From Nebbiolo to Nero d’Avola, Italy has a lot to offer and the choices can be mind-boggling. Home to multiple DOC, DOCG and IGT wines, the boot also hosts an unfathomable number of indigenous grape varieties. Yet despite the country’s complex wine culture, a weak dollar and strong Euro, Italy has held onto its spot as the top-selling imported wine region in the U.S. market. Indeed, Italian wines comprised 29.3% volume share of all wines imported into the U.S. in 2006 (the last year for which there are full-year statistics), trailed by Australian wines (at 26.7%), according to Beverage Information Group research, (previously called Adams Beverage Group research).
Some Leading Brand Stories
Cavit boasts the spot for best-selling Italian import, notching sales of 3 million cases in 2006, a 13.2% gain. Said Marcy Whitman at Palm Bay International, ‘Cavit continues to be a success story for us, led by both the Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir. We introduced the Pinot Noir about six years ago. Up until that point there was no interest in Pinot Nero, but when the EU deemed it legally possible to use the name Pinot Noir on the label it clicked with American consumers. This was before the Sideways phenomenon. And now it’s one of the top-selling Pinot Noirs in the U.S.’ Citra, another member of the Palm Bay portfolio, is another leading Italian brand, which gained 6.5% in 2006 to 825,000 cases.
Other brands that saw sales increases include second-best-selling Italian brand Riunite (Banfi Vintners), up 4.2% to more than 2.2 million cases, and Casarsa (The Wine Group), with a 2.5% gain to 975,000 cases.
For many American consumers Pinot Grigio has become almost synonymous with Santa Margherita. ‘Pinot Grigio, if made properly, is a great food wine. It is now the second best-selling wine outside of Chardonnay,’ said Bill Terlato, president and ceo of Terlato Wines International. The brand recently launched a Chianti Classico, sporting a striking gold and black version of their Pinot Grigio label. Santa Margherita was the fastest-growing Italian wine in the U.S. in 2006, hitting 550,000 cases for a nifty 25.0% increase.
According to Kurt Eckert, assistant vice president at Frederick Wildman, ‘Pinot Grigio itself has become a brand; the Pinot Grigio trend continues unabated.’ As the importers of Folonari, the company has witnessed the spike for sales in Pinot Grigio. Indeed, Folonari sold a hefty 800,000 cases in 2006 in the U.S. And the brand recently released another grape varietal wine ‘ Riesling. ‘Folonari is a large-volume brand best known for its Pinot Grigio,’ Eckert continued. ‘I think it’s interesting and laudable that the winemakers there are adaptive enough to embrace other trends. Riesling, like Pinot Noir, can be difficult for a lot of people to get their heads around because there’s not a lot of oak, color or intensity to these wines, but there is a growing trend for both.’
Bolla also added to their sixth best-selling line of Italian wines recently with a Pinot Noir and a Riesling, which, the company says, has successfully helped add to the brand’s sales, which are currently at just under 850,000 9-liter cases. Bolla has a revamped web site and features an online newsletter with recipes, wine pairing information and brand news.
The best-selling Chianti on the U.S. market is Ruffino. Said Joseph Granados, Group Estate Director of Imports at Icon, ‘Ruffino is a very recognized brand. The flagship wine is the Riserva Ducale, which is so well known it’s often referred to as the ‘tan label.’ It continues to be extremely popular, so much so that we’re almost at the end of our supply for this vintage. The gold label, the Riserva Ducale Oro, at a higher price point, also sells really well for us. Those really are our leading wines.’ Indeed, Ruffino increased sales by 10.1% in 2006 in the U.S., to 630,000 cases.
Still, beyond brands, there are several compelling dynamics in the Italian wine industry. We spoke to a number of industry insiders to get the scoop on Italy’s hottest wine regions.
Cult Wines on the Border of Slovenia
One region that has wine pros salivating is Friuli, in the far northeastern corner of Italy, on the border of Slovenia and Austria. It is an area that cultivates red and white grapes but it is the white wines, especially the local Ribolla Gialla that’s making headlines. The most buzzed about cult figure is Josko Gravner, a producer that embraced modern winemaking technology, got great reviews from the press but then took a curious turn and started to ferment his wines in terra-cotta amphorae. Some consider Gravner eccentric, but he is noted as one of a handful of producers in the region that wine geeks adore.
