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Italy – Brand Italia

d=”standfirst”>Despite the sheer complexity of its wine classifications, Italy is ahead of its European rivals in the wine branding game, says Brian Jordan

To many, the concept of wine brands from an Old World country smacks of an oxymoron, even though Britain’s 1970s vinous pioneers were introduced to wine by Hirondelle, Piat d’Or, Mateus Rosé, Don Cortez and the like, while the USA was weaned on Gallo’s Night Train plus imports like Portugal’s Lancers and Italy’s Four Roses rosés. 

Nowadays the branded wine concept has been successfully hijacked by the New World, and in today’s UK league table of branded wine popularity, Europe spectacularly fails to register significantly. Moreover, the concept of a branded wine has altered, becoming rather less specific. In the 1970s Liebfraumilch was marketed as a brand and 1980s Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon, for several years the UK’s topselling red wine, was regarded as a brand. Likewise, White Lambrusco, and now one  can successfully argue Chardonnay, have become brands in their own right. 

But such is the power and penetration of brand simplicity that producers increasingly recognise its marketing attractions, in the Old World no less than the New. And that’s where the Old World’s problems start as European wine laws bestow quality grades favouring historic accuracy rather than commercial expediency. For this reason, among others, Europe starts on the back foot. Branded wine’s major sales advantage lies in offering a simplicity of purchase proposal combined with a clearly recognisable logo, promoted name and, above all, consistent product. And it’s obvious that to achieve consistency from vintage to vintage, flexibility of blending components is fundamental. The problem is that sourcing flexibility is something European wine laws are designed to prevent – it’s the very antithesis of terroir-based legislation. 

Yet, despite all this, one of the Old World’s biggest producers, Italy, already offers wine brands. Admittedly, some are more successful than others but, importantly, an increasing number of producers are planning and developing new lines and having a serious stab at playing the branded game. 

By studying what works well and what struggles, there are some clear signposts along the superstrada to supermarketshelf success – signposts that Italy’s increasingly adventurous producers would do well to watch out for.

Write your name bigger 

The simplest Italian brands are those where the producer’s name becomes more recognisable than individual wines. Producers like Bolla, Zonin, S Margherita, Tedeschi, Pasqua, Giordano, Cavit and so on, spring to mind, and especially those among them that spread their production across several growing regions. 

However, the leader of the pack has to be Antinori. Why? Well, the branding benefit that customers gain from producer recognition is entirely based on the individual reputation for quality, charm, innovation and value for money across the range – a more difficult trick than first appears, especially in a country where many high-quality classic wines are unashamedly supported on a commercial pyramid of low-cost simplicity. But this is where the indefatigable Marchese Piero scores. He is a producer who invariably shows as much concern for entry-level wines as for high-flyingtre bicchieri Solaias and the like – and, therefore, he is a producer who leverages his brand far more successfully than others in the field. 

New World thinking

But while Antinori has writ its name large, it’s been in a very Italian, home-grown way. Much of the ever-increasing output from Italy’s southern regions, however, has New World parentage in terms of brand strategy inspiration. Indeed, one of the first southern “brandchildren” was born  in the early 1990s in Puglia. Rome-resident, Englishman Robin Woodhouse, then consultant to the UK’s International Wine Services, spent a year with Jacques Lurton at the Basilium cooperative, producing a couple of International Winemaker brands for Tesco. When this project failed to live beyond its first birthday he sought out other brandparents, and instigated nuptials between Australia’s Kym Milne MW and Italy’s patriarchal southern winemaker, Augusto Cantele. In 1993 this union was blessed when the Le Trulle brand was born. The brand displayed acute market-driven accuracy, with an unoaked Chardonnay at £2.99, “oaked” (actually, then chipped and later staved) Chardonnay £3.99 and barriqued Chardonnay at £5.99, with other single varietal wines following similar price points. The brand found the right vein, and enjoys continued success today – in part, thanks to the flexibility in both product and packaging that its owners display, but also thanks to good presence and penetration in not only the UK but Norway, Austria and Ireland. 

