A local neighbourhood is not the same without a good, friendly Italian restaurant with a long list of classic, well priced wines to choose from, but how popular are Italian wines across the premium on-trade as a whole? To find out The Buyer teamed up with traditional Italian producer, Banfi, to host a debate between leading UK on-trade buyers and sommeliers to assess their views on which styles of Italian wine are making it on to their lists, what they would like to see more of and also the chance to taste though a range of Banfi red and white wines to showcase what different regions can now offer UK restaurants and their customers. In part one of our debate we concentrate on Italian whites and opportunities for the country’s indigenous varieties. In part two, later in the week, we shine the light on Brunello and Super Tuscans.
To help analyse the latest trends in Italian premium wine The Buyer would like to thank its panel of leading buyers including: Melody Wong, head sommelier at Carlton Tower Jumeirah; Diana Rollan, group head of beverages at at D&D London; Matt Paice, operations manager Enoteca da Luca; Donald Edwards, head sommelier at La Trompette, Chiswick; Nacho Camopos, wine manager at Hawskmoor Guildhall; and representing Banfi, was its regional manager for Europe, Jgor Marini.
(You can watch the full recording of the The Buyer/ Banfi UK wine buyers’ debate here)
Any upstanding Italian would not countenance the idea of sitting down to dinner without a glass or two of Italian wine. It’s just part of the culture. “We’ve opened the wine, now we can eat,” is very much a way of life for Italians all over the world.
They are not alone. Many west European cultures, in particular, revolve around the rituals of food and wine. The challenge that Italy has is to make sure it is their wines that are the centerpiece of more food occasions, whether people are eating Italian food or not.
The UK certainly does not have as strong a food and wine culture as the Italians, but there is arguably more choice and competition for wine than anywhere else in the world. But how does Italy make itself heard amongst all the noise and get more of its wines listed and sold on a wider range of restaurant wine lists?
It’s a challenge our panel of UK buyers was happy to answer in a wide ranging debate that analysed what Italy is most famous for, but also looked at areas where the UK wine trade has yet to really discover what is available from Italy.
Diana Rollan of the D&D London restaurant group says Italy clearly fits well in its Italian outlets, including the premium Sartoria restaurant in Savile Row, but she is also looking to see which styles of Italian wine can also work in other themed restaurants too. “Italian wines are a key part of our range, and popular with our consumers in general,” she says.
Matt Paice at Enoteca da Luca, which operates three sites in the City of London in Guildhall, St Pauls and Devonshire Square near Liverpool Street, operates, as the name would suggest, a “wine bar that serves food” concept where Italian wines make up 95% of the list, of which two thirds are red and one third white. He says it has the most success with wines from Tuscany and the southern regions and is looking to bring more wines from Piedmonte and Lombardy.
Piedmonte is also a big feature of the large Italian range on La Trompette’s wine list, which is largely down to the “passion” that owner Nigel Platts-Martin has for the area, says Donald Edwards. Many of the wines that end up on the list come from his private cellar of ageing wines waiting to reach their optimum drinking age. He says Italy is second only to France as being the most important part of its wine list with up to 50 wines.
Melody Wong says Italy makes up a large proportion of the wines that have been selected for the recently relaunched Carlton Tower Jumeirah site in Knightsbridge in London and particularly its Al Mare Italian restaurant. Her focus with Italy is to work with a combination of producers that represent some of other smaller and less well known regions of the country, whilst also having big names from the more classic regions on the list.
(Click here for Jgor Marini on Banfi’s winemaking principles, working with Louis Latour and its key export strategy)
The buyers’ views were of particular interest to Jgor Marini of premium Italian producer Banfi, who has been working for the last three years with Louis Latour Agencies to plot its way into the fine dining scene in the UK. Banfi has made its name and reputation as being one of the first producers to make its home in Brunello, but it also making wine in other classic regions of Tuscany and more recently Piedmonte. Banfi may now be selling its wines in over 90 countries around the world, but it is always learning, and is still relatively new to the UK market, he says.
Lucy Stewart, prestige London account manager for Louis Latour Agencies, says choosing to work with Banfi was a big strategic move for the business as it was its first major Italian agency. She says it is learning all the time about the styles of wine that work best in the right outlet and that premium hotels, in particular, are a key target area for Banfi and its portfolio.
