Organic wine is becoming increasingly visible on the supermarket shelves these days. Even Italy, a country slower than most to jump on the organic bandwagon, is now embracing this potentially lucrative lifestyle trend. In recent years I've stumbled across a number of organic vineyards and many bars and restaurants here in Verona now showcase a 'vino biologico' on their wine list.
No hangover - the benefits of going bio
Organic wines are made from organically grown grapes. This means that they are cultivated in accordance with certain country-specific rules which exclude the use of artificial chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides. Perhaps because of less intensive production techniques that use fewer synthetic chemicals, organic wine tastes good. So, while vino biologico satisfies the twin consumer impulses of healthy eating and environmental sustainability, it also contains less sulphur dioxide, which might just reduce the risk of a hangover!
As a recent Guardian article pointed out, the rise in the number of environmentally conscious consumers has led to a boom in sales of organic wines, beers and spirits. The growing importance of organic wine is reflected in increased sales (by as much as 20% in countries like Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands). In Germany, almost a quarter of under 30s regularly buy organic produce.
In order to meet this increased demand, the number of vineyards with organic status has also exploded. Between 2004 and 2011, the number of organic vineyards tripled (from 88,000 to 256,000 hectares). And it's not just small independent producers who are going organic. Today, many big wine brands are adapting their production techniques to meet the green demand.
According to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Spain is currently the largest producer of organic wine, with some 80,000 hectares of organic vineyards (Italy is thought to have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 hectares).
In Italy, regions like Sicily, Puglia and Tuscany are leading the way in organic wine production. But domestic demand for organic wine remains underdeveloped and organic wine producers rely heavily on the export market.
In fact, some producers I spoke to at Vinitaly (Verona's annual wine fair) export as much as 75% of their overall output. The primary export destination for these organic products are the lucrative markets of northern Europe - German and Denmark were mentioned time and time again. The UK market, it seems, is not quite so well-developed, although many producers would love to get a foothold on this potentially rewarding marketplace.
But, amongst all the talk of ethical production techniques and saving the planet, there is a darker side to the Italian agricultural economy. According to a recent New York Times article, the 40,000 Italian women, as well as migrant and seasonal labourers, who constitute the agricultural workforce in Italy, are employed in appalling conditions for scant financial reward. So bad, in fact, that they, have been likened to a system of modern day slavery. In one tragic case a couple of years ago, a cruelly exploited grape picker died in the field while sorting grapes. Such practices have no place in an industry that aspires to be 'ethical'.
Vinitaly goes bio
For a number of years now, Vinitaly has recognised the importance of the booming organic sector. In collaboration with the Italian Federation of Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture, it has launched Vinitalybio, an area dedicated to certified organic wine from Italy and beyond.
Organic wine was not limited to this area though, as throughout the fair there were plenty of organic, vegan, ethical and biodynamic wines to choose from.
For my tastes, these brands, with their simple designs and natural themes, were amongst the most attractive on show. Emerging from the inevitable fog of a four-day wine fair, a few spring to mind.
Le Carline (a family-run organic/vegan vinery just outside Venice), Perlage Winery (an organic/vegan prosecco producer with innovative visuals) and Tenuta Bastonaca (a Sicilian vinery that is currently converting to organic status). These are just a few of the many talented and passionate producers I spoke to.
A final mention for Tenuta San Pietro, an organic producer from Piedmont. Informative front of house staff, an engaging sommelier and a delightful wine, including an innovative "talking label". Here the philosophy is that discerning customers like to know exactly what they are consuming so all the technical information goes on the front label rather than hidden away on the back.
And so, after a day spent enjoying so much organic wine, there was only one way for me to get home.
And no, I didn't have a hangover the next morning!
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.
The Veronese are proud of it. For them it's one of the most important events in the world. But, unless you're from Verona or you're in the wine industry, you've probably never heard of it.
So, what is Vinitaly, and why is it so important?
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 attended from 140 countries including 28,000 registered buyers.
In terms of volume, with 2.3 billion litres of wine produced in 2015, Italy is second only to Spain as a global wine producer.
More importantly, wine exports are worth over €5billion to the fragile Italian economy (only France has a higher export value). So wine is crucial to the Italian economy. And if you buy or sell, import or export Italian wine, Vinitaly is the place to do it.
With an ever increasing focus on the lucrative export market, Chinese and American buyers are particularly welcome.
One group who are not encouraged to attend are amateur wine enthusiasts.
For years the event has been criticised by serious wine professionals because of the preponderance of day trippers with dodgy entrance passes who come just to take advantage of the free wine on offer.
In recent years, the organisers have made a number of changes to the event, including re-scheduling it during the working week rather than over the weekend and increasing ticket security, to try and ensure that the focus of the event is on the important business of buying and selling wine, rather than on the less important pastime of simply enjoying good Italian plonk.
With this in mind, the organisers have recently launched Vinitaly in the City, a break out event of music, culture and tastings, aimed at the wine enthusiast. With numerous events taking place in the historic old town, the event is much more accessible than the trade fair itself, which takes place in Verona's sprawling Verona Fiere complex.
Another criticism of Vinitaly has been the transportation issues that arise during the week of the fair. Unlike many international conference centres which have out-of-town locations, Verona Fiere is just a short 2 km walk from the city's main train station and just 3km from the Roman Arena at Piazza Bra. While this makes the event more accessible, it also causes massive traffic problems in the city centre. Many attendees travel by car, so parking and traffic jams are a particular problem.
So that's why I'll be travelling to the Vinitaly by bike this year.
I'll let you know how I get on.