Only a few weeks and a few hundreds of kilometres separate ProWein and Vinitaly, and these two European wine trade fairs are superficially similar. Both are vast and sprawling, laid out across a number of huge exhibition halls. But there, the similarities end. It’s not just the obvious fact that the Düsseldorf event is totally international while the one in Verona barely glances at wines produced outside Italy. It’s the ambience.
ProWein is, as many exhibitors and visitors have noticed, a German machine, and not just in the way that it is run by the exhibition organisers. The efficiency seems to infect everybody involved: potential buyers turn up on time and taste, talk and bid their farewells to a schedule that might have been drawn up by the Deutsche Bahn railway system. Vinitaly is, well, more Italian. There is ham and cheese to be eaten, football and politics to be discussed. Discussions are punctuated by the chance arrival of people who might be big customers – or neighbours from the same village.
Suits – beautiful suits – adorn the men while female visitors totter by on unfeasibly high stiletto heels, but on the Sunday - the first day - there are also T-shirts and tattoos worn by thousands of people whose relationship with wine seems less than professional.
To gain access to ProWein, it sometimes seems as though you have to provide your father’s birth certificate as well as your wine tasting proficiency award; in Verona, four €20.00 notes will get you in.
But above all of this, there is the bella figura, the effort the exhibitors have all put into the impression their stands will make on passersby. Some of the stands look as though architects such as Frank Gehry or Richard Rogers have designed them, with little budgetary constraint. Others have been put together on a shoestring – a sophisticated and imaginative shoestring that involves the use of simple elements such as the staves and hoops from old barrels. Not to have made an effort on the look of your Vinitaly stand would be like simply throwing on some clothes at random before leaving your home. Un-Italian.
Behind all the bella figura, of course, life is not quite as successful as it appears. The glamourous Prosecco stand seems to come from a different universe to the bottles of the sparkling wine bearing that denomination on sale in German supermarkets for less than €2.75. Alongside the enthusiastic US and Chinese buyers sniffing and sipping the Brunellos and Barolos, there are plenty of visitors from both countries looking for bargain basement bulk wine to sell under their own labels. A New York Times story written by Gaia Pianigiani and published during Vinitaly described the ‘slavery’ under which tens of thousands of poorly-paid women pick and sort grapes for as little as €27.00 ($29.00) per day. “By some measures” Pianigiani wrote,“Italy is the second-worst state in the European Union for the enslavement of people, behind Poland.”
These issues are not discussed at Vinitaly, but beneath the surface, there’s an awareness that this ancient country’s place on the global stage has to be fought for. At a sumptuous gala dinner hosted by Marilisa Allegrini, Oscar Farinetti, creator of the successful Eataly retail/restaurant concept described how recently Italy has found its way onto the wine lists of the world. When I mentioned his family’s 700 years of vinous history to Leopardo Frescobaldi at the same event, he gently corrected me. “What you see today, is the work of two generations.”
And that work is still going on. While the French tend to focus on ‘educating’ the world to understand its classic styles, Italy is buzzing with invention and innovation. I honestly did not go looking for novelties, but across three days of wandering the fair, I came across an extraordinary range of them. Producers like Zymé, a Veneto winery making 10,000 bottles of a delicious, critically highly-rated red using a blend of Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Teroldego, Croatina, Oseleta, Sangiovese, Marzemino co-fermented with four white grapes: Garganega, Trebbiano, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. And Etiké, which has a patented system of combining ceramic and paper labels. And Massimago where CEOs pay to spend days pruning and picking Corvina grapes that will become the only sparkling rosé to be produced from that variety. And the Soave Consorzio where visitors were invited to taste wines while wearing Augmented Reality glasses that took them on a 360 degree visit of the vineyards. And Cantina della Volta’s methode champenoise blanc de noirs Lambrusco. And Endrizzi’s joint venture with a local luxury leather goods business that uses its grape marc to tan its hides. I could very easily go on.
Every year, ProWein and Vinitaly are both firmly fixed in my diary. I wouldn’t miss either of them, but it’s the Italian fair that leaves my brain fizzing.