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Prosecco’s Bubble Not Bursting: America’s love affair with the Italian sparkler influences the category’s stellar growth.

Posted on  | June 16, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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ProseccoProsecco’s flute runneth over. In 2009, its sales in the U.S. rose by an astounding 32% over the previous year, and the growth continued in 2010, fueled by familiar brands like Mionetto, which corners 30% of the market. The classic Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore classification was kicked up a notch in 2009 to the highest Italian rating, DOCG, and the first of those wines were released this April. Furthermore, the prestigious Italian Wine Masters tour of the U.S. earlier this year was anchored by the three classic Tuscan Sangiovese regions–Chianti, Brunello and Vino Noble–and Prosecco was the only white or sparkling wine being poured.

But, as far as American consumers are concerned–as we go into high summer with all the weddings and holiday celebrations–Prosecco is simply cool, fruity, has bubbles and is generally much cheaper than Champagne.

As Frank Pagliaro, owner of Frank’s Union Wine Mart in Wilmington, DE, shares, “I think Prosecco is great if I can put it on the shelf at the under-$20 price point.”

Summer Style
“Sparkling wine options were largely ‘cheap or pricey’ before it came on the scene in the nineties,” says Philadelphia-based sommelier, wine consultant and author Marnie Old. “Prosecco provided the best of both worlds–a way to trade up by a few dollars for a better wine without springing for French Champagne. Its refreshingly low alcohol and pleasing whisper of natural sweetness were crowd-pleasing qualities that made it a hit with wine novices and occasion-only drinkers, making it a perfect choice for parties and celebrations.”

Rachael Lowe, sommelier at Trump International Chicago, finds Prosecco the perfect apéritif for summer. “It is generally ripe with notes of apricot skin, peach blossom and a slightly floral component without being overly fruity or off-dry. It is a perfect palate cleanser or refreshing beverage in the summer months due to its easy-drinking personality and effervescence,” she says. “It is also delicious with lighter dishes such as fruits, salads and shellfish which are particularly pleasing in the warmer months.”

Patrick Watson, who runs the Brooklyn Wine Exchange in New York City’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, agrees Prosecco evokes summer. “Beyond being known as festive libations and worth every little penny they generally cost, Proseccos tend to fulfill every time and place imaginable: at the beach, in someone’s backyard, a BBQ, picnics or by the pool,” he says.

New Is Old
As with wines everywhere, Prosecco’s quality and price varies greatly according to where it is grown, how large the production per hectare or acre is and what happens to it in the winery. With rare exceptions, it is made by the charmat or bulk method, rather than fermented in the bottle as Champagne and many other sparkling wines are.

It can be made brut–the traditional “dry” category–or it can be made not so dry.  The amount of time it spends on the lees–the layer of flecks of grape pulp and spent yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the tank–can make it crisp and fresh or rich and rounded. The composition of the soil–which can range from rocky to clay and sand–also influences the taste. Enrico, which recently debuted its extra dry version, has had much exposure; Freixenet’s Voveti, Nino Franco’s Rustico and Cavit’s Lunetta also have wide appeal.

What is refreshing about the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG designation is that the boundaries did not change with the upgrade. Nestled into a cluster of hills about an hour’s drive north of Venice, its back stretches against the southern reaches of the Dolomite Alps. “On a clear day, you can see Venice,” says a guide at the hilltop San Salvatore Castle where the Vino in Villa festival is held each May.

The region is named after its primary cities–Conegliano in the east and Valdobbiadene to the west, both overlooking the Piave river plain. The area is quite beautiful with its small towns and winding road–a go-to-place for bikers and hikers–with good restaurants and small inns. But its primary asset is growing grapes and producing sparkling wine.

“Five years ago, we were selling 800,000 bottles to the U.S.,” says consorzio director Giancarlo Vetorello  “In 2009, that had grown to 1.8 million bottles. We would still like to grow more.”

An Effervescent Future
And there is room. A total of 65.8 million bottles total were produced there last year, but more than 60% were consumed within Italy. In all, there are about 6,100 hectares (a little more than 15,000 acres) of registered vineyards and 166 producers.

One of them is Franco Adami, a third generation winegrower and president of the consortium whose winery is on the outskirts of Valdobbiadene. “Since the mountains are so close and the sea is nearby, we have a large diurnal difference in temperature,” he says on his 10-hectare (25 acres) estate.  Like many producers, he also owns small plots, or has access to grapes, from elsewhere in the region. “We are small enough that we can harvest by hand with family and friends,” he says.  Adami–also the name on the wine label–makes six to eight different cuvees, including a still Prosecco (“a classic spring wine reminiscent of sour apples”) as well as one from Cartizze cru.

“Cartizze is the first high hill as you come north from Venice,” Gianlucca Bisol told me when I visited there not long ago. His family’s winery–the well-known Bisol brand–sits in the shadow of the hill.  It is quite steep in places and would require hand picking of grapes on most of its 106 hectares (267 acres), even if weren’t mandated.

Although Adami makes a delicious cuvee from Cartizze, he says he prefers the flavors from his own Giardino estate. It is probable that as more commune-specific rive wines are produced, Prosecco consumers will gravitate toward certain towns where the soil and climate produce Prosecco with slight differences–again a reflection of the Burgundian Côte-d’Or model and less of the Champagne model of blending wines from different areas.

“Prosecco’s appeal is not just in its style, but in its price-to-quality ratio,” summarizes Old, while noting that it is still priced higher than most Spanish cava or bulk-produced California sparkling wine. It also distinguishes itself from the generally more-fragrant, often sweeter, spumantes made in Italy’s northwest.

“Besides,” Old concludes, “Prosecco has all the flirty fun of sparkling wine, so well suited to shaking off the cares of the day, without the ‘seriousness’ of Champagne method styles. Its charming orchard-fresh fruit character is simply friendlier on first sip, especially true in the absence of food.”

Pop another Prosecco.


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