Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani recently published this interview with Jane Hunt MW here, in Italian, on the Association of Italian Sommeliers website. Jane has been involved professionally in the wine trade since 1977 but was introduced to the world of wine via two years as English-speaking assistant at Cantina Lungarott in Umbria. She worked for John Harvey & Sons, Boutinot, Annabel's, André Simon shops and Brown Brothers before concentrating on generic promotion, first setting up Wines of South Africa in London in the post-apartheid era and then setting up with Tina Coady Hunt & Coady which specialises in organising generic tastings. She has a house in Umbria. We took the Master of Wine exam together in 1984 and I owe her a huge debt of gratitude for reminding me, minutes before the start of the red wine paper, not to forget Beaujolais. I had. The first wine was a Beaujolais.
Here she speaks with particular authority about what's wrong with how Italian wine is sold in the UK. Franco's questions are in italics.
Since 1999 you have organised the Definitive Italian Wine Tasting every year in London, the only generic trade event for Italy in the UK organised specifically as a platform for UK importers of Italian wine. What is the main idea of this event, what are the targets?
The original concept of this event was to provide a platform for UK importers of Italian wine to showcase their portfolio of wines to the trade and the press with a view to increasing awareness of the offer from all of Italy's wine regions, enthusing and encouraging support from all sectors of the UK trade and press for Italy's wines and increasing Italian wine sales in the UK - now even 12 years on from the first DIWT, the focus and targets remain the same.
The Italian Wines Committee of the Wine & Spirit Association of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (now disbanded) had been lobbying the Italian Trade Commission in London (ICE) for nearly seven years (before 1999) to organise such an event in the UK but without success. The Definitive Italian Wine Tasting is entirely funded by its exhibitors. There have been occasions when the Italian Trade Commission has made financial contributions which have allowed the event to have greater financial security - but, in essence, it is an event funded by its exhibitors.
Why do you choose to organise an event about Italian wines and to promote Italian wines and not wine from other countries? What is the origin of your particular interest for wines from Italy?
We chose to organise an event for Italian wines simply for the reason that I personally have a long personal association with Italy and speak fluent Italian - so it is a totally 'organic' development! Not so many English people speak Italian beyond tourist level.
But the Definitive Italian Wine Tasting is not the only event we organise for Italian wines. We work with the Italian Trade Commission in London on two of their key London events - Borsa Vini (mainly Italian producers seeking UK representation) and The Best Wines of Tuscany (a résumé of the 'winners' of the annual Selezione Toscana organised by the promotional bureau for Tuscany). In addition we have worked with Alto Adige Wine Promotion for nearly eight years organising tastings for them in London and including them as exhibitors at the Definitive Italian Wine Tasting. And in the past we organised tastings in London on behalf of Gambero Rosso.
It is not true that we do not promote wines from other countries. We have a very long-standing relationship with Argentina and work closely with Vinos de Argentina on a number of projects, most importantly the Argentina Wine Awards tasting competition which is held in Mendoza, Argentina in February each year. In the past we have also worked with Chile and currently we have projects for Slovenia and the ongoing France Under One Roof annual tasting (its tenth year is in 2011) which is similarly focussed for UK importers of French wine to showcase their portfolio of wines to the trade and the press.
What is the situation for wine in UK? The consumption of wine is increasing? Or is it decreasing like in other countries in Europe? What are the main problems to cope with for increasing wine consumption?
A very difficult question!
I would say that in the UK, wine consumption will still be generally on the increase. There are 'rolling' generations of younger beer, spirits and 'pop' drinkers that will graduate to wine as they mature. Wine is seen as a sophisticated drink.
The largest age group in the UK are the over 50s - I would suggest that their wine consumption patterns will remain static. There could be few new converts to wine in this category.
However, with this current recession, there might be a period of reduced growth - a combination of purchases at lower prices and generally less purchasing.
