We Don’t Talk About Abruzzo … But We Should!

The thing about Bruno, a character in the Disney film Encanto, is that everyone talks about not talking about him. Or at least that’s the gist of the wildly popular song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.

The Abruzzo Syndrome

For a long time this situation kind of applied to Abruzzo, the under-appreciated Italian region you reach by flying to Rome and driving east over the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic. My well-worn 1998 Knopf Guide to Italy, for example, devotes more than 500 colorful pages to tourist Italy, but gives poor Abruzzo precisely 2 pages of text.

The Abruzzo syndrome, as illustrated by the Knopf guide treatment, is that the Itay is full of the best of the best of tourist sights and attractions. Abruzzo’s natural beauty and modest charm is undeniable, but it struggles for the spotlight that is focused elsewhere.

Sue and I can appreciate this situation from our experience living in Bologna some years ago. For the most part foreign visitors only knew Bologna from changing trains at the station or attending conferences at the big convention center outside of town. Bologna was a place you passed through on your way to somewhere else. Abruzzo’s location makes it ever less of a destination point.

Abruzzo Wine Syndrome

The Abruzzo syndrome plagued the region’s wines, too. Take the usually-generous Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy, for example. Anderson gives 3 pages out of 300 to Abruzzo in my 1990 edition of this classic volume, disappointed by what he saw as a lack of interest in quality.

… the growing of grapes in abundance as just another fruit crop still offers more attractive prospects than does the making of premium wine. The shame of it is that the Abruzzi’s sunny hills could make outstanding wines, not only from the native Montepulciano but from many other noble vines.

A few producers stubbornly swam against the tide — Anderson cites Edoardo Valentini in particular — but it was a difficult task given the region’s lack-luster reputation. Abruzzo’s reputation was nothing much to talk about even though the potential was clear.

Abruzzo Fast Forward

Fast forward to 2022. Sue and I hadn’t talked much about Abruzzo over the years, but an unexpected invitation to visit later this year was enough to make us circle back to see how Abruzzo has changed and it is clear that the region is getting some of the respect it was previously denied.

Travel and Leisure magazine, for example, named Abruzzo to its list of the 50 best places to travel in 2022.  Abruzzo has changed, as the article suggests, but perhaps travelers have changed, too, and now appreciate local charm and character more than before. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

Stretching from the heart of the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea on the peninsula’s southeastern side, Abruzzo, Italy has long been one of the country’s most overlooked destinations despite its unspoiled villages, picturesque Trabocchi Coast, and stunning natural escapes. Over the past few years, however, it has gone from a sleepy underdog to an ambitious harbinger of slow travel, sustainable gastronomy, and conscious hospitality.

Reality vs Reputation

Reality has moved faster than reputation on the wine front, too. Abruzzo is still noteworthy for the quantity of wine it produces. Abruzzo ranked #5 among Italian wine regions in 2020 for volume of production. Veneto and Apulia topped the table followed by Emili-Romagna and Sicily. Abruzzo was followed by Piedmonte and Tuscany. But quantity is no longer the only game in town.

My battered copy of Slow Wine Guide 2014, for example, highlighted the growing number of premium producers who were able to meet the guide’s high standards.

It is a mistake to speak about the Abruzzo as an emerging winegrowing region. Consistent quality has now become more general, no longer the prerogative of a handful of historic cellars plowing the furrow of tradition, but also a characteristic of the work of both small wineries and large cooperatives.  … All in all, the Abruzzo wine world is in good health, working the land more sustainably than in the past and affording consumer enjoyment with very reasonably priced labels.

Clearly Abruzzo has turned a corner, a fact underlined by the evaluation I found in my copy of the Gambero Rosso 2019 guide to Italian wines. “Abruzzo’s wine industry is in many ways a kind of microcosm of the nation as a whole,” the analysis begins, “… leaving behind an age in which it was dominated by large quantities of generic bulk wine used outside of the region.”

Slowly Then Suddenly

The wines today (and the people who make them) are a better reflection of the remarkable diversity found within the region. “And they won’t cost you an arm and a leg either,” the report suggests, “(it’s not a coincidence that once again a number of Tre Bicchieri come at a price that would allow for daily consumption).”

Slowly — and then suddenly — Abruzzo is a topic of conversation. Just last week, for example, the region was highlighted in two news stories. The Drinks Business reported that Italy’s National Wine Committee and Agricultural Ministry agreed to consolidate the central Italian region’s wines under a single IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), Terre d’Abruzzo. IGT wines are an important category where innovation is encouraged and the new designation will raise Abruzzo’s visibility. The hope is that Terre d’Abruzzo  IGT will do for Abruzzo was “Terre Siciliane” did for Sicilian wine identity when the designation was introduced a few years ago.

Meanwhile, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov featured two indigenous Abruzzo wine grape varieties in his column on “Ten Grapes Worth Knowing Better.”  Pecorino and Trebbiano d”Abruzzese — and recommended Abruzzo producers — made the list of wines worth discovering.

So apparently we are talking about Abruzzo now for the quality, value, and character of its wines. And it is good to keep the conversation going because it will take some time for Abruzzo’s reputation to catch up to reality. And it will not be easy to get attention in the crowded market for Italian wines, where famous names abound.

Scratching the Surface of Sicilian Wine

I was intrigued when we were asked if we’d like to sample wines from a Sicilian cooperative winery. The history of Sicily’s wine industry — and the role of cooperatives within it — is a roller-coaster tale and such sagas in wine do not always have happy endings. I was thirsty to learn more about the situation today.

