Good things come in threes. Or that’s what Gruppo Italiano Vini – already a giant of Italian wine – will be hoping after its purchase of three southern estates.

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Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV) is Italy’s largest wine exporter and producer. Twice the size of its rivals Antinori, Frescobaldi and Zonin, GIV owns 13 wine estates dotted over seven of the country’s wine producing regions.

Italy, lest we forget, produces a hell of a lot of wine. So let’s put that in context, and get some more figures out of the way while we’re at it. GIV was established in the 1960s and now owns more than 1,200ha (hectares) of vines, and a total annual production of 71 million bottles. In 2002 it reported a record consolidated turnover of T245m with exports accounting for 73% of total sales.

Such a healthy bank balance makes it a little easier to invest in new ventures. GIV can plan new investments across the country. And there’s no doubt where the group is looking in terms of future growth – south.

‘Looking ahead in Italy today means looking south – to Sicily, Puglia and emerging regions such as Basilicata. This is where Italy’s future lies,’ says Gian Alfonso Negretti, commercial director. For GIV, southern Italy has three winning points: the potential for vineyard expansion, the great concentration and ripeness of its wines, and the quality/price ratio it can offer.

Traditionally, the south has long been a significant source for wine production, if only for reasons of quantity. Today the emphasis is shifting to quality.

Over the last 10 years, the replanting of vineyards to modern standards has helped to ensure high levels of quantity, while improving the quality of grapes. Land prices and expenditure have fallen, helping to attract fresh investment from the affluent north.

Great Estates

The desire to produce top-quality southern Italian wines from indigenous grapes such as Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, Primitivo and Aglianico, led GIV to Tenuta Rapitalà in Sicily, Castello Monaci in Puglia and Terre degli Svevi in Basilicata.

GIV’s production structure is pyramid-based. Each estate has a limited number of top bottlings, under which flow larger layers of wines priced at a lower level. The company is divided, therefore, into estates which produce large quantities of wine and niche estates producing smaller quantities of premium labels. All three of the southern estates are part of GIV’s premium range.

Negretti says the south is still feeling its way towards the best market approach. But he’s in no doubt as to what the selling points should be – fruit-forward ripeness, velvety tannins, structure and body, allowing for monovarietal wines or blends which incorporate a small percentage of international grapes with which consumers are familiar.

‘Southern Italy is moving on fast. It is not the south of 30 years ago – things have changed considerably,’ says Negretti. GIV has sought to overcome local difficulties by buying into existing wineries and leaving the original owners as minor shareholders to look after operations under a central management team.

Across the three estates, new vinification vats have been installed to vinify individual batches of grapes; the finished wines are blended after fermentation. Top wines include Solinero, a 100% Syrah, and Hugonis, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola. Meanwhile, Puglia’s traditional red varieties such as Primitivo and Negroamaro, offer plenty of scope for experiment.

Castello Monaci, a 160ha estate with 110ha of vineyard, was purchased in 2001. The estate, 30km from Lecce in Salice Salentino, is managed by a local team of winemakers, headed by Francesco Bardi, oenologist to GIV’s central Italy estates in Orvieto and Lazio.

Bardi is busy replanting an initial 20ha of vineyards, with the emphasis on Negroamaro. The project includes 20% of Merlot and Cabernet, which will be in production in three years and on the market in 2010. With additional grapes bought in from farmers, production will reach about five million bottles.

The present vineyards are planted to Negroamaro and Primitivo, with some Chardonnay and Malvasia Nera. According to Bardi, the climate and terrain in the Salento peninsula makes it one of the prime areas in Puglia, enhanced by its proximity to the Adriatic and Ionian coastline.

‘In Puglia, we are working with historic vines,’ he says. ‘Negroamaro and Primitivo were brought here 2,000 years ago by the Greeks. The vines are naturally low yielding, and with careful vineyard management and modern technology we can challenge the New World by producing full-bodied, fruit-forward, elegant wines, with a taste of Old World tradition.’

Sicily’s historic estate Tenuta Rapitalà is 60km south of Palermo. When GIV bought 70% of the shares in 1999, its vision was to maintain tradition, while replanting vines, using modern viticultural techniques, rebuilding the winery with new technology and enlarging the barrel cellar.

Rapitalà encompasses 105ha of vineyards. The altitude ranges from 350 to 700m, with temperatures fluctuating from around 50?C during the day to 20?C at night, lending elegance to the wines.

The main grape varieties are traditional; white Cataratto Lucido and red Nero d’Avola, with a small percentage of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Plans for the future include 35ha of Nero d’Avola and some Syrah, which in the next two to three years will bring the total vineyard area to 140ha.

To complete the range of ‘big’ reds, Aglianico, powerful, rich in aromatic complexity and native to Basilicata, is the mainstay of Terre degli Svevi, GIV’s most recent acquisition. The 100ha estate is at the foot of the extinct Mount Vulture volcano. Here, just one wine is produced – Re Manfredi, a 100% Aglianico del Vulture – under the guidance of Nunzio Capurzo, from GIV’s Tuscan estates.

With new investment in the vineyards and the wineries, southern Italy has the potential and quantity to fit the ‘New Italy’ image. GIV’s vision is to focus on tradition while raising the profile of the south among wine lovers. Future acquisitions are planned in Campania and Sardinia.

‘In the next three years the south will be the leading force of Italy’s exports,’ says Negretti. Certainly GIV is making a good start in getting it there.

Written by Michele Shah