Posted on | November 24, 2014
Written by | Margaret Shakespeare
Bolstered by official DOC status and fueled by value, Prosecco is becoming a household name
Dizzying may be the best word. Production numbers spiral up annually. New brands roll out. Bottles of easy-drinking straw-colored bubbly from Prosecco, in the northeast corner of Italy, flow relentlessly into the U.S. market.
And the tide shows no sign of a turn. In 2013, with global Prosecco exports up 18%, at 155 million (of 241 million total) bottles, 16% of those exports reached our shores (and bar lists and retail shelves). Prosecco DOC sales shot up 24% from 2012, making it the top-selling sparkler here—surpassing sales of Champagne, for which it has increasingly become a less-expensive stand-in (at a third or so of the price). Among the steady stream of Prosecco brands arriving this year alone: Masottina, La Luca, Canti and Ménage à Trois. The latter is only the most recent confirmation of Prosecco’s big-brand stamp of approval, joining the likes of La Marca (by Gallo), Voveti (by Freixenet), Ruffino, Cupcake, Cinzano, Martini and Santa Margherita.
Twenty-first-century Americans have welcomed these refreshing sparklers the way post-War generations gobbled up the plentiful red sauce spooned over pasta at ubiquitous cheap-and-cheerful Italian restaurants.
Ancient Wine, Growing Up Fast
Wine called Prosecco, named for a village near Trieste, has long been grown and produced in the Italian pre-Alps, gaining local popularity as a sipper on its own and as a cocktail mixer in Venetian cafés (the Bellini at Harry’s Bar, famously) and the nearby countryside. However, legal standards for a DOC Prosecco—and a coveted DOCG Prosecco—were not fully established until 2009. Those regulations defined the DOC production area as encompassing five Veneto provinces (Treviso, Venice, Vicenza, Padua, Belluno) and four provinces in Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Gorizia, Pordenone, Trieste, Udine), including vineyards in low-lying lands. The DOCG area falls within—near the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano, where vines thrive in a mishmash of microclimates, Adriatic breezes and soils ranging from clay to limestone to chalk on terraces chiseled out of the steep contoured hills.
“The Prosecco world changed five years ago,” explains Masottina’s Federico Dal Bianco, the third generation of his family to make wine here. “Prosecco is now the defined name for all of the wine and the entire geographic region. But the grape name changed from Prosecco to Glera, which was its ancient [Roman] name. And all [DOC/G] wines must be at least 85% Glera. Vineyard yields within the DOCG zone are limited. Above that, in a pyramid of quality, the finest grapes, which are usually picked late, can earn a Rive [meaning “hillside” in dialect] designation. And then, at the top, there are single hill designations, such as Cartizze which has only a hundred hectares of vineyard.” Many brand line-ups found in the U.S., such as Tenuta S. Anna, include a Cartizze at the top end of quality and price.
Nino Franco, founded in 1919, made some of the earliest export efforts in the global arena. Wines from the fourth generation of that producer—Rustico (SRP $15) and the vineyard-designated Grave di Stecca ($47)—still set a high standard. But Mionetto, entering in 2002, is perhaps the earliest brand to make lasting penetration into the U.S. market. The current line-up ranges from a casual style frizzante ‘IL’ Prosecco ($12), closed with a crown cap, to a Superiore Valdobbiadene ($19) to a Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze ($35). The latter two are full-throttle spumante style. (The DOC allows both spumante and less-bubbly frizzante styles; presently spumante is 60% of total production.) All of Mionetto’s wines come in at 11% alcohol or less, low-alcohol being a Prosecco hallmark. And, mindful of another hallmark—freshness—Mionetto bottles their bubblies only upon order.
It’s the Charmat (or Italian or Martinotte) method of secondary fermentation in autoclaves (large tanks with pressurization to force the sparkle) for a minimum of 30 days that allows the flexibility for on-demand bottling (hence the scarcity of vintage Proseccos). This production methodology and equipment incubated here, perfected by 20th century pioneers such as Antonio Carpenè, who also founded Italy’s first oenology school in Conegliano.
But Charmat fermentation is pretty much sentiment, tradition—and not a DOC requirement. (In fact, Prosecco need not even sparkle; and about one percent of Prosecco DOC/G wine, made from Glera, is still.) Several producers, including Bellenda, have used the classic method for some wines, adding sugar and yeast and then putting each bottle under pressure. Nino Franco’s Rustico undergoes a short second fermentation in bottle.
Others introduce complexity by blending in that permissible discretionary 15% other grapes, including Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera Lunga, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Nero. Winemakers at the venerable Valdo, while continuing to export 100% Glera DOC and DOCG wines, have experimented with adding small amounts of oaked Chardonnay to Glera before lengthy re-fermentation in an autoclave. It’s legal, if not exactly in character.
Of course, one can easily argue that 9 out of 10 Americans guzzling Prosecco cares not a lick about the vinicultural technique or grape mix. Consumers have largely focused elsewhere—and quickly learned to love Prosecco for the un-nuanced basics of affordability and fruit flavors laced with effervescent, nonpretentious, unapologetic drinkablilty.
What has dampened enthusiasm for some is a perception that all Prosecco is sweet. Again following 19th century tradition, most vinification has been extra-dry. But the regulations adopted in 2009 allow sweetness to fall on either side—brut, extra dry, dry, demi-sec (dry to sweet). Giuliano Bortolomiol, whose four daughters now oversee the eponymous family winery in Valdobbiadene, created the first commercial brut, generally more elegant than sweeter versions, in the 1960s.
Bortolomiol, among others, cultivates some vineyards organically for its Ius Naturae, a Superiore DOCG brut. Both the organic grapes and brut style figure in international marketing appeal.
Drinking A Lifestyle
Marketers and producers keep very close company these days—and close tabs on the pulse of their audience. Not surprisingly, Prosecco harbors appeal as a lifestyle product. Canti introduced itself recently in New York City with glitz and fanfare—film of Canti at Harrods London, Canti at Vogue fashion shows in Madrid and Moscow, Canti at celebrity events in the Hamptons.
Sergio Rolando, marketing and sales director, says, “It’s important to keep the Venice image in our ad concepts in all countries. It’s something to be poured at fashion shows.” As for the wine itself, “The beauty of it is that it has a great range of food partners. It stands up to salty prosciutto; the fruitiness goes with peppery arugula and rounds it out.”
Mixologists have been on the forefront of discovering Prosecco’s range and flexibility as an ingredient in new concoctions and to refresh old favorites. Keith Raimondi, at Townsend in Philadelphia, says, “We’ll do almost anything with it, from a classic Champagne cocktail to highballs. It’s light, bright, fizzy and does not have fat and yeastiness of Champagne.” For a summertime spritz called Between the Hills he mixed two bitter aperitifs, Cappelletti and Génépi, and balanced the herbal flavors with Prosesso and lemon peel. “I love spritzes, but club soda is boring. Prosecco gives you a new element—flavor. It’s for when you need life in a drink.”