Prosecco – from regional table wine to a global lifestyle

Only a few decades ago, Prosecco was nothing more than a wine from the area to the north of Trieste. It has come a long way, thanks to its uncomplicated character. The sparkling wine is consumed on five continents and has quantitatively outperformed the competition. Prosecco does not even have particularly great brands – but it is a darling of fortune.

If wine producers want to increase their market share or enhance their image, sooner or later the name Prosecco comes to mind. Hardly a product in the industry has notched up such a rapid development as Prosecco. And many strategists rack their brains as to how it accomplished that.

The basic parameters are inconspicuous. Prosecco is cultivated in the wide plain of Veneto south of the Alps. The area extends over two regions and nine provinces from Veneto to Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Cooperatives and large-scale enterprises own vast areas. The cost-efficient cultivation in Northeast Italy and the production in the practical Charmat method are ideal prerequisites for large quantities. As a result, several enterprises have bought into the business from outside. They ride on Prosecco’s wave of popularity and thus tap markets for their other products.

Prosecco landscape in Venetia

Prosecco landscape in Venetia, © Matthias Stelzig

As is the case everywhere, the success also brought not quite so quality-oriented competitors into the scene, who cultivated their “Prosecco” in the Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna regions, among other places. That is why since 2010 the “Consorzio” (consortium) has limited the DOC region in which the grapes must be harvested and wine bottled. In addition, the name of the grape variety was changed from Prosecco to Glera – an old synonym from Friuli. As a result, imaginative neologisms which merely suggested regional origin were passé, not least such products which were only bottled in large German wineries. “Gold-coloured tin cans” also ended up in the rubbish dump. Prosecco is only available in bottles.

Today DOC wines must consist of 85 per cent Glera grapes. The harvest quantity is limited to 18 tonnes per hectare. Spumante and Frizzante exist side by side, whereby sparkling wine predominates in the core zones, and conversely, more semi-sparkling wine is produced in the simpler origins. Curious exception: Wines from the village of Prosecco near Trieste may not be called Prosecco.

“Elixir for a long life“

Wine has been cultivated in the region for more than 2,000 years. But the ancient winegrowers of vinum pucinum probably had a fortunate hand in marketing. Livia Drusilla, wife of Emperor Augustus, was amongst the most colourful figures of her time. Despite divorces and the abrupt political upheavals between the republic and the empire, which almost inevitably ended in banishment or death of women involved in the Roman world of politics, Livia asserted herself on the highest political level. She was regarded as a model of moral integrity amongst the population. When she died at the age of 86, she had risen to become the most powerful woman of her time with an imperial title, was the first woman revered as a goddess (“diva”), and of all things declared the vinum pucinum the forerunner of Prosecco to be her “elixir for a long life”. A modern marketing department could also not have come up with a better story.

The names of other wines usually emerge for the first time in prosaic administrative documents or trade arrangements. Not so with Prosecco: A poem dedicated to Dionysus in 1754 romanticised: “And now I would like to wet my mouth with this Prosecco with its aromatic apple bouquet.”

In 1876, Italy’s first school of viticulture was established in Conegliano, and even an oenological experimental station was established fifty years after that. Yet sparkling Prosecco is no technological achievement. Probably the late-ripening grapes simply did not ferment thoroughly in cold winters, so that the yeasts became active again in the next spring and carbonic acid was produced.

A certain “Harry” already enjoyed this in the 1920s. He mixed Prosecco with peach pulp, served the “Bellini” cocktail in his New York Bar in Venice and thereby created an absolute classic of the cocktail culture. “Hugo” and “Spritz”, two of the most popular cocktails in recent years, are based on Prosecco. This also came about easily.

Prosecco Cartizze

Prosecco Cartizze, © Matthias Stelzig

Between Champagne and Burgundy

The boundaries of the cultivation area were drawn very soon in the 20th century, and the consortium was established in 1962. The “Strada del Prosecco” (“Prosecco Route”) was Italy’s first recognised wine route when it was created in 1966. Controlled origins followed and led to status quo in 2010.

There are a few very small DOCG appellations such as Asolo with marginal yields per hectare. The most famous locations lie between the little towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. In the pre-alpine hillsides of the Dolomites, loamy calcareous soils with good drainage are considered to be the best subsoil. Cold downslope winds facilitate the ripening process.

