The protection of Pinot Grigio

It’s difficult to protect a wine when it’s sold by variety. Elisabetta Tosi looks at a new measure being taken to define Italian Pinot Grigio.

Val d’Adige in Trentino, part of the new Pinot Grigio delle Venezie
Val d’Adige in Trentino, part of the new Pinot Grigio delle Venezie

A silent revolution took place in the north-east of Italy in 2017 when a new denomination was born. Its numbers are impressive as it is the largest in the world, extending in 2016 over an area of 23,374 ha.

Called Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, it includes the three regions of Triveneto — Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia — and cultivates just one grape: Pinot Grigio. The new region will account for more than half the Pinot Grigio production in the world, with a potential bottling of 260m bottles. Notably, its Consortium is the first to be created by territorial expansion.

The rules of production are quite tight, aimed at raising the quality of the wine; from the 2017 harvest onwards, all Pinot Grigio wines from Triveneto will be certified under a coordinated and guaranteed system.

Rapid expansion

Italy is the world’s leading producer of Pinot Grigio, accounting for 43 percent of total production; the next biggest producer is the US with 14 percent. Triveneto produces 85 percent of Italian Pinot Grigio, making it the main production area in the world for this grape. Triveneto Pinot Grigio is one of two pillars of viticulture in the north-east, the second being Prosecco, and the region is experiencing rapid growth; in 2010, there were 9,000 ha of vineyards, which had tripled to 27,000 ha by 2017. The US is the most important market, receiving 37 percent of the region’s exports. This year it will buy approximately 30m bottles for an ex-cellar value of around €75m ($93.7m).

“In the past seven years the north-eastern vineyard of Pinot Grigio has tripled,” says Albino Armani, wine producer and president of Pinot Grigio delle Venezie DOC and one of the architects of the new region. “The wine is the third most consumed one in the US so you can understand how high the stakes are.” He adds that producers had realised that Pinot Grigio is an important asset that needs protection and that the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) rules weren’t fit for purpose. 

Last year the denomination was officially recognised by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and the Consortium founded in March 2017. As a result, explains Armani, there will no longer be any uncertified grapes grown in the north-east. All the IGP wine will be transferred to the DOC and the tasting commissions will establish a benchmark for organoleptic acceptability, below which the Government identification mark will not be granted. “All the production criteria have been improved,” he says, adding that production will be decreased to 26 hl per ha. The result should be a significant improvement in the quality of products labelled as Pinot Grigio Doc delle Venezie. 

There is another, even more ambitious, goal. “We want to track the whole production of north-east Italian Pinot Grigio, from the single vine to the final bottle of wine, so there shouldn’t be room any more for bottles of wine of dubious origin or a risk of counterfeiting: not only will the wine will be better, it will be more protected,” confirms Armani.

One of the significant problems the DOC faces is that there is no exclusivity in the name “Pinot Grigio”. Armani explains: “As nobody can claim a grape variety as his or her sole property, we could not lock it down. The Pinot Grigio grape is part of planet Earth’s collective heritage.” He sees the new measures as the solution. “People can cultivate Pinot Grigio anywhere in the world, but nobody can offer the guarantee of our control system, with its chemical and organoleptic analysis and numbering of bottles. Outside Triveneto the controls are much lower and weak.”

The challenges

When it comes to promoting the new region, one of the main issues will be informing Italians about the changes, because the “north-eastern area” is a new concept not only to local consumers, but also to wine producers themselves. “Our goal now is insisting on two concepts,” says Armani. “First and foremost, Pinot Grigio is perceived as an Italian variety basically — our Consortium even has the Italian flag in its logo — and the Triveneto is the most suitable area to produce it. Secondly, we wish to spread the idea of territorial uniqueness both to Italians and abroad.” 