I learned about the history of Sicily’s wine sector from The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio (see the Wine Economist review here). Wine in Sicily has been buffeted by a combination of shifts in the external markets and changing domestic incentives. It is no wonder that cooperatives arose to help growers navigate the ups and downs and gain a measure of control over their own destinies.  Cooperatives spring up in times of crisis, but it is their ability to adapt when conditions change that is most important.

Incentives Matter

Sometimes the economic incentives the cooperatives and other wine actors faced favored quality, but all too often quantity was the dominant strategy. This was particularly true during the years when EU wine policy unintentionally encouraged over-production of low-quality wines with no obvious market potential. These unsalable wines, the source of the famous EU “wine lake,” were bought up and distilled into industrial alcohol, a process that was not sustainable in economic, political, or environmental terms.

The wine lake days are gone — EU incentives now favor market-driven wine production — and the wines have changed faster than their reputations in many cases. Not all wineries have raised their game, however, and that inconsistency is a headwind.

The wines we sampled were from the Cantine Ermes cooperative, which was founded in 1998 in the Belice Valley in northwest Sicily. The cooperative is very large with 2373 members farming more than 12,000 hectares and operating 11 winemaking facilities.  In total Cantine Ermes produces 11.5 million bottles annually, which are sold in 29 countries around the world. Does this surprise you? Cooperatives are important in Italian wine, more important than most people realize.

Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit

One criticism I have heard of many Italian cooperatives is that they cut their own throats by focusing too much on bulk wine and private label products — they take this low-hanging fruit and fail to build the brands that might yield higher margins that would improve their economic sustainability.

Some of the deep dark red wine made in Sicily, for example, is sold off to be blended with lighter Italian reds to give the result more body, color, and alcohol — a practice that has been going on for a long time. Cantine Ermes gives attention to several brands, however, including the Vento di Mare wines that we sampled.

Vento di Mare means sea winds and so it was inevitable that we would ask our friends R and M to sample the wines with us. Their visit to Sicily was punctuated by gale force sea winds that nearly blew them off the island and caused sea foam to pile up on the shoreline like drifts of snow.

The three wines we tasted were screwcap-topped bottles of Grillo DOC, Nerello Mascalese IGT, and Moscato Frizzante that retail for about $12 here in the US — right about the center of the retail wine wall in today’s market.  The Grillo had nice varietal flavor and good balance. It seemed very versatile and would pair with many dishes as well as on its own. It was probably our favorite wine.

The red Nerello Mascalese was more intense and called out for a bold food pairing. Nerello Mascalese is the most-planted red winegrape in Sicilty according to my sources, and it was easy to see how it could be the foundation of a number of interesting blends as well as a single-variety wine.

The Moscato was fizzy and slightly sweet. Just 10.5% abv, the wine has a secondary fermentation for two months in an autoclave and then ages another two months on its lees. Aromatic (think orange blossoms) and nicely balanced. Like the Grillo it would work in a number of situations. Very pleasant indeed.

Sicilian Wine Ambassadors

We were impressed with the Vento di Mare wines and a bit surprised at the affordable entry-level price point. Other Cantine Ermes brands probe the higher reaches of the wine wall. I hope the attractive packaging and price point encourage consumers to give these wines a try (and that some restaurants see the potential for wine-by-the-glass sales). These wines are good ambassadors for Sicily and its cooperative wineries.

Since we aren’t able to travel to explore the wine world these days as we did in pre-pandemic times, we find it useful to focus on invitations like the one we received from Cantina Ermes. Clearly we have just scratched the surface of the wines of Sicily and the progress of Sicilian cooperatives, but we are encouraged, nonetheless. These are good wines that chart a path out of Sicily’s quantity-driven past towards a more sustainable future.

Anatomy of the Prosecco DOC Boom

Prosecco sales have boomed in the last decade, with the volume of Prosecco DOC global sales more than doubling. And, with the advent of Prosecco Rosé, they promise to continue their upward trend.

Booming Sales in a Stagnant Market

Sue and I had an opportunity to reflect on Prosecco’s surging popularity recently when the Prosecco DOC consortio invited us to participate in an online tasting timed to celebrate National Prosecco Week. The program included a webinar hosted by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (aka the World Wine Guys)  and a tasting of Prosecco DOC and Prosecco Rosé DOC wines from Ruggeri, Anna Spinato, Pitars, Domus Picta, and Zardetto. The program was fun and informative. Many thanks to everyone involved.

The Prosecco boom is impressive, even more so when you consider that global wine consumption has been stagnant during the period shown in the table above. About the only wine market segments that have shown sustained growth have been sparkling wines (especially Prosecco), Rosé wines, and Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Almost all other segments have been relatively flat or down.

The obvious questions to ask are why Prosecco and why now, but the a better question might be what took consumers in the US, UK, and elsewhere so long to embrace Prosecco’s many charms?

I Blame Champagne

I blame Champagne. Champagne has defined the sparkling wine segment for decades as a luxury product, which for most consumers means something to be saved for a special occasion. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. These were the times to uncork Champagne.  The substantial niche for sparkling wines at other times was largely unfiled. Prosecco — less expensive and easy to like — filled that niche, powered by a general willingness of consumers to embrace anything and everything associated with Italy.

I like to say that Prosecco is the Mark Twain of sparkling wine. The works of the great authors, according to Mark Twain, are like fine wine. Mine, he said with a certain false modesty, are like water. Everyone drinks water. And now everyone drinks Prosecco, too, and it doesn’t take a Hallmark greeting card occasion to pop a cork.