In the sub-appellation “Rive”, 43 municipalities bottle wines individually in order to express the terroir as clearly as possible. The greatest treasures come from Cartizze, a smooth, concave hillside consisting of marl, sandstone and loam, in whose basin the sun is captured. The fortunate winegrowers bring in small, but very high quality harvests on nearly five per cent of the area. Venetian style villages dot the countryside. The churches bear onion-domed towers which are reminiscent of the imperial and royal past under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This cultural landscape will soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at least if everything goes in accordance with the will of a specifically established interest group. The chances are not bad that the “Land of Prosecco” will soon end up in the good company of Burgundy and Champagne.

Production in the tiny zones remains limited; entry-level prices from 500,000 euros per hectare reflect this. It can be two million in Cartizze. In real life this will also hardly help, because none of the 140 winegrowers who own a little piece of the merely 107 hectares will part with their land.

The best have worked far too hard for this. At the beginning, they stood there somewhat alone with their notion of quality, and in addition to winegrowing often had to pursue a bread-and-butter job. They were the ones who gave the classic bottle fermentation of Prosecco its signature.

Alberto Ruggeri

Alberto Ruggeri, © Matthias Stelzig

Innocente Nardi from “La Farra” recognised adapted field work as a “vegetative balance”. Ca’ di Rajo insists on the labour-intensive Bellussera method of vine cultivation, because it prevents diseases under the local conditions and permits consistent light yield. Biodynamic wine specialist Alberto Ruggeri from “Le Colture” understood at an early stage the importance of the right harvesting time and short routes to the winepress.

Over thirty years ago, Nino Franco paid attention to mature grapes, gentle pressing and cold fermentation in a steel tank, which is a matter of course nowadays. Even a major producer like Villa Sandi stores the must in kilometre-long corridors at zero degrees Celsius and ferments individual batches, according to request.

Franco Adami calls a second fermentation in small batches without long contact with yeast “Metodo Prosecco” (“Prosecco Method”) and attributes the freshness of his wines to the method.

Top producer Bisol which belongs to the Lunelli family today does not filter after the first fermentation, and relies on the longest possible contact with yeast, which in their opinion brings the ageing potential of their vintage wines in line with Riesling. Prosecco winegrowers think big. The percentage of prime locations is minimal. But their reputation has an impact on all Proseccos.

The sound of Champagne

Between Conegliano and Udine, wine is an attitude towards life. In the bars people sometimes play a game called enodama, whereby glasses of red wine and white wine replace the gaming pieces. Prosecco flows like rivers on every day. But sparkling wine and semi-sparkling wine are also just as popular in the rest of the world. Even in nearby Franciacorta, colleagues make sparkling clean wines from champagne varieties. The wines are booming, particularly in the export business as an alternative between Prosecco and Champagne; however, production is minor with 16 million bottles.

It is even smaller (7.3 million bottles) in the Trentino region, yet one still says “think big”. Ferrari, the premium brand produced by the Lunelli family, sponsored the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles this year. But for the time being, many consumers from foreign markets still think that Italian sparkling wines are actually always Prosecco.

There the greatest competition naturally comes from France, although not necessarily from the Champagne region. A Canadian study recently revealed that consumers could even distinguish by the sound of pouring whether Champagne or Prosecco flowed into the glass. But a bottle of Champagne costs an average of 25 euros, which means about 50 dollars in the USA. Prosecco is available for 2.67 euros. Yet it hurts a bit that Prosecco production (360 million bottles) is ahead of Champagne production (310 million bottles).

Crémants (5.83 euros per bottle) are produced from the Pyrenees to the Alsace region. Many are recording increases in sales due to increasing demand. The great Southern French appellation IGP Méditerranée was only recently opened for sparkling wines. This was a step that did not please everybody.

Prosecco at night, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco street café, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Wine bar in Valdobbiadene, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Valdobbiadene, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Alberto Ruggeri jun. from Le Colture, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Alberto Ruggeri from Le Colture, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Logo Le Colture, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco Castello di San Salvatore in Susegana, Source: Matthias Stelzig

Spanish Cava has occupied positions in the mid-range price segment for a long time, but draws attention through better and better individual performances. Only the image of the production (240 million bottles) lags slightly behind. Other markets have small productions which are accepted very differently. In Austria, more and more winegrowers are also producing fine Sekt (sparkling wine) in the wake of Schlumberger. Winzersekt (sparkling wine produced via the classic method of bottle fermentation) is also produced in Germany, where Riesling scores with its own profile. But winegrowers are half-heartedly pushing the category. They are practically never found on wine lists abroad.

