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ITALY: Islandfever

Published:  23 July, 2008

Sicily is technically a region of Italy, but really it stands alone. The island has been invaded by so many cultures over the years - Asians, African, Europeans - that it has its own brand of cosmopolitan charm that transcends the Italian canopy.
As a community, Sicily is virtually self-sufficient, and its main income has traditionally been agricultural exports. Dramatic mountain ranges slice through much of the landscape, with Mount Etna as their ruler, and, not surprisingly, considering that Sicily has a number of hectares under vine comparable to that of the whole of Australia, vineyards are never far from sight.

Quantity, of course, is not always something to be proud of, and the wine industry in Sicily has historically been one of bulk production on a large scale. But the global shift towards quality wines, bottled at origin, has given the Sicilians a big enough wake-up call to take some proper action, and they are now producing close to 135 million bottles each year. This development has gone hand-in-hand with a new focus on lower yields, improved vineyard practices, experimentation with both international and indigenous grape varieties, and some all-important funding from the EU.

Brave new world

The influence of the New World, both in terms of vineyard/winery techniques and marketing flair, has also had a significant impact, and, for an island that in many ways is still trailing 50 or so years behind the rest of the Western world, it is firing out some seriously modern wines with ambitions to match. Confidence is running high, and it is going to take more than a few Australians and a handful of Chileans to frighten a Sicilian winemaker. So what's the grand plan?

At Casa Vinicola Calatrasi in the Palermo district, grand' is indeed the word. The company was established in 1980 by Maurizio and Giuseppe Miccich, and it is currently the fourth-largest Sicilian winery in terms of turnover and the second biggest in terms of bottled wine production (8 million per year). The importance of brand power has been noted and acted upon in a major way here, which has paid off in the UK market with the success of the D'Istinto range. Calatrasi's labels are clean and modern, with New World influences showing through unashamedly. This is no accident, and the company has employed winemakers from Australia and New Zealand to help with the methodology.

Part of their influence has involved the implementation of modern winery techniques, such as ditching pumps in favour of gravity, but other, more interesting approaches have seen the introduction of incentives for some of the contracted growers. For example, the more dedicated growers have been given the opportunity to put their family name on the label, which has lifted the quality of grapes overall. Huge investment has also been poured into the Calatrasi-owned vineyards because, as Christian Reintjes, trade director, explains, Winemakers aren't magicians; they can't do much with bad grapes.'

And this is just the opening page of the business plan. Tourism is the other mighty driver for Calatrasi, and this has already led to the construction of a restaurant and cookery school at the winery, which is due to be followed by a more informal pizzeria and a 7,000-seat outdoor concert arena. The industrial workings of the winery will be covered by a new-age roof - doubling as a solar energy plant - and two boutique hotels are to be built in the surrounding area. According to Maurizio Miccich, who is the active member of the brothers' partnership, the growers will be included in this side of the business as well. We have 200 growers, and they will each have rooms that can be let out for their own investment, with the help of our backing and grants from the EU,' he says. The idea, he continues, is to establish a sort of community project, in addition to strengthening the current fragmentation on the island, which is partly caused by the presence of so many small, independent growers. If you build your business in the roots of a community, that community will act as a fortress around you,' he concludes. And considering the continually active presence of the Mafia in Sicily, a fortress could well come in handy.

Forward thinkers

Calatrasi is not the only example of big investment. Baglio di Pianetto is another forward-thinking estate, and opened an impressively large, modern winery in Palermo province in 2003. It is owned by the colourful Count Paolo Marzotto, a racing car driver who comes from a wine background in northern Italy and decided to go to Sicily for his first wholly independent project. According to the winemaker, Antonino Reina, the aim is to create brands that people can recognise and understand, then export them to as many countries as possible'. They have two main lines bottled under the brand names of Baglio di Pianetto and Albapiana, which are targeted at the on-trade and the multiples respectively.

Fazio Winery in the commune of Erice, which has recently obtained DOC status, has just put a hefty sum of money into its vineyards to consolidate the improvements that have already been made with technology in the winery, as well as with a wine shop and conference centre. It doesn't export to the UK as yet, but Lilly Fazio is working towards finding an agent and she is determined to do whatever is necessary. We will create new wines for specific markets if we need to,' she says. Again, all of the wines have simple, eye-catching labels, particularly perhaps the interesting interpretation of single-varietal Mller-Thurgau.

In Trapani province, Foraci started investing in quality in 1994, with the construction of a bottling plant, and the aim is to cater to independents and the on-trade. It is also an important producer of organic wines in the south of Italy, which, sales director Mario Tumbiolo says, is often the key to our wines entering a new market'. The company now has four organic wines, three of which are imported into the UK by Vintage Roots in Berkshire. Brands are a focus, too, and Tumbiolo observes: Wine isn't just about the liquid anymore, and we're very aware of that. We've searched out a top packaging and labelling company in the north of Italy, which also works for Antinori, and this is an important move for us.' He also agrees with Lilly Fazio on the concept of market flexibility and says that under contract, Foraci would make any sort of wine requested by a certain market'.

Sicily's third-largest winery in terms of turnover is Cantine Pellegrino in Marsala, which has been owned by the same two families since 1880. Recent investments at Pellegrino have included the conversion of a wine storage tower into a private restaurant and tasting room with a view, as well as the launch of a cooking and wine festival with foreign chefs. The company has also forked out for different labels to sell the same wine. With respect to the UK, a new brand called Cavallina has been created with the help of UK agent Hallgarten. The label is designed to appeal to a young audience and the closure is a screwcap.