You can make Prosecco as simple or as complicated as you like. A large majority of the wines are Prosecco DOC (and most of those are quaffable Extra Dry wines), which forms the base of the Prosecco pyramid. Enthusiasts can explore higher elevations: Prosecco DOCG, wines from the Rive (designated vineyard areas), and finally Prosecco from Cartizze, a legendary hilltop vineyard area.  A Prosecco Pyramid tasting  expedition is fun, informative, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. You should try it!

 

The Rise of Prosecco Rosé DOC

Have you seen the new pink Prosecco? Prosecco Rosé DOC came into the market with the 2020 vintage. It is a blend of Glera, the Prosecco grape variety, with up to 15% Pinot Noir. We have started to see the wines on local store shelves in the past month or so — I think some shipments were held up a bit by the logistics problems that plague international trade.

Pink sparkling wines from the Veneto are not a new thing, but the wines couldn’t be called Prosecco until the DOC rules were modified to allow this use. Prosecco Rosé is a DOC wine — the DOCG rules haven’t changed.

Will Prosecco Rosé be a hit? As you can see from the graphic above, the Prosecco producers expect sales to more than double between 2020 and 2021. Demand might in fact be even higher — there is actually a supply-side constraint until new plantings of Pinot Noir come into production.

Sue said that she’s not sure there really needs to be a pink Prosecco. The traditional wine — such as the delicious Anna Spinato Extra Dry DOC included in our samples — is plenty good enough. But she enjoyed the pink wines, especially the pale and well-balanced Zardetto Rosè  Prosecco Extra Dry,  All the Prosecco Rosè DOC wines benefit from an extra month on their lees, which gives them a richer mouth-feel.

Is Prosecco Rosè DOC the next big thing? Too soon to tell, but the wines we sampled make a good case for a pink Prosecco boom that’s an echo of the boom that’s already here.

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I enjoy drinking Prosecco so much that I’ve never thought about cooking with it. Until now. I was pleased to receive a book called The 100 Prosecco Recipes by Italian winemaker Sandro Bottega, which highlights both Prosecco and many of the indigenous food products of the Veneto. A beautiful volume, it has given me lots of new ideas.

There is one recipe in particular that I can’t wait to try once the summer heat wave has passed. It is a very different idea of risotto. You make a broth from water flavored with thyme and herbs. You cook the risotto in the usual way using the herb broth and  at the end, you mix in a bit of olive oil instead of butter and cheese.

Where does the Prosecco come in? At service! You pour a little Prosecco into a pool you have made in the risotto (and then, I think, you pour some more into yourself). It seems to me that this last-minute addition could be spectacular and set off the other flavors. Worth a try, don’t you think?  Many thanks to Bottega for the book and great ideas.

Out of the Shadows: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

One of the last in-person wine events we attended before the coronavirus pandemic put most such activities on hold was a symposium on the wines of Italy, which I wrote about on The Wine Economist. One particularly memorable session was sponsored by the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano consorzio, which was hoping to draw attention to the region and its wines.

Chianti’s Deep Shadow

It is easy for a wine region — even a very important one like Vino Nobile — to get lost amongst famous names from across Italy and around the world. As I wrote back in 2019 …

Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. … The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves. This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example.  Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.

But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.

Hand-selling wines like Vino Nobile has been nearly impossible in the traditional sense during the pandemic, but Avignonesi, a historic Vino Nobile producer, took matters in their own hands and, with our permission, sent us samples of their wines and invited us to look more closely at what they are doing.  The result was quite revealing.

Old But Not Stale

Avignonesi and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are old names, but there doesn’t seem to be anything stale about them. Indeed, dynamic is the world that comes to mind.

Biodynamic, in fact. Virginie Saverys, a successful Belgian attorney and passionate  wine lover, acquired Avignonesi in 2009 and set about expanding the vineyards and converting them to biodynamics. Avignonesi is now the largest biodynamic producer in Italy. The public face of the winey in terms of its hospitality programs was upgraded as well. I hope we can visit one day to sample the wines and experiences in person. Even at this distance, however, it is hard not to be impressed with what’s been done in just a little over a decade.

The Avignonesi wines themselves do nothing to diminish the positive impression. When a package with six small sample bottles arrived we looked for an opportunity to taste through the wines with friends who share our Vino Nobile focus. When we finally found the right date we sampled the wines from a Vashon Island deck overlooking Puget Sound with a pair of bald eagles soaring above. Not Italy, but still not the worst tasting room, do you think?

We tasted the traditional wines first, which meant a flight of Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano DOCG, and a special bottling, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Poggetto di Sopra Alliance Vinum.

The Rosso was a bright wine, fruity with nice acidity. An excellent opening act. The Vino Nobile DOCG was stunning — a terrific wine with a long complex finish. The Poggetto di Sopra was even more distinctive — truly memorable. It is the result of a project involving Avignonesi and five other Nobile producers. Each made a particular wine meant to highlight the specific qualities of the terroir. The label (see above) shows the particular vineyard blocks that produced this wine.

Taken together the three traditional wines show what is possible in Vino Nobile and make a strong case for the region even in the context of its more famous neighbors. Bravo!

IGT Surprises

But there was more. Our second flight was devoted to three of Avignonesi’s IGT wines. IGT and similar wines are increasingly important in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as winemakers seek to make distinctive wines that display both their art and their craft, but don’t follow the strict appellation script.

The first IGT wine was called Da-Di — a 100% Sangiovese vinified in terracotta vessels that were made in Tuscany from clay like the soils where the grapes were grown.  No oak. No stainless steel. This was a wild wine, full of fruit and acidity, alive in the mouth. Unique. Wow. I sure didn’t see this coming.

