Italy’s wine industry fears Brexit woes

Ask Cesare Cecchi about Brexit and he wrinkles his nose as if he has opened a Chianti Classico from his 'Riserva di Famiglia' range and found it to be corked.

Italy's wine industry fears Brexit woes
Wine bottles on display at the Vinitaly exhibition. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

“We are all very worried because the situation is very uncertain,” the chairman of one of Italy's best-known wine dynasties says of the implications of Britain leaving the European Union.

“We are only at the beginning of negotiations that will take two years and clearly could be influenced by factors from outside our world, political factors, whether that is in Britain, in Italy or in the rest of Europe.”

Cecchi is speaking at Vinitaly, a vast trade fair and get-together for industry insiders held every year in Verona.

READ ALSO: The 300-year-old story of what makes Chianti wine so special

With more than 4,000 exhibitors spread over almost 90,000 sq. metres and tens of thousands more buyers, reporters and amateur enthusiasts assembled, the vinous chatter never ceases.

And much of it this year has been about Brexit, less than a month after British Prime Minister Theresa May formally initiated divorce proceedings nobody in the wine world wanted.

Alex Canneti, a director of Berkmann Wine Cellars, a London-based importer, says his biggest fear is of food and drink becoming the focus for sniping that could sabotage hopes of a deal in the talks.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's recent warning that Italy would have to agree to free trade with Britain because it wanted to keep selling its Prosecco, was a case in point, he said.

“It was exactly what we were worried about. We just thought, 'Oh my God!'.”

Major market

Canneti told AFPTV he did not expect trade in areas such as banking services, nuclear technology or medicines to prove difficult.

“Whereas with things like cheese and wine, they might think 'we can use that to upset people',” he said.

“They know that, particularly in France, there are groups of vignerons that love burning trucks and getting angry. So it's a way of getting at Europe if Europe does not behave in the way the British would like them to.”

Apart from a recently-developed niche in posh sparklers, Britain has no wine production of its own.

But it has always been a thirsty place with deep pockets when it comes to booze, making it an influential player in the wine world.

Only the United States imports more and last year British imports from the other 27 EU states were worth 2.6 billion euros.

A nation of beer drinkers has become one that has embraced “Wine O'Clock” – the time-to-relax, early evening tipple that has helped to drive consecutive booms in the sales of Australian Chardonnay, Italian Pinot Grigio and, most recently, Prosecco, sales of which surged by a third last year.

Their success has made some wine-producing areas of Europe very exposed to the British market.

“Prosecco is huge, Rioja too. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence rose, you name it,” says Canneti.

No deal in the Brexit talks would mean EU wine potentially becoming subject to import duties while wine from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa could be coming in tariff-free if, as is expected, Britain moves quickly to negotiate new liberalizing trade deals with those countries.

Tax fears

Some say this will make little difference. All Chilean wine already enters Britain tax-free, as does a third of South African wine, under EU trading accords.

And the imposition of WTO-approved tariffs would add only 7-12 pence per bottle.

Not much if the bottle is from a top-end Bordeaux chateau, but it is equivalent to one to two percent of nearly  all the wine sold in Britain, and such margins matter when the pound's slide is adding to upward pressure on prices.

“Clearly the level of (import) tax is a crucial element, particularly as duty on wine in Britain is already very high compared to other European countries,” Cecchi said.

“Honestly I am very concerned, above all because of the uncertainty. But we have to hope that good common sense prevails. Don't forget that the UK exports just over two billion euros of spirits to Europe, it is in everyone's interest to have a good deal.”

READ ALSO: Why Italy is mulling wine classes for schoolchildren

Importer Canneti echoes the sentiment, urging the negotiators on Brussels to do a quick deal allowing current computerised customs arrangements which mean “lorries come in and get checked through the border” are maintained.

“It is all done on the internet and it means there are no queues or complications.”

Canneti also highlights another, less obvious, risk of Brexit: an interruption in the flow of talented, well-educated youngsters from the continent into Britain's food and drink sectors.

“Particularly the young Italians who have come in over the last few years, they have brought a lot to the British economy and we have got a lot out of it.”

By Angus MacKinnon

Want more wine news? Head over to our dedicated wine section for the latest curiosities and features from the world of Italian wine

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Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

With ongoing uncertainty over whether UK driving licences will continue to be recognised in Italy beyond the end of this year, British residents are asking where they stand.

Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

Many of The Local’s British readers have been in touch recently to ask whether any progress has been made in negotiations between the UK and Italy on a reciprocal agreement on the use of driving licences.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with the background of this Brexit consequence.

READ ALSO: Frustration grows as UK driving licence holders in Italy wait in limbo

When Britain left the EU there was no reciprocal agreement in place, but UK licence holders living in Italy were granted a grace period in which they could continue to drive on their British licences. This period was later extended to the current deadline of December 31st, 2022.

The situation beyond that date however remains unclear, and concern is growing among the sizeable number of British nationals living in Italy who say no longer being allowed to drive would be a serious problem.

There was the option of exchanging licences before the end of 2021, but many didn’t make the deadline. As has been proven before, this was often not due to slackness but rather all manner of circumstances, from having moved to Italy after or shortly before the cut-off date to bureaucratic delays.

Driving licences: How does the situation for Brits in Italy compare to rest of Europe?

So is an agreement any closer? Or do those driving in Italy on a UK licence really need to go to the considerable trouble and expense of sitting an Italian driving test (in Italian)?

With five months left to go, there’s still no indication as to whether a decision will be made either way.

The British government continues to advise licence holders to sit their Italian driving test – while also stressing that they’re working hard on reaching a deal, which would make taking the test unnecessary.

This message has not changed.

On Wednesday, July 27th, British Ambassador to Italy Ed Llewellyn tweeted after a meeting with Italian Infrastructure and Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini: “The British and Italian governments continue to work towards an agreement on exchange of driving licences.”

But the ambassador earlier this month advised UK nationals “not to wait” and to “take action now by applying for an Italian licence”.

In an official newsletter published in mid-July, Llewellyn acknowledged the concerns of British residents and confirmed that negotiations are still going on.

“I know that many of you are understandably concerned about whether your UK driving licence will continue to be recognised in Italy, especially when the extension granted by Italy until 31 December 2022 for such recognition expires.

“Let me set out where things stand. The British Government is working to reach an agreement with Italy on the right to exchange a licence without the need for a test. 

READ ALSO:  Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

“The discussions with our Italian colleagues are continuing and our objective is to try to reach an agreement in good time before the end of the year.

“We hope it will be possible to reach an agreement – that is our objective and we are working hard to try to deliver it. 

Nevertheless, he said, “our advice is not to wait to exchange your licence.”

“If you need to drive in Italy, you can take action now by applying for an Italian licence. This will, however, involve taking a practical and theory test.” 

He acknowledged that “the process is not a straightforward one and that there are delays in some areas to book an appointment for a test”.

READ ALSO: ‘Anyone can do it’: Why passing your Italian driving test isn’t as difficult as it sounds

“We will continue to work towards an agreement,” he wrote. “That is our objective and it is an objective we share with our Italian colleagues.“

The British Embassy in Rome had not responded to The Local’s requests for further comment on Friday.

The Local will continue to publish any news on the recognition of British driving licences in Italy. See the latest updates in our Brexit-related news section here.

Find more information on the UK government website’s Living in Italy section.