Both Stewart and Marini agreed it is not always easy just having one Italian producer as part of an importer’s portfolio, but the winemaking principles and styles of wine that Banfi produces are so in line with the approach that Louis Latour takes that it makes perfect sense to work together.
They also both share a drive to follow more sustainable winemaking practices, says Marini. Sustainability has been part of the company’s core principles since John and Harry Mariani first came from the United States to Montalcino in 1978 to set up a wine business. That drive for sustainability can also be seen in its pricing, says Marini, where the emphasis is on making “affordable wines of the highest quality possible”. It means, he says, its entry level through to its most premium wines all “are the best we can do in our property by following the rules of the environment and sustainable practices”.
Banfi, says Marini, sees the UK as one of its “most crucial” markets around the world, particularly for its premium wines and the fact you are competing with every other quality producer in the world.
Classic Italian whites
The panel also had a chance to assess classic Italian white wines – lead by Vermentino and Banfi’s own style from the southern coastline of Tuscany, packed with maritime influences.
Marini says Vermentino “is like a sailor” and arguably performs best when it is close to the sea and in Italy the best expressions come from Tuscany’s coast, Sardinia or Liguria. He says Banfi has only been working with Vermentino wines for the last five years and is still on its own journey to see what styles work best. But it very much fits the new fashion of drinking and demand from consumers for fresher, vibrant white Italian wines.
“We are searching for native grape varieties that are easy drinking, aromatic and very easy going,” he adds and Vermentino with its its “fruity, floral and fat” mouthfeel fits the bill. It also has good ageing potential and for restaurants can offer a different style of wine as it matures.
The Banfi approach is not to use any oak in order to put all the emphasis on the acidity and freshness in the glass, a wine that can sit neatly up against a Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino. “It’s actually easier to drink than explain,” he adds.
It’s an approach that went down well with the panel. Edwards found it “very, very drinkable” and is a “style of wine that works well” sitting at around £50 on a list. “People like it. It has a little bit of name recognition and people will order Vermentino without being prompted, which is always a nice thing. This shows that lemon, saline and lemon barley note that is very Vermentino-esque. A very nice example.”
(Click below for Enoteca da Luca’s Matt Paice and D&D’s Diana Rollan on Vermentino & Italian white wines)
Matt Paice says though he personally found the wine interesting, and enjoyed the “richness and ripeness on the finish” it may not work for his customers that are looking for “bracing citric acidity with their Italian white wines”. To such an extent they are even “very scared of any kind of fatness, ripeness or sweetness” in a wine.
Rollan says Italian white wines are “gaining in popularity” at D&D London particularly amongst younger drinkers who are on the lookout for indigenous grape varieties. What she likes about Vermentino, in particular, is it offers D&D “something different and unique” and agreed with Marini that the profile of the variety means it sits neatly alongside far more popular white wine styles like Sauvignon Blanc. Crucially they are also wines that can be of very offer high quality wines at very good value prices and is very good food pairing too.
“This particular wine has got plenty to say. It’s bursting with flavours, there is a lot of ripe peach, pink grapefruit, and a touch of bitter almond at the end. But it also a full body character that adds to the texture to the wine,” she adds. “I think it could fit really well on a wine list.
Melody Wong sees Vermentino as a grape variety that is well known to the trade, but still needs to be hand sold and introduced to customers as a reminder to a wine they may have when they were travelling or on holiday. But Vermentino from Tuscany would definitely be seen as being unusual and not where you would expect to find such a wine.
“With our list we are looking for wines that can really show and represent the region, or something unique that can be the ‘talk of the town’”.
Campos says Hawksmoor is currently doing well with a Vermentino from Sardinia and it is a wine they can sell unprompted. “People do recognise the name.”
He was particularly taken by the maritime influence on the Banfi Vermentino and the “lovely waxy texture on the palate and bitter almond on the finish” makes it a very food friendly wine. As this sits at a higher price point he would recommend selling it by the glass, particularly in a red wine heavy venue such as Hawksmoor. “I like the style and how versatile it can be with food.”
