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Allegrini 2024
WINE TERRITORIES

The future of Amarone della Valpolicella: revising policies and changing to stay the same

Style, positioning and communication from “Amarone Opera Prima 2024”, Valpolicella’s top wine and its territory, predicting tomorrow

At “Amarone Opera Prima” 2024 (held February 3-4, in Verona), the Consorzio dei Vini Valpolicella interrogated itself on the paths it needs to take to deal with the current situation. That is to say, facing the future in an uncertain situation that favors fine wines, and focusing on increasing value thanks to style refining on the basis of research projects from the vineyard to the winery to the orchard. In addition, they must face the enormous transformations that are affecting the wine sector, and not only (climate change, the changed economic context, also due to wars, new consumption dynamics and the change in consumer demographics).
“We have decided to review our policies”, the president Christian Marchesini said during the opening talk of the 20th edition of the event dedicated to the flagship wine of Valpolicella, “to deal with the challenges on the markets. The Consortium had previously met and discussed with the producers to understand which direction to take. Today, we have established the vineyard area at 8.600 hectares, as we had planned in 2010. We have 2000 years of history behind us; we produce five extraordinary and modern red wines, and we are working on increasing their value”. Regarding Amarone, Marchesini added, “we must, we want to and we can make a more and more competitive and modern Amarone”. Increasing the value of Amarone - also because it is now in the fine wine and collectible wine category - and reflecting on its style were at the center of the two interesting Masterclasses, dedicated to the press, that preceded the event.
Valpolicella wines, like all the other red wines, are facing an enormous challenge, i.e., the decline of the typology which has been going on for some time now. It was temporarily frozen in the post-Covid rebound, but then the negative 2023 2023 turned it vertical. The snapshot the Unione Italiana Vini (UIV) Observatory has taken, revealed significant drops of the major grape vines on all the 5 continents as well as Amarone’s main competitors. For instance, exports of French reds over the past two years dropped 15%, while Spanish reds dropped more than 20%. Last year, global consumption of the typology registered -7% compared to 2021, and there have been even larger drops over the past 12 months in the main outlet markets, starting with the USA (-9%), Canada (-17%) the Scandinavian countries, China and Italy as well (-5%). In 2023, Amarone also experienced a setback in export volumes (-12%), to 75.000 hectoliters. These figures, however. are in line (+1%) with 2019, and have been growing significantly over the past 10 years (+17%). The downward trend in exports in the past year is due to a substantial decrease in consumption (especially in Scandinavia, Canada and partially Germany, which, however, registered a considerable increase in sales on the retail channel). In the United States, instead, the general trend of red wines was accompanied by the economic effect of destocking products accumulated during the distribution phase of all Italian wines, as well as others, which significantly slowed down requests for wine from abroad. Lastly, sales on the Italian retail channel are stable. However, as Carlo Flamini, head of the UIV Observatory, pointed out, “for the first time after decades of booming business, the wine market has registered restrictions in its operational areas; but, there are important exceptions in the premium segments of our offer”. This is the case of Amarone that has a stock of only 4 million bottles of the 2019 vintage, which are too few for such a long-lived wine.
“In the USA, for instance”, Flamini continued, “compared to general sales of Italian red wines that registered -9% in the highest profit channel, that is, on-premise (restaurants, clubs, hotels), the only price range that has managed to achieve an increase was wholesale, above 25 US dollars a bottle (+2%). Therefore, this is where Italian products must start, putting aside the concept of "mass market" red wines and instead cultivating strong values of identity as well as territorial and stylistic coherence”. Finally, Carlo Flamini, jokingly comparing himself to Winston Wolf, the "fixer" in the film “Pulp Fiction” by Quentin Tarantino (1994), played by the actor Harvey Keitel, listed the key factors of the current situation giving some general suggestions to the producers of Amarone. “In market analysis,” he concluded, “it is important to identify one’s consumption niches in detail, by country, region and type of consumer, and respond accordingly, following with tailored products to grow where there is still space available, and it is potentially possible, like in the the Western States in the USA. In communication, we must take into consideration the alarm sounded about alcohol consumption, including wine. We can no longer resort to the French paradox, the connection between wine and health, but we have to link the “Nectar of Bacchus” to spiritual well-being”. The production area, or rather, the Valpolicella terroir - including the drying method, still has many unexplored potentials, which Andrea Lonardi, vice-president of the Consortium, Master of Wine and COO of Bertani, one of the historic wineries of