A big problem for the future of wine is the very low price that some UK supermarkets put on wine - which suggest to consumers that these prices are normal and make it difficult for higher priced wines.
Do you think that with new Tory government things will be better or worse concerning tax and duties on wine?
Actually it is not a majority Tory government in the UK; it is a coalition of Tory and Liberal Democrats. Alcohol and tobacco have historically been the targets for increased taxes and duties. The financial mess inherited by the new government needs resolution - we will already see a VAT increase to 20% in January 2010 - maybe this will be the only increase for the immediate future.
What are the main problems you think people must resolve to transform English people (traditionally fans of French wines and in recent times of wines from New World) into fans of Italian wines?
I don't think the problems are with the British people - the problems lie with Italy's inability to provide market-driven generic promotion. The Italian Trade Commission, in all the years that I have known it, does not do this work - indeed it does not have the brief.
The simple answer is to follow the example of the success of the New World. Set up an organisation to market 'Brand Italy' in the form of a UK-based generic promotional office staffed by knowledgeable people who can communicate with the UK trade, press and consumers. Unfortunately, the intensely regional characteristics of Italy, an unwillingness to work together generically and no central funding are stumbling blocks.
There have been occasional regional efforts to communicate (Prosecco, Alto Adige, Chianti Classico); these are 'one offs' but at least take the message further and with repeated efforts do achieve some rewards.
What kind of wine does the UK wine enthusiast now prefer?
I think we increasingly prefer wines with less oak and lower alcohol.
What are the most important trends for wine appreciation now in UK? Red wines, rosé and sparkling wines are the most popular? What can be, in your opinion, the next big thing, and there are possibilities that the next (wine) big thing can be Italian?
Rosé has had a very successful revival and the UK is still the largest market for Champagne outside France. The 'next big thing' will be determined by price, I am sorry to say - and for this Argentina, Chile and South Africa are more likely candidates.
Does Pinot Grigio still have a good result in the UK? And is Prosecco appreciated in se, or as a cheaper alternative to more Champagne?
I am always amazed by the success of Pinot Grigio as most of it tastes of absolutely nothing! Take Pinot Grigio out of the equation and sadly Italy's sales to the UK are not huge. Prosecco is beginning to make some headway and in many cases offers better quality than the lower priced Champagnes. .
After the economic crisis do people in the UK prefer to drink wines at restaurants or at home? What is the level of domestic consumption relative to wine consumption in restaurants?
For this, I don't have any figures. In London, restaurants are still full and busy so you would hardly know there is an economic crisis. Outside London, things may be different. For sure consumption at home is definitely on the increase.
Has the economic crisis changed the situation of the UK wine market? Are the people who like to buy and drink wine still able to pay the same high prices for a bottle as before the crisis?
Those people in the higher age groups with mortgages already paid off and good pensions are probably not so affected. The younger age groups will certainly be looking for the cheaper options.
What is the situation now in the UK for Italian wines? What is the image of the Italian wines in UK?
All things Italian have a great image in the UK, but I think for the general public Italian wine is still seen as something of average to low quality and this is exacerbated by some of the UK supermarkets who don't seem to stock better quality Italian wines. This paralysis is largely due to the failure of Italy to undertake any useful generic marketing in the UK. However, for the cognoscenti consumers and particularly in the restaurant sector, Italian wines have a fantastic image and following.
What elements do the English agree on about Italian wines? Do they prefer Italian wine from international grapes or do they also like wines from Italian native varieties?
Stick to the Italian native varieties!!! They are Italy's heritage - we don't need any more international varieties!
What are the aspects of Italian wine that are more difficult to explain to English people? The very complicated wine laws, the abundance of appellations, the great number of local grape varieties, the fantasy of Italian people who invent new fantasy names for their wines, and the special taste (acidity, tannins, et.) of many Italian wines may be the most interesting characteristics.
