Continue reading the main story
IN 1984, Fabio Zardetto, chief winemaker at his family-run vineyard in northern Italy, leapt at the chance to become one of the first bottlers to export prosecco, the sparkling wine, to the United States.
At first, his efforts on behalf of his bubbly fizzled. “I had to push people to taste the prosecco,” recalled Mr. Zardetto, now 50. “I would run behind them with a glass saying, ‘Please, taste this.’”
When they did try it, he said, they were pleasantly surprised. Sales of Zardetto prosecco grew to 100,000 cases in the United States in 2007, from 50 cases in 1984.
With its fresh flavor, pleasing bubbles and gentle price tag it typically sells for $10 to $20 a bottle prosecco has gained many fans worldwide. Global sales have been growing by double-digit percentages for 10 years, to more than 150 million bottles last year. And with consumers in an economizing mood this holiday season, prosecco is an increasingly popular alternative to Champagne, which has been soaring in price.
But prosecco is also encountering some growing pains. From its traditional home in northern Italy, it is now waging a war against outsiders, just as Champagne, its more elite cousin in France, has done for so many years.
A host of producers elsewhere in Italy and as far away as Brazil are trying to cash in on the drink’s newfound popularity. Because prosecco is the name of a grape, like chardonnay or cabernet, anyone can use the name.
Today, about 60 percent of all prosecco some eight million cases comes from producers outside the traditional prosecco-growing region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, a cluster of villages about a half-hour’s drive north of Venice. The newcomers are not held to the same strict production standards as the traditional producers, which are tightly governed under Italian wine laws.
One product, Rich Prosecco, is made by an Austrian company whose ads feature Paris Hilton. In some, she is naked and spray-painted gold. What’s worse to some producers, the product is sold in a 6.8-ounce can, in gas stations as well as stores, for around $3.
“It’s absolutely vulgar,” says Vittorio Zoppi, marketing manager for the prosecco consortium.
Claus Jahnke, a sales and marketing executive at Rich, says he is puzzled by the reaction to the product, which uses Italian grapes. “We have invested a lot of money in advertising and P.R. to launch Rich and promote prosecco,” he says. “We gave this famous grape a helping hand in conquering the world.”
The Italian winemakers worry that upstarts will weaken prosecco’s image just as it is taking off.
“If everyone around the world plants prosecco, we will lose the value of the name,” says Ludovico Giustiniani, vice president of a consortium that represents about 150 wineries in the traditional prosecco-producing region.
Over months of discussions, the consortium, along with a broader group of growers and producers, has hammered out a plan that would create an official prosecco production zone tied exclusively to northern Italy. Only wine produced in that region could be labeled as prosecco. If the plan is approved by the Italian government a decision is expected by early 2009 prosecco would then be eligible for “protected designation of origin” status under European laws intended to protect regional products from Champagne and port to Serrano ham.
“It will let prosecco be an Italian product and nothing else,” says Giancarlo Moretti Polegato, the owner of Villa Sandi, one of the area’s prominent wineries.
That is the theory, at least. Protection from the European Union would extend only across its 27 member countries, and, as Champagne producers have discovered, a lot of policing is still required.
The Champagne region of France has been officially designated since 1927 as the authentic home of the wine that bears its name, but its trade organization still spends millions of dollars battling producers of items as varied as sparkling wine, bubble bath and bottled water that also use the word.
“We have to spend a lot of money and energy protecting our product,” says Sam Heitner, director of the Office of Champagne USA, a trade group that represents the interests of Champagne producers.
That spending is on display in Times Square, where a giant screen flashes an ad by Mr. Heitner’s group for holiday revelers. A bottle, labeled “American Champagne,” is covered by a red, Venetian-style carnival mask. It’s part of the group’s “Unmask the truth” campaign, which notes its opposition to the name’s use by United States producers.
Producers of prosecco may also be in for a long fight.
PROSECCO’S success can be seen in the steep-hilled villages surrounding Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.
The area has grown from a sleepy agricultural area to one of Italy’s wealthiest enclaves, dotted with shiny new wineries and farmhouses that have been transformed into rustic inns to support a growing wine tourism trade.
Prosecco sales from this area alone were 370 million euros last year. And a hectare (2.47 acres) of vineyard in the most coveted spots, like Cartizze, sells for more than $1 million. Prosecco from Cartizze, a panettone-shaped hill in Valdobbiadene where 140 growers farm about 250 acres, fetches about $40 a bottle.
The vines are tended and harvested by hand. Machines cannot navigate the vertical angles, although helicopters are occasionally used when a vineyard needs to be sprayed. The soil and the mix of warm days and cool nights make for an especially flavorful prosecco an affinity given official weight in 1969, when the region was awarded the status of denominazione di origine controllata, or D.O.C., Italy’s version of a wine appellation.
The region’s turn of fortunes, though, is relatively recent. Although prosecco grapes have been cultivated here for three centuries, in the early days they were made mostly into still wine for local consumption. The vines shared the steep hillsides with more valuable cows and sheep.
It was only after a new method for producing sparkling wine became widespread in the mid-1900s that things began to change.
Champagne and other sparkling wines typically get their bubbles when they are fermented a second time, with added sugar and yeast. The yeast feeds on the sugar and converts into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When the bottle is opened, the escaping gas gives the wine its bubbles and characteristic “pop.”
Champagne re-ferments in bottles, an expensive and labor-intensive process. But the new production methods allowed prosecco makers to re-ferment their wine in large tanks, a process that kept prices down. That, and prosecco’s light, delicate flavor and low alcohol content, made it an especially versatile wine.