‘In Friuli, we’re seeing a lot of non-interventionist, old styles of winemaking ‘ in some cases an almost Roman style ‘ with very long macerations on the skins, fermented and aged in large old barrels. The wines appear to be oxidative in style but I wouldn’t call them oxidized. Radikon is another producer whose wines are some of the most compelling wines I’ve tasted. Along with Gravner and Edi Kante, he is located in the Oslavia, [a sub zone of the Collio DOC], which is right on the border of Slovenia. These winemakers are making killer wines,’ enthused Jeff Fisher, manager at McCarthy & Schiering’s Queen Anne location in Seattle.
High Elevation Whites
More racy whites wines can be found in Alto Adige, another region that has gained U.S. fans. According to Thomas AugschÃ¶ll, director of EOS (Export Organization South Tyrol of the Chamber of Commerce of Bolzano), Americans have discovered Alto Adige’s wines by way of the Pinot Grigio trend. However, there’s a lot more to this region than the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. He said, ‘There are more than 20 grape varieties thriving in Alto Adige. Vineyards are located between 200 and 1,000 meters above sea level, with different microclimates, and a large range of grape varieties feel at home here. There are three indigenous varieties: GewÃ¼rztraminer, Schiava and Lagrein. Most other varieties were planted in Alto Adige 150 years ago. There is an increasing interest from the U.S., especially for our white wines, which are considered premium quality.’
Among those white wines are the aforementioned Pinot Grigio and GewÃ¼rztraminer as well as aromatic wines made from Pinot Bianco, Kerner, Muller Thurgau, Sylaner and Sauvignon Blanc. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the region’s red wines, particularly Lagrein, Pinot Noir and Schiava are finding favor in the U.S. market as well.
Luca Mazzoleni, marketing director at Selected Estates of Europe Ltd., an importing company that focuses on native grapes and old vines, says that Alto Adige and Friuli are major sellers. ‘The success stories in our experience over the last five years are in the northwest and northeast. We have a small, certified organic grower named Garlider based in the Valle Isarco area of Alto Adige. They grow Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau, Sylvaner, Pinot Noir and Schiava. We’re actually having a hard time keeping their wines in stock because they are so popular.’
Tannic, long-lived Barolo, Barbaresco and the Langhe remain popular among collectors, but Nebbiolo from lesser-known enclaves of Piedmont are emerging and showing an altogether different expression of Nebbiolo. Mazzoleni expanded, ‘Nebbiolo from the regions of Gattinara, Ghemme and Carema are getting attention. From those regions we’re seeing Nebbiolo grown in cold climates in schist and granite soils. These wines can be likened to red Burgundy and the tannins are a lot more gentle.’
Jeremy Parzen, marketing consultant at Olcam Management, owners of Vino Italian Wine and Spirits in New York City, believes sales for the category will grow. He said, ‘An area that I think will emerge over the next few years are the lesser-known appellations of Piedmont that produce Nebbiolo, areas like Carema, Bramaterra and Spanna. A lot of these wines are so much more approachable at a young age than Barolo. Carema, for instance, uses a different clone of Nebbiolo and the subsoil isn’t as old and compact so vines don’t have to struggle as hard, hence the wines are more approachable. Plus they’re affordable at around $25 to $30.’
Tuscany is still significant for U.S. consumers but the trend could be leaning towards the classic appellations of the region and skewing away from the Super Tuscan wines that were so trendy a few years back.
‘For awhile there were so many Super Tuscan wines out there. Now, with the gaining euro, certain premium and overpriced wines have been cut out of a lot of portfolios, ours included. The only Tuscan producer we’ve added to our book is a small grower in the Chianti Classio and Chianti Riserva DOCG,’ said Mazzoleni.
The owner of Castello di Volpaia, Giovannella Stianti Mascheroni, states that there has been a move away from international varieties in Tuscany. He explained how it all started: ‘In the 1970s Italian producers started to plant international varieties to improve the quality of their wines. In those years Sangiovese vineyards were planted without any selection, with low density and trained with the aim of quantity over quality. Thanks to the new varietals, the quality of Tuscany’s wines did improve and they became much appreciated on foreign markets, above all in the U.S.’
