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.

Rediscovering Collio’s Iconic White Wines

 

Collio, the beautiful wine region in Italy’s upper right-hand corner near Slovenia, along with its neighbor Colli Orientali del Friuli, is one of our favorite places to visit and makes some of our favorite wines, too.  We’ve been there three times and each visit has revealed something new.

Flashback to 2000

We were lucky on our first visit in 2000 because we stayed at Venica & Venica, a top producer that was just getting started developing its hospitality program.  We happened to arrive on Cantine Aperte day when all the wineries in the region were open and welcoming guests. Ornella Venica gave us the key to our room and handed us a map. Get going, she said, You have a lot of work to do today! And so we did. What fun.

A few days later we moved to a rustic cabin at the Sirk family’s La Subida. The cabin was great because we could eat at the famous restaurant when we wanted to but also use our little kitchen to create our own meals. This gave us the chance we were looking for to explore the markets and try even more local delicacies.

The wines we found were a revelation — mainly white wines with a few reds (notably Merlot) mixed in. We were especially drawn to Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc here), which had a fascinating brightness and precision. We found ourselves on a beautiful island of great white wines in what seemed like a vast sea of Italian reds.

Fast Forward to 2015

Somehow it took 15 years for us to return to this part of Italy, but we finally found an opportunity when I was invited to give some talks at the Conegliano wine school in 2015.  This time we stayed at BorgoSanDaniele in Cormons and then, at the urging of friends, at Il Roncal in Cividale del Friuli. It was not Cantine Aperte day, alas, but we visited a number of memorable wineries, which I wrote about in articles for The Wine Economist.

A lot had changed in 15  years. Revisiting Venica & Venica we discovered a much expanded winery and an ambitious winery resort hospitality complex.  The region was growing into its potential as a wine tourism destination. We tasted more sparkling wines than on our first visit, a reaction to the changing market conditions created by Prosecco’s success. And we encountered more (and I think better) red wines. Climate change at work, we were told.

We still loved the Sauvignon wines (including one from Tiare that had recently been named the best such wine in the world), but this time we were drawn to the native grape varieties, especially Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Tocai Friulano among the white wines and the various varieties of Refosco among the reds.

Enjoy Collio Experience 2019

We vowed not to let so much time pass between visits to this region, so we were delighted to receive an invitation to participate in the Consorzio Collio’s  Enjoy Collio Experience 2019.  We took part in the activities of a press and trade tour and I spoke briefly for a roundtable discussion on sustainability.

We stayed at the elegant Castello di Spessa, which includes vineyards, winery, golf course, restaurants, rooms, and of course a castle all just a few minutes from Cormons. Giacomo Casanova lived here at one point and his name and image are everywhere.

The focus of this event was clearly on Collio, so we were able to explore its special terroir in more depth (see Stephen Quinn‘s excellent video above) and get to know the wines and winemakers at blind tastings led by Richard Baudins and through winery visits, dinners, and other events.

What stood out in these experiences? Well, we were attracted to certain producers we didn’t know before including Primosic, Gradis’ciutta, Livon, Bracco, and Ronco Blanchis. (A tasting of 12 vintages of Friulano at Ronco Blanchis, which has a very special terroir, was memorable.) And we had an opportunity to learn much more about the region’s designated white wine ambassador, which is called Collio Bianco.

Once upon a time Collio Bianco was a simple field blend, but then it evolved into a sort of kitchen sink wine. Winemakers took their native white wine leftovers and mixed them up. I am not sure it was a really bad wine, but it didn’t represent the best that could be done.

Starting in the 1990s, however, there has been a determined effort to remake Collio Bianco into the region’s flagship wine. Winemakers were given more freedom to blend their best grapes in order to produce distinctive white wines that are brilliant when young and have the potential to evolve over time.

The Collio producers are so proud of their Collio Bianco that we devoted one complete morning to blind-tasting 24 of the wines from different producers in different parts of the region, made with different combinations of native and international varieties, and from a number of different vintage years.

How were the wines? And why is Collio Bianco important to the region’s future? Good questions! Come back next week for analysis.

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Video credit: Magic soils of Collio from Stephen Quinn on Vimeo.

Many thanks to the Consorzio Collio for inviting us to participate in Enjoy Collio Experience 2019. Special thanks to Klementina Koren and Matteo Bellotto for their help and hospitality. Cheers to all the Collio winemakers and international journalists we met along the wine road. We hope to see you again!

