Our recent focus in the wine shop and tasing room has been on Italian wines for several reasons. They are delicious, and offer many new discoveries for wine drinkers. They are food friendly and great for fresh summer meals. But also they are often quite affordable compared to local wines from the US, or the popular French regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
In this article we take a high-level look at why Italy offers such great values and why we should pay attention. This is not an exhaustive list, but more of a conversation starter.
Italy offers an incredible history of wine and much of the vineyard land has been owned by families for multiple generations. This land ownership keeps costs low, ensuring that families are able to invest in making better wines year after year.
"Keep it in the family" is something you hear of immigrant business owners in the US who become successful, but it's also the natural structure for most small businesses around the world. A family 'team' means information is shared quickly and costs of hiring (or firing) are kept to a minimum. By combining much longer time horizons of land ownership and a family of passionate craftsmen, wines have the potential to be very good while staying relatively affordable compared to US wines.
Italy was not always known for its quality, in fact quite the opposite. But in recent decades investments in quality control have made their wines at least 'decent' across the board. Then, as many vineyard owners transitioned from selling grapes to making their own wines to increase revenue, they discovered a lot of competition. Now, many small wineries are focused on quality, including organic and sustainable farming and 'clean' winemaking practices in order to maintain a high quality product in a crowded market place. Competition also keeps prices down.
Most people in US agriculture will tell you that the European Union is a major supporter of their Ag programs, and it is especially true for exports. Therefore what might seem like a herculean task for a small winery to export from Italy, is often the result of helpful marketing and sales expertise, as well as subsidies, for wines to be sold abroad. The US supports their wineries with exports, particularly the Wine Institute of California, but not nearly as much as the EU.
Finally, importers of Italian wine, many of Italian descent, are helping spread the word of small Italian wineries around the world. A positive feedback loop of money and customers' preferred tastes leads to increased wine offerings, improved wine quality, and more consumer education of small wineries from lesser known regions that are eager to promote their wines.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, or at least change. Italy is susceptible to the same macro forces of other wine countries, especially in Europe. I expect prices of wines from 2022 vintage and later to be much higher when they are released. The cost of doing business in Europe as the price of fuel, glass, or other materials of grape growing, wine making, and logistics are all increasing. Climate change is making vintages less predictable, and drought a frequent occurrence in major regions. Families that were once able to afford a reliable income from selling wines, olive oil, and a guest in a small inn might lose a family member to a better paying job, changing their ability to maintain quality, or distribute globally.
The EU can also alter its funding priorities or agriculture programs and subsidies for exporters. A change in global wine consumption can even lead to vine-pulling schemes, just the opposite of what we want!
Now is a wonderful time to enjoy wines from Italy because the values that we see now may not always be at our fingertips. I encourage wine drinkers, particularly if you are looking for great daily drinkers make Italy a focus. Your patronage also goes to the pockets of small family wineries so they can prepare for and invest in their own futures as grape growing and wine makers.