The laws only guarantee provenance not quality - so are really fairly meaningless and I doubt if the average consumer would understand them anyway. The abundance of appellations does not really help. A much more extensive regional approach would work better - such as Veneto, Piedmont, Tuscany etc. The fantasy names - like Where Dreams Have No End - are seen as rather ridiculous! Where Italy does well is that the wines work very well with food and this is mainly due to the acidity.
What is now the situation in the UK in this moment of crisis for the most expensive Italian wines such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Supertuscans?
I think these 'top' wines will continue without interruption in the crisis - those people who have this kind of money are not in difficulty!
Is the price still the most important element when English people buy wine? In your opinion do Italian wines have a good medium price or they are too expensive?
Price is very important for the volume sales. I believe that about 70% of sales (off-trade) go through supermarkets and at under £5 a bottle. That makes it difficult for Italy to compete at this level. So again, Italian wines at the medium to higher prices tend to do better in the on-trade and with more sophisticated consumers who purchase from specialist wine merchants.
This year you were Italian regional chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards with Rosemary George: what are the aspects you appreciated in the Italian wines you tasted and which aspects did you find unconvincing and paradoxical?
The sheer number of styles, flavours and grape varieties - that is Italy's most wonderful and unique vinous characteristic and is much appreciated. Unconvincing are the big names with lower prices - such as Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo; really good wines from these denominations do not exist at lower prices!!!
What are the conditions when in your opinion an Italian wine presents a really Italian style and taste?
For me it is 'savouriness' in many the reds that is most notable. But above all it is the defined acidity which makes most Italian wines work well with food.
What are the most important errors that Italian wine protagonists (producers, Consorzi, ICE, different agencies) commit in presenting and promoting Italian wines in the UK? What can be, in your opinion, a winning strategy? How is possible to extend the action of an event like Definitive Italian wine tasting all the time during the entire year?
Their failure to work together. There is no point in trying to promote small individual regions or wines to the UK. Promotion has to be for ITALY. If promotion has to be regional, then fine but for BIG regions such as Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Sicily etc. The only way to extend the action of an event like the Definitive Italian Wine Tasting is to open a UK office dedicated to the promotion of Italian wine that is market driven.
How do you suggest Italian wine people can present and promote Italian wines better to UK customers and wine enthusiasts?
Italian producers need to work together under much bigger 'umbrellas'. There is no point in trying to promote individually either as producers or regions.
How can all the protagonists, from the producers to the importers in UK, better cooperate to promote and allow a bigger knowledge of Italian wines in the UK?
It has been said so many times before. Italy needs a specific UK office dedicated to the generic promotion of Italian wines which is staffed by people with an intimate knowledge of the UK wine trade. Such an office would bring producers, importers and consumers into closer contact. The Italian Trade Commission does not have this brief.
What are your favourite Italian wines and Italian wine regions? Why do you choose to have an holiday house in Umbria and not, like the most part of English people, in Chiantishire in Tuscany?
My personal favourites among Italian wines are those of the Veneto - top producers making Soave and Valpolicella (Amarone and Ripasso) and also those from the Alto Adige. Also some of the better Chianti Classico Riservas. Italy has so many good wines that it is always hard to pick out just a few. I chose Umbria, because I lived in and around Perugia from 1973 to 1976 and I still have friends from those days here. Also Umbria is a little 'wilder' than Tuscany!
What in your opinion is the future for wine in the UK and what are your main wine projects?
I would think the future for wine in UK is probably quite good even if it is likely to be rather slow in the next few years. Our future projects are as follows - we have some others that are not yet confirmed so I can't cite those yet.
Argentina Wine Awards - 21 - 25 February 2011, Mendoza, Argentina www.argentinawineawards.org
France Under One Roof - 9 March 2011, London www.franceunderoneroof.co.uk
Slovenia Wine Tasting - 9 June 2011, London www.huntandcoady.com
Definitive Italian Wine Tasting - 28 June 2011 (provisional), London www.definitiveitalianwine.co.uk