By Frank Cipparone
Recent market analysis indicates a paradox that will have long-term implications for Italy’s wine industry. Last year witnessed two interesting developments. Italy overtook France as the world’s largest producer by volume, and domestic consumption reached its lowest point in over 150 years. Currently, Americans drink more Italian wine than Italians, though they still imbibe a lot — about 300 million cases a year, which translates to 13.6 billion glasses. That’s a 2.5 percent dip from 2007. For the first time per capita consumption fell below 37 liters, a regressive trend that began 30 years ago.
Coldiretti, Italy’s leading organization for farmers, reports that only one in five Italians drinks wine daily, and that half didn’t drink at all in 2015, numbers that are projected to continue downward for the foreseeable future. The only good news for winemakers is that those who do drink wine are more likely to buy premium DOC and DOCG labels.
There are interconnected factors that have been coalescing for some time behind those alarming statistics. Italy’s population is graying as the nation’s median age increases incrementally. Like America’s “baby boomers,” Italians are living longer. That older generation includes those who grew up in a traditional wine culture but who may no longer have the resources to sustain it. The flip side is a declining birth rate that hit rock bottom in 2014 when fewer births were recorded than any year since 1861 — the beginning of a unified Italy. This will become especially problematic for the regions in the south that are already undergoing a population downturn. As the older generation passes on there will be no replacements who grow up in a society where wine is the beverage of choice.
Shifting demographics have also signaled a switch from wine to beer, spirits and liqueurs. Since 1990, about the time of the craft beer revolution in America, 500 or so breweries have sprung up to meet growing demand. In a country that prides itself for its gastronomy, and values highly its food and wine resources, Italy’s new wave of brewers is generating international acclaim.
Production figures are somewhat misleading. Italy may be numero uno, and it’s true that one of every five bottles sold abroad is Italian, but exports dropped steadily from 2011-2015.
A policy to reduce the number of acres under vine to reduce production of what are termed “uncompetitive wines” could influence what wines will be made in the future. Grapes such as Perricone, Ribolla Giallo and scores like them that are making inroads in the international market may become a low reward-high risk financial liability. Profitable wines won’t suffer. There will always be enough Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco and Moscato, especially in America where 35 percent of imported wine is Italian. And where, in direct contrast to Italy, the fastest growing segment of wine buyers are millennials. What may be sacrificed is Italy’s rich legacy of native grapes that are a large part of its winemaking history.