This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
In the last few weeks I have spent time with wine people in both Italy and Italy's prime export market, the US. They have radically different impressions of the current state of Italian wine.
For New York-based Joe Bastianich, wine producer, wine merchant, restaurateur and author, described in his latest book Grandi Vini as 'America's foremost authority on Italian wine', the wines of his mother country are selling brilliantly. The precise details of who imports and distributes what may be in constant flux, with merchants such as himself becoming ever more inventive about circumventing America's notorious three-tier system, which has traditionally inflated prices with so many margins along the way. But demand for Italian wine in New York is stronger than ever, not least thanks to the popularity of Italian food and restaurants there.
According to him, Piemonte is doing much better than Italy's other great wine region Tuscany because its producers are perceived as providing something artisanal and traditional. Tuscany is suffering more according to Bastianich, partly because of 'Brunellogate', the unfolding scandal in which several prominent producers are officially accused of adding flattering but illegal international grapes such as Cabernet to Brunello di Montalcino, which is supposed to be made entirely from the Italian grape Sangiovese. (Ezio Rivella of Banfi, president of the Consorzio of Montalcino, has admitted that 80% of all Brunello contained grapes other than Sangiovese before the affair became public.) Bastianich also reckons that American wine drinkers regard many Tuscan wines as overpriced and the market has been flooded by expensive newcomers, notably from the Tuscan coast, the fashionable Maremma.
New York über-restaurateur Danny Meyer, proprietor of, inter alia, the acclaimed Italian restaurant Maialino, agrees that Italian wine sales continue to be strong in the US. (Italian wine has traditionally been Americans' favourite imported wine - swollen over the years by successive tides of cheap Chianti and Valpolicella, then Lambrusco and now Pinot Grigio.) But he sees Tuscany as more successful than Piemonte. Some time ago, when the price of top bordeaux began to rise inexorably, he bet on the fact that Barolo, Piemonte's and indeed Italy's prime candidate for long-term cellaring, would take off in its place. He says he is yet to see that happen - although Bastianich claims that top Piemontese wines are now bought by his customers in much the same way as French first growths.
Both Bastianich and Meyer agree that the remodelling of Piemonte's most planted grape Barbera into a wine with concentrated fruit, often rather too obvious a layer of oak, and early appeal, has helped Piemonte's image enormously by providing an affordable way to make the acquaintance of the sub-alpine region's army of small-scale producers.
But this robust, upbeat assessment of Italian wine's fortunes is very much at odds with what you are likely to hear in Italy. Grape prices have been falling dramatically and 'the crisis' is now such a familiar foe as to feature in virtually all conversation with Italian wine producers. According to Bettina Bertheau, who exports the wines of the extensive Terriccio estate in the Maremma, 'the US market has really been a breakdown, while German-speaking markets have been crushed down too. And the Italian market has its ups and downs. The Italians order and drink, but the paying morality is not too good.' She sighed. A little further south, Cinzia Merlo, owner of Le Macchiole estate in Bolgheri, confirmed how desperate things are in the Italian wine market, with 180 days a minimum before any producer can expect payment.
Over in Montalcino, Roberto Guerrini of the all-Sangiovese Fuligni estate told me that he has seen the quantities ordered by his US importer Empson shrink by 15 to 20% over the past two years, and in Piemonte, the most high-profile producer, once famed for having to allocate his Barbarescos at up to $500 a bottle, is now so incensed by the sluggishness of the market for Italian wine that he has been publicly railing against the squeeze on better-quality Italian wine at the expense of anodyne Pinot Grigio. According to him, 'those who have benefited the most are firms which offer phony agricultural products, those with a semblance of being Italian but which are not of true Italian origin, gaining market share both abroad and in Italy itself'.
As usual, Tuscany's wine figurehead Marchese Piero Antinori is more measured in his assessment of the current situation, pointing out that just like France, Italy has a superfluous sagging underbelly of poor-quality vineyards and unwanted wine, a hangover from the post-war era when quantity not quality was the watchword, and it is taking more than bribes from Brussels to trim it.
But when I put all this doom and gloom to Josh Greene, publisher and editor of the well informed Wine & Spirits magazine in the US, he commented, 'It's strange that the Italians are feeling gloomy, unless they are suffering from currency blues. Their wines are booming here. It seems to be all that anyone talks about. And it seems like the Italian restaurants are booming as well. [On my trip to New York earlier this month, I dined at Michael White's new place, Osteria Morini, which is all about Lambrusco, of all things.] The cool new lists are all regional Italian - extremely regional in a lot of cases.' The same is true in the great dining capital on the west coast, San Francisco, where new restaurants compete with each other for which obscure section of the boot's vineyards they specialise in.
In the UK, meanwhile, we continue to lag many kilometres behind the Americans in our appreciation and knowledge of Italian wine. There are a handful of specialist importers such as David Gleave of Liberty Wine, some specialist retailers such as Lea & Sandeman and Valvona & Crolla, as well as a few high-profile fashionable Italian restaurants such as the River Café, but the average British wine merchant still finds Italy 'too complicated'. That long love–hate affair with the French is a habit the Brits find hard to break, especially when they have so many easy-to-understand New World varietal alternatives to Italy's host of DOCs and IGTs to choose from.
It is hardly surprising that the current nub of Italian wine politics is the choice between the country's complicated but exciting array of indigenous grape varieties and the international cuckoos in the nest.
UK Italian specialist retailers
AP Vino, London W10
Bat & Bottle, Oakham
Falcon Vintners, London SW17
For the Love of Wine
Lea & Sandeman, around London
Luvians, Cupar and St Andrews
Olivino, London SW1
Speck, London W11
Valentina, London SW15
Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh
See my latest set of tasting notes on some top Tuscan wines.