How Italy Winemakers Woo U.S. Online Sales Amid Covid

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Saturday morning, on a little cobblestoned street outside a wine cellar in Italy’s Chianti region, people are gathering with their glasses at the tasting table.

Renzo Marinai vineyard and agriturismo snuggles into the hills of the Conca d’Oro–the “golden basin”–Tuscany’s answer to Burgundy’s Cote d’Or.

Once a heartland for ripening wheat, the sun-drenched, fertile hills of Panzano in Chianti since the 1950’s have given over to prized wine and olive oil production.

Every year, Chianti Classico winemakers organise festivals to showcase local wines throughout September and October. This year, many have adapted to Covid realities, after months of closure of tasting rooms and winery restaurants.

Vino Al Vino: Tastings At Chianti Classico Wineries

Since 1995, Panzano’s “Vino al Vino” event has been held in the main town square, at the heart of the largely organic vineyards. This time it took place at the wineries instead.

Armed with his wine glass tote and tasting notebook, one of the tasters, Giovanni, is happy with the Covid economies. “Normally we pay €20 Euros for the glass, this year we paid €10–and that gets us to taste at 22 vineyards.”

Participants follow suggested itineraries on a Vino Al Vino map, as they tootle along Chianti’s vein-fine network of country roads.

“It’s been an exceptional strategy in very delicate times to avoid people crowding all together,” explains Renzo Marinai’s managing director Janmario Hero Reina.

“The New York Times names us as one of the five nicest wine festivals in the world. This year there are no Canadians, Americans, even many Europeans so it’s difficult. Mostly we’re seeing tourists from Germany, France, Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium and some Austrians and Spanish.”

“It was not important to achieve the numbers of other years, but the fact that we could proceed,” says Monia Piccini from neighboring Il Palagio di Panzano. She’s on the committee of the Unione di Viticoltori di Panzano, the local winemakers’ association behind the event.

Cosimo Gericke from Greve in Chianti’s vineyard-farm stay, Fattoria di Rignana, is its president. The immersive vineyard experience of this years’ festival lent a strong personal touch he says.

“Thousands of enthusiasts have braved winding dirt roads to interact directly with producers, and enjoy a glass of vino while admiring the landscape firsthand, instead of just imagining it.”

At Il Palagio, over a dozen masked tasters queue at the cellar, before seating at the socially-distanced tables on the lawns.

“We’re happy because many regulars are turning up at the wineries to see the producers,” Piccini says. “This is an opportunity, because when you are at the piazza, you see the faces, taste the wine, get to know new vintages, but you miss entirely the visit in the cellar … Here we host our visitors right in the vineyard.”

It’s been cozy and peaceful she says, still “the atmosphere you live on the town square is unique.” This Piccini feels may change coming years’ events, to a mix of in the piazza and in the vineyards.

“I have suggested we do two Vino al Vino events in the future,” says Reina. “One in spring with visits to the cellars, the other in the square as always on the third weekend of September. For now all the producers in Panzano are happy with the turnout.”

Sangiovese-Driven Wines

“The rules of Chianti Classico is that you must have at least 80% of Sangiovese and the other 20% can be other red grape varieties,” he says. “The Sangiovese grape is very interesting because it’s very influenced by where you grow it, and there are many microclimates in Chianti. In Panzano, most wines are quite full of body and fruity.

“In the Conca d’Oro, Cabernet Sauvignon ripens very well with all the sunshine, while in France they need much more maturation in the bottle.”

The “golden shell” takes its name from the amphitheatre form of the vineyards.

Winemakers here also dabble in other wine styles, other than Chianti Classico.

Covid Phenomenon: Private Online Sales To U.S. Underpin Wine Business

During months of the lockdown, restaurants were not buying from Chianti’s wineries. The business has been propped up by private clients and online sales Reina says, of which Americans form a major part.

“We had a total blackout between March and May. We didn’t sell one bottle, only private sales. It was a very high-tension time. European buyers were not buying wine either, because all restaurants were closed.”

International online sales have been a saviour he says. “Private sales from the United States are amazing. Of the internet sales, they account for most. We pay half shipment to U.S. customers and it’s been a total success.

“We are the winery in Panzano that sells the most wine of all competitors.”

Even since restaurants reopened, Reina has noticed a phenomenon: more people are indulging in top shelf wines.

“After the lockdown, some restaurants didn’t order as they had to finish existing stock. Now we’re selling wine to restaurants in Italy and Europe again, but more basic, low-priced wines dominate sales.

“Whereas to private clients, it’s been the opposite. Because people stay at home, don’t go to restaurants, they save money on that, and spend it on wines three times the price instead.”

Wine Harvest Due To Start In Chianti

So even as Covid has hit wine sales in the Gallo Nero denominations, Italy’s “black rooster” is fighting back.

For Giovanni Manetti, Chianti Classico consortium president and winemaker at Panzano’s Fontodi estate, the virus has also been “a blessing in disguise”.

“Our vintners had nowhere to go, so … they concentrated all their efforts on their vineyards,” he told AFP. They may never have looked so good as a result.

With the “vendemmia” grape harvest kicking off a week early from next Sunday due to unseasonably hot weather, Manetti says winemakers are expecting an excellent vintage.

Further Reading: 4 Of The Best Organic Vineyard Farmhouses In Chianti

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