by Alessandra Cardone
ROME, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- Italy's grape harvest is registering a 15-percent increase in volume in 2018 compared to the previous year, which would make the country the world's largest wine producer, according to official estimates unveiled on Tuesday.
"A good harvest will allow the national wine sector to recover after a difficult year (2017)," the Institute of Services for Agricultural and Food Markets (ISMEA) and association Unione Italiana Vini (UIV) said during a conference at the agriculture ministry.
The annual production was estimated in 49 million hectoliters against 42.5 million in 2017.
Such volume would bring Italy "close again to the average (production levels) registered before 2017, which was the poorest year of the decade," the two bodies stressed.
ISMEA also said France -- Italy's major direct competitor -- was expected to reach 46.1 million hectoliters, according to forecasts by the French agriculture ministry's statistical service Agreste.
In 2017, France produced 36 million hectoliters, and Spain 35.5 million hectoliters, ISMEA also stated in a previous report in August.
The three countries are the largest producers within the European Union (EU), which reached an overall production of 143.8 million hectoliters last year, data from the EU Commission showed.
Another good sign for this year's national production came from Italian Coldiretti farmers' association, which said that wine exports were expected to grow by at least 4.0 percent compared to last year, based on National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) data for the first five months of 2018.
Sales of Italian wines abroad were worth some six billion euros (6.9 billion U.S. dollars) last year, representing the largest export of Italy's agrifood industry.
"The current picture of the harvest suggests a positive trend, which bodes well for the whole sector," agriculture minister Gian Marco Centinaio said at the conference.
"In order to fully exploit the market's potential, and make our companies increasingly competitive on international markets, however, we need to further boost the sector with research and innovation investments, and focus on simplification," he added.
Voices from the field -- where the harvest is ongoing -- seem to confirm the positive picture provided by the official estimates. Yet wine producers said it was still too early for a final judgment.
"The harvest yields seem to be very high indeed... yet we are into the second day of grape picking, too early to make a forecast, and especially for red wines," Giovanni Correggia told Xinhua.
The 26-year-old wine maker runs a winery with his family in Canale d'Alba, a small town in northwest Piedmont region that is renowned for the quality of its wines. The vineyard has 20 hectares and produces an annual average of some 150,000 bottles.
Despite his caution, Correggia said "the outlook appears more than positive."
"We have had a very hot summer, preceded by a really rainy spring, and still in the last two weeks it rained. As such, our vines have not been thirsty."
In its report in August, ISMEA sounded an alarm related to a possible climate impact on grapes. The growth of vineyards started auspiciously across the country, it said, but "it was affected through the year by bizarre weather in which frost, rain, and humidity alternated."
"Frequent rainfalls and particularly humid weather provide fertile ground for the development of vine diseases," the institute warned.
This means that, while a good production in volume was ensured this year, in terms of quality "the winemaker's ability (and care of grapes) will make the difference on the final result."
On the opposite end of the Italian boot, Sicily, the Planeta winery is also through its first phase of the harvest. The winery has vineyards scattered over 360 hectares around the island, producing some 2.3 million bottles per year.
"We are at around 30 percent of the pick, and even less for some of our grapes. It is definitely too early to say what kind of harvest it would be," Planeta's oenologist Patricia Toth told Xinhua.
Sicily has performed increasingly well in the last decade, positioning itself among Italy's top regions in terms of production.
It ranked fourth in terms of volume with 4.1 million hectoliters last year, behind northeast Veneto (9.67 million), southeast Apulia (8.13 million), and central Emilia Romagna (6.62 million), according to ISMEA.
A further estimate on 2018 export trends in major markets is not yet possible, although Coldiretti expects a growth in the United States -- which would remain Italy's market of reference -- Germany and even France.
Italy's wine industry involves 310,000 companies and some 46,000 wine producers. Considering all the satellites activities -- such as the growing wine tourism -- the sector provides 1.3 million jobs.
The sector posted a 10.6-billion-euro turnover in 2017, with a 5-percent increase against the previous year. Exports made up a large part of this wealth.