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Italy’s winemaking giants: Big can be beautiful

In the world of wine, smaller is often regarded as better, with boutique estates and cult micro-cuvées taking the top spots. But, as Ian D'Agata discovers, large companies with their diverse portfolios and huge volumes of wine, can offer big surprises...

Land of Torre Rosazza, owned by Le Tenute di Genagricola

Wine speak has always been littered with catchphrases: terroir, native, local, biodynamic, artisanal, organic, family estate, old vines and so forth. So it’s not surprising many wine lovers assume that only small, family-run estates, or those working organically or solely using native grapes, can produce great wines. That’s just not so, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Italy.

A number of the country’s largest wine estates produce some of the country’s finest wines: witness Frescobaldi’s amazing Ornellaia and Masseto, or Antinori’s Tignanello and Solaia. But Antinori and Frescobaldi are admired by wine lovers around the world because they also deliver excellent wines in large volumes at low prices. Other large estates in Italy are similarly successful, though their top wines may not have reached comparable levels of fame.

Unfortunately, many wine lovers get to know Italy’s large estates by tasting inexpensive, entry-level wines: competently made but insipid Pinot Grigios or Proseccos. The key with Italy’s biggest estates is to pick those wines that aren’t the absolute cheapest in their range. Nevertheless, Italy’s larger wine estates have merits that go far beyond making great or dependable wines.

‘Chianti Classico produces 35 million bottles a year, so every producer, big or small, counts,’ says Sergio Zingarelli, owner of large Tuscan estate Rocca delle Macie, and also the new president of the Chianti Classico consorzio. ‘Bigger estates penetrate international markets better, pricing wines well thanks to economies of scale, which helps increase interest in us and our wine tourism. Smaller estates produce wines better suited to other market niches and tastes.’

‘Buying a well-made, fairly priced Pinot Grigio or Frascati is important to many,’ points out Davide Mascalzoni, general director of Gruppo Italiano Vini (GIV), owner of Italy’s largest collection of wine estates. ‘People know they can count on us to deliver consistent, dependable quality. Smaller producers often have only a limited supply of grapes to choose from, and this limits their winemaking options.’ At Cantina La-Vis and Valle di Cembra, 1.5 million bottles a year of wine are produced but this large co-operative has also launched a limited number of single-vineyard bottlings of Müller- Thurgau (Vigna delle Forche) and Pinot Nero (Vigna di Saosent) that are regularly among Italy’s best wines. The Cantina Viticoltori del Trentino (Cavit) unites 11 Trentino co-ops and has more than 4,500 members. A mind-numbing 65 million bottles a year are made, but its top sparkling wine, the Altemasi Graal Riserva Metodo Classico Trento Brut is made in small quantities and is often ranked among Italy’s best.

So bigger doesn’t necessarily mean standardised or dull. In fact, maintaining the independence and identity of each estate these large groups own is key. For example, GIV’s headquarters are in Veneto, but the group owns 14 cellars and 18 brands across Italy, totalling about 1,340ha under vine.

Thinking individually

Though all the estates are under one umbrella, each has its own viticultural expert, winemaker and cellar master. Mascalzoni adds: ‘Technical and winemaking aspects are kept separate, but estates benefit by having a common sales organisation, overseeing both common and specific marketing strategies, and integrated logistics services. As GIV owns estates from Lombardy to Sicily, our clients have an easier time stocking up on diverse wines from different Italian regions.’

Veneto-based Zonin has a similar set-up across its nine estates. It produces 40 million bottles a year and exports to more than 100 countries. Zonin has enlisted Denis Dubourdieu, a winemaker and professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, as its wine consultant-at-large, and follows environmentally friendly, sustainable agricultural methods. It’s family owned, with father Gianni Zonin and sons Domenico, Francesco and Michele running a remarkably successful enterprise, with a consolidated turnover in 2012 of Euro140 million – up 13% on the previous year.

‘Our wine estates are run separately, by mainly locals who live and work there,’ says Domenico. ‘We lived there too: as children, we’d alternate family vacations at the various estates, giving us a great bond to the different properties, terroirs and wines.’ Zonin’s aim is to help wine regions grow. ‘Once, hardly anybody spoke about Lombardy’s Bonarda, but we always believed in its potential. Now, not only is ours extremely successful, but other producers’ Bonardas have become popular too.’

Greater resources

He adds: ‘Oltrepò Pavese has great potential as a sparkling wine region, but what used to be made there wasn’t up to scratch. So we began organising conferences and wine tastings, then co-created the Pinot Club with about seven other local producers. The club’s goal is to produce better, more interesting wines by sharing information and working together. We even have two expert sparkling winemakers from Burgundy and Champagne to help everyone in the group get the best we can from our grapes.’

Study and research are also a big part of what large estates do. Le Tenute di Genagricola is the agricultural branch of Assicurazioni Generali, a huge Italian insurance group that, much like France’s AXA Millésimes, has invested heavily in wine estates. Alfredo Barbieri, Genagricola’s general director of sales in Italy, says he has terroir and tradition, not just sales, at heart: ‘Bigger companies have the financial means to study and experiment with little-known local varieties. We’ll bottle varietal wines like Albarossa, Picolit and Pignolo even though such small productions aren’t very remunerative. But that’s okay, as we stay actively involved in preserving traditions and native wines.’

