Why Italy’s best winemakers are being hit hardest by the coronavirus shutdown

Why Italy's best winemakers are being hit hardest by the coronavirus shutdown
Bottles in the cellar at Cagliero's Winery in the Langhe Region of Piedmont. All photos: Marco Bertorello/AFP
Cheaper Italian wines are set to be turned into disinfectant, now a more valuable commodity. But the best bottles are gathering dust in cellars up and down the country as sales plunge.

Italy's winemakers are reporting a drop of up to 90 percent in sales, with restaurants and bars closed across the country and global trade snuffed out by the coronavirus crisis.

Some producers are now considering distilling their lowest quality wines in order to transform it into ethanol, used for the manufacture of hydroalcoholic gel – currently much in demand.

Coldiretti, the Italian agricultural association, said it has presented the government with a plan to turn at least three million hectolitres of cheaper wine into disinfectant.

However, this is not an option for top-of-the-range reds, such as Barolo, which can be kept for decades.

In fact, some of Italy's most prestigious winemakers are suffering the most from the worldwide lockdown.

For decades, Barolo has focused on “maximum quality,” earning a place on the wine lists of some of the world's best restaurants, said Paolo Boffa, president of the Terre del Barolo cooperative.

Long considered a strength, that focus on the high end is now hurting Barolo makers, he said.
The situation “is very critical,” he said, given that 90 percent of Barolo is sold within the shuttered distribution channel of restaurants.

Making nearly a fifth of all the world's wine and selling more than half of it at home, Italy's inegrowers are hit especially hard by the lockdown.

Italy's 47.5 million hectolitres edged out France's 42.1 million for last year's global wine production title, although France's 9.8 billion euros ($10.7 billion) in exports beat out Italy's 6.4 billion euros.

READ ALSO: Italian wine production drops sharply after year of extreme weather

Lodovico Giustiniani, president of the Confagricoltura agricultural lobby in the vineyards filled region of Veneto, said the domestic market imploded when the restaurants and bars closed in early March.

But the situation has not been much better for exports. Sales to the world's restaurants and wine bars were “now close to zero,” Giustiniani said.

“The other channel, that of supermarkets, is still working, but it can't compensate for the sales of a channel that is completely at a standstill,” he told AFP.

Giustiniani's own winery, Borgoluce, whose Prosecco does not sell in supermarkets but is exported to the United States and Asia, saw its sales fall by 90 percent last month, he said.

Producers have not only sales to worry about, but logistics too. Since wine in cellars has not been sold, there will be no more room for the new wine usually taking its place that will be made after harvest this autumn.

The producers of Barolo are hoping to be allowed to store it outside the traditional production area, a practice normally not allowed under strict classification rules.

Another big question to ponder is whether to cut production, in light of current lower demand.

The Chianti Wine Consortium has already made such a decision to reduce production by 20 percent. The step, called “drastic” by its president, Giovanni Busi, would likely cause “serious economic damage to companies,” he said.

On Sunday, Italy's government announced that restaurants, bars and cafes would be allowed to open on June 1 – with restrictions in place, and as long as coronavirus cases don't start to increase again.

Italy's wine industry, said Barolo producer Boffa, says this is “great and beautiful news”, although he expressed scepticism that restaurants and bars would be soon filled again.

“We all understand the seriousness of this epidemic and the crisis it will cause for our families. But we farmers are used to sacrifice and once again we will not give up.”


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