Look and learn

Le Trulle took a lot of its inspiration direct from the New World. They do say that imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but not that many Italian producers have the vision to accept overseas ideas and use them to their own ends. Diego Planeta is one who did. As boss of the monster Settesoli co-operative at Menfi on Sicily’s south coast, and now better known for his own eponymous awardshowered label, Planeta’s first smart move was persuading Carlo Corino – a native-born Italian working with Montrose in Australia at the time – to return to Sicily as his winemaker. Having hauled Settesoli up several rungs of the quality ladder without increasing prices, and then creating the Planeta family estate brand, the two set about creating a more populist brand. Together with UK agents Enotria they launched Inycon – the ancient Greek name for Menfi. It made its debut in 2000 and by the end of 2004 they are confident the 1m case per year sales target will have been surpassed. 

One of the essentials for successful brand development, and a key element in Inycon’s strong performance, is summed up by Enotria’s Mark Kermode: “Our proximity to the international markets allows  us to quickly identify and respond to new trends and/or opportunities and to develop targeted marketing strategies tailored to each specific market.” In other words, they give the customers what they want, when they want it.

Exceptions prove the rule 

And yet, while marketing impetus from the sales end is essential, it’s comforting to find the odd exception – a perfect example of which is Trentobased Girelli and its Caneletto brand. In 1997 Stefano Girelli decided to relaunch a name it had used for 35 years for entrylevel wines, and in 1999 Canaletto was put on the market in a concept that linked wines from an increasing number of Italian provinces, initially northern but spreading inevitably southward, under the one brand name. The brand now does 600,000 cases a year with sales set on a steady upward climb, and has a presence in 37 markets, though not, interestingly enough, in Italy. The reason for this is simple, claims Girelli: “I don’t believe there is any major benefit in trying to grow Canaletto in the Italian market as, by definition, Italians are tied to one region. This was created specifically for exports, which make up 99% of our production.”

New kids on the bloc

There are also some more recent, start-up brands that are slowly but surely emerging from Italy. Of those that are making their way over to UK shores some, like Private Liquor Brands’ Italian Icons range, are a mix of traditional wine blends such as Soave, Frascati, Chianti and Valpolicella together with a couple of single varieties, Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. In the Icons range these have been “re-packaged” under a common house style symbolised by green and red (echoing the Italian flag)  and columns (triggering subliminal thoughts of ancient architecture) – all presented in an attractive fashion. Its marketing philosophies are varied, and logical – though one suspects that at twin price points of up to £4.99 and up to £5.99, the bottle contents of these regional wines will need to be exceptional if they are going to achieve real presence in the market. And, as Valpolicella, Chianti and Sangiovese can all-too-often prove insipid rather than inspirational, to take on New World branded reds as the company claims it is doing, might prove a brand too far. 

Another new kid on the block is the Moncaro co-operative in the Marche, represented in the UK by Eurowines. It’s going along the same path as Italian Icons, using a re-packaging exercise with the name writ larger for a range of existing products like Falerio dei Colli Ascolani DOC, two Rosso Conero DOCs and no less than five Verdicchios. It’s a very Italian-driven approach and it’ll be interesting to see how it performs on the UK market.

All such initiatives are positive for Italy.But what the Italians need to realise is what the New World realised long ago – that the easiest wine to sell is one with instant recognition, one that people enjoy drinking and one that, crucially, is correctly targeted. The latter is essential in brand building because it eases the buying decision and offers simplicity and reliability. 

In Italy, above all other producer countries, simplicity is vital. One of the commonest complaints heard about Italian grapes and wines is, “They’re so complicated.” Branded Italian wine, if it does nothing else, must simplify the purchasing proposal if it wants to achieve the same success as its New World counterparts.

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