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Thomas Hyland analyzes the cons (and the pros) of Italian wine in the US

In Chicago at the IEM U.S. tour, the Forbes wine writer told WineNews, “Italy’s still too complex to be understood”
Forbes’ wine writer, Tom Hyland and his vision of Italian wine in the USA

Italian wine in the US is at a braking point that started long ago and must be read carefully as it crosses several levels. Thomas Hyland, historic wine writer for Forbes, the most read and influential economic magazine in the US and beyond, which has been writing about Italian wine for over twenty years, talked to WineNews trying to unravel a knot that gets more and more tangled. “The issues”, explained Hyland, who met WineNews at the Chicago leg of the IEM U.S. Tour of Simply Italian Great Wines, “need to be read on several levels. Let’s take Nebbiolo, for instance. On the one hand, there are the great Barolos and the Barbarescos, which on the fine wine market are often valuable alternatives to the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. On the other, there is Langhe Nebbiolo that compared to mid-range competitors, costs much more”.

Then there are names confined to a very specific category that find it difficult to emerge. “For instance, Prosecco”, said the Forbes writer, “a very big seller, but only as longs as it remains in the low price range, 10 to 12 US dollars on the shelf. This means that it is more problematic for Conegliano Valdobbiadene, which sells at much higher prices. And this also is true regarding taste. Consumers expect little complexity, little acidity and a lot of pleasure from Prosecco - everything they will not find in Champagne, at an appealing price”. This opens up another issue, namely quality and price in a single denomination, “like Chianti Classico, but at a slightly higher level, and the same applies to Brunello di Montalcino. There are many producers who offer well made wines at competitive prices, but they are far from the quality peaks that certain territories deserve”.

Therefore, the average price, considered perhaps the main lever for Italian wine on foreign markets, is a strength and at the same time a weakness, “because regions like Apulia where only wine productions like Negramaro or Primitivo are considered at a maximum of 15 US dollars on the shelf, the average consumer has no interest, nor any knowledge, that would lead him to spend 35 US dollars for a high quality Apulian wine. The really big problem for Italian wine is there are too many denominations, because ultimately people go towards those few that they know”. What about the others? The others must continue to invest in communication, adjusting their targets and doing more, realizing that “cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have room to grow, but many other cities do not”.

Further, there are wines that play a game of their own, namely the great investment wines, listed on Liv-ex and are champions at auctions. “It is a very good thing for Italian wine that Sassicaia, like Masseto and Gaja, is enjoying such great success, showing that Italy can produce great wines. However”, continued Hyland, “let’s take the case of Gaja. First of all, it is the wine of Gaja, and only secondly it is Barbaresco. This line of thinking applies also to Sassicaia and Masseto - they are unique wines, which investors and collectors are approaching but consider them as alternatives to Bordeaux and Burgundy, rather than as expressions of Italian winemaking. These are such powerful brands that they overshadow both the names they represent and the Italian brand itself. It is certainly a positive phenomenon, but does not represent Italian wine. This is especially true because when we talk about Masseto and Sassicaia, we are talking about wines produced from international varieties”.

Finally, another critical aspect concerns the link between wine and territory. Often, a big name finds it hard to emerge, mainly because the region where it is produced is not very well known. “For instance, Verdicchio, which is an extraordinary wine that I love very much, comes to mind”, said the wine writer, “a white wine that has a unique aging capacity, yet if you find two wines on the wine lists in New York and Chicago restaurants, it is a miracle. This is because people know Tuscany, Piedmont, Sicily, and very little else of Italy. They know nothing about the Marche or Abruzzi regions, except that is where Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the cheap wine served on airplanes in economy is produced”. Yet again, it seems that Italian wines are too complicated to be understood. On the good side, however, there is the fact that “the American consumer is not very loyal, and is always ready to move from one wine to another, based on what the market offers, which is true both in positive and negative terms. Chianti Classico, for example, which today costs 20-22 US dollars per bottle, pays the pressure of Malbec that arrives on the shelf at 13-15 US dollars; therefore, many other typologies can find their space, too”.
In other words, the main player at the center of the stage, and it could not be otherwise, is the consumer, who has a very different perception of wine than the expert, as he “limits his wine universe to California and France, and consequently to that handful of international grape varieties that distinguish them: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. Italy, then, remains cut out of the picture, because ordinary people know very little about Italian native vines, even the best known ones, like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. There is still a lot of work to do therefore”, concluded Hyland. “There are stories to tell and identities to reveal. I do not perhaps expect to find supermarket shelves full of wines from Calabria. But, wine producers in Campania and Sicily, putting aside, of course, the differences between producers and denominations, and simplifying the message to be the spokesperson can follow in the footsteps of Tuscany, which by making a system, has developed its promotion and communication over the last few years”.

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