Italy raises a glass to booming exports of wine
AS HE swirls a glass of yellowy green wine made from the trendy pecorino grape, Fabio Centini purrs with enthusiasm.
"I hadn't even heard of this grape 15 years ago," the Italian-born chef-restaurateur from Calgary, Canada, said between slurps at a tasting of top pecorinos from the Offida area of the Marche region.
"But it is exactly what my customers want. People are looking for new experiences."
Mr Centini is one of 55,000 industry professionals from 141 countries gathered in Verona this week for VinItaly, a giant showcase for the best the country has to offer the world's wine lovers.
The 50th edition is the biggest yet and crammed aisles speak volumes about the buoyant state of a sector that employs 1.25 million people and produces more wine than any other country.
Led by a boom in sales of prosecco, which has surpassed champagne to become the world's favourite bubbly, exports of all forms of Italian wine hit a record 5.4 billion euros (S$8.2 billion) last year, up more than 5 per cent on 2014.
The trend looks set to continue.
A Mediobanca survey found 92 per cent of producers are anticipating higher sales in 2016, underpinned by investment, which grew 18 per cent overall last year and by 37 per cent in the surging sparkling sector.
It is all a far cry from the days when Italian wine was synonymous with straw-wrapped bottles of chianti of variable quality and questionable provenance.
"They have taken out a bit of the monkey business," said Mr Centini, a VinItaly regular since 1990.
"There was a time when you didn't always know what was in the bottle."
Although recent growth has been led by sparkling wine and strong sales of easy-drinking pinot grigio and other competitively priced varietals, there has also been an awakening of interest in Italy's indigenous red grapes.
These include aglianico, negroamaro, nero d'avola and primitivo from the south and Sicily, and montepulciano from the central region of Abruzzo, where producers have been quietly picking up international awards in recent years.
The sheer variety can be baffling for consumers. But Italian wine expert Andrea Grignaffini says diversity is a strength.
"Often, the same grape gets made in a different style in different parts of the country, even in the same zone. It is complicated even for us Italians to understand.
"When the moment of one wine passes, it is good to have others to take their place."
Change is also afoot at the top end of Italian wines with producers in Tuscany and Piedmont battling to catch up with the Asia-driven gains of France's Bordeaux and Burgundy.
But Stephanie Cuadra, of leading Tuscan estate Querciabella, said Italy's fine wine champions have to be able to transmit "a sense of origin, a sense of place", in the way that Burgundy, where tiny parcels of land are classified on the basis of minute variations of soil and micro-climates, has done very successfully.
"In terms of fine wine, we are an obvious alternative to France and, as palates mature in emerging markets, they become more curious, it is a natural evolution," Ms Cuadra said.
"In the last 20 years, Italy has let too many opportunities slip by in this sector," said Prime Minister Matteo Renziduring during a visit to VinItaly on Monday.
The flipside is that there is still plenty of room for growth, particularly in Asia, which accounted for only 3.4 per cent of Italian exports last year.
Italian producers can do more in China, which boosted imports by 60 per cent overall last year but by only 15 per cent from Italy.