A new Pinot Grigio in equally user-friendly packaging is also about to set sail for Britain, which, according to Alessandro Lombardo, assistant manager of the export department at Pellegrino, is the first outing for this variety from Sicily. Sicily's largest wine company, Cantina Settesoli, may have something to say about this assertion, however, considering that it cites its Inycon Pinot Grigio as the first of its kind from the island. Either way, Pinot Grigio from Sicily is one to watch.

Just down the road from Pellegrino is Firriato winery, and brand development has been put into play here too. This time it is UK agent PLB that has seen the potential

in Sicily and come up with a brand that couldn't be from anywhere else: Siciliano.

In fact, the range has recently been expanded to include two varietals made from the indigenous grapes Nero d'Avola and Cataratto, making it even more representative of its origin. Paul Shelton, brand manager of Siciliano at PLB, sees brands as the secret to future success, but he doesn't expect things to change overnight. The diversity and quality of the wines from Sicily need strong brands to encourage consumers to buy at higher price points,' he says, but this will take time as consumers have so far seen Sicily as only for entry-level, own-label wines.'

Indigenous assets

When it comes to Sicily's greatest grape assets, it tends to be the indigenous varieties that are catching the imagination of the winemakers, particularly the spicy, red and rich Nero d'Avola and the Vinho Verde-like white trio of Cataratto, Inzolia and Grillo. Reintjes at Calatrasi compares Cataratto to Chenin Blanc in South Africa in terms of its vast coverage in Sicily, and comments that winemakers are working hard to improve the quality and reinvent it as a grape to be reckoned with. Mauro Lorenzi, winemaker at Milazzo winery, comments: Indigenous is trendy right now, and Insolia and Catarratto will be the most important white varieties, even if it takes more experimentation with clones before their full potential is realised.'

Lilly Fazio puts things into a global perspective, commenting: When it comes to the UK, we will concentrate on indigenous varieties. I think it is with Nero d'Avola and Catarratto that we can be most competitively priced. International varieties are quite expensive for us and we would struggle to compete with the New World.' Lombardo at Pellegrino explains: Sicilian wines are growing in popularity and people are asking for regional grapes. It's part of our philosophy to use indigenous varieties as often as possible, and we always give them a higher percentage in blends.' Tumbiolo at Foraci neatly sums it up, saying, If people want to have a wine from Sicily, they should have a Nero d'Avola or a Catarratto.'

It would seem, therefore, that the canny Sicilians have been keeping a careful eye on the market trends in the UK, at the same time as looking to the New World marketing machine for guidance. But if it's Australia they've been concentrating on, there's a great big weighty question that's yet to be answered: are the Sicilian wineries capable of working together in the same sort of fashion that the Aussies employed to send their wines flooding into British homes?

It must be admitted that, as a nation, the Italians are not renowned for their ability to adhere to a central organisation, and it could be argued that this truth becomes increasingly more apparent the further down the boot you go. So why should the winelands be any different?

Reintjes at Calatrasi agrees that co-operation is a challenge. Most Italians have a very individualist mentality,' he says. For instance, if you approach another Italian at a wine fair to borrow a corkscrew, he'll say, "Sorry, sorry I can't find it", and then you'll see it sticking out of his pocket.' Tumbiolo is similarly sceptical and observes: It's not easy to group together in Italy. I think it's a great idea, and I can see how it works, but I can't imagine it happening in Sicily at the moment. Maybe it will come with the younger generation, but not the older - it's too late to change them!'

All is not lost, however, according to Lombardo at Pellegrino. The Sicilians are better than other Italian regions - the Sicilian section was by far the biggest representation from a single region at Vinitaly this year,' he notes. Lily Fazio goes further, saying, I don't think it's true that Italians don't work together. We often help each other out in an unofficial capacity, and there is also an organisation called Assovini, which was formed a couple of years ago and tries to follow the needs of private companies and fill in the gaps left by the government groups.'

Boutique family winery Planeta has already successfully worked towards giving quality Sicilian wines a good name in the UK, and Francesca Planeta also paints a positive picture of Assovini. It has helped Sicilian wineries enormously, through events like Sicilia En Primeur, where journalists from all over the world are invited to join us in Sicily to taste our wines en primeur,' she says.

Missed opportunity

In the view of Miccich at Calatrasi, Sicily has missed a chance in the market that Chile has taken, and it's up to big companies to group together and lead the way forward from here on in. This, he says, is the only way to build up enough critical mass at the mid-range level to penetrate the biggest markets'. He has started to move in this direction by forming his own wine consortium with four other significant companies in Palermo district: Tasca d'Almerita, Cusumano, Corvo and Marzotto. He hopes that as a group they will be able to act as a locomotive' for the Sicilian wine industry as a whole. Although this idea is still in its nascent stages, these five wineries together account for 28% of the total wine production in Sicily, and the consortium is a powerful prospect indeed.

The Sicilian wine trade is undeniably and typically Italian: it looks really good but it doesn't always work. It is also guilty of complicating matters for itself by the not-so-occasional interference of the Mafia when it comes to cutting deals. But things are definitely improving. Twenty years ago in Sicily, you couldn't sell a slice of cheese without encountering the Mafia in one form or another. These days, businesses are looking a lot freer and so it is in the wine trade; companies are growing up and looking to the future instead of being governed by the past. New World marketing and branding practices are influencing Sicily more noticeably than any other European region, there are investments aplenty and, if the wineries can only give each other a helping hand, then anything could happen. For me, Sicily is the key to selling Sicilian wine,' says Shelton at PLB. It takes only a single visit to the island to prove his point.