Valpolicella, very clearly analyzed. Assuming that the Valpolicella wines have benefited from climate change in favor of grapes ripening better, Andrea Lonardi, as he told WineNews recently in this article, has identified a series of gaps that when filled will achieve an increase in value. “We have great potential”, he explained, “our territory has not been studied in depth and therefore has a very important cultural gap to fill. We have a variety of vines upon which we have done only a minimum of research, and which instead represent a reservoir of viticultural biodiversity that will give us answers on oenological parameters and on resilience to extreme events caused by global warming. We have done very little innovating as far as quality is concerned. We created the drying methods to respond to quantitative needs, and there is still a lot of work to be done on winemaking and refining. On the other hand, we have responded well to the demand for volumes, and in the next few years we will focus on the stylistic aspects by launching several technical research projects. For instance, I’m thinking about grape washing and optical selection. Drying times also need to be thought about and changed. A study we recently conducted showed that at 20% weight loss there is maximum concentration of aromatic substances in Amarone. After this, though, degradation processes of the aromatic substances begin; but today, the specification imposes a 40% weight loss. This demonstrates that we can only improve compared to the past, without being afraid to change”. Amarone is a unique phenomenon. It has grown enormously over the past 20 years, second only to Prosecco DOC. The vineyard area has doubled from 4.800 hectares in 1997 to more than 8.000 hectares starting from 2020. The quantity of grapes to be dried has increased 492% in twenty years. The value per hectare has jumped from just under 5.000 euros in 1993 to over 20.000 euros since 2008 and has been steadily above 25. 000 euros in the last three years.
“Amarone”, Lonardi continued, “has satisfied the market demand in the past. The Valpolicella wine producers were among the best, especially on some markets, at understanding the need for a soft, warm and pleasant wine. This allowed for great volumetric success. In order to do so, though, we went too far with the drying process and needing to chase after a style that this segment of the market required. Now, however, that segment is no longer growing and instead is offering many more doubts rather than certainties for the future. We therefore must change and evolve by redirecting our wines towards a change in terms of market geographies as well as consumer profiling. To do this requires a stylistic change, but not only. Commercially solid wines are actually fine wines; they are the wines that have a deep connection with the territory of origin, and have values and specific communicative wording that make them identifiable. We need to think of Amarone bringing its production factors back into balance, which are the method (set aside), the territory (soil, vines, climate), the people (producers, companies) and communication. The challenge is definitely complex, from volume to value, and will require cultural, production, legislative and communication changes”. Speaking about communication, Lonardi further emphasized that it must change in terms of content and hierarchy of values, moving from wine with a command leadership model; i.e., muscular, structured, richly concentrated, which strongly imposes its style on the consumer - to wine that has a prestigious leadership model; that is, more intellectual that does not impose itself forcefully, but rather with a story that brings out its identifying and distinctive characteristics.
The new generations”, the Master of Wine concluded, “shy away from command and imposition. They seek the so-called accountability, mental and cultural involvement. We must imagine this approach when communicating to journalists, opinion leaders and consumers”.
Vittorio Grigolo, one of the youngest and most talented opera singers in the world, has been the star of the “Arena Opera Festival” since 2013, was on stage at “Amarone Opera Prima” 2024. He also spoke of change and the resistance he encounters, making a unique parallel between Amarone and Opera. He commented on young people’s lack of attraction towards the latter, pointing out that change must be guided by information, explaining that it will lead to an improvement. The reference he made was his manner of being on stage in continuous movement, which has been much criticized because it is different from that of the illustrious tenors of the past, of which Grigolo is an heir. “Today young people need to be attracted, we need to capture their eye, which instead is used to being glued to smartphones. I manage to achieve this result by moving around on stage as well as by bringing the Opera to unusual places, such as train stations or airports”. The tenor continued the parallel, recalling that the soprano Maria Callas said how “difficult it was for Maria to be Callas every day”, and it is the same for Amarone to maintain the positions achieved. He concluded, “today I don't want the economic success, but I want to always reach more people. I want to know that more people are listening to me and vibrating with my voice. And, I believe it should be the same for Amarone, my favorite wine, more people need to listen to the excellence of Amarone”.

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