WinItaly? Simone Incontro on a ‘comeback’ for Italian wine in China

By Jim Boyce | Italy has struggled to gain wine market share in China for the past decade and Shanghai-based Simone Incontro of Veronafiere is among those trying to turn things around. He just wrapped up a three-city Italian Wine Roadshow and I asked him about the state of Italian wine in China, other recent promotion activities, and what grape varieties he recommends for newcomers.

Grape Wall: Italian food, luxury brands, football and history are well-known in China yet Italian wine has struggled. What’s happening?

Simone Incontro: In China, Italy is fashion, Italy is design, but Italy was not wine. That was one of the biggest issues we had during the last five to ten years. The market was growing but we were struggling.

In 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, Italy was like “the comeback kid” of wine in China. We re-discovered who we are as Vinitaly thanks to the combined job of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and pioneering Italian winemakers, enthusiastic importers of Italian wines and tireless brand ambassadors and Asia export managers.

Everyone has stepped back in order to move forward together. And the overall image of Italian wine in China has become more positive. Italy is a wonderful winemaking country with winemakers who are passionate about crafting premium quality wine.

So how are you moving forward?

Our mission started last year with the ITA in Shanghai and Beijing and has never stopped, including projects such as Fluorisalone in Shanghai, the Love Italian Wine Event in Beijing, Design Shanghai and Vinitaly Chengdu.

Vinitaly Verona saw a 34 percent increase in trade professionals from China this year compared to the previous year. Our Chinese-language website has 160 percent more visitors compared to a year ago.

We also just completed our first Vinitaly China Roadshow, with stops in Shenzhen, Changsha and Wuhan, part of the wonderful comeback for fine Italian wine. The three cities identified in our roadshow—as our CEO Giovanni Mantovani says—are strategic hubs for spreading culture, history and lifestyle linked to Italian wine, with a view to developing consumption.

You became manager of Veronafiere last year. What else have you been working on?

We opened our office in Shanghai last September. Vinitaly is a brand of Veronafiere, which has 120 years of history. Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, probably hosts one of the best wine fairs in the world.

We followed together with Vinitaly International the first two sessions of Vinitaly International Academy in Beijing and Shanghai as well as the off-site events at the Shangri-la Hotel during the Chengdu wine fair. One week before that, as Veronafiere / Vinitaly, we were partners in one the best design events in Asia: Design Shanghai.

For Design Shanghai, we worked with Medinit and innovative companies like Consorzio Italia del Vino, with 18 wineries from Italy with one billion euros in revenue, as well as Vinehoo, Pizza Marzano, Birra Baladin, Pellini Caffe and food partners of the consortia of Grana Padano and Prosciutto di Parma. The result was a Vinitaly Lounge and an Italian-designed home. The combination of wine and design was really successful. Italy as its best.

We, as Vinitaly, are also studying the most important wine associations in China. I admire the magnificent job Julio Alsonso is doing with Wines of Chile, the way Wine Australia positions itself and how it communicates thanks to the charming leader Willa Yang and the experience of David Lucas, and I am admire what Jeuce has achieved with Wines of Germany.

Now we are working closely with partners Shenzhen Pacco Cultural Communication. We have cooperated with them since 2012, including on the Chengdu wine fair and on their G100 Roadshow.

Three players with three different roles decided to work together in the name of Italian wine. The Italian Trade Agency supported us and scheduled their certification courses in the three cities we chose with Pacco for the roadshow. We chose the cities according to our Chinese-language website date, our Weibo and WeChat official accounts, our previous experiences with Pacco, and data from different Chinese wine market reports.

Most people see China not as a single market but as many diverse ones. In terms of Italian wine, what differentiates, say, Shanghai from Beijing from Foshan?

China is a continent. Just think about its different cultures, cuisines and drinking habits. I am very glad to see that many key importers of Italian wine, when I enter their offices, they show me with a certain pride the map of China and where they sell wine.

More and more Italian wine producers, brand ambassadors, export managers and their importers are starting to go to cities that almost nobody outside of China knows. They go there, they sit down and have dinners with distributors, they pair local food with Lambrusco, Moscato, San Giovese, Primitivo and so on, with all of these Italian wines on the table.

Some sit down for hours drinking tea together with potential customers. They go to different clubs, KTVs and bars. Online and e-commerce is a big mantra, and sometimes an obsession, but right now, Italian wine has been sold off-line.

We have big respect as Veronafiere / Vinitaly for all these Italian wine ambassadors. The best help we can provide is wine education and a wonderful fair and a platform that can help connect the different players in the market. To be strong in Verona and to invite importers and distributors to our main fair in Italy.

We also have a online directory which is a big game changer in digital marketing. Soon we will make it completely accessible in China and, with all of the info in Chinese, it will become a very important tool for importers and producers.

Say I’m a Chinese consumer, new to wine, and interested in trying some Italian ones. What grape varieties would you recommend for a beginner?

If I say Primitivo, the wine makers of Piedmont are going to kill me. If I say Amarone, the winemakers from Sicily will do the same. So what I may say then?

I will just try this exercise with you. If you are a wine beginner, go ahead with Moscato d’Asti, Brachetto, Malvasia Dolce, Prosecco and Lambrusco. If you are somebody who occasionally drinks Italian wine, go ahead with Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, Apulia and Sicily. And you want to do something different, try wines from Marche, Alto Adige, Abruzzo and Sardinia, and some innovative natural wines from Friuli Venezia Giulia.

The Italian white wines may also really surprise you and be a wonderful match with many local cuisines from the south of China. If you like good value and mid-range wines, Italy is in the top three in the world.

Italian Wine Roadshow participants: Apennine Wine (Shenzhen), Apritaly, Argiolas, Banfi, Bieffebio, Boutique Wines Asia, Campania Felix (Cantine Di Tufo Snc, Il IV Miglio Srl), Cantine Bonacchi, Cantine Classiche Consorzio Italiano, Cantine Talamonti, Casa Vinicola Sartori, Chengdu Two Lions Trading, CNIT New Frontiers, COFCO W&W International, Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, Divino (Shanghai) Wine, Ethica Wines, Gruppo Italiano Vini, Gruppo Mezzacorona, Guangzhou BSK, Guangzhou Enote Trading, Guangzhou Magnus Wines, Guangzhou Yi Wei You Chang, Interprocom Cantine Divine, Kang Lai (Shenzhen), Miash (Shanghai) Global Trading, Qingdao Long Vision, Quarto Products (Kunming), San You, Schuler Wine, Shanghai Chuxiao Trade, Shanghai Wine Tree Trading, Shanghai Xing Que, Suzhou Il Milione Trading, Suzhou Qiao Fuer Trade, Tasca d’Almerita, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Terre di Valgrande, Tianjin BRV International, Tianjin Vinitalia, Tommasi Family Estates UITA International, Vitae Italian Wines, Vito Wine, VM Fine Wines, Yishe Fine Wines, Yoosun, Zonin 1821

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