Pocos, Locos, y Mal Unidos: The Paradox of Sardinian Wine

cervoPocos, locos y mal unidos. This description of Sardinia and its people (often wrongly attributed to Charles V) is a useful way to think about Sardinia’s wine sector and the headwinds it faces today.

Sardinian wine is a relatively small (pocos) player in Italian wine with perhaps 20,000 hectares of vines out of Italy’s vast 750,000 hectare total. The winemakers are crazy (locos), but that’s a given and not meant as an insult. I think we all agree that you’ve got to be at least a little crazy to try to make a living growing grapes or  making wine.

Small (and Crazy) can be Beautiful

Being small and a little crazy is not an insurmountable disadvantage in global wine. In fact, it can be a good place to begin. Take New Zealand as an example.

New Zealand’s wine sector is big in terms of its global reach and reputation, but pocos in other ways. There are more than 35,000 hectares of vines today (data from the Oxford Companion to Wine), but that’s after a couple of decades of rapid growth. Flash back twenty years and Sardinia had more grape vines than New Zealand and produced more wine.

I think the first Kiwi producers to take their wines to international markets (people like Ernie Hunter, who I wrote about in Wine Wars) must have been more than a little nuts to think that wine from a tiny faraway island could ever make an impact. But they brought their distinctive wines first to the UK and then the world and they found a ready audience. Now New Zealand is a wine export machine with market growth every year at premium price points. Being small and crazy worked for the Kiwis.

Is Sardinian Vermentino the next Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Well, as I suggested last week, the wines are excellent and distinctive, too. They deserve to be better known than they are. The next New Zealand? No, that’s too big an ask if only because times have changed and that gap in the market has been filled. But there is certainly potential for Sardinia to grow.

surrauVigne Surrau Case Study

Sue and I learned first hand about Sardinia’s potential when we visited Vigne Surrau, an ambitious 400,000 bottle producer located just outside of Porto Cervo in northeast Sardinia.

Surrau’s first vintage was 2004-2005 and it has been part of the recent move from quantity to quality in Sardinian wine. Growth has been so fast they they are now operating in their second-generation winery and tasting facility with room to grow to perhaps 700,000 bottles in the future. Sardinia itself (60%) and the rest of Italy (20%) are the biggest markets, with 20% exported. Demand is strong and export sales are carefully allocated so that the home market can be accommodated.

Wine tourism is a significant focus at Surrau with about 12,000 visitors per year. The beautiful tasting area, which looks out over the vineyards and the mountains beyond, has room for seated tastings, with food pairing if you wish, as well space for local food and crafts and an art gallery. A small conference center provides space for corporate events. Very well designed. Nothing remotely locos about it.

Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, elegant and complex, accounts for 65% of production. Red wines, especially Cannonou but also some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, fill out the line.  Tasting the Branu (Vertmetino di Gallura DOCG), Sciala (Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore from a different terroir than Branu) and Sciala VT (late harvest, but not a sweet wine with only 4 grams per liter of residual sugar) was a delightful introduction to the potential of Vermentino in this part of Sardinia.

Surrau highlighted the positive qualities we found in many of the best wines we tasted in Sardinia. Focus and commitment to quality on the business side. Balance, finesse, and distinction in the glass. They may be small and crazy, but there is great potential here. What could hold them back?

The Mal Unidos Syndrome

That’s where Mal Unidos comes in.  Almost everyone we talked with bemoaned the lack of unity and teamwork in Sardinia. Sue and I were skeptical. Disfunctional wine sectors are not that unusual. We see them all the time in our wine  travels.

No, you don’t understand, people told us. It is much worse here. It’s not just wine. It’s everything. Factions. Dialects. Everything. We have met the enemy and it is us. It is a real problem.  Regional consortio organizations are weak, they say, which is unfortunate since they are one way that reputation is built and sustained, and cooperation of all sorts is limited.

Small and crazy — that’s not necessarily a problem in wine. But discord and fragmentation can be barrier to greater success. Sardinia might not be able to match New Zealand’s tremendous growth, but it has unrealized potential that it would be great to see unlocked.

The new world of quality Sardinian wine has yet to be discovered in many markets. I hope the people who complained to us about the lack of cooperation are either exaggerating the situation or will find a way to work together to solve this problem and raise both regional reputation and the quality standard even higher.

In the meantime, put Sardinia and its wines on your personal radar. You would be locos to pass them by.

