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db Meets: Marco Fantinel

The head of Friuli flag-bearer Fantinel on collaborating with Mary J. Blige on the Sun Goddess range, the power of pink Prosecco and why northeast Italy is a haven for high-end whites.

Can you tell me the story of how Fantinel came to be?

Fantinel was born from the passion of my grandfather, Mario Fantinel, a well-known hotelier and restaurateur in northern Friuli, who in 1969 purchased the first vineyards to raise the standard of the products offered to his customers. Love for wine was soon inherited by his sons Luciano, Gianfranco and Loris who, through a long process of selection, expanded the family property, acquiring the vineyards in the best areas of Friuli Venezia Giulia.

That small agricultural company today, with the third generation represented by me and my cousin Stefano, has become an internationally prestigious winery and an ambassador of Friulian winemaking in the world. Our beating heart is in Tauriano, near the ancient village of Spilimbergo, a medieval town of culture famous for its prestigious mosaic school. Here we manage over 300 hectares of vineyards divided into the renowned Prosecco, Friuli, Collio and Colli Orientali DOC zones.

We work with unique terroirs – privileged areas with microclimates ideal for the best maturation of the fruits and the highest expression of each vine variety, especially the valuable indigenous grapes, including Glera (Prosecco), Friulano, Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Ribolla Gialla and the international varieties that in Friuli have found their perfect home, such as Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our philosophy has always aimed at expressing the uniqueness of our territory through a terroir-driven attitude and a quality-oriented approach, for a collection of authentic, iconic and stylish wines. This has allowed us to become an important expression of Friuli Venezia Giulia production.

How big is the company’s global reach today?

During the course of our history and, in particular, during the last twenty years, our approach to internationalisation has been significant. Today there are over 90 countries where Fantinel wines are enjoying success, in particular in high level restaurants, hotels, resorts, in the best specialised stores and in the most prestigious naval and airline companies.

How did the Mary J. Blige collaboration come about? 

A mutual friend introduced Mary J. Blige to me and she visited our winery some years ago. After walking through the vineyards and tasting with our family, she felt extremely connected to the place, and more importantly, the people. In that moment, she felt the same magical energy she had long tried to capture from the sun and realised this was an incredible opportunity to partner with someone who shared that passion and together we could try to create something that evoked that feeling. So, Sun Goddess Wines were born, with a name recalling the spirit inspired by Mary’s powerful childhood memories and an endless love for the warmth and energy of the sun.

What has it been like working with her?

We are so proud to partner with Mary on Sun Goddess Wines. From day one, it was clear she shares our philosophy for producing wines of the highest quality, authentic expressions of our land, dedication and craftsmanship, and we could not think of a better partner and collaborator to bring customers these beautiful new wines.

How are the Sun Goddess wines performing around the world?

Sun Goddess Wines, launched on 29 June 2020, immediately gained enormous media coverage, both in the United States and internationally, from Vogue to Forbes. The wines have won top awards, including the Gold Medals achieved for two consecutive years by Pinot Grigio Ramato in The Drinks Business Global Rosé Masters, which has certainly been one of the positive trends of the last year.

After the sales boom in the US, the wines have been launched in Canada, Germany, Spain, Greece, the Caribbean, Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya) and China, attracting attention and enthusiasm from the media and consumers. The project was launched in a very difficult year and we’re really proud of its success.

How has Fantinel fared during the pandemic?

Last year was atypical, unpredictable and destabilising for everyone – a year that our company tried to face with optimism and determination, in the context of a critical market situation with new and unexpected dynamics. We operated in a very difficult national and international context. Particularly in the countries where we work almost exclusively in the on-trade sector, we recorded significant losses, which we compensated through a development strategy in the off-trade distribution and in the online channel.

Thanks to all this we were able to close 2020 positively, recording a growth in turnover of 14.8%, helped by the launch of Sun Goddess. Now we are ready to face the second half of 2021, which for everyone will represent the moment of the decisive restart, signaling further important growth for the company.

Is e-commerce much more important to you as a company now?

Yes, it is. At the moment the turnover percentage is still limited to 5% but we expect it to grow in the near future.

Which export markets would you like to crack this year?

Our reference markets are USA, Canada, Russia, China, UK and the UAE.

Do you think the wines of Friuli are understood by both wine experts and consumers?

The wines from Friuli Venezia Giulia are undoubtedly an excellence of Italy. Representing 3% of national production, they still have a low level of notoriety internationally speaking. However, those who get to know Friulian wines fall in love with them and appreciate the character created by our region’s particular microclimate and terroir that leave an indelible mark on the palate. We believe that Friuli Venezia Giulia is and should be perceived as the ultimate white wine destination in terms of style and quality.

Is Pinot Grigio a misunderstood grape variety do you think?

I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, it is the best-selling variety from Italy and the expressions from northeastern area, particularly our region, are recognised worldwide for their identity and quality.

What are your big aims for Fantinel this year?

We aim at growing further, hoping for a stabilisation of the markets through a restart in tourism and travel, and a decrease in restrictions for consumers at the restaurants and other consumption locations.

Were you affected by the late spring frosts at all?

Fortunately, we did not suffer frosts but the cold and spring rains will lead to a decrease in production in quantitative terms, as is the case in France and Germany. This decrease will stabilise last year’s stock, so this will lead to a rebalancing.

With pink Prosecco proving so popular, are DOC Prosecco producers in danger or running out of Pinot Noir? 

Prosecco Rosé is a recent project that has had a fast start but there will soon be a moment of normalisation in the market. At the moment experts think that this category will not take more than 10% of the market shares, even though in UK it is performing really well.

And finally… what do Prosecco producers need to do in order to assure the continued success of the category? 

As producers of premium Prosecco, we hope that all producers, including big bottlers and cooperatives, understand the real value of this appellation and work together to enhance it. The price war should be put aside, favouring the construction of a product that is qualitatively better and increasingly respectful of the environment.

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