News Analysis: Italy's 2020 wine exports down, but better than most due to unlikely markets

ROME, Jan. 21 (Xinhua) -- From a business perspective, last year is one that most in the Italian wine business would be happy to forget. But initial figures show some unlikely strong spots helped prevent the final tally from being even weaker.

Overall, wine exports were down by 4.6 percent last year compared to figures from 2019, according to estimates from Wine Monitor, produced by the consultancy Nomisma.

Final figures for domestic wine sales in 2020 are not yet available, but while partial data shows there was an increase in direct wine sales to individuals, it was not nearly enough to compensate for the lack of tourism and severe limits in operations for restaurants and bars due to coronavirus health rules.

According to research from Wine News, an Italian site that focuses on the industry, sales for the year were down by 10 to 20 percent among high-profile wine producers.

But it could have been worse, according to Nomisma's Wine Monitor and other sources. Unexpected strong points for the year include sales in Eastern Europe, most notably Ukraine, and sales of prosecco, a light and accessible sparkling wine from northeastern Italy.

Wine Monitor noted that while exports for Italian wine were down by 4.6 percent, France -- Italy's chief competitor as the world's largest wine producer by volume -- saw its exports fall by 17.9 percent. Overall, global wine sales contracted by 10.5 percent.

"Italy's wine industry took a blow in 2020, but there is no doubt the sector performed well compared to wine industries in other countries," Denis Pantini, head of the agro-industry section with Nomisma and director of Wine Monitor, told Xinhua.

Pantini said that one of the few bright spots for Italian wine exports came from Ukraine. The country is still a minor buyer of Italian wine products, but Wine Monitor research showed Italian wine exports to Ukraine surged 38 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year. Overall, wine exports to Eastern Europe grew in 2020, despite the global economic slowdown and the logistical issues sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another strong area, prosecco sales, which, according to the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, surpassed the rate milestone of sales of 500 million bottles last year, an increase of 2.8 percent compared to 2019.

According to Silvana Ballotta, chief executive of Business Strategies, a consultancy that focuses in part on Chinese markets, prosecco sales have been a growing part of Italy's wine exports to China, the world's fastest-growing major wine market according to trade publications.

Though neither exports to Ukraine nor the market for prosecco are cornerstones of the Italian wine industry, analysts said their importance in 2020 was significant. Pantini said they helped "limit the damage" during a challenging period.

Still, priorities for the Italian wine industry are likely to remain unchanged going forward, including focusing on convincing consumers in mature markets such as Europe and the United States to migrate toward higher quality products and to gain market share in high-growth markets like China.

"China remains one of the most important growth markets for Italian wine, even though the exports to the country fell in 2020," Ballotta told Xinhua. "Once the pandemic passes, I expect priorities to pick up where they left off."

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