With the notable exception of Boris Johnson's provocative remarks about prosecco, public discourse on the impact of Brexit on the wine and spirits industry has been rather limited.
But what will Brexit mean for the occasional consumer who enjoys the odd glass of chardonnay? What are the implications for multinationals like London-based Diageo, the world's largest manufacturer of spirits? And for the millions in between who have some stake in wine production, distribution and consumption, what can they expect of a post Brexit drinking environment?
To these questions (and others), I'm hoping to gain some insight at this years Vinitaly.
Vinitaly is a major international wine fair and one of the most important dates in the industry's calendar. Now in its 51st year, Verona has been hosting an annual wine festival since 1967. From modest beginnings, the fair now boasts 4120 exhibitors from 27 countries.
Last year over 49,000 visitors (of whom 28,000 were registered buyers) from 140 countries attended. If you buy or sell, import or export Italian wine, Vinitaly is the place to be.
At this year’s conference, Brexit is high on the agenda. Despite obvious uncertainties about future market conditions, UK interest in Italian wine remains undiminished. In fact, this year over 400 new buyers from the United Kingdom will be attending Vinitaly for the very first time.
The UK - a key player?
The UK is a key player in the world’s wine and spirit trade, a position it has occupied since Roman times. In the Middle Ages wine was England’s largest single import, whisky distillation was documented in Scotland as early as the 15th Century, and Berry Brothers and Rudd, the iconic London wine merchant, is the oldest continually operating wine and spirits merchant in the world, having been in existence since 1698.
Now worth over £45 billion and supporting nearly 600,000 jobs, the wine and spirit sector makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. UK spirits, mainly whisky but also gin, are a key export good. In terms of both volume and value, the UK is the world’s second largest wine importer - only Germany imports more and only America spends more on wine.
As both an importer (of wine) and exporter (of spirits), the European market is crucial.
Forty-five per cent of all spirits exported from the UK are shipped to the EU.
English wine - a taste of the future?
While 99% of wine drunk in the UK is imported, the rise of the English wine sector has been a surprising success story of recent years. At this crucial point in its development the uncertainties of Brexit loom large.
Although exports of English wine account for just 25% of total sales, access to European wine making and specialist vineyard management equipment, as well as unrestricted access the European workforce, are crucial to the ongoing viability of English wine.
Furthermore, vine growing and wine making are classified as agricultural practices and therefore benefit from the EU’s much criticised Common Agriculture Policy. Questions remain over the future of such funding streams post Brexit.
Now that article 50, the mechanism that kick-starts the Brexit negotiation process, has been triggered, the wine industry must begin to wake up and smell the Muscat.
Theresa May and Brexit ministers want to agree bespoke free-trade deals for individual industrial sectors, such as the automotive and pharmaceuticals industries, but the EU has already dismissed the idea of sector-by-sector deals.
Alex Cannetti, Director of Berkmann Wine Cellars, the UK’s leading independent wine agent/wholesaler, will be leading a discussion on prospects for Italian wine in the retail channel in Great Britain after it leaves the EU. Speaking ahead of the event, Cannetti stated that
"The only solution to this threat [Brexit] is to allow the United Kingdom a period of 10 years during which it will share the same trading conditions and the same customs charges as the EU, as well as negotiating a free trade agreement".
The benefits of Brexit
While British exit from the European Union undoubtedly presents challenges for the UK's wine and spirit trade, Miles Beale, Chief Executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (which represents over 300 companies producing, importing, transporting and selling wine and spirits), believes there are also opportunities to be exploited.
A key plank of the leave campaign was to sweep aside the 1000s of EU regulations said to be choking British business. In fact, the WSTA believes that the current EU regulatory framework for food law is fit for purpose and should be rolled over into UK. Furthermore, the WTSA also supports the maintenance of EU production standards and labelling rules which, it argues, protect consumers and producers alike. EU rules on the definitions of distilled gin, for example, provide protection against inferior products.
Final word to Giovanni Mantovani, CEO & Director General of Veronafiere, the sprawling conference complex where Vinitaly is hosted: "it is too early to predict what will happen as regards our wine in the world's second largest importing country but I think that putting a brake on sales would be to everyone’s detriment".
Indeed, for industry insiders on both sides of the channel, Brexit must not be allowed to disrupt the free flow of wine and spirits into and out of the UK.