IN Italy, prosecco is enjoyed year-round and practically around the clock. “The only moment we don’t drink it is for breakfast,” Mr. Giustiniani says.
That approachability has helped propel the popularity of prosecco in the 1960s throughout Italy, in the ’80s in Germany and neighboring countries and in the ’90s in the United States, which today is prosecco’s No. 1 market outside of Italy.
Perhaps no one pushed harder to establish prosecco in the United States than Mionetto, a winery founded in Valdobbiadene in 1886 and now one of the area’s largest, with sales of 40 million euros a year.
Seeing the tremendous growth potential in the 1990s, this winery began expanding aggressively. It established Mionetto USA to control distribution in North America and has spent millions of dollars promoting prosecco and the Mionetto brand. Today, the company has the leading market share, roughly 33 percent, in the United States, with 168,000 cases a year of its D.O.C. and non-D.O.C. prosecco.
Still, says Sergio Mionetto, who took over as chief winemaker from his grandfather in 1956, “we believe we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”
At the bustling Union Square Cafe in Manhattan, where the house prosecco is Mr. Mionetto’s top-of-the-line Sergio (named after himself), prosecco by the glass outsells Champagne two to one, says Stephen Paul Mancini, director of wine and spirits at the restaurant. “Prosecco is an extremely popular product for us,” he adds. And some retailers report that prosecco is flying off shelves this holiday season.
Prosecco is also catching on in new markets, like China, India and Vietnam, causing producers to think even bigger.
“Prosecco can be the best-selling sparkling wine of the world,” says Gianluca Bisol, a 21st-generation winemaker and general manager of the Bisol winery, in Valdobbiadene. He figures that prosecco can overtake Champagne in sales volume in the next 25 years or so.
The problem is that others saw the potential, too. It started with the relative newcomers in the plains of northern Italy. Growers there are less regulated than their D.O.C. kin; they were granted the Italian wine system’s least-stringent designation, known as I.G.T., in 1995. They can produce almost double the volume of wine per hectare, and quality can vary.
In the flatlands, winemakers can use machines to harvest and tend to their vines, at about a tenth of the cost, Mr. Bisol and others say. “For these reasons,” Mr. Bisol says, “this area that didn’t exist 25 years ago now accounts for 60 percent of prosecco production.”
A more recent worry for the consortium and newer growers is that countries like Brazil, Romania, Argentina and Australia have begun to plant prosecco. Brazil, in particular, has embraced the grape, perhaps not surprisingly, given that its main wine region is populated by northern Italian immigrants.
Close to 2,000 acres of prosecco are planted in Brazil, Mr. Bisol says.
“The Brazilians like parties,” Mr. Bisol says. “They drink a lot of prosecco.” The homegrown prosecco could cut into Italian sales there: Brazil is already the fifth-largest export market for Italian prosecco.
Closer to home, German and Austrian producers have taken to buying tanks of Italian prosecco produced in the plains and shipping it to their countries to be bottled. Or canned, in the case of Rich Prosecco.
When Ms. Hilton traveled to northern Italy to promote Rich Prosecco two years ago, “it was a big scandal for the area,” Mr. Bisol says. “The winegrowers were very angry.” She has not returned, he says.
Günther Aloys, a hotelier and entrepreneur in the Austrian resort town of Ischgl who introduced Rich Prosecco in 2006, plans to take it to the United States next year. And Mr. Jahnke, the sales and marketing executive at Rich, said the company was following the developments with the Italian producers’ proposal to the Italian government.
THE threat of foreign-brand prosecco has prompted northern Italian producers, of both D.O.C. and I.G.T. prosecco, to work together to protect their turf. They say they believe that their proposal will raise quality and prevent others from calling their products prosecco.
The plan would create a broad new D.O.C. designation to govern the hundreds of I.G.T. prosecco producers that have sprung up across eight northern Italian provinces in the plains from Treviso to Trieste. The producers would have to comply with strict quality controls, including lower yields per hectare and stronger oversight.
The region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, meanwhile, would be elevated to Italy’s highest designation for wine regions, known as D.O.C.G.
The key is to link prosecco to its traditional home.
“We don’t want to end up with something like pinot grigio,” says Primo Franco, owner of the Nino Franco winery in Valdobbiadene, referring to another white wine grape from the Veneto region that today is grown around the world.
Because prosecco is also the name of a northern Italian village where the grape is believed to have originated, the consortium can make an argument, too, that prosecco is a place name that can be protected just like Chianti, Champagne and others.
By bringing all of northern Italy’s prosecco makers into the fold, the winemakers hope to do more than give prosecco a territorial identity. They also want the muscle power to meet growing demand and achieve their goal of matching or even besting Champagne, which today produces some 300 million bottles a year. About 150 million bottles of Italian prosecco are produced a year.
Prosecco producers say they believe that with the new plan, they can double their output to 300 million or even 400 million bottles a year, while providing consumers with a guarantee of quality.
“Champagne is the king of the bubble,” Mr. Bisol says. “But prosecco maybe can be considered the small prince.”
In recent weeks, the winemakers have been scrambling to nail down a final proposal to the Italian government before a year-end deadline. The producers hope to be eligible for a streamlined European Union system that goes into effect in August. If all goes well, the new prosecco protections will be in place for the 2009 harvest.
But that is just a start. European Union regulations are valid only for members, and deals have to be struck with countries outside of the union, like the United States or Brazil, on an, ahem, case-by-case basis. For now, says Mr. Moretti Polegato of Villa Sandi, “everybody involved in prosecco production is happy.”
You can almost hear the corks popping.
Continue reading the main story