Italian wine in 2016: a year that dramatically reshaped the industry and gave us “Asti Secco”

vietti-sale-baroloAbove: the sale of legacy Barolo grower and producer Vietti was one of the most talked about stories of 2016. But there were many other stories that dramatically reshaped Italy’s viticultural landscape.

“The year came to a close with another major loss,” wrote Italian wine critic Monica Larner last week in her excellent almanac for 2016 on RobertParker.com:

    The Felluga family of Gorizia in Friuli Venezia Giulia announced on December 27 that their much-celebrated patriarch Livio Felluga had passed away a few days prior. He was 102 years old. Mr. Felluga’s extraordinary life saw two world wars and Italy’s post-war economic boom. He shaped the wine identity of Northeast Italy and championed the concept of quality Italian white wines that would spark an important export phenomenon. Among Mr. Felluga’s most important contribution is his approach to farming. He famously refurbished previously abandoned vineyards and painstakingly brought old vines back to prime production health. He implemented modern trellising, high density planting and systems to guarantee low yields.

Felluga was just one of three Italian icons who transhumanized in 2016, to borrow Dante’s neologism. Stanko Radikon and Giacomo Tachis, both of whom Monica remembers in her piece, were two others. In their own ways, each of them radically re-envisioned and re-routed the trajectory of Italian wine. Their lives form a triptych of the Italian wine trade’s transformation since the end of the Second World War.

When future observers of the Italian wine trade look back on the fateful year of 2016 (a year of radical social-political-and-cultural upheaval throughout the world), they will also remember the “all-out land-grab,” as Monica put it, in Italy’s premium-brand appellations. 12 months ago, no Cassandra could have predicted what has been widely called the “Burgundization” of Italians most prominent appellations.

“Some have dubbed it the ‘Burgundization’ of Italian wine,” wrote Monica, “because like in Burgundy, there is simmering resistance and palpable discomfort in Italy over foreign and corporate capital in local wine.”

The Vietti sale to an American investor was arguably the most talked-about. But Biondi-Santi, Cerbaiona, and countless other leading high-end and high-profile brands in Langa, Bolgheri, and Montalcino changed hands in 2016. Many of the properties went to foreign investors and many went to the growing number of Italy’s corporate winery groups.

(It’s behind a paywall but Monica’s is such a great overview of this transformational year in Italian wine. I highly recommend it to you.)

The year’s necrology and its feudalization will be the elements that will be remembered most by future observers of the Italian wine trade. But there were other stories that will have far-reaching implications for Italian wine.

In 2016, Langa winemakers handily crushed greater Piedmont’s attempt to create a Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC. It was one of the most pitched battles of the year for Italian winemakers.

“The Langhe have won the Nebbiolo war,” wrote leading Italian wine writer Luciano Ferraro for the national daily Corriere della Sera after the dust had settled.

michele-antonio-finoAbove: my friend and UniSG colleague Michele Fino. In widely read and reposted editorials last year, he wrote in favor of a Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC and against changes in the Asti DOCG that would allow producers to write “Secco” on their labels.

Another Piedmontese conquest, scarcely noticed by the American wine media, was the move by Moscato d’Asti producers to allow bottlers to include the word “Secco,” meaning dry in Italian, on their labels.

In a September 2016 post entitled “Why ‘Asti Secco’ Is Unacceptable” for Intravino, my UniSG colleague and legal expert Michele Fino (above) explained (my paraphrasis): Asti, Marsala, and Franciacorta are the only Italian DOCGs where producers are not required to write “DOCG” on the label; as a result of the new appellation regulations, bottlers will now be able to write “Asti Secco” on their labels.

Many, like Fino, see this linguistic contortionism as an attempt by Asti bottlers to take a greater slice of the ever-more lucrative and ever-growing Prosecco market.

Prosecco bottlers have lobbied aggressively to block adoption of the new rule but the Italian agriculture ministry is expected to approve the changes next week.

It’s likely that Asti producers will present the new labels this spring at Vinitaly and Prowein.

What Cassandra could have imagined that Target and Walmart shoppers would see “Cupcake Asti Secco” on the shelves next holiday season?

In the wake of 2016, when the world witnessed a truly epochal shift in political and cultural currency, it seems that no deal is off the table.

Happy 2017, everyone! Thanks for being here and thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to another year in Italian wine with you. Stay tuned…

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