Italy’s Wine Woes
It’s harvest season at the family-run vintner Emidio Pepe in central Italy and workers are wading into the vineyards, hand-picking grapes and pressing them under their boots in giant wooden vats.
The seasonal ritual has brought together generations of rural communities. But the final product, the highly-rated Pecorino white, is now more likely to be enjoyed in New York or Beijing than in the local village of Torano Nuovo, in the Abruzzo region. That’s because wine-drinking in Italy, one of the world’s biggest producers, is hitting record lows, forcing many vintners to seek buyers abroad.
Consumption is at its weakest since Italy was unified as a country in 1861, according to Coldiretti, the main farmers’ association. The most immediate cause has been the economic downturn, which has pinched incomes. But that has just accelerated what has been a decades-long slide in consumption.
Italians are expected to drink 40 liters (10.6 gallons) a head this year, down from 45 liters (11.9 gallons) before the financial crisis began in 2007 and just about a third of the 110 liters (29 gallons) seen in the 1970s, according to Assoenologi, the main enologists’ association.
In the past 25 years, wine "has become a hedonistic product, which is not part of Italians’ basic diet anymore," said Michele Fino, law professor and wine expert from the University of Gastronomic Studies in Pollenzo.
That leaves it more exposed to short-term fluctuations in economic conditions. The two-year recession was like "the flu that arrives when one’s defenses are already low," Fino said.
Italians’ change of attitude is going hand in hand with the increasing popularity of other, more casual alcoholic drinks - above all, beer, particularly among the young. While the average Italian’s consumption of wine is only a third of what it was in the 1970s, beer drinking has doubled.
"We like beer because it’s more refreshing, lively, soft and lighter," said Francesco Rizzo, a 30-year-old hanging out with friends one night in Campo de’ Fiori, one of Rome’s nightlife hotspots where beer is a top choice.
Other traditional wine-producing countries in Europe, such as Spain and France, have also seen a drop in wine consumption. But the shift to other drinks is less dramatic. In Spain, people already drink twice as much beer as they do wine.