DAVID GLEAVE MW examines the reasons behind the runaway success of Italian wines.
Twenty years ago, Italian wines – if such a term can be applied to what was then an extremely disjointed industry – was mired in a long tradition of quantity that had evolved during the first half of the 20th century and was going nowhere fast. This tradition had been enshrined in the denominazione di orgine controllata (DOC) laws, passed by the Italian government in the 1960s in an effort to give its wine industry the same sort of navigational aids that AC had given the French. However, while in France appellation contrôlée was seen as a fixed point by which consumers could set their compasses, in Italy DOC was regarded as nothing more than sodden ballast.
Not to be deterred, wine lovers were drawn to the few Italian producers who managed to jettison the ballast and set course towards what was to become the brave new world of Italian wine. People like Antinori and Sassicaia had decided that the future lay with quality rather than quantity and they had also realised that, given the backward-looking nature of the DOC laws, the only way to achieve this was to step outside their restrictive framework.
The new wines produced, Tignanello and Sassicaia, were accordingly labelled vino da tavola not DOC, and they were so successful that, a decade later, they had engendered a reworking of the architecture of Italian wine. DOC remained a rather squat and ugly pyramid, but beside it was built an amazing structure, its bricks the myriad, innovative wines that opted for vino da tavola rather than DOC.
This new structure, which from the mid-1990s came to be called IGT (indicazione geografica tipica – the Italian equivalent of vin de pays) embodied the new spirit of Italian wine. At the same time, renovations were carried out on its squat neighbour and the DOC laws emerged looking less of a relic. It had to, for while the French and Italians had been fussing over their architectural contests, countries like Australia and Chile had created new and modern industries that dispensed with such rigid structures. Unburdened by the heritage (some would call it baggage) of the French, the New World countries were able to offer the consumer wines of stunning simplicity and appeal. The battle was joined and is still unfolding before our eyes. In 1990, New World wines comprised only 5% of the UK wine market; today, they make up about 40% of all wines sold in this country. The big losers have been Germany and France. Italy lost market share when sales of wines like Lambrusco went into rapid decline but has, in recent years, been the only Old World country to increase its share of the market (it has recently been joined by Spain). So why this success for Italian wines? There are many reasons. Some are quantifiable, like the success of Italian food, where Italian wine has tagged along for the ride, but even outside Italian restaurants and delis, in the harsh competitive world of international wine, Italy’s wines are performing well.
There are as many theories for this success as there are pundits, but three seem to me to be particularly credible. Firstly, Italy has a range of native grape varieties that is, in its stylistic variety, unmatched by any country. Such variety is at first confusing, but with time offers the consumer greater choice. Second, Italy’s regions offer as much variety as her grapes. Sicily and Puglia (which each produce more wine than Australia) are emerging as exciting wine producing regions, and within a decade we should see much greater depth and consistency of quality. Tuscany and Piemonte produce wines that are far removed not only from each other but also (at least when no illegal blending has taken place) from their southern cousins. This diversity further enhances the variety which is on offer. However, the third reason is perhaps the most compelling. The success of the New World is attributable in large part to a consistency of style and quality, plus New World wines are seen to be more innovative than some of the dated styles still being peddled by the Old World.
Italy, in the shape of DOC, is the staid Old World, but its parallel IGT system offers the consumer a new world of Italian wine. And, as the articles in this 2002 Italy Guide show, this is a brave and exciting new world that is appealing to more and more people.
David Gleave MW is managing director of Liberty
Written by DAVID GLEAVES