Renowned for the beauty of its rugged landscape, the Mediterranean island of Sicily has been producing wine for virtually as long as anywhere else. Yet, its native wines have long been derided for their fortified complexity and alcohol levels that could average as much as 18%.
That was until roughly two decades ago, when the island’s producers spurred a renaissance in southern Italian wine, “proving particularly creative in their response to challenges raised by the New World,” the widely respected wine blogger Franco Ziliani told FRANCE 24.
To be fair, much of this “creativity” has boiled down to following trends set by the industry’s real innovators, the oft-scorned New World winemakers – which by the proud standards of Old Europe, is bold enough. Far from snubbing these new competitors, Sicilian winemakers decided to put their pride aside and learn from them.
“Australia has been a benchmark for us, both in terms of production techniques and in matters of communication and labelling,” says Francesca Planeta, whose family-run Sicilian winery has found outlets in 65 countries.
The first lesson implied a change of method, explains Planeta: “In the past we used production techniques better suited to cooler climates further north; now, we’ve adopted the methods of Australian and Californian winemakers, with whom we share a similar climate”.
This has helped Sicilian winemakers raise their quality standards, and in turn deliver the consistency sought after by consumers in emerging markets.
Planeta’s wineries may not boast of a vintage to match the best wines from Tuscany or Piedmont, but its exports have grown consistently in recent years, spurred by sales of clearly labelled varietal wines, including international types such as merlot and chardonnay (photo), which are easily identified by consumers the world over.
This, of course, is precisely what Australian, Californian and Chilean producers have been doing for years, with devastating success.
Outplaying the French
Wineries like Planeta’s have found a way around many of the old obstacles that have consistently prevented Italian wines from competing with their better-known French neighbours. The extraordinary variety of Italy’s landscape, climate and traditions has proved to be both a blessing and a curse for its wine industry, burdened by countless, scarcely known varietals and an inextricable tangle of competing denominations.
The answer is to communicate clearly with consumers and bring them exactly what they want. “Creativity is Italy’s main asset on the highly competitive export market,” explains Ziliani. However, he admonishes, “some may have been a little too creative,” in a veiled reference to a scandal that has rattled Italy’s wine establishment and sapped the prestige of one of its most respected – and expensive – wines, Tuscany’s celebrated Brunello di Montalcino.
It is still too early to determine whether sales of Brunello have taken a hit in the all-important US market as a result of the affair. Yet, scarcely did French vignerons have a chance to gloat at their neighbours’ embarrassment than new figures confirmed fears that Italy’s wine industry as a whole was actually doing better.
Not only does Italy drink and export more wine than France, as of 2008, it also produces more, much to its neighbour’s dismay. Nor can French vignerons shrug off their southern competitors with the age-old taunt that Italy is at best a mass producer of cheap vin de table. “Italian producers have made huge leaps forward in terms of quality,” says Ziliani.
For sure, Italy can only boast of a handful of wines to match France’s greatest labels, acknowledges Ziliani. Yet, it is winning the export battle with its old foe lower down the price tag. Its recipe for success is a simple blend of the following: flexibility, consistent quality, easily recognisable labelling and the universal appeal of the “Made in Italy” tag.