Next came Desiderio Merlot Toscana. Merlot vines love the clay and have been grown in parts of Italy so long that locals think of it as almost a native grape.  This was an intense experience from start to finish and I think it was Sue’s favorite wine of the tasting. Unexpected.

Our final IGT wine was the Grifi Toscana, a “super Tuscan” blend of just about equal amounts of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. It lived up to the “super” moniker, intense, dynamic, with the long finish that characterized all the wines.

Four Take-Aways

So what are the take-aways from our experience with the Avignonesi wines? First, the quality of the IGT wines makes me even more enthusiastic about the creative potential for wines like this in Italy. Second, the stunning DOCG wines reminded me of how good traditional wines from this region can be in the right hands. Sometimes I think consumers take these wines for granted or, as noted above, mistakenly passing them by in favor of more famous appellations.

The final take-away is this. Tasting these samples was a treat. But we can’t wait until we can resume our travels and taste the wines and meet the producers in person. Soon, we hope!

Wine Book Review: Invisible Pignolo Revealed

Ben Little, Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible. 2021. Available exclusively from The Morning Claret Shop.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is quite a fantastic multi-media exploration of one of Italy’s (and the world’s) nearly forgotten grape varieties. My first impression of the book was fascination — so playful, so colorful. I just had to thumb through it to discover what was on the next page. Then there was puzzlement, because I would read short passages and it wasn’t really clear what was going on.

First fascination, then puzzlement, then — finally — enlightenment. Ok, that might be too strong, but I went back and read it from the start and it all made sense.

First comes the history of Pignolo in the context of the history of its native region, Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy’s upper right-hand corner. A really interesting explanation of how Pignolo, wine, and the region evolved. Then the history shifts a bit to author Ben Little’s personal experience with Pignolo, which started only a few years ago (2016) but developed quickly and soon involved many others. There is much of a technical nature to learn through Little’s first person reports.

And then there are the lessons that Pignolo teaches us, inspirations, meditations, not sure what to call them. But by the time you get there you are ready to slow down, let the flow carry you, and absorb them, which might not have been the case at the start. Colorful graphics act as signposts along the way.

Little’s notion that Pignolo is an invisible grape variety works. It was always there all along, you just didn’t see it. That’s how it happened for him. At first he thought that there were just a few people in Friuli growing the grapes and making wine. But once word got out that there was interest, more and more plantings and producers began to appear until there were enough to fill a room (which Little did, with a little help from Pignolo’s friends).

Pignolo might be invisible to you, too. That’s how it was for us. Did we ever taste Pignolo during our trips to Friuli? I had to think and use the ample resources of Little’s big book. We might have tasted Pignolo when we visited the Cormons cooperative, but there were so many wines there it is hard to know. Possibly when we stayed at Il Roncal. Bastianich makes an IGT blend called Calabrone, which is includes a splash of Pignolo as a key ingredient. When we didn’t have time to taste it at the winery Wayne Young wrapped up a bottle for us to take home and I’m very glad he did. Amazing.

We staying in one of the rooms at Borgo San Daniele and I remember distinctly the tasting where Mauro Mauri poured his Arbis Ròs Pignolo from magnum. What an amazing wine. I tried to get him to sell me some bottles, but it was all gone. Only that magnum was left. And the memory, too.

Our final taste of Pignolo was at Paolo Rodaro and that’s when we met Ben Little. Little was nice enough to help with some difficult translations, but you could tell even then, not too long after his Pignolo journey had begun, that his focus was on the particular wine and Rodaro’s version was especially intense and interesting. There was another connection that I only learned about by reading this book — like me, Little is a recovering student of economics and can’t resist adding his insights to the blend.

Having read Little’s book, I want to go back to Friuli and visit the small region of Rosazzo, which seems to be Pignolo’s spiritual home. Pignolo was pretty much invisible to me a few days ago, now that I see that it has been there all along, I want to ask it a few questions.

In the meantime, I couldn’t resist trying to track down a bottle of Pignolo here in the U.S. and refresh my memory. I was able to find the 2005 La Viarte Pignolo Riserva at Kermit Lynch‘s online store. We pulled  the cork and paired the wine with Caesar salad and a prime-grade dry-aged steak — clearly this was a special meal. The wine lived up to the occasion. The first glass was a bit wild, but it settled down and developed along several axes over the next two hours. Sue said that the wine really pulled itself together when the food arrived just as it was meant to do, I think.

Some wine experiences are delicious but not especially interesting — you know what you are getting. Others are interesting, but not necessary delicious — you are happy to stop after the first glass. The Pignolo was both, so it is easy to understand Little’s fascinating with it.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is a highly personal memoir of and tribute to a very distinctive grape and the people who have nurtured it as it nurtured them. More than a book, it is an experience. Highly Recommended.

Memo to CNN: Searching for Italian Wine?

Dear CNN,

Sue and I have been watching the CNN original series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.” Tucci visits six Italian regions, talks with the people, enjoys the food, and tells some stories. Maybe it is because of the pandemic, but there is something very satisfying about following Tucci on his journey. You might want to check it out.

Tucci starts his Giro d’Italia in Naples and then moves on to Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany, and Sicily. The title suggests that he is “Searching for Italy.” Will he find it? Not if he thinks that Italy is a single thing with a single cuisine, because that Italy has never existed. But if he is willing to accept that Italy is its regions — and I am sure he is — then he’ll be fine and so will we.

Searching for Italian Wine

The chapter on Italy in my book Around the World in Eighty Wines is a Tucci-esque search for Italian wine. My quest to find one wine that can represent all of Italy’s wines comes tantalizingly close to success at one point, but ultimately I realize that Italian wine is impossible. There are only the wines of Italy’s regions. No wonder the Italian wine map is perhaps the most complicated in the world.

