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Superb Italian wines broaden horizons
By John H. Isacs

GOD bless the French. Around the world they have traditionally been the first and the most powerful to exploit new wine markets. No other wine-producing nation is as focused and persistent as France when they enter a new wine market.

As markets mature, New World-producing nations like Australia, Chile and more recently New Zealand and Argentina make major inroads based on their price-quality ratio advantages.

Sooner or later, and unfortunately it’s usually later, Italy starts to challenge and in some cases dominates market leaders. These dynamics previously manifested themselves in the United Kingdom, United States and other developed markets.

As I’m composing this week’s column from Italy, I thought it particularly appropriate to speculate on Italian wine success in China. Of course, I shall also share with readers some of the incredible wines I have tasted over the past week.

Italian advantage

Italy, along with France, is the world’s biggest wine-producing nation. The biggest producer all depends on the vintage, with Italy sometimes out-producing France and visa versa. However, the champion of diversity is always Italy as it by far has the widest range of different grape varieties and wine styles.

This distinction is both an asset and a liability. In mature markets, consumers crave multiplicity while in emerging markets diversity often leads to confusion.

Italian wines are competitive in all price ranges from budget to collector wines. In contrast, New World producers have more success in budget or affordable wines and France, which unquestionably makes great wines, increasingly faces challenges being competitive in the entry level and mid-range level wines.

The northerly climate that necessitates selectiveness and an overall higher cost of doing business limits the ability of French producers to make competitive inexpensive wines. How can an insipid 11 or 11.5 percent Bordeaux wine compete with riper and increasingly better made Chilean and Argentinean wines? They can’t.

Italy offers several options. From the northerly Alps to the sun-blessed islands and tip of the Italian boot, Italy offers competitive wines in almost every price category and for every taste preference. Yet success in wine markets necessitates more than just price and styles.

Wine and the art of wine appreciation transcend mere beverages, rather, they are reflections of a unique place, culture and history as well as compelling family stories. In terms of history, culture and style, few would question Italy’s credentials.

So why have Italian wines not performed up to their potential in China? Well, actually that was the point of my journey, to discuss with leading Italian producers, wine region consortiums and authorities how to more successfully exploit unprecedented opportunity that the China market presents.

An exposition of the merits of Italian wine penetration of the China market is a rather dry endeavor, so allow me to whet your appetites by sharing some of the incredible wines that I have tasted over the past week. Better still, the wines I mention are all available in Shanghai.

My visits and tastings this week have included both very innovative and progressive producers as well as traditional wineries with ancient roots and incredible stories that should strongly resonate with wine lovers, including those of China.

New pioneers

If you live in Italy, then the name of Vittorio Moretti will surely evoke visions of innovative modular construction, elite yacht building, spas and resorts, 3-star Michelin restaurants and of course wineries.

My first stop on this journey was to BellaVista. Located about an hour from Milan in Franciacorta, Moretti has built BellaVista into Italy’s most famous premium sparkling wine. Major Italian fashion houses including Gucci and most recently Armani use BellaVista sparklers at their events. Italy’s most famous opera house La Scala in Milan exclusively uses BellaVista wines.

Two of their wines I highly recommend are the BellaVista Brut, their flagship wine, and BelaVista Pas Opere, a reserve level sparkler that’s aged six years prior to release. Both wines are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blends and have an intensity and complexity reminiscent of the very best of prestige cuvee Champagnes along with a very Italian flair.

I also visited Moretti’s Petra Winery in Tuscany. Looking more like a modern art museum replete with visuals from the legendary Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, Petra makes full bodied yet also elegant red wines. Their top red, which is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese is merely called Petra and is one of Tuscany’s best IGT wines. 

The ancient

Mazzei is one of the most important Italian wine families. Making wines since 1435, they were the first producers to document and sell wines under the Chianti name. It’s fair to say that they’re Sangiovese artists making traditional and more modern wines from this most famous of all Italian red varieties.

In their stunning hilltop winery with natural cave cellars, I tasted a 2010 vintage of their wonderful Castello Fronterutol wine. In Shanghai you can experience this wine but it may be an earlier vintage.

I also had the treat of trying a 2010 Mix 38 wine that blends all 36 clones of Sangiovese that they have on their properties. The Castello Fronterutol is a classic wine while the Mix 36 is an intriguing more modern wine. Both are lovely.

My trusted Tuscan guide Alessandro then drove me to the Strozze family villa in Cusona. The noble Strozzi family is one of the Renaissance’s most important families and they fought the Medici family for control of Florence.

They started making wines in 994 and continue the tradition today. I was privileged to spend a  night at their villa in a room referred to as Tony’s room, as the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was a frequent guest. Dining with two generations of princes and princesses, I enjoyed a range of their beautifully made wines.

While I may not be able to bring you to the Strozzi estate in Tuscany, you can still experience three of their wines in Shanghai. Their Veraccia di San Gimignano DOGC white wine and Sodole Toscana Rosso IGT red are two of their most unique traditional-style wines that you shouldn’t miss.       

Of course, the story of historic and ancient Tuscan producers doesn’t start and end with Mazzie and Strozzie, though that’s what my brief time in Italy permitted. Other great noble producers with wines in China include Barone Ricasoli, Marchese Antinori and Frescaboldi.

So the next time you buy a glass or bottle of wine, perhaps you should consider broadening your taste and cultural horizons by choosing an Italian wine. I’m confident it will please your palate.

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