Why the US can't get enough of Italian wine
‘Americans love Italy, Italian fashion and, most of all, Italian cuisine and wine,’ says Antonio Capaldo, president of Campania’s Feudi di San Gregorio winery, one of southern Italy’s leading estates. ‘Just as Hollywood films about love and romance always seem to end up in Paris or a chic town in southern France, American films celebrating great food and wine always take place in Italy.’
Certainly there’s something about Italy’s epicurean offerings that resonate with Americans. Around 30% of all wine imported to the US is Italian.
Why? ‘Food and wine have always been important for Italian Americans, and today many star US chefs are of Italian descent. This love for Italian food has helped drive the popularity of Italian wine,’ says Capaldo, for whom, like many Italian wine producers, the US is a primary export market. Italian wine importer Neil Empson agrees: ‘The incredible growth over the past 20 years of good Italian restaurants in the US is certainly one of the main reasons people are drinking wines of the same culture.’
Even though an increased focus on food and wine pairing is a major force behind Italian wine sales in America, some experts attribute the sustained success of Italian wine here to a tailor-made style that caters specifically to the ’American Palate‘, a term which has become synonymous with highly oaked, overly dense, sweet and powerful wines.
Surprisingly accepted as a reality for years by many in the media and by wine producers themselves, the concept behind the American Palate – that a single style can capture the taste buds of an entire nation – is generating sharp debate, if not a downright backlash, as evolving consumer preferences are turning away from this heavy-handed style.
So how is the debate affecting Italian winemaking? ‘Italian wine styles have been adversely affected by what US tastes are perceived to be seeking,’ declares Nicolas Belfrage MW, author and Italian wine authority.
‘I was never convinced real Americans wanted this density, deep colour and oakiness but, over the past 20 or more years, US commentators, then sadly emulated by Italian guides, have awarded the highest points to these undrinkable monsters, and it seems people are unable to buy wine unless some pundit has awarded it 90 points plus. I do detect a swinging back to authenticity, whereby consumers are prepared to forgive – even welcome – a lighter colour, a more balanced palate and more varietal perfume, but the battle is not won yet.’
Lamberto Frescobaldi, of leading Tuscan producer Marchesi Frescobaldi, agrees that critics have played a crucial role in shaping the way wines are made: ‘The English-language wine critics have had a huge effect on winemakers everywhere because English reviews are read all over the world.’
Yet he insists that until recently there was a market demand for these packed and powerful wines. ‘For years Americans used to drink wine, both white and red, without food – like a cocktail. So they wanted sweeter wines in terms of taste and tannins and less acidity,’ says Frescobaldi, whose wines, particularly the Castelgiocondo and Luce della Vite Brunellos, are known for their density and extraction.
‘In the past few years, an increased attention to healthier lifestyles has spurred more interest in cooking, food and wine pairing. Americans are moving away from this big style and are now looking for more elegant wines with higher acidity that clean the palate.’
Frescobaldi says the change in attitude has even affected wine descriptions. ‘Until recently, when I presented our wines in the US, I could not use the term “acidity” because consumers hated the word and what it implied. So I had to say “brightness” instead.
But now consumers are looking for acidity in wine because they realise a certain amount works well with food.’ Given the five-year mandatory ageing for Brunello, however, it may be a few years yet before Frescobaldi’s more restrained style hits the market.
Despite these winds of change, insiders say the market has not completely shifted towards a more refined style. ‘My trips to the US reveal that consumers – particularly those most likely to buy expensive bottlings – still expect the oak and heft. They feel cheated if a pricey wine lacks these sensations,’ says Feudi’s Capaldo who, since taking over the family firm three years ago, has moved away from internationally styled wines in favour of terroir-driven incarnations of Campania’s unique grapes.
Relying on more scrupulous vineyard management overseen by full-time agronomist Pierpaolo Sirch Capaldo drastically changed the firm’s cellar practices after jet-setting oenologist Ricardo Cotarella and Feudi amicably parted ways in 2007 after a decade of collaboration.
For the firm’s Taurasi and other reds, Feudi no longer ages exclusively in new barriques, but uses both large Slavonian casks as well as barriques and tonneaux of different ages (although most of these revamped wines have not yet hit the market).
For the whites, Feudi now eschews wood entirely and, with no more oak sensations weighing them down, they are vibrant and food friendly, with pure fruit and minerality. ‘We changed styles not only because we feel the market is turning in that direction, but because we want our wines to reflect Campania and its grapes, not international wines from anywhere,’ says Capaldo.
Leading Tuscan producer Donatella Cinelli Colombini of the Casato Prime Donne Brunello estate and Colle di Trequanda, is also updating her winemaking approach. ‘American wine lovers now appreciate extremely balanced wines that are not too tannic but exceedingly elegant – very different from wines of the 1990s,’ says Colombini.
In early 2010, after a long collaboration with famed consultant oenologist Carlo Ferrini, Colombini engaged the services of leading French oenologist Valerie Lavigne.
One of Lavigne’s first changes was to substitute new barriques for larger, older wood for the firm’s Brunello and other Sangiovese-based wines because, ‘wood should never overpower the wine’. Lavigne added: ‘Tonneaux, and especially large casks, are much better than barriques at preserving Sangiovese’s aromas, thereby avoiding drying out the tannins and disturbing a wine’s balance.’
Colombini says US consumers are also ‘searching for wines with new flavours, that express a unique territory and have a distinct personality’.
Belfrage agrees that Italy’s indigenous vines are crucial for continued success. ‘The only way to win the wine game, in a world awash with decent but similar stuff, is to propose something different, especially if it’s got tradition behind it: a story.’
Whichever path it follows, between its rich history and wealth of singular wines, Italy’s vinous story is far from over.
Written by Kerin O’Keefe