So it seems to me that Searching for Italian Wine would make a great series for the same reasons that Tucci’s program is so popular. But what would a program about Italy’s wines be like? Walking though beautiful vineyards is great and makes good video, but you can only do that so often before it gets a bit old. Ditto for visiting cellars, inspecting barrels and tanks, and wondering at the majesty of shiny new pneumatic presses and speedy bottling lines.

Watching wine being made isn’t as interesting as watching food being made for some reason (perhaps because it takes so long) and in any case Tucci’s producers seem to realize that there’s a limit to how many times they can show onions being diced or pasta being rolled and cut.  So instead they show the hustle and bustle of markets — that never gets old to me — and focus on real people, who they are, what they do, and how they define and are defined by the local products and food. That’s a model that works every time, if you don’t lose sight of your goal.

Searching for Italy and Its Wines

This leads me to my main point, which is that Tucci’s Searching for Italy could be the perfect Italian wine show if it just brought wine more fully into the frame (note: I write this before the Tuscany episode has been aired). Wine shows up all the time in Searching for Italy, but it is just something the people drink with the food, never an important element of the story. Wine in Italy is so much more.

The Bologna episode is a case in point. Yes, the Prosciutto, Mortadella, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are amazing. We were fortunate to enjoy them almost every day when I taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center a few years ago. Our apartment was on a little alley called Via Pescherie Vecchie in the heart of the heart of the famous central market area. It is an inescapable element of the city’s life so naturally it was on Tucci’s Bologna itinerary. Here’s a video of a visit to this street to give you a sense of the place.

So what do  you drink with these intensely local products? Well, wine of course, but there is a particular local wine that we think is magical. It is called Pignoletto and it is so local that I doubt you will easily find it anywhere else. As I wrote ten years ago after a return visit to our old neighborhood …

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

The food and this wine evolved together in Bologna. No wonder they are such a perfect match. And they say something about the importance of place in a footloose world, don’t you think? It would have been easy to include this wine (and some others, too) in the Bologna episode, CNN,  and your viewers would have thanked you for opening this door to Italian wine, food, and culture.

Dear CNN: Who Ya Gonna Call?

So, CNN, you are probably wondering who can help you take Searching for Italy to the next level by adding the magic of wine to the mix? Well, our team here at The Wine Economist stands ready to lend a hand (and pull a few corks) and we have no end of ideas for season 2 in the Veneto, Friuli, Alto Adige, Piemonte, Liguria, Sardinia — and that’s just getting started! Let’s take that Italian map and search for Italy and Italian wine in every corner.

Italy is a mosaic of people, places, wine, food … and wine, too. Let’s work together to tell the story of Italian wine in context, one beautiful region at a time.

Sincerely,

The Wine Economist team

What’s Up with Italian Wine in the U.S. Market?

docItalian wine has a lot going for it in the U.S. market. Wines from Italy are by far the largest category of imported wines. Recent Nielsen figures (reported in Wine Business Monthly) show almost $1.2 billion in 52-week sales of Italian wines in the channels that Nielsen surveys — that is almost a third of all spending on wine imports and far more than #2 Australia ($720 million) and #3 New Zealand  ($496 million). France is #4 at $462 million.

Tariffs? Que Bello? Pazzo!

Italy has benefited from the hot market for sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular. And it gained an unexpected advantage over its European neighbors due to the peculiarities of the recently-imposed U.S. tariffs on European wines. Imports of many wines from France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. are subject to a 25% tax.  What’s the tax on Italian wine imports? Zero. Zippo. Niente. Que bello!

(See Suzanne Mustacich’s excellent Wine Spectator article on the wine trade war for more details.)

How did Italy dodge the tariff bullet? I don’t think there is an official explanation or obvious economic rationale.  Pazzo! Must be politics, don’t you think? Maybe it has something to do with the high-level Trump administration officials with Italian-sounding names? Or maybe Italy’s not so closely associated with subsidies to Airbus, which provoked the WTO rulings and subsequent tariffs. Strange, but good for Italian producers trying to get their foot in the U.S. door (or working to open the door a little wider).

It would be a mistake to take these advantages for granted and the Italians are working hard to consolidate their market base and move forward. Or at least that’s what we think after attending the Seattle stop on the “Simply Italian Great Wines US Tour 2019.” We spent the day attending seminars sponsored by the European Union and wine region groups and meeting producers (many of whom were seeking local distribution) at a walk-around tasting.

[Two favorites from the walk-around tasting were Societa Agricola Sturm from Collio — fantastic Ribolla Gialla — and Cannonau di Sardegna from Sardina’s Cantina Giampietro Puggioni.]

Out of the Shadow

The Seattle event reminded us of how much we love the wines of Italy. But it also highlighted some of the challenges that Italy faces.

Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. Although an amazing array of Italian wines can be found in the U.S. market, there are a few names that dominate the conversation: Chianti, for example, and Prosecco. It is easy for other wines from other regions to be over-shadowed. Sue and I saw the shadow effect when we stopped at a nearby Total Wine, which has a big selection of Italian wines. We were looking for wines from Friuli and we found just a hand-full  — mainly Pinot Grigio. The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves.

This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example.  Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.

But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.

Italians love to drink sparkling wines and they make some terrific ones. And although my friends in Conegliano hate to hear me say it, it is a shame that the only Italian sparkler that most Americans can name is Prosecco.

I wish they’d give more attention to Francicorta DOCG, which faces a similar challenge to Vino Nobile. Franciacorta is often said to be the “Champagne” of Italy. It is made using the classic method from mainly but not exclusively the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes . The comparison to Champagne is understandable and the wines stand up well compared to their French cousins.

