The Challenge Facing Italy’s Pinot Grigio

How do you protect and promote a regional grape variety? That was the subject of a recent forum in Verona. Felicity Carter went along to hear the arguments.

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Delle Venezie DOC International Forum in Verona
Delle Venezie DOC International Forum in Verona

Italian Pinot Grigio has been one of the great success stories of the past half century:  the go-to white wine for Americans, Britons and a growing number of people elsewhere. But because it’s known by its grape name, not its region, non-Italian producers have found it easy to exploit the demand the Italians created.

In 2017, Italy’s Pinot Grigio producers took action, forming a completely new denomination. Called Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, it encompasses Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, otherwise known as the Trivento region. It was created with one goal: to raise the quality of the wine, so that when consumers were deciding which Pinot Grigio to buy, they would naturally choose a bottle from Italy.

In early November, members of the DOC Delle Venezie came together in Verona to assess how they were doing — a discussion that might have implications for other regions who have bet their fortunes on a single variety.

The birth of the Pinot Grigio phenomenon

In 1979, an American importer called Anthony Terlato went to Italy, seeking a high-quality white that could be sold for more than $10 a bottle. Terlato had already done well with wines like Mateus and Blue Nun, so had a keen sense of what would appeal to the American public.

A trip to Milan revealed a possible new hit wine — Pinot Grigio. So impressed was he, that Terlato tasted every example he could find. He found what he was looking for in the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

"Santa Margherita became one of the most recognized wine brands in the United States and helped to make Pinot Grigio a synonym for a glass of white at countless bars and restaurants."

“Over that time, Santa Margherita, a crisp, light, easygoing alternative to oaky chardonnays, became one of the most recognized wine brands in the United States and helped to make Pinot Grigio a synonym for a glass of white at countless bars and restaurants,” wrote Eric Asimov in the New York Times.

As demand for Pinot Grigio rose, other regions were quick to notice. Pinot Grigios from California, Australia, and New Zealand soon appeared on shelves.

Not only that, but Santa Margherita’s premium pricing made it less attractive in price-sensitive markets like the UK and the Netherlands. In those markets, supermarket chains created their own private label Pinot Grigio brands.

So it’s no surprise that Italian producers were looking for ways to convince markets to buy the Italian versions, and also to improve the price. Hence the creation of  Pinot Grigio delle Venezie.

A vast new region

As Consorzio President Albino Armani said at the time: “Our goal now is insisting on two concepts. 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.” 

The territory that’s been brought together is vast: one of the largest wine regions in the world, it covers more than 28,000 ha, from the Dolomite mountains in the north, to the Adriatic Sea and the hills of Collio. The region produces 230m bottles, or 85% of Italian Pinot Grigio, and 43% of world production; 44% heads to North America, 27% to the UK, and 10% to Germany. Yields have been reduced and a traceability scheme has been put in place. The number of people involved is huge: 6,141 growers and 575 winemakers.

The territory brought together is one of the largest wine regions in the world, it covers more than 28,000 ha.

“We have built a project that involves the three regions of the northeast Italy. And with the goal to improve the quality and enhance the variety of Pinot Grigio,” said Armani after the recent forum, speaking through a translator.

While Italian politics are famously difficult to navigate, Armani says it wasn’t difficult to bring people together, because the growers themselves wanted to improve Pinot Grigio’s image. He also said there was no quality difference between the regions. Instead, there are individual producers in each region who choose to focus on quality versus supermarket wine. “It’s all about commercial strategies,” he said.

Armani added he didn’t foresee any change of export emphasis in the future, with a continued emphasis on North America and the UK.

“Of course, we are going to look for something new,” he said. “Some emerging markets like Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Maybe Australia — who knows?”

But perhaps there is another market that Pinot Grigio producers should be courting.

Danny Brager of Brager Beverage Alcohol Consulting, presenting at Wine2Wine
Danny Brager of Brager Beverage Alcohol Consulting, presenting at Wine2Wine

What consumers are saying about Pinot Grigio

According to Lulie Halstead, Board Director of the IWSR Group, who spoke at the forum, Pinot Grigio remains the number two white variety in the US market, after Chardonnay.

