Italian wines are booming.
In 2021, Italy exported a record 7.1 billion euros (7.8 billion U.S. dollars) worth of wines. In Hong Kong, one doesn’t need to look further to gauge its growth than at the city’s biggest wine retailer, Watson’s Wine.
Founded in 1998, Watson’s Wine, backed by Hong Kong’s prominent conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings directly sources wines from more than 20 countries and offers over 12,000 different wines, in which over 1,400 are exclusive offerings.
In 2021, Italy exported HKD 280.8 million (US$35.9 million) worth of wines to Hong Kong, a year-on-year growth of 34.5%. At Watson’s Wine, with over 20 physical stores and online platform, Italy has grown to be the most important wine country after France and Australia.
To the extent that the wholesale portfolio of Italian brands has grown more than 50% over the years, Connie Centanni, Wine Specialist for Italy and Spain at Watson’s Wine, told Vino Joy News.
Tracking Hong Kong connoisseurs’ appetite for years, Italian native Centanni played a key role in growing Watson’s Italian portfolio. Since joining the company in 2016, she has expanded its Italian profile. The merchant now has over 100 Italian wine brands, of which over 30 are exclusive brands for wholesale, she says.
“Italian wines have increased in range in our portfolio …and our proportion of sales has also increased significantly over the last few years, 10% in terms of sales. Italian wines are now the 3rd largest country in Watson’s Wine, after France and Australia,” Centanni highlighted.
One of the major reasons driving the growth of Italian wine is the open-minded and adventurous attitude of wine oenophiles towards unfamiliar wine regions or grape varieties, which boosted the demand for lesser-known Italian wines and wines from Italy overall, according to Centanni.
She said Hong Kong drinkers have shown a greater interest in Italian wines in recent years, not from famous regions such as Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto, but also from the lesser-known regions, such as Sarfinia and Sicily, especially Etna.
As such, when Watson’s Wine started including new wineries from southern Italy starting from 2016, it received “a positive response” and appreciation from the customers, she added.
Etna is some of the oldest DOC in Sicily established in 1968 quickly after Barolo, but it was not well-known internationally until 2000, when an influx of producers coming from other regions, such as Belgian Frank Cornelissen, saw its wine-making potential.
Marco de Grazia, American-born wine importer and major promoter of Italian wines, once named Etna as “the Burgundy of the Mediterranean”. One of the major characteristics of Etna terroir is the volcanic soil type with rich minerals such as magnesium, copper, phosphorus and iron. The dominant grape variety in the region is Nerello Mascalese.
“In fact, this year we have added another winery from Etna in addition to Frank Cornelissen that we will present in the second half of the year,” Centanni said, without stating the name of the new winery.
Driven by the growing demand towards the wines from lower profile regions, Centanni worked with the team of Watson’s Wine to expand the Italian wine portfolio by adding native vines of the Mediterranean islands, such as Sardinia and Sicily, as well as the main regions of Southern Italy such as Basilicata, Campania and Abruzzo. The latest region added this year was Apulia.
Different from northern Italy which quickly embraced international varietals and formed lucrative markets, southern regions are loyally dedicated to indigenous grapes. For example, Mastroberardino, an eleventh generation family-owned winery in Campania, still produces wine with several almost extinct varieties like greco, fiano and aglianico.
The extensive Italian wine portfolio fostered by Hong Kongers’ demand led Watson’s Wine to earn the title of “Italian Wines Hall of Fame Importer” in Hong Kong and Macau’s wine industry from Vinitaly International in 2018.
Apart from actively expanding the Italian wine portfolio, Watson’s Wine implemented online marketing strategies to promote Italian wines, especially during the pandemic where wine fairs or promotional events were disrupted.
“The pandemic has changed the way of approaching customers and we have immediately activated online promotion by involving our customers with the Online Master Class or Online Happy Hour with Watson’s Team and above all with the live presence of the producers through the zoom platform; we had a good response and it was much appreciated,” Centanni said.
The close tie between the Hong Kong government is also one of the major reasons behind Italian wine’s popularity in Hong Kong, she explains.
“As we know Hong Kong has become the only free port, among the major economies in the world, thus developing into an international market of primary importance in the wine sector and consequently this has also been a great help for the importation of Italian wine,” Centanni said.
After the removal of wine import tax to Hong Kong in 2008, the Hong Kong government has signed cooperation agreements with various famous wine regions including Italy. Large consumer and trade events in the city including wine critic James Suckling’s Great Wines of Italy and Vino Condiviso also raised Italy’s profile among the city’s vast wine drinkers.