But it is not always helpful to think of Franciacorta this way because if you want Champagne you want Champagne and not necessarily something else. Franciacorta needs to more clearly develop a distinctly Italian identity that positions it apart from French wines and also Prosecco. The two Franciacorta DOCG wines were tasted were delicious — and I don’t think the skilled presenter ever called them Italy’s Champagne. I know producers are working hard to build their market category because the current interest in sparkling wines presents a great opportunity.

A Grape or a Region?

One of the sessions focused on DOC Pinot Grigo delle Venezie. Pinot Grigio is one of white wine’s big success stories in the U.S. market. Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is the second largest selling white wine category in the U.S. market, according to Nielsen figures, far behind #1 Chardonnay but well ahead of #3 Sauvignon Blanc.

Some of the Italians I have met like to imagine that all the Pinot Grigio sold in the U.S. comes from Italy — and Italy might have dominated this category a few years ago — but now Pinot Grigio is grown just about everywhere. I made risotto a few nights ago with a nice little Pinot Grigio from Washington state. That is the problem with the “signature wine grape variety” strategy. The category may start associated with a particular place, but often the place fades and it is just about the grape and then it is anyone’s game.

Italian producers hope to stake a territorial claim to the Pinot Grigio market with DOC Pinot Grigio delle Venezie — Pinot Grigio from a specific region subject to DOC rules and regulations. The consorzio logo above is meant to establish the identity. Italy first — can you miss the green-white-red stripes? And then Venice and Venezie as symbolized by the stylized prow of a Venetian gondola. Italy, Venice, Gondolas. Get it? That’s Pinot Grigio.

It is easy to be a little skeptical about the effort to re-brand Pinot Grigio this way since Americans generally know little about DOC and DOCG designations, but in this case there is reason for cautious optimism because many of the DOC Pinot Grigio wines have big marketing and distribution muscle behind them. The list of wines that were tasted in Seattle, for example, includes DOC wines from Lumina by Ruffino (Constellation Brands), Prophecy by Cantine di Mezzacorona (Gallo), Montresor (Total Wine & More), and Cupcake (The Wine Group).

Pinot Grigio won’t stop being a grape variety that could come from anywhere, but with some effort it can  also be a regional wine of Italy once again.

Italian wine makers are luckier than most. They face challenges, some of which are the product of their own success, but there is a tremendous reservoir of good will and affection for Italy and its wines.  The struggle for market attention is therefore not easy but still possible.  The Seattle event has inspired us to look more closely at the Italian wine mosaic and to try to appreciate a bit more its many shapes, colors, and styles.

Wine Book Review: Ian D’Agata on Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs

Ian D’Agata, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. University of California Press, 2019.dagata

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs is Ian D’Agata’s sequel to his fascinating 2014 book on the Native Wine Grapes of Italy. (Here’s a link to that book’s Wine Economist review).

D’Agata’s 2014 book was all about balancing breadth and depth by … providing both. He wanted to tell you as much as possible about as many of Italy’s native grape varieties as he could. This is an almost impossible task because of Italy’s vast wealth of indigenous grapes, but he pulled it off. What knowledge! That book sits on my bookshelf in a place of honor.

Aglianico to Zibibbo

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs takes the next logical step and will appeal to readers like me who enjoy a deep dive into the world of Italian wine. The most important native Italian wine grapes from A (Aglianico) to Z (Zibibbo, better known as Moscato di Alessandria) and their regional and local terroirs are analyzed in detail.

Some grapes get a lot of space (Sangiovese of course) and others only a couple of pages (Pecoriino), but the entries are uniformly readable, informative, and interesting. I learned something new on every page.

Understanding Vermentino 

Sue and I recently visited Sardinia and Friuli and I wish this book had been available to help us prepare. The entry on Vermentino tells me all about the grape, of course, and about the important differences in terroir between the Vermentino di Sardinia and Vermentino di Gallura.

Then D’Agata dives deeper, explaining why a few extra days on the vine makes a big difference in the character of the Gallura wines. We tasted the difference when we visited Vigne Surrau in May and now I understand where it came from and can appreciate better its importance. It’s a detail that increases understanding and makes a difference.

There are no real tasting notes here, but each chapter includes a short list of “Benchmark Wines” that would be a great checklist for anyone studying a particular region and its wines or to add to a serious wine tourist’s agenda.

Friuli U-Turn

I was particularly interested in the entries for Friulian native wine grapes. These wines are favorites of ours because they are so delicious and distinctive.  We have just returned from this region, but now I want to turn around and go right back because D’Agata has given me so many more questions to examine, nuances to explore, and wines to taste.

D’Agata helps me appreciate that the Italian north-east is a treasure house of native wine grapes and wonderful wines. It is a region that  deserves more attention that it currently gets. D’Agata is clearly enthusiastic about this region, too. It is his terroir — the area where he spent summers growing up and to which he returns frequently.

Bravo. But …

I am grateful to the University of California Press for making these books available. Wine book publishing (along with print publishing more generally) is not especially a growth industry — a fact that my wine writer friends sadly note. Opportunities to publish fine books like this one are not abundant and UC Press has done a good job here. Bravo! And thanks.

But … while I appreciate that UC Press is keeping the lights on and making fine works like D’Agata’s books available, I wish they’d find a way to price them more like trade books than academic books, so that they can reach a wider audience.

Highly recommended.

Is Sustainable Winegrowing Sustainable?