But, she said, “the high volume, low value part of the wine market in the US is becoming way less important. All of the forecast growth will come from the higher price points in the US, not the lower price points.”

This is an area where the Italians will need to do some work. In a presentation given at Wine2Wine 2023, Danny Brager of Brager Beverage Alcohol Consulting revealed that more than 88% of Italian Pinot Grigio sells in the US at under $10.99; 68.6% is sold at under $8.00. Worse still, while 51% of Pinot Grigio selling in the US is Italian, the Italian share drops to 7% in wines at $11-14.99 and just 5% in those at $15-25.

Vivino scans show a similar picture, as Kristi Paris, Head of Global Partnership Sales at the company revealed. Speaking at the forum, she said that only 5.3% of white wines scanned in the US were Italian Pinot Grigio, compared to 18.6% scans of Californian Chardonnay. There were bright spots: in Japan, searches were outstripping supply, suggesting a major market opportunity.

Overall, however, “Pinot Grigio was getting a lukewarm reception” and she suggested it was important to find out why.

And David Gluzman, CEO of Wine Folly, shared search data that showed that while people were searching for Pinot Grigio, they rarely searched for its associated Italian regions.

There could be an easy way to fix this.

What about Italy?

A search of the media database Nexis shows that while Pinot Grigio is definitely getting more positive media coverage than in the past — wine critics acknowledge the quality is improving — the grape is still not particularly associated with Veneto, although mentions of Friuli and Alto Adige are increasing.

Italian media rarely mention Pinot Grigio
Italian media rarely mention Pinot Grigio

Italy is not just a spectacular destination, it’s a magnet for tourists who want to immerse themselves in food and wine culture. If they don’t experience a glass of Pinot Grigio during their visit,  then they’re not going to associate it with Italy.

Contrast this with the trajectory of Lugana, another crisp Italian white. A Trebbiano di Soave, it is grown in the Lake Garda region, not far from Verona — and it’s expensive. At €3.65 a litre ex-cellar, it’s one of the most lucrative white wines in all Italy. In 2000, there were a mere 800 ha of vines, producing 700,000 bottles; today there are more than triple that number, accounting for more than 4.3m bottles. A full 70% of it is exported to Germany, and so enamoured of the wine are the Germans, that Lugana exports to the Czech Republic are also growing, to cater to German tourists.

A walk around Verona is revealing: Pinot Grigio is absent from many wine lists.

The success of Lugana has baffled some German critics. Georg Etscheit, writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, said: “the enormous success cannot be explained solely with ‘quality’, which all Lugana winemakers naturally claim for themselves. More likely with good marketing.”

But, in fact, his own article reveals the answer: wine tourism. Lake Garda is a top destination for German tourists. They drink Lugana while they’re there — and take a taste for it home with them.

Given the millions of tourists who make their way to northeastern Italy each year, it seems a strange omission not to have Pinot Grigio on every wine menu from Milan to Mantua and beyond.

Next steps for Pinot Grigio

Armani is aware that wine tourism also needs to be developed. “Our territory of northeast Italy, has many appellations that are very attractive for tourism,” he says. “But we need to work on attracting the final consumer. We are very low on the tourism offer.” He says that for the older generations, the only goal was to produce wine. Now, he says a new generation of winemakers is more open to attracting tourists.

But he also believes that once people commit to it, they will create something outstanding. 

“In the past, these people were poor,” he says. “To survive, to go on with their lives, they needed to
collaborate together.” He says this means that the Veneto region can get things done that aren’t
possible in wealthier regions, where people are more likely to concentrate on their own businesses.

“But poor people need to unify to survive. This is a very important heritage for this territory. Our
past is what will give us success in the future.”

Hopefully sooner rather than later. Many in the region also believed that having a recognised DOC would help to improve its fortune. Judging by the low €3.29  price point of the KRIS Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie on sale in Aldi in Italy, there is still work to be done.

Felicity Carter was a speaker at the forum. The information about Lugana and media searches came from her presentation.

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