He adds that, despite limited funds, the short-term goal of the Consortium is to communicate the changes to the American British and German markets, as they’re the main buyers of Italian Pinot Grigio. “The first two absorb more or less 60 percent of the total production of our Pinot Grigio. As a Consortium, we want to make clear that the Government identification mark is not simply a piece of paper, but a true traceability system.” He believes this is why importers and buyers have welcomed the new DOC, saying: “Since the beginning they believe in the system.” 

He expects the concept to be successful in the key US market, even though Italian Pinot Grigio is more expensive than Californian Pinot Grigio. According to a research carried out by the Vi.V.O. Cantine (Viticoltori del Veneto Orientale), the average annual wine expenditure of Italian Pinot Grigio per American buyer is $97.21, compared with $67.41 for Californian Pinot Grigio.

Armani says that so far the reaction in Germany has been positive, because of the tighter controls. The situation is different in the price-driven British market, where importers are more interested in price than origin. “Maybe they eventually find [a cheaper Italian Pinot Grigio], but with what guarantees for the consumer?”

He also says the birth of the new DOC has triggered debates in the three participating regions, as producers wonder if the rules of the usual denominations need to be upgraded. “It’s a virtuous general debate,” concludes Armani. “I see it even as a positive moment that will bring interesting outcomes for many Italian wine producers [who are looking to improve their quality]. As for the Pinot Grigio itself, many of the producers are young and educated and manage young vineyards with the most modern tools. From this base can only come something good. Thus, I am optimistic about the future.” 


The Pinot Grigio revolution 

Pinot Grigio is like the horse that quietly moves up to take the lead without anyone really noticing. Back in the 1970s, when crisp, dry Italian white wine was a rarity, this grape was used to make cheap sparkling Italian wine and Sekt in Germany; it was blended with Pinot Bianco and any other white grapes that happened to be growing in its homeland of north-eastern Italy; or it was bottled as an often dull, full-bodied, rust-coloured varietal that struggled to compete with the poorest of Alsace’s Pinot Gris.

In 1961 Count Gaetano Mazzetto, founder of Santa Margherita had the revolutionary idea of treating the pink-skinned grapes as though they were white. Separating the pulp and juice from the skins created an entirely new style: apparently dry, yet creamily easy to drink, with just enough pear fruit to prevent it being described as neutral.

Others followed Mazzetto’s example but the wines remained little known outside Italy. In 1979, Anthony Terlato, the young president of the US firm Paterno Imports decided that his compatriots would appreciate a dry white alternative to the then-popular semi-sweet examples and oaked Chardonnays. After narrowing down the style he was looking for to Pinot Grigio, Terlato ended up in a small restaurant in the Alto Adige where he ordered and tasted all 18 of the examples in its cellar.

The winner was Santa Margherita, and the next day, Terlato became its US importer. What happened next, however, was crucial. When launching the wine in the US, Terlato bravely priced it at $10.00, three times the level of the best-known competitor, Bolla, and focused his attention towards the on-trade. The extra margin Paterno was making on every bottle helped to pay for an unprecedented TV advertising campaign. Sales in the 1980s soared to an extraordinary 450,000 cases and the wine regularly took top spot in the annual surveys of most successful restaurant wines. 

Santa Margherita’s (and Terlato’s) pricing made it largely uncommercial in more cost-conscious markets like the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, but by the 1990s, other Pinot Grigios began to penetrate those markets, thanks in part to the growing number of pizza restaurants. Margins were too small to build a traditional brand, but UK retailer Tesco’s and producer Winery Exchange did the next best thing by creating an exclusive private label called Ogio, which became one of the top 10 bestselling brands in the UK, thanks both to an eye-catching label and regular half-price discounting.

Growing demand and tighter restrictions on the ground led to increased Pinot Grigio prices in Italy, but import markets countered this by growing their own Pinot Grigio or sourcing it from elsewhere. By 2010, less than half of the Pinot Grigio on sale in the US was Italian.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend towards non-Italian Pinoit Grigio has been Cramele Recas in Romania, which produces bestselling brands like I Heart Pinot Grigio.

Robert Joseph

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