Evidence from Friuli Venezia Giulia suggests that tourism can create a legion of ambassadors for a region’s wine offering
Can a bottle of wine act as an ambassador to attract foreign tourists to lesser-known wine regions, like Friuli Venezia Giulia? Or is it the tourism industry itself that helps wineries to sell more in export markets, when tourists buy wine after returning home? This is the main topic of a seminar I held for the Associates of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Wine and Food Road at MIB Trieste School of Management (where I manage the wine business education programs), in the light of the results of a research we led at Wine Intelligence by analysing a qualified sample of German and American consumers.
Friuli Venezia Giulia is a small region located in the north-east of Italy, bordering Slovenia and Austria, that accounts for just 2.4% of the Italian wine production by volume. But its wines, mainly whites, are seen as a benchmark of Italian quality production. Pinot Grigio is the leader, accounting for around 25% of the production, just followed by Prosecco (whose DOC takes the name from a small village close to Trieste, the main city). Wineries here have grown over the last few years at a rate higher than the national average, reaching a total value of over 100 million euros and a growth of more than 50% over the last five years (source: MBS/Ismea). The main export markets are the United States, which in 2015 accounted for 39% of Friulian exports; Germany (24%); while the UK (21%) comes in third place. In the same period, the UK was the market which recorded the strongest growth in Friulian exports (+239%) followed by Japan (+184%) and then Germany (+160%).
Our analysis, using the Vinitrac® Consumer Survey, focused on the German and US markets. We asked regular wine consumers about their awareness of the region and its wines, purchase and consumption opportunities between the on and off-trade channels.
From this research, a rather similar profile of the Friulian wine consumer emerged. In fact, in both markets, the consumer who knows Friulian wine is curious and knowledgeable: they like to experience different varietals and have a broader knowledge of the other wine regions than the average consumer, compared to which they drink more Italian wine (especially in Germany). They also report a higher weekly frequency of consumption.
In the United States, only a small percentage of regular wine consumers know the wines of Friuli Venezia Giulia (4%); however, the region demonstrates a solid performance in converting to buyers those who are aware of the region (18%). The most common barrier to buying wine from Friuli Venezia Giulia by US consumers is the lack of availability of labels in premises where they usually buy wine (wine shops or restaurants). Among all regular US drinkers, only a small percentage (1%) have Friuli Venezia Giulia’s wine in their usual repertoire, with Sauvignon Blanc being the most popular variety, followed by Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Most consumers who bought Friulian wines were motivated by a previous trip to the region or by promotional offers. In general, those who know Friuli Venezia Giulia tend to have a greater involvement in wine and a greater tendency to try new styles, while maintaining a significant preference for Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties. This consumer spends more than the average for a bottle of wine as a gift, for a party or for relaxing at home. At restaurants they tend to consume more frequently and generally have greater propensity towards more expensive wines.
Among the regular German consumers, a fair share (20%) claims to know Friuli Venezia Giulia as a wine region, however, only 8% of them have bought wine from the region in the last three months and just 2% regularly buy them. Many are, in fact, aware of the region but have not bought the wines, claiming they are not very familiar with the region’s offering. Those who have recently purchased regional labels have been motivated by a previous holiday in Friuli Venezia Giulia (in fact, more than 50% of the foreign tourists come from German-speaking countries) and the style of the wines, especially appreciating Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Those consumers who know Friuli Venezia Giulia are mostly male, often between 55 and 64 years, most likely to try new styles, possess a significant preference for Riesling, Merlot and Pinot Grigio varietals, and a wide knowledge of the different regions of origin. They spend significantly on all off-trade occasions, as well as when they buy wine in restaurants, especially on formal occasions.
In wine marketing, there has always been a clear correlation between people visiting a wine producing region or country, and then a subsequent affinity for wines from that same region or country. Often, this affinity is attributed to an existing preference before the visit (I like the wines of the region so I will choose that destination for my vaction). While it is always wise to be cautious about assuming causation from correlation, the data from Vinitrac suggests that the effect is at least as strong in the other direction (I went on holiday to the region, I tried and liked the wines there, and now I enjoy them at home). Wine Intelligence’s research in collaboration with MIB Trieste School of Management showed a clear connection between purchases of Friulian wines in Germany and the USA, and those who had visited the region.
At present, the over 100 million bottles exported allow Friulian wineries to grow or maintain their market shares and turnovers, but evidently they still can not turn labels into business cards to attract visitors to the area so easily. Most of the wine, in fact, does not bear a clear reference to the regional territorial link (more than 50% of the production are not labeled under Friuli appellations but as Prosecco DOC, Pinot Grigio IGT “delle Venezie” or IGT “Venezia Giulia”). I’m sure the number of regular consumers of wine produced in the region is slightly higher than what came from our research, but these customers maybe do not know or can not link what’s in the glass with the origin of the product. So, to face the strong competition that comes from other wines on the international markets, sometimes more appealing or coming from bigger brands, food and wine tourism (or tourism in general) therefore becomes not only an opportunity but, more and more, a need for small and less “classic” wine regions like Friuli Venezia Giulia.