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 wine, Vinitaly is the place to do it.
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 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. Forty-five per cent of all spirits exported from the UK are shipped to the EU. 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.
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 argued 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".
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.
Giovanni Mantovani, CEO & Director General of Veronafiere, the sprawling conference complex where Vinitaly is hosted, commented: "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.
Anteprima Amarone is a 3-day wine festival held annually in Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona's famous Piazza Bra. The event provides an opportunity to enjoy a sneak preview of the region's latest vintage before it hits the market, as well as a selection of earlier Amarone vintages.
Organised and promoted by the Consorzio per la Tutela dei vini Valpolicella, over 70 cantinas are present. For the very reasonable entry price of €30, you can sample as many wines as you like. The entrance fee also includes a tasty selection of local sweet and savoury snacks.
Equipped with a glass, a map of the famous wine growing region and a steely resolve, I bravely enter the fray.
The territory - Valpolicella
Valpolicella (the latin translation is said to be "valleys with many cellars") is a semi-rural area to the north of Verona. The region extends from the shores of Lake Garda in the west to the Lessini Mountains in the north, beyond which lie the Eastern Alps. The area is heavily cultivated, with most farm land dedicated to wine production. A fan-shaped landscape, with a series of valleys that emanate from the city itself, they open outwards as they extend north.
These gentle hills, the fertile soil and a particular microclimate, provide the perfect conditions for wine production. Many of the vineyards in Valpolicella are small family run affairs, for whom sustainable and environmentally-friendly production techniques are a long-standing way-of-life, rather than simply just a modern marketing fad.
The wine - Amarone della Valpolicella
Amarone is widely regarded as one of the best and most important Italian red wines. Although production has expanded significantly since the mid-1990s, limits on overall production capacity mean that ordering a bottle of Amarone should never become a routine matter of course.
Amarone originated from the ancient Recioto, (a sweet velvety wine) and was originally known as "Acinatico", in recognition of its dry, bitter taste. Amarone itself was first bottled in the early 20th century for family use or for sharing with friends; it was only put on the market the years after the second world war. In 1968 it received the controlled designation of origin (DOC). Some of the cantinas that produce Amarone have been making wine in Valpolicella for centuries, others, are relative newcomers, having been established in the last 20 years.
Amarone production requires the very best quality grapes and attentive, hands on, care. Depending on local climatic conditions, the grapes are generally harvested towards the end of September or the beginning of October. Once harvested, they are carefully laid out in wooden or plastic crates or on bamboo fruit drying racks. In order to allow the air to freely circulate and to avoid crushing, the fruit is laid in a single layer. The racks are then moved to the grape-drying building known as the fruttaio. In order to survive this delicate drying phase, the grapes must be perfectly healthy and ripe.
The grapes remain here for three-four months until they lose at least half of their weight and reach a concentration of sugars equal to 25-30%. They are kept under constant control and the bunches are turned regularly to avoid rot or mould forming.
When the drying process is over, the grapes are crushed. The crushing generally occurs in January and February, when the temperatures are low.
Maturation takes places in wooden barrels ranging from big Slavonian oak casks to small French barriques. Remarkably, some of these casks have now found there way to the Scottish Island of Arran, where they are used to mature a unique malt whisky. You can read about that here.
After maturation the wine is finally bottled. About 6 out of every 10 bottles of Amarone are exported. The USA and Canada are the biggest export markets. Switzerland, Sweden and Germany are also popular export destinations.
The 2013 vintage
Although it seems to have been a tough year for the local winemakers, the 2013 vintage is considered to be of medium to high quality, offering wines of high color intensity, rich nose and taste, with significant alcohol that blends harmoniously with the acidity and body. Generalisations are difficult, however, and I was genuinely surprised at how different each Amarone tasted. From robust and full bodied, to light and watery. Some were extraordinarily fruity while others were spicy, caramel flavoured and even medicinal.
With over 70 wines to choose from, you could quite happily spent the entire day at the fair. I limited myself to sampling around a dozen. There can't be many better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon!