affair with Italian wine and the culture of its motherland. While contenders from other countries, like the booming Malbecs of Argentina and the Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand make their respective runs on the U.S. wine market, Italy remains at top form, offering something for everyone at every different entry point of the wine market. Even as the market stabilizes, consumers are still looking for value, and Italian wine continues to deliver the price/quality ratio that wine drinkers are currently seeking out. “The beauty of Italy in selling wine is that if you try wine from Friuli-Venezia Giulia and from Apulia, you might as well be on two different planets. Every D.O.C. has it’s own unique cuisine, shapes of pasta, and culture. That diversity in Italy is integral to selling Italy the brand,” says Yurch at Sherry Lehman. “To sell the brand Italy is to sell so many things, and I think, in general, that is the sex appeal. This is not by pr design but by factual analysis.”
“2011 is going to better than 2010. We still have a lot of people out of work, but those making money know they aren’t going to loose their job so they are more comfortable with spending,” says Sorrentino at Il Gattopardo. “Retail went up a lot from 2008. Consumers are feeling more comfortable, and we are seeing people coming back and enjoying those big-ticket wines. I am very positive about 2011, and very positive about Italian wines.”
—Mary E. Keefe is a freelance wine and spirits writer based in New York.