He added, ‘In the meantime serious research on varieties and clones of Sangiovese began. Clones obtained through selection and research were planted with density and training, aimed to high-quality wines. The results were very satisfactory and they allowed us to understand that Sangiovese is a unique grape. International varietals are less important and Sangiovese has become the priority grape.’
Other regions of Tuscany are also gaining in popularity, according to Mazzoleni. ‘The demand for Tuscany’s traditional DOCG appellations based on Sangiovese is holding well if not growing, and I’m referring to Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. The related secondary wines are also doing very well in the medium-low price range, such as Chianti DOCG, Rosso di Montepulciano DOC and Rosso di Montalcino DOC. When it comes to our company’s portfolio, sales keep growing for long-established artisanal Tuscan producers such as Vecchie Terre Montefili and Val delle Corti (Chianti Classico), Canneto (Montepulciano) and Mastrojanni (Montalcino), who are all loyal to Tuscany’s native varietals.’
Mazzoleni offered a tip: ‘In my opinion, the two appellations Tuscany-wide that have the most potential for further growth in the U.S. market are Vino Nobile Montepulciano and Morellino di Scansano, because these two terroirs result in Sangiovese-based wines that are uncharacteristically soft, fruit-forward and approachable in early years, much unlike Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino that always retain a certain austerity.’
Ask anyone hip to Italian wines what the hottest region in Italy is right now and they’ll probably say Campania. Situated in southern Italy, Campania is home to extremely old heirloom grapes, reaching back to Greek times. A lot of consumers discovered Campania through the region’s famous producer, Mastroberardino. As a producer of Taurasi, Fiano di Avellino and Greco du Tufo, Mastroberardino did extensive research on the region’s ancient grape varietals, resurrected some very old vines and did a lot to publicize their endeavor. One could say that Mastroberardino put Campania on the map.
Piero Mastroberardino, president and chief winemaker at Mastroberardino noted, ‘Since the 1700s, when my ancestors started to make wines, the objective was always to safeguard and protect the native grapes of Campania. This is because we believe in the potential of the terroir and because we feel deeply tied to the region.’
Describing some of the grapes, Mastroberardino continued, ‘Fiano and Greco are the white grapes of Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo. Fiano is very elegant and perfumed. In spite of its delicacy, the Fiano has high aging potential. Greco, one of the most ancient Italian grape varieties, imported by the Greeks, has an interesting structure for a white wine, with persistent perfume of fruit ‘ considered the most red-like among the white grapes. At the same time it maintains impressive acidity and mineral, due to the soil and altitude of the vineyards. Then there is Aglianico, the most popular red grape in southern Italy and the basic grape variety of the Taurasi DOCG. Its peel is very thick and the grape is rich in tannins. This makes an intense colored and long lasting wine.’
Aglianico might be Campania’s calling card, but wine buyers are also looking towards Basilicata for great expressions of the grape. Parzen at Olcam Management offered, ‘An area that’s not quite there yet but is very cutting edge is Basilicata. This is where they produce Aglianico del Vulture. One producer that I’m most interested in is Donato d’Angelo. Aglianico is the noble grape of the south and most people associate it with Campania, but I think this producer is one of the best. Vulture is situated around an extinct volcano. There’s high altitude and this volcanic subsoil so you end up getting a really powerful expression of Aglianico.’
The wines of Sicily have really attracted American consumers of late. As Parzen affirmed, ‘Sicily has become the new Tuscany in part because it has become a very popular travel destination for Americans and many Sicilians are making modern style wines using varieties like Syrah, Chardonnay and Merlot.’
Wineries such as the popular Planeta have embraced the arrival of international varieties. Two of their retail-friendly wines are under the La Segreta label. The red is made up of the local Nero d’Avola, blended with Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, while the white wine is made up of Grecanico, Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano. Whitman of Palm Bay International, told us, ‘Both wines offer stellar quality. The production is large so there’s a lot of availability. In the first half of 2007 we experienced a lot of off-premise growth.’