Is sustainable winegrowing sustainable? Yes. But there are headwinds and challenges to overcome before this expanding movement will achieve its full potential. Here’s my report.

sonoma

Sustainability is a powerful movement in northeast Italy where Sue and I participated in a program sponsored by the Consorzio Collio. I spoke on a roundtable panel on sustainable winegrowing’s many sides. One of the other speakers had recently converted his family vineyards to organic viticulture and he talked about the experience and his commitment to sustainable winegrowing.

A hand went up. Now that you are spending less on chemicals and so forth, a journalist asked, will be you passing along the cost savings to consumers?

Wow — I didn’t see that question coming. Implicit in the query was the assumption that organic or sustainable wines should be cheaper than other wines, not simply better for the environment. Most winegrowers, however, hope that sustainable practices will be rewarded in the market place — that consumers will be willing to pay higher prices for sustainably-produced wines, not demand a discount. Environmental sustainability needs to be economically sustainable to survive.

Survey Says …

I would like to say that wines that are certified as sustainable or organic or biodynamic do command a price premium, but I don’t have the data to support this broad conclusion. Wine is a complicated product category and it isn’t easy to compare sustainably-produced wines with similar wines made using conventional practices in order to extract the existence and size of a general price differential (more about this below).

Much of the research on this subject, therefore, has involved surveys that ask consumers how much they hypothetically would be willing to pay for sustainablly-produced wines compared to others.

pay-more-for-eco-certified-wines

A good example of this research is a study that Sonoma State Professor Liz Thach MW reported in 2017, which is the source of the graph above. The survey sample of 301 wine consumers, which was weighted towards women (74%) and Millennials (65%), found a generally strong willingness to pay more for wines with sustainable certifications.

payup

Recently Lullie Halstead, CEO of Wine Intelligence, presented the results of a larger study of U.S. wine drinkers that both reinforced a strong willingness to pay and uncovered significant generational diversity among Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boom consumers. Millennials in the study, for example, were more than twice as likely as Baby Boomers to say they would be willing to pay a $5+ sustainability premium while 43 percent of Boomers said they wouldn’t pay any extra at all.

The study suggests that consumers would be willing to pay about $3 more per bottle for a sustainably-produced wine. What do you think? How much more would you be willing to pay?

Walking it Back to the Vineyard

Since it is hard to determine if sustainable wine actually receives a price premium in the market, I decided to work backwards. If sustainable wine sells for an average $3 premium, then sustainably-grown grapes should sell for a premium, too. How much? The Law of 100 holds that in general if grapes cost $1000 per ton more, then the wine has to sell for at least $10 more per bottle ($1000/100) to pay the bills. It’s a back of the envelope sort of calculation — a long way from rocket science, but useful here.

Working backwards, the Law of 100 rule of thumb suggests that a $3 higher bottle price should translate into a maximum of $300 per ton grape price premium. That could be a substantial incentive for winegrowers to farm sustainably depending on the region.

What is the sustainable premium for wine grapes? Once again it is hard to generalize because there are all sorts of special cases in grape contracts. But I consulted two well-connected California colleagues and the answers they provided were very consistent. In general, sustainably-farmed wine grapes receive a premium of $15-$25 (average of about $20) per ton. That’s a lot less than I was expecting. It implies a very small potential bottle price premium — nothing like the $3 survey result.

Some contracts provide a premium up to 7.5 percent, I’m told, which can be valuable depending on the underlying grape price and yield. In many cases, however, the premium is exactly zero. Grape buyers specify sustainably-farmed fruit, but are not willing to pay extra for it. Bottom line: growers generally farm sustainably because these are sound practices, not (yet) for the money.

Why is the Sustainability Premium So Low?

Why is the sustainable grape premium so low? One answer is that premiums are low because it is a buyers’ market for some grape categories these days. With surplus grape supplies and wine in tanks from previous vintages, buyers don’t pay more because they don’t have to. That is bad news for growers in the short run but better news in the long run because the supply-demand imbalance is likely to adjust over time and perhaps improved prices will follow.

A second answer is that the grape premium is low because the premium for sustainable wines is low — much lower than the $3 per bottle estimate. How can this be? Are the survey-takers fibbing? Well, sometimes people do give “aspirational” answers to survey questions. But there’s another answer. Consumers may be willing to pay more for sustainable wines, but they can’t tell for sure which ones they are.

Organic and biodynamic are very clearly defined wine terms (although consumers may not fully understand them — especially biodynamic), but sustainable does not have a single meaning or certification standard. Most of the regions we visit have their own sustainability certification programs, each tailored to local conditions. So the term sustainable shows up a lot and doesn’t always mean the same thing. This is one reason why it is hard to calculate the price premium for sustainable wines.

My colleague Danny Brager tells me that his team at the Nielsen Company tries to track sustainable wines (by their measure they account for about 2.1 percent of the table wine market by value, growing at a fast 8.1 percent rate), but the lack of a clear definition means that anything that has “sustainable” on the label gets counted. That’s probably as good as most consumers can do because they don’t fully understand the difference between certified and non-certified wines or the variations among certification programs themselves. But it makes deeper analysis difficult.

Why Can’t Wine Be More Like Fish?fish2

The term sustainable is popular in part because of this ambiguity. I found one wine that boasted “Sustainably Dry Farmed” on the front label. On the back label I learned that this meant that the vines were actually irrigated (which seems like the opposite of dry farming to me) … but only as necessary to sustain the vines themselves. The fluid nature of the term “sustainable” makes all the difference.

Does that mean a one-size-fits-all certification program? No. I actually think that the fact that there are many regional sustainability programs is a good thing, even if it confuses consumers a bit, because it increases the proportion of the industry that adopts sustainable practices.

