Italy's 'Black Roosters' fight back as virus hit wine sales
Giovanni Manetti, president of the Chianti Classico consortium, says the coronavirus lockdown proved a "blessing in disguise" -- AFP

Two days before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Italy for two months, shattering wine exports and sales, the owner of one of its most historic vineyards headed back into the country a worried man.

Six months later Francesco Ricasoli and his wine-making team are leading the charge by Italy's "Black Roosters" -- the trademark for Chianti Classico -- to put the country's most famous label back on restaurant tables.

"These are probably some of the most turbulent times in Italy," said Ricasoli, 64, the 32nd Baron of Brolio whose family's roots to Tuscany stretches back to 1141.

"We've seen a strong decrease in wine sales -- particularly in restaurants and bars that specialize in the high end of the market," he told AFP at his winery with the same family name.

Hard hit by the virus that has killed more than 35,500 people in Italy, wine sales and consumption have been battered on a level not seen in 30 years, Italy's agricultural trade union Coldiretti said recently.

Exports too have slumped by 4.0 percent as the virus forced the closure of bars and restaurants in Italy -- which makes nearly a fifth of all the world's wine -- and elsewhere, it said.

But "instead of sitting in a heap and crying like some wineries, we saw an opportunity," Ricasoli said overlooking his vineyards, made famous by the landmark Castello di Brolio, a medieval red-bricked castle which has been family property for more than 800 years.

"We became active in other ways," he said.

- Touch of Tuscany -

The Ricasoli winery's strategy saw an early and vigorous online campaign including overhauling its social media presence including posting a series of short and snappy videos about the estate, believed to be one of the oldest winemakers in Italy.

They feature Ricasoli explaining the creation of the "recipe" for Chianti Classico in 1872 by his ancestor and black-and-white film of a youthful Sophia Loren frolicking in the estate's vineyards and helping to harvest grapes like Sangiovese, the main ingredient for the famous wine's blend.

Drones took footage of Tuscany's breathtaking landscape around the castle, situated in the rolling foothills of the Chianti mountains outside Siena.

"Our idea was instead of visitors coming to Brolio, we would take it to them," laughed Ricasoli.

Latest sales figures are not yet on hand, but Ricasoli's technical director Massimiliano Biagi told AFP the estate hoped to see much of its annual production of around two million bottles consumed this year.

As Italy's strict anti-coronavirus measures eased in July and August, so the flow of visitors arriving at Brolio Castle's gates increased -- many of them local tourists.

- 'Blessing in disguise' -

"In many ways, the coronavirus lockdown was a blessing in disguise," said Giovanni Manetti, president of the Chianti Classico consortium and winemaker at the nearby Fontodi estate.

"Our vintners had nowhere to go, so since day one (of the lockdown) they concentrated all their efforts on their vineyards," he told AFP.

"And the vineyards responded. We probably have never seen them look so good as they do this year," he said.

With the annual Italian ritual grape harvest, the "vendemmia" kicking off a week early because of good weather, "we're expecting a great vintage," Manetti said.

Formed in 1924, the Chianti Classico consortium -- not to be confused with Chianti -- is the oldest in Italy and today boasts some 515 members or 97 percent of all the wine's producers within its region.

Originally the historic symbol of the Chianti Military League, a 13th-century military-political institution set up to govern municipalities around Florence, the black rooster today still embodies the fighting spirit and solidarity of wine growers in the area.

Manetti said the consortium have put in place various measures to back local growers including signing deals with banks while also launching a project called "Make Room at the table for a producer."

The project sees some 30 different evenings being held in Florence, Siena and in the Chianti region featuring specific winemakers giving tastings in conjunction with some of the best restaurants in the region -- a concept which the consortium hoped will catch on across the country.

On Wednesday night patrons gathered for the latest meal at the Gallo Nero (Black Rooster) restaurant a short walk from the Siena's scenic Piazza del Campo.

Back at the Ricasoli wine estate, production meanwhile is in full swing to harvest merlot grapes, the first wine to go into Chianti Classico blend which must have at least 80 percent Sangiovese.

"Of course we are worried about Covid-19, which will probably be with us for a while still," Baron Ricasoli said as small tractors chugged past pulling load after load of crates.

"Of more concern in the meantime, is how to stop these boars from eating my grapes," he said, pointing to some damage to his vineyards by the wild animals which freely roam around Tuscany's forests.