If you are after a postcard-like view of Italy, you are probably thinking of Tuscany. Rolling green hills with emerald green cypresses, rolls of haystacks spread across the golden wheat fields, hilltop towns and charming medieval churches… And most importantly, the wine.
Tuscany is one of Italy’s best grape producing regions, home of Chianti and Brunello di Montelciano. Its vineyards attract thousands of tourists every year — Duchess of Sussex even named her now-defunct lifestyle blog after a wine produced in the region, the iconic Antinori Tignanello.
But when Covid-19 came to Europe, it was Italy that was hit first — and hit hard. The country was one of the first to go into a tough nationwide lockdown. As the borders closed, the wine merchants were left in a crisis they never experienced before.
Italy makes nearly a fifth of all wine globally, selling more than half of it at home. When bars and restaurants shut down for almost three months, Italy’s winemakers braced themselves for a difficult year ahead. Although life is slowly getting back to normal, and there are tourists sipping on Apéros at Piazza Santo Trinito again, industry experts are worried about the future.
Donatella Cinelli Colombini is the owner of a pioneering Il Casato Prime Donne winery that employs only women (winemaking has traditionally been a male-dominated business). The land in Tuscany has been in the family for generations — since the 16th century; Cinelli Colombini inherited it in the late 1990s. The vineyards are a short drive south of Siena, nestled in the Tuscan countryside near a picturesque village of Montalcino. This spring, the vineyards stayed eerily quiet. “[Even now] there are a lot less visitors,” admits Cinelli Colombini, “especially in the Montalcino winery where we have mostly foreign visitors and many Americans.” Travellers from the US were not allowed into Europe for the entirety of the summer, and nobody knows when the borders may open again. “This year we have had practically only Italian visitors, and have sold about half the wine we sold this year.”
Luckily, nobody on the estate has caught the virus, but according to Cinelli Colombini, the business has suffered. “We do not sell to wholesalers and supermarkets; our wines are sold only in restaurants and wine stores. We have been hit hard by both the pandemic and the lockdown.” She foresees a sales drop of up to 25 percent by the end of the year. On the bright side, there was a sustained demand for the wine abroad.
But these vineyards are more than just hectares of vines — many wineries also run restaurants and hotels on their property. Delfina Matta, who helps run her family winery at Castello Vicchiomaggio, points to the hospitality sector. Castello Vicchiomaggio, a medieval castle dating back to the 1400s, had many famous visitors, including Leonardo da Vinci when he was painting the Mona Lisa.
The castle offers guest accommodation in 16 rooms, as well as a restaurant, and is a popular wedding destination. “Our tourist-related business activities have obviously suffered considerably,” admits Matta. Cinelli Colombini agrees, “Our country inn and the restaurant will have about a third of the revenue this year compared to last.”
Although winemakers are bracing themselves for a tough year, not all news is bad. Trading in Italian fine wine has risen by 70 percent in value on Liv-ex, the global marketplace for the wine trade, in the first seven months of the year. Cinelli Colombini confirms that there has been an influx of members to the Brunello and Riserva wine clubs, with members paying up to €600 for a monthly shipment of exclusive, low-quantity premium wine.
The industry will definitely be shaken up; but there is hope in what the future holds.