Sue points out that consumers support sustainable practices in other sectors when they understand them and appreciate their importance. Sustainable fisheries are important, for example, and many retailers and restaurants make a point of featuring sustainably-harvested seafood. The existence of different certification programs doesn’t seem to diminish the impact.

What? How? Why?

We meed to make sustainable wine as transparent and appealing as sustainable fish. Perhaps the key is to focus less on the what and how — what we are doing (certification) and how it is done — and more on the why. The why is pretty clear when it comes to sustainable fisheries. Maybe we can make the why of sustainable wine clearer, too.

Sustainability would be more sustainable from an economic standpoint if we could communicate better with wine buyers so that the sustainability premium is greater and trickles down to growers better than it does today. Sustainable sustainability? That’s a goal worth pursuing.

The Trouble with Being King of the Hill

mappa-collio

For a long time Collio and its neighboring regions in Italy’s upper right-hand corner have been King of the Hill when it comes to Italian white wines. It started in the 1960s when Collio, which had long been known for its excellent hillside terroir, abolished the old share cropping system, which favored quantity over quality, and got a head start on many competitors in the adoption of modern temperature-controlled white wine fermentation practices.

Exceptional grapes were combined with winemaking techniques that preserved fruit and aromas. The results were some stunning mono-variety white wines — Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and native varieties, too — that established the region’s reputation.

The Trouble with Hills

As I noted last week, Sue and I have been coming to Collio since 2000 and the wines have gotten more and more interesting — strength built on strength. But the trouble with being King of the Hill is that you must constantly defend your position against determined competitors and this has been Collio’s challenge.

Collio’s distinctive terroir is impossible to copy, but other wine regions have worked hard to reel in Collio’s early lead in vineyard and cellar practices. Now there are excellent white wines from many regions of Italy north, south, east, and west. Some of the Vermentino di Gallura wines we tasted recently in Sardinia, for example, were absolutely world class.

And of course there are competitors from all over the world to be considered starting of course with New Zealand, which was only a fly speck on the world wine map back in the 1960s. There is a lot of competition today for the title of King of the White Wine Hill.

Grape Expectations

Collio’s challenge is ironically made more difficult today because of its focus on mono-variety wines. Pinot Grigio was easy to understand in the early days compared with wines identified by appellation. That was an advantage. But today there are Pinot Grigio (and Sauvignon and Chardonnay) wines from all over the world and the Collio brand is perhaps overshadowed in New World consumer minds, which often focus on grape variety more than region.

The focus on grape variety unexpectedly puts Collio in directly competition with New Zealand, California, Australia, France, and a host of other regions. The advantage of a hilltop position is diminished. The fact that Friulano, the region’s signature native wine grape, has been serially rebranded (Tocai, Tocai Friulano, Friulano) under orders from the intellectual property police hasn’t helped.

So Collio is facing increased competition from other parts of Italy and other parts of the world. There is also more competition within Friuli itself. We heard reports of massive new plantings out on the plains that threaten to flood the market with cheaper wines and drive down precious margins. They won’t be Collio appellation wines, but they will still compete. Yikes!

Collio Bottleneck

There are as many responses to the the increased competition as their are growers and producers. One important initiative is Collio Bianco, a signature white wine blend that producers hope can help establish the region’s brand more concretely in consumers minds. Think Collio (not just the grape varieties) for exceptional white wines .

bianco

The official definition of Collio Bianco has evolved. Once this wine was a simple field blend. Then it because a loosely regulated blend of native grape varieties that was noteworthy for its lack of distinctiveness. Kitchen sink wine, made with leftovers not used in the favored varietal bottlings.

More recently Collio Bianco was been defined as a white blend made from just about any mixture of native and international grape varieties. The idea is to give winemakers freedom to make the very best wines and have them bear the Collio label and fly the region’s flag.

A special bottle shape was created to further distinguish this wine from others on the shelf. What do you think?  The longer, thinner neck requires a special cork. Choosing this bottle (it is a voluntary program and the special bottle is not required) is a commitment to promoting the region’s brand as well as the individual producers’ products.

One Blend to Rule Them All?

Our hosts arranged for our press group to taste 24 examples of Collio Bianco. Vintages ranged from a 2013 (Primosic Klin  — it was spectacular) to several 2018s (bottled earlier than usual especially for Vinitaly and maybe not at their very best when we tasted them).

Some of the blends focused on the native grape varieties. Gradis’ciutta, for example, presented a Friulano, Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla blend.  Others producers combined native and international grapes. Venica & Venica’s Tre Vigne blended Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon. Ronco Blanchis blended Friulano, Malvasia, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Marco Felluga’s Molamatta combined Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Ribolla Gialla. It was, as you might guess, a pretty interesting experience, especially since we tasted the wines blind.

The Weight

The question now is what is Collio Bianco and can it bear the weight of expectations? The wines we tasted showed high quality but, given that they come from different producers, sub-regions, and vintages using different grape combinations, we struggled to find any other defining characteristic. And I guess that was the point of the exercise. Only after the fact did I realize why the tasting was titled “Characterized by not being characterized.”

So Collio Bianco wines have quality and they are diverse. Each is a bit different from the rest and consumer experimentation is richly rewarded. This is surely something, especially since the wines from some other regions sometimes seem to all taste alike. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

The good news is that many Collio producers recognize that the challenge of being King of the Hill and they have determined that quality and distinctiveness is the right response. The region also benefits from a consorzio organization with strong leadership and, just as important, pretty good follower-ship — not something that we always find. The greatest mistake would be to rest on past accomplishments, ignoring the competition’s gains,  or to think in terms of quantity instead of quality. That’s the fast track from the top of the hill to the bottom.