What makes a good Prosecco? The question may seem simple, but is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to answer.
Fresh, fruity, lively, easy drinking: these are all common indicators of quality and characteristics that have helped the category soar above its sparkling counterparts. Sales of Prosecco increased 72% by value in the UK off-trade for the 52 weeks to 18 July 2015, beating Champagne, which saw sales slip by 1.2% in the same period, according to IRI. During this period, Prosecco sales in the UK totalled £338 million, up by £142m on the previous year.
By volume, sales increased by 78% to just over 37.3m litres. But while Prosecco remains on a path of seemingly unstoppable growth, the extent to which producers should deviate from its trademark fresh and fruity profile is becoming the subject of debate. Typically, the Glera grape from which Prosecco is produced exudes fruit and floral aromas with crisp notes of green apple, pear and melon on the palate, with some examples developing notes of tropical fruits, banana, hazelnut and vanilla. Because it is produced using the Charmat method, and aged in large tanks with less pressure, its bubbles are generally lighter, frothier and less persistent than Champagne.
A proven formula
Operating within a category driven so acutely by price, few producers have strayed from this proven formula. Why should they? Prosecco is the sparkler that can apparently do no wrong. But is a commercially successful style of Prosecco that adheres to a reliable formula always the best example in its category? Or are Proseccos that push the boundaries of style, but which are nonetheless well-made wines, equally worthy of praise? More importantly, are consumers ready, and willing, to explore the extremities of the category, or spend more than £10 on a bottle? This separation, which sets the mass consumer against winemaking innovation, was highlighted at the 2016 Drinks Business Prosecco Global Masters, now in its third year.
Having tasted more than 100 Proseccos, obtaining a snapshot of the category, the thrust of discussion among judges centered not only on the style, quality and characteristics of the wines entered, but crucially if they matched up to what was expected of a Prosecco. “Some producers re-ferment in the bottle,” notes sommelier Roberto Della Pietra, “which for me defeats the point.” But as Anthony Foster MW observes: “Now and then we came across a wine that we thought was delicious, but didn’t taste like Prosecco,” suggesting that perhaps what constitutes a good Prosecco is in transition.
Big on value
A total of 130 wines were judged by our expert panel, with nine awarded a Gold, 41 a Silver and 47 a Bronze. None of the wines entered matched up to what our judges would have expected of a Master. Gold medals were awarded across a broad swathe of price categories, as well as DOC, DOCG, Cartizze and Rive categories, with higher priced Proseccos not necessarily the top wines on pour, demonstrating the immense value on offer in the category.
Three standout wines in terms of value were Giusti’s Rosalia Prosecco DOC Treviso, Montelvini’s Asolo Prosecco Superiore Brut DOCG and Cantine Machio’s Prosecco Superiore di Valdobbiadene DOCG Brut, all of which took home a Gold medal while sitting comfortably in the £10 to £15 category. Montelvini was not the only producer from the Asolo DOCG to be awarded a Gold medal, with Tenuta Amadio’s Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry also putting in a strong performance, having nudged slightly into the £15 to £20 category. Not to be overshadowed by their DOC and DOCG neighbours, two wines from the prized Cartizze vineyard achieved a Gold medal – Bisol Cartizze Dry 2014 and Carpenè Malvoti’s 1868 Cartizze – which both sit at a slightly higher price point of between £20 and £30. Also awarded a Gold medal in this price category was Scavi & Ray’s Prosecco Millesimato Momento d’Oro 2014.
While wines priced higher than £30 were judged, no Masters were given with the most expensive Prosecco to be awarded a gold medal Masottina’s ‘Le Rive Di Ogliano’ Extra Dry Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco at £27. Masottina also received a Gold medal for its DOC Treviso Extra Dry Prosecco, which placed in the slightly lower £15 to £20 category. Moving on to the Silvers, a respectable clutch of wines priced under £15 reaped success. This included Lidl’s Allini Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore, which at £7.50, was the lowest-priced wine of the competition. At the other end of the spectrum was Bottega’s diamond-studded Stardust DOC Prosecco, which, at £100, was the highest-priced Prosecco of the competition. Dozens more wines in the sub-£10 category were awarded a Bronze medal.
Price and preference
The affordability and relative quality of Prosecco has of course driven much of its success, with the majority of consumers not inclined to step out of the sub-£10 price category, let alone trade up to the £10 to £15 category and beyond. As Della Pietra asserts: “A lot of people drink Prosecco because it’s cheaper, but it’s also very trendy. There are also a great number of people that drink Prosecco because they prefer it, not because it’s cheaper.” Convincing consumers that it is worth paying a bit more for a bottle of Prosecco is therefore perhaps the most practical challenge for producers to undertake, given that demand is, for now, unshakably secure. However, volumes of such higher-priced wines are almost certain to be decidedly small. Regardless, there is no doubting Prosecco’s success in carving a niche for itself, so much so that producers have not had to strive too far in terms of innovation to capture, or maintain, the attention of consumers.