Similarly, Zonin wants to promote the wines of Gambellara, an area near Soave and another bastion of the Garganega grape. In Gambellara both dry and sweet wines have been made for centuries, but few wine lovers are familiar with them. ‘Our basalt-rich soils allow production of totally different Garganega-based wines than Soave’s,’ says Domenico. ‘We hope to work with many large and small producers in the area as a cohesive association to help improve and market the area’s wines.’

Recently, Genagricola became the first company to use Schioppettino for traditional method sparkling wine production. The resulting wine, Blanc di Neri, has been a resounding success. ‘Our neighbours thought we were crazy turning Schioppettino into something it wasn’t meant to be, but some are now asking for advice on how to make their own version,’ says Barbieri.

Mascalzoni of GIV points out that the big guys learn from the little guys too. ‘At Castello Monaci in Puglia, we made classic Primitivo or Negroamaro wines, but were aware how successful local smaller producers were with Fiano and Verdeca. We now also make these varietal wines.’ In fact, Castello Monaci’s Acante Fiano and Pietraluce Verdeca are among the most interesting and fairly priced wines coming out of Italy’s deep south in some time.

Speculate to innovate

Sometimes, it’s simpler than all that. There probably wouldn’t exist a worldwide craze for Pinot Grigio without Santa Margherita, one of Italy’s largest wine producers. In the 1960s, 100% Pinot Grigio wines were rare in Italy, but the Marzotto family liked what they tasted and believed in the grape. The rest is history.

In Abruzzo, Tollo is a cooperative that has created countless jobs and preserved the livelihoods of entire generations of families in the Chieti area. It is likely that without Tollo, many of the vineyards would have been abandoned in the wake of the agricultural exodus during the 1960s and 1970s. Wine lovers have come to know Montepulciano and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo thanks to their efforts, but the preservation of old vines also means that previously unidentified or forgotten varieties have survived, which may culminate in new wines one day.

Innovation doesn’t stop at Italy’s doors either. Genagricola has invested in Romania and will bottle its first vintage of Romanian wines this year. And with the creation of Barboursville Vineyards, Zonin helped revive viticulture and winemaking in the American state of Virginia. Winemaker Luca Paschina was even named the Virginia Wine Industry Person of the Year in 2002.

We are regularly told that good things come in small packages when it comes to the size of wine estates. And while that is often true, it’s also clear that, through their fine wines and attention to tradition and innovation, Italy’s largest estates help celebrate the diversity of Italian wine the world over.

Facts & figures

  • Italy is the home of the small landowner. The average vineyard area owned by each wine estate, 1.6 hectares, is increasing but remains below the European average of 7.9ha (2010 data)
  • The largest vineyard holdings per person are in Friuli-Venezia Giulia (3ha), Sicily (2.7ha), Lombardy (2.5ha), and Tuscany (2.3ha)
  • Italy’s 11 biggest wine companies, on the basis of operating profit margin, are (in descending order): Antinori, Santa Margherita, Frescobaldi, Gruppo Italiano Vini, Caviro, Giordano, Botter, Martini, Mezzacorona, Ruffino and Zonin (2011 data). They are much larger land owners than the national average: for example, Zonin owns 2,000ha under vine.

Who owns what in Italy?

Fattoria Aldobrandesca, La Braccesca, Le Mortelle, Badia a Passignano, Guado al Tasso, Pèppoli, Pian delle Vigne, Tenuta Monteloro, Santa Cristina, Tenuta Tignanello, (Tuscany); Prunotto (Piedmont); Montenisa (Lombardy); Castello della Sala (Umbria); Tormaresca (Puglia)

Castello di Nipozzano, Castello di Pomino, Tenuta di Castelgiocondo, Ornellaia, Tenuta di Castiglioni, Tenuta dell’Ammiraglia (Tuscany); Attems (Friuli Venezia Giulia)

Ca’ Bianca (Piedmont); Nino Negri (Lombardy); Bolla, Conti d’Arco, Lamberti, Santi, Turá (Veneto); Conti Formentini (FVG); Cavicchioli (Emilia Romagna); Conti Serristori, Folonari, Machiavelli, Melini (Tuscany); Bigi (Umbria); Fontana Candida (Lazio); Castello Monaci (Puglia), Re Manfredi (Basilicata); Tenuta Rapitalà (Sicily)

Lavis, Casa Girelli, Cembra, Cesarini Sforza (Trentino), Dürer-Weg (Alto Adige); Poggio Morino, Villa Cafaggio (Tuscany)

Le Tenute di Genagricola
Tenuta S.Anna (Veneto); Torre Rosazza, Borgo Magredo, Poggiobello, V8+ (FVG); Bricco dei Guazzi (Piedmont); Gregorina (Emilia Romagna); Solonio (Lazio)

Zonin (Veneto); Castello Del Poggio (Piedmont); Tenuta Il Bosco (Lombardy); Tenuta Ca’ Bolani (FVG); Castello D’Albola, Rocca Di Montemassi, Abbazia Monte Oliveto (Tuscany); Masseria Altemura (Puglia); Feudo Principi Di Butera (Sicily)

Written by Ian D’Agata

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