First Impressions of Sardinian Wine

porscheSue and I travelled to Sardinia at the invitation of Alessandro Torcoli, editor of the quarterly journal Civilta del Bere (where Wine Economist columns, translated into Italian, sometimes appear). Alessandro organized a series of trade and press workshops and a wine competition to accompany the Porto Cervo Wine & Food Festival this year.

We were delighted to attend to speak about global trends and opportunities, help with the judging,  and to learn more about Sardinia and its wine sector.

Porto Cervo, on the beautiful Costa Smeralda in the northeast of the island, is more luxury resort than sleepy village, so there was a lot going on besides the wine, including an international press launch event for the new Porsche 911 Speedster sports car. I’ll bet the corkscrew island roads made for exciting driving. I admit that I was distracted a bit by that blue Porsche pictured here.

We only visited this one corner of Sardinia over just a few days, so a comprehensive report is impossible. But we met many winemakers and tasted their wines both at the festival and the dinners, so we have some strong first impressions to share. Here they are.

Sardinia at a Crossroads

The idea of a crossroads applies to Sardinia in several ways. As the second largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily) it has been an important economic and political crossroads for centuries and the local culture and even the cuisine reflect this fact.

torbatoSardinian wine features a treasure house of native grapes plus many international varieties that have been grown here so long that they are firmly part of the tradition. Sue and I enjoyed tasting wines that we will probably never find outside of Sardinia, such as the Torbato from Sella & Mosca. The origins of Tobato are controversial, with some arguing that it was introduced from Spain in the 14th or 15th century and others insisting just the opposite. It’s that crossroad thing.

The most important red varietal is Cannonau, which you probably know as Garnacha. Sardinians claim ownership of this varietal and we tasted many fine examples. I am not going to wade into the debate as to whether it is native or introduced by the Spanish, but I will say that it is a shame that people don’t take more of an interest in these wines.

Garnacha and Grenache are having a well-deserved moment and Cannonau should share the love. But, one winemaker said with a deep sigh, Cannonau isn’t generally included when Garnacha and Grenache wines are put in the spotlight. That needs to change.

Very Vermentino (and a Surprise)

Vermentino, the most important white grape variety, makes a lovely wine in Sardinia and I think this might be the island’s best opportunity for attention on international markets. Vermentino di Sardegna is pretty much consistently tangy and delicious, with some outstanding examples such as the wines from Pala. Sauvignon Blanc drinkers should give Sardinian Vermentino a try — I think they will be surprised and delighted.

jankaraVermintino di Gallura DOCG, from the northern region near our location in Porto Cervo, takes the quality up a notch, adding complexity driven by terroir. We tasted wines from sandy zones near the beach and rocky soils at higher altitude. We even tasted a vertical that showed the influence of different vintages and an ability to age.

Such an interesting wine with so much to offer! Favorites included Surrau, Siddura, and Jankara. Worth searching out.

Every wine region holds a surprise and for me Sardinia’s surprise wine is its Carignano di Sulcis DOC — Carignan grapes grown on sandy soils on the island’s south-west coast. The best of these wines are simply fantastic, with impressive body, balance, and flavor.

We tasted outstanding Carignano di Sulcis wines from several makers including Cantina Santadi, Cantina Mesa, and Cantina Giba.  The Sulcis region is high on my list of places to visit if/when we return to Sardinia.

Another Crossroads

Sardinia is at a crossroads in another way.  It has long produced wines for export and been whip-lashed by shifting market conditions much like its sister island Sicily (with which is it often confused by the geographically challenged). (See The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio for a comprehensive analysis of Sicilian wine market twists and turns.)

Twenty years ago Sardinia was more or less defined by the commercial quality bulk wine production of large cooperatives. As demand has shifted and new competitors appeared, the market for these wines has suffered. Sardinian wine grape acreage has fallen dramatically and the momentum has shifted from quantity to quality.  That’s a difficult transition to make, especially since reputation generally lags the reality.

As you can tell from this quick report, we were looking for quality in Sardinia, which is the key to success today, and we found plenty of it. But there is still a lot of work to be done before Sardinia can confidently put this crossroads behind it and move forward into the future.

Come back next week for a case study of success and analysis of headwinds.

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Thanks to Alessandro for inviting us to Porto Cervo and to everyone we met there for their help and hospitality. Special thanks to the staff at Cervo Hotel for making our stay so enjoyable. Now if only I had found a way to disguise myself as an auto journalist to get a shot at driving the new Speedster!