As Alex Canneti of Berkmann Wine Cellars adds, Prosecco is “something of a rarity” in the drinks trade in that it gives consumers exactly what they want. “It’s about freshness of fruit,” he says. “It’s easy to drink, it’s not acidic or too dry. The Italians happen to be producing a product that’s spot on, which is so unusual in the wine business. Usually it’s ‘try this or try that’.” Producers with an ambition to push the boundaries of the category are therefore, in some ways, hamstrung by its success. Within such a commercially successful category, producers’ efforts to diversify or play about with style, one might cynically conclude, are destined to fall on deaf ears. “Most people like Prosecco simply because it’s easy to drink,” says Nick Tatham MW, wine development manager at Continental Wine and Food. “It has a sugar content that makes it very drinkable; it’s very soft and not too complex or acidic. There is a danger that when Prosecco tries to be more serious many of those people who currently drink Prosecco won’t like it.”
Certainly, wines that didn’t fit with the typical profile of Prosecco stood out, with judges on occasion, although not to their detriment, stopping to consider their place within the category. “If a wine is atypical, is that a fault?” asks Foster. “That was the biggest issue as far as I am concerned. That’s one of the things that we discussed more than anything – the typicity of Prosecco. Are you looking for a good drink and a good style that is elegant, or are you looking for Prosecco as they sell? You have to consider both.”
In reality, the vast majority of Prosecco plays to the mass consumer, whose purchases are importantly not driven by individual brands but firstly by the generic power of ‘brand Prosecco’ and secondly by price. As Tatham notes: “For me, there isn’t this top end of Prosecco – 99% of Prosecco sold is commercial, and is incredibly successful because of what it is. The 1% is the other stuff. For me, the tasting today is about finding the best possible Prosecco in that 99% of the core business.” With a sea of producers fighting for space in what is essentially an unbranded category, quality has become the battleground on which producers are working to push the category forward. Talking up terroir is one way that producers are working to communicate quality, with undiscovered sub-regions continuing to emerge. “Prosecco is fresh, fruity and drinkable, and that really is it, but there’s no doubt that I can find terroir,” says Canetti.
“The reason for that is because Glera is so light and almost neutral, so the effect of terroir has an even bigger influence. You can taste the soil and different environments. “There’s definitely a style of very interesting wines being made at the top end, over £10.” Several quality indicators are currently in use across Prosecco-producing regions, from the traditional DOC and DOCG demarcations to the more specific Cartizze – a 107-hectare hillside vineyard owned by 140 growers in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore. Speaking of terroir, Canetti believes the Asolo DOCG to be the most interesting to have emerged in recent years.
“Asolo DOCG is a new area that we came across about a year ago,” he says. “The db tasting really discovered Asolo and it has become a really interesting area.” He adds: “Cartizze has always been good but I think now we are starting to find the Rives.”
The more recently introduced Rive sub-zones were launched about five years ago by the Prosecco Consorzio and represent a step up from DOCG. Unlike Cartizze, Rives are not geographically limiting, and produce wines from single vineyards typically found in steep hillside locations. The intention is to highlight different microclimates and terroirs found throughout the growing zone and exemplifies a trend toward terroir among Prosecco producers in their search for quality. While new Rive sub-zones are now being discovered the indication is yet to make an impact with consumers, with DOC, DOCG and increasingly Cartizze more commonly recognised. “I think we will see Cartizze in London but I don’t think it’s the future,” believes wine writer and Champagne expert Michael Edwards.
“I get annoyed when people say Prosecco is just sugared water because there are very good terroirs in DOCG, these individual sites. There are some fabulous wines. I think the future will be about specific vineyards – I hesitate to say single vineyards because I know blending is still important. “Some of the Rive sites are very important, but there are also some very good terroirs in the DOCG.”
As Prosecco continues to dominate the global sparkling wine category, the distinction between what makes a good commercial Prosecco and simply a good wine is becoming more important. While Prosecco is undoubtedly strong in the UK, it is generally an unbranded category. The mass consumer is yet to grasp the intricacies of individual terroirs and producers, which highlights an opportunity for premium producers to carve a niche in the future. Focusing on terroir is perhaps the most logical and expedient way for producers to add a further layer to their offer. This, optimistically, could be the key to pushing consumers beyond ‘brand Prosecco’ and encouraging a more meaningful exploration of the category. However, no matter how far producers choose to experiment, or the multitude of terroirs that may emerge, there will always be a place for Prosecco’s trademark fresh, fruity and easy drinking style. As Della Pietra notes: “Prosecco has its own place and its own space.”