Such an outcome really would be hard to swallow.
Il Bacanal, the Carnival of Verona, is one of Italy's oldest street parades. Its origins are thought to date back to the dark days of the middle ages, when Verona was a city ravaged by war, flooding, disease and famine. During these desperate times, with grain prices rising, the cities poor, especially those crowded into the historic St Zeno neighbourhood, faced poverty, famine and starvation.
On 18 June 1531, in the Piazza of San Zeno, the people rose and demanded to be fed. A general revolt was only averted thanks to the intervention of some prominent local citizens, who distributed bread, wine, flour, butter and cheese to the poorest inhabitants of the neighborhood.
Amongst those charitable citizens was one Tommaso Da Vico.
Da Vico was a local doctor. In his will he requested that every year, on the last Friday before Lent, gnocchi and wine be distributed to the poor people of St Zeno.
Nowadays, on gnocchi Friday, Venerdi' gnocolar', a massive parade of over 4000 masked participants and 40 extravagantly decorated floats slowly snakes its way from Corso Porta Nuova to the Piazza of St. Zeno. Traditionally the parade is a celebratory expression of satire, comedy and joy. This was certainly the case last Friday! The parade is led by Papa' de' gnocco, a masked man representing an old king holding, instead of a scepter, a huge fork topped by a giant gnocchi.
In Piazza San Zeno there stands a stone marble slab. This slab is in fact the tomb of King Pepin, son of Charlemagne, who died in 810 and is thought to be buried under this lawn. It was from this stone table that Da Vico is said to have served his gnocchi to the poor of San Zeno. Next to the stone table is a fading monument to Tommaso Da Vico, the man whose generous act of charity is still celebrated and remembered nearly 500 years later.
As children the world over are busy preparing letters to Santa Claus, the children of Verona are a few weeks ahead. They have already dispatched their missives to Santa Lucia and are now enjoying the post-celebratory glow of a decidedly unhealthy period of over-indulgence.
For the children of Verona, 13 December arrives with a greater sense of anticipation than even Christmas Day. For the city itself it is a vibrant period of festivity that sees the old town flooded with families who come to enjoy the traditional seasonal market that takes place in Piazza Brà. Over 3 day, over 300 market stalls sell, amongst other things, sweets, local produce and gifts. If you're lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the hallowed saint herself.
A virgin martyr, Santa Lucia was one of the earliest Christian saints to achieve wide following and recognition. According to legend, Lucia came from a wealthy Sicilian family (she is the patron saint of her native Syracuse), but (in the tradition of St. Agatha) she spurned marriage and worldly goods and vowed to remain a virgin.
Apparently such chastity didn't go down so well with the local Roman authorities, who sentenced her to a life of forced prostitution in a brothel.
It was at this point that the Almighty stepped in. Lucia became immovable and could not be carried away to the brothel. She was next condemned to death by fire, but proved impervious to the flames.
Finally, her neck was pierced by a sword and she died.
In reality, Lucia may simply have been a victim of the Roman anti-Christian persecution that was known to have taken place during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.
According to the Veronese tradition, on the night of 12 December an empty plate is left on the table for the saint to fill with sweets. The children go to bed early with their eyes tight shut, fearing that she will blind them with ash if she catches them awake! During the night, Santa Lucia, accompanied by her donkey Gastaldo, brings sweets and toys for the good children and a piece of coal for the less deserving.
This tradition dates back to the thirteenth century when a virulent eye disease affecting local children spread throughout Verona. Praying for an end to the outbreak, parents and family members made a barefooted pilgrimage to a shrine of Santa Lucia near Piazza Brà (no longer in existence) to pray for her divine intervention to bring the epidemic to an end. In the deep midwinter, It was not easy to persuade the children to make the barefooted pilgrimage, so it was promised that Saint Lucia would fill their socks and shoes with gifts and sweets if they made the sacred pilgrimage.
The epidemic passed but the habit of taking children to the shrine of Santa Lucia on 13 December every year continued well into the nineteenth century, initially in the church of Saint Lucia Intra in Porta Palio (destroyed during the Napoleonic period) and then to the church of St. Agnes (demolished in 1837 to make way for the current town hall).
The influx of so many children and parents in the largest square of Verona drew sellers of sweets and toys. What emerged was the "Fair of Santa Lucia," which the families of Verona enjoy to this day.
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