Germans are crazy about Sekt, but gladly keep their wallet in their pocket. Major brands such as Schloss Wachenheim and Henkell Trocken often made from Italian or Spanish base wine define the market. Anyone who is a guest in the German Bundestag can more likely count on a glass of Prosecco as a welcome than with German Sekt. In contrast, English sparkling wine has advanced within a few years from oenological curiosity to bottled national beverage, all the more since British connoisseurs tormented the neighbours on the other side of the Channel with victories in initial blind sampling tests.

Almost all non-European countries rely on sparkling wines in the Champagne style with the corresponding grape varieties, some with very good results. South Africa has a whole range of good sparkling wines, likewise California.

Tasmania, the cool island off the southern coast of Australia with long ripening periods, is regarded in the motherland as a posh origin, and not just since yesterday. This similarly applies to wine growers of sparkling wine in New Zealand’s Marlborough region. Specialists in Chile are also working on the profile of a sparkling wine from traditional bottle fermentation. The market seems to be big enough for everyone, even for exotic brands such as Crisecco from Moldova.

Prosecco landscape in Venetia, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco landscape in Venetia, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco landscape in Venetia, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco landscape in Venetia, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Lime soil, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco Cartizze, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco landscape, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco landscape, Source: Matthias Stelzig
Prosecco landscape, Source: Matthias Stelzig

Everyday luxury – Predominantly for women

Worldwide, the sparkling wine consumption is supposed to increase once again by 7.4 per cent by 2019. A study revealed that Prosecco will set the tone in the course of this. In particular, the neutral style, which critics often find fault with, signifies a plus in this regard. The consumption trend is heading towards wines with less alcohol and also towards slightly sweet amongst the increasingly younger clientele. It seems to be ideal for Prosecco. Against the backdrop of permanent global crises, times are also better for inexpensive alternatives from Veneto.

Whether in casks as base wine or premium wine, the demand adds up. And specialists in the industry agree that the end is still not in sight. The bearer of hope is the USA, which the Prosecco trend reached somewhat belatedly. In 2009, trade journals somewhat astonishingly reported that Barack Obama celebrated his inauguration with Prosecco. Today, Prosecco is regarded there like elsewhere as an everyday indulgence, not as a cheap substitute for Champagne. A surprising fact for bulk business:

There are few large markets. Prosecco itself is the brand. This also holds true in Great Britain. Sparkling wine consumption has doubled there in recent years, and Prosecco is more than half. Magnums are bestsellers –
British fizz or not! The strong demand even led to rumours that the sparkling substance would become scarce, especially after the catastrophic year 2014. Mudslides which claimed fatalities were also attributed to excessive replanting. Both rumours were not really true.

Prosecco

Prosecco, © Matthias Stelzig

In 2015 – ironically the year in which Italy replaced France as the largest wine producer – the Germans consumed more wine than the Italians for the first time in modern history. Prosecco producers were able to calmly look at the supposed defeat in the land of beer drinkers. Their wine contributed substantially to this. Even if the yields are meagre: Prosecco is cutting a fine figure in the German market.

There is only a gap in China, where Italy is weakly positioned overall. The proportion of male consumers is also somewhat questionable. Prosecco remains a drink for women. Imitations emerge here and there. Some Proseccos are sold too cheaply for many a taste and damage the good reputation. Many Italian winegrowers still vividly remember the fates of Frascati and Lambrusco in the 1980s. Rising temperatures and periods of drought will naturally also not pass by Veneto. But there is still leeway in terms of viniculture. In light of the resounding success, worries are rather small.

The new planting of 3,000 more vines has just been approved. As early as 2008, very euphoric winegrowers raved that a billion bottles of Prosecco would be produced annually in 2035. This is a calculation which might not fail on the market, but would fail in terms of the reality as we know it today. Even if the allowed maximum yield of the soon to be 23,000 hectares of area under cultivation were to be consistently pressed, this adds up to hardly more than one-third of the volume. But who knows, up to now Prosecco has always been a darling of fortune.


Matthias Stelzig