Italy Natural Wines - Il boom dei vini naturali

Italy has embraced the sustainable wine movement more strongly than any other major production country, according to Pierpaolo Penco, Wine Intelligence Italy Country Manager


Everything that is organic, biodynamic, sustainable and ‘natural’ is currently very popular in the Italian wine business. This trend started with food, but now includes wine. Indeed, after a few years, this phenomenon has changed the face of Italian wine, creating a new space in such a mature market for alternative, natural wines, even beyond what is happening in other countries (such as in Spain, as reported by Juan Park in his article). Sales of this type of wine are up even as the long-term trend of wine drinking in Italy is down.

According to data processed by Corriere Vinicolo (the weekly magazine of Unione Italiana Vini), in 2016 the total organic hectares of vineyards (including those in conversion) rose to 101,290 – a 24% increase compared to the previous year, which now represents 16% of all Italian vineyards. If the forecasts are correct, then, soon Italy will become the largest organic vineyard in the world, after already being the largest producer of certified organic food.

Similar to the development of the Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers (FIVI), which aims to protect and promote the figure of artisan winemakers, there is a great stirring of producers who have embraced environmentally-friendly practices – all the way from the Alps to Sicily.

Within this organic renaissance, Italy – the land of the thousand Municipalities – has seen the birth of many Associations and Consortia of producers espousing organic or sustainable values (VinNatur, ViniVeri, etc.) and different rules and quality standards. Among others: those who are bio, biodynamic (and maybe Demeter certified), ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ (because they don’t not use any sulfites).

The explosion of different expressions of organic-ness stands in contrast to the discipline of organic wine recognized by the European Union, which as it happens is rather generic. The consumer, who does not know how many ingredients and additives can be present in wine as well as grapes, may feel like they are getting a better quality or more carefully made product, but the reality may not quite live up to the ideal. This is why, among many ‘artisan’ producers, there is a strong push towards a more restrictive and defined vision.

No matter the difference in definitions, however, the popularity of these types of wines is still strong.  This can be seen in the market, with many small distributions specialising in natural wines. The same positive trend in sparkling wine consumption (as recently investigated in our Sparkling Wines in the Italian Market 2018 report) has led to the appearance of new artisan bubbles, mainly in the ‘sur lie’ or ‘pet-nat’ (i.e. pétillant natural) categories. There are even events throughout the year promoting these types of natural wines, some of which take place at the same time as the biggest trade fair in the sector, Vinitaly in Verona.

A few days ago I attended one of these events, VinNatur in Genoa, both for the curiosity of tasting wines of small producers who have a limited commercial presence, and to observe winemakers and consumers with the eye of professional marketing. (Although this article is not the place to tell the organoleptic characteristics of the wines tasted – coming not only from many Italian regions but also from neighboring France, Austria and Slovenia – these wines do often exceed the traditional categories of sensory analysis and may require an effort of understanding to those who have them in the glass.)

Italian ‘natural’ wine is not only strong abroad but also on the domestic market. It attracts a segment of consumers that have careful consumption patterns towards less chemical, natural or sustainable products, which are perceived as better. These wine events and types of products are creating real currents, sometimes a bit ideological, among those who drink organic or biodynamic wine (“I buy only wine from small farmers because they do not pollute”), who prefer natural ingredients (“I cannot stand the taste of wine produced with selected yeasts”) and those who are more extreme than others and accept only wines without any chemical intervention like sulfur (“I could drink two bottles of these wines and not have a headache the next day”).

Looking at them closely, they are often young consumers, casually labeled as Millennials, sometimes a bit of a hipster in their look, impressionable by artisan microbrewery drinkers, with a lifestyle that provides a good dose of curiosity and use of social media to communicate. If their brand loyalty is low compared to the individual labels, it is vice versa much higher than the average for this specific category. In fact, this sector appears more and more loyal to the ‘natural’ sector and seems willing to spend a little more for this type of wine. For more information on this trend, please see Bacco Report’s article, La Stampa’s article, Il Sughero’s article and UIV’s article.

This introduction of natural wines, therefore, is not only limited to small groups of enthusiasts but has an increasingly influential impact on distribution.  Retail is embracing ‘traditional’ organic wines that flank the positive trend of food, and restaurants, even Michelin starred, gastro-pub or wine bars, have increased the number of these organic or natural references found on their menu, often to the detriment of famous brands that are perceived as too commercial (read more here).

It will be interesting to see how these natural wines will affect all parts of the wine industry – from consumption to retail and distribution– and we are sure to keep an eye on this popular trend in Italy.

Author: Pierpaolo Penco