Pricing issue for Italian whites
The big issue for Italian white wines is how up the pricing ladder you can go with them. Matt Paice says he struggles at Enoteca da Luca, and its more wine bar setting, to sell Italian whites above £45 a bottle and there is just not the same level of big names that there are with red wines to push much higher than that. “It’s a constant challenge for us,” he says.
Rollan says D&D is better placed in that it has a wider range of Italian restaurants from trattoria style up to fine dining which allows for a wider selection of Italian whites. She is, though, seeing more demand for premium Italian white (and red) wines since coming out of lockdown. “People are wanting to treat themselves. The increase in premium wines has been tremendous.”
Edwards says he is lucky at La Trompette as his guests are looking to come for a special meal and are more likely to trade up on wines such as a Piemonte Chardonnay or Lugana by the glass rather than order a standard Pinot Grigio. “It’s a category that I think has got better and I don’t remember finding as many delicious wines coming from other than the north, which has always been a strong area for premium whites. There is more interesting things coming from Tuscany than I would have expected to see 10 to 15 years ago. It is an important category and one that works.”
Campos says premium Italian whites are not a big part of Hawksmoor’s range, but he does like to pick out some, say from Alto Adige, or Piemonte. “I like to have just bits and pieces that add some spice to the offer,” he says.
(D&D’s Diana Rollan on the advantages of working with Italy’s indigenous varieties on wine lists)
The reason Italy can be the gift that keeps on giving for wine buyers, sommeliers and wine merchants is the enormous variety and diversity it has from its indigenous varieties with each region offering another collection to discover.
Like Albarossa, which was born from crossing two classic varieties in Piemonte – Chatus and Barbera – and has become a grape variety that Banfi was keen to help bring back and shine the light on, says Marini, with some plantings in the south east area of the region. The results, he adds, since its first vintage in 2006, have been “amazing” and been very well received by the market.
The Albarossa it produces – La Lus – has a lovely rich colour, “some tannic texture, with lots of fruit and spice on the nose and mouth” and has shown over the vintages it has done that it has great ageing potential too, says Marini. It also offers something new and different from a big classic appellations such as Piemonte for buyers and consumers alike, he adds.
Donald Edwards says he does well with “slightly unusual grape varieties in well known wine regions” and “they can be quite an easy sell, particularly if they sit at more appealing price points”. So for Piemonte rather than having to pay around £70 for Langhe Nebbiolo and £100 plus for Barbaresco or and you can offer a less well known alternative at around £50 means they work well. Albarossa, he says, certainly has an interesting back story and it has lot to say for itself which “bears investigating”.
Nacho Campos says he is very familiar with the wine having tasted it on a previous trip to Banfi and it has been a success on the Hawksmoor list in the past as it works very well with a number of its dishes. “It was on Air Street’s list for a number of years. I think it is fantastic. I love its juiciness and it offers a lot of punch for the money. It definitely works as an entry level Italian wine.”
Rollan sees Albarossa as being a “perfect example” of what Italy can offer a wine lover with all the new styles and different varieties to discover. She says D&D is looking to open a new restaurant that has an Alpine theme and is currently looking for wines from indigenous varieties from nearby high altitude wine regions like this.
It also offers, as Edwards says, something different from Piemonte at a more affordable price but with all the “depth and complexity” that they are looking for from that region. “I think the wine has that sweet balsamic, black cherry character and it also has plenty of dry freshness which will make it very enjoyable with food and easy to drink. Grape varieties like this are essential to increase engagement with customers who are looking for something new and different,” she adds.
It’s important to keep the right balance, she says, between classic, well known wines and ones that stretch the customers a bit more and allow them to go and experiment and try new styles. “So if they want to try something new and unique there is an opportunity for them to.”
Matt Paice says he loves how the “wine just leaps out of the glass at you”. It is, though, a hard wine to place as it has the “smokiness and acidity of Barbera” and then the “ripe fruit” that he would associate more with Puglia, so would need a lot of hand selling to customers.
Melody Wong says she is a big supporter of indigenous grape varieties but with Albarossa, in particular, would have to factor in the other more well known wines and styles from Piemonte.