On the smaller production side of Sicily are two producers imported by Louis/Dressner Selections. Partner Kevin McKenna explained, ‘Sicily has been hot for awhile now. We’re at a point where it’s so hot a lot of big producers from northern Italy are going down there to create bulk wines. We found two producers that we really liked. Among them is I Vigneri di Salvo Foti. They have rehabilitated these unbelievably old vines, some of which are over 100 years old. The other producer is Arianna Occipinti. Wonderful wines. The winemaker is just 23 years old and she’s been making wine since she was 15.’
Wine buyers in the know stock up on Gulfi wines too, a certified organic producer based in Pachino, in the southeastern corner of Sicily ‘ known as the homeland of the Nero d’Avola variety. Imported by Selected Estates, Luca Mazzoleni said, ‘There’s no denying Sicilian wines have been under the spotlight and demand is still high, especially for Nero d’Avola. Buyers and consumers should be aware that Sicily is the Mediterranean’s largest island, and also Italy’s largest region hence there’s an enormous variety of microclimates, soils and altitudes. As a general rule, one can picture Sicily cut into two main wine regions: East and West. The eastern part of Sicily has always been planted with native red grapes (Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) and it is therefore not by accident that the island’s four foremost red wine appellations are found here [Faro DOC, Etna DOC, Cerasuolo Vittoria DOCG, Eloro Pachino DOC]. On the contrary, the western side has been traditionally planted with white grapes [Insolia, Grillo, Catarratto], to produce the light-bodied Alcamo DOC whites and the fortified Marsala. Unfortunately, in recent years Nero d’Avola has been planted all over Sicily, but terroir never lies: the finest Nero d’Avola comes from the southeastern corner of the island, namely from the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG and Eloro Pachino DOC appellations.’
Retailer Hot List
Two all-Italian wine shops in Manhattan tell us where the buzz is. ‘I call them funky whites, the wine by Gravner, Radikon and Damijan Podversic. There is an almost oxidized quality and for people that like that style, those wines fly off our shelves,’ stated Chris Deas, vice president of marketing, at Italian Wine Merchants.
Though technically not in Italy but on the Slovenian side of the border, Deas tells us that Movia has a following. ‘Movia produces biodynamic wines and is a firm believer in little intervention. These are some of the best value wines because he’s on the Slovenian side. Owner and winemaker Ales Kristancic does an amazing job with Ribolla, with blends, and he makes a sparkling wine that is released undisgorged. When you open the bottle you have to do so neck downwards in a bucket. It’s been really popular, partly because it’s such a show, but Ales really believes that you strip the wine of its soul when you take it off the lees.’
He added, ‘Piedmont is holding ground, especially since it’s had such solid vintages from 1996 through to 2001. Barbaresco is hot too. Producers that we sell a lot of are Giacosa, Gaja, Marchese di Gresy and La Spinetta.
‘Sicily’s indigenous varietals are doing very well. We really like the wines produced by Murgo. Plus, there’s other fun stuff going on there like the traditional Marsalas produced by De Bartoli ‘ they’re really keeping quality Marsala alive,’ said Deas.
As for Campania, Deas is a huge fan of Mastroberardino’s wines. ‘The Radici Taurasi Riserva is one of the best under-$40 wines because it has structure, acidity, mineral and can age for another 30 years.’ For the whites, Deas mentions another producer. ‘Pallagrello Bianco is an antique grape from Campania. Vestini Campagnano makes a phenomenal wine with the variety. We’ve had a lot of customers return for this wine.’
Vino Italian Wines and Spirits were abuzz with Lambrusco mania in 2007. ‘One region that’s really experienced a whole new renaissance is Emilia Romagna, partly due do the extensive Lambrusco selection that we have at Vino. We were the first to sell a white Lambrusco, which kind of become a prosecco for our customers and we offer a method champagne Lambrusco. When customers saw the array of traditional and unusual Lambrusco wines at Vino they got very excited. Lambrusco really exploded in New York and I think it will become a national phenomenon. People are going to realize that these aren’t just sweet wines meant for quaffing,’ raved Jeremy Parzen.
Finally, Parzen’s Nebbiolo picks from Piedmont are Orsolani [Carema], Sella in [Bramaterra] and Dessilani [Spanna].