Yesterday, I looked at how the friendly, trendy Italian sparkler Prosecco has managed to continue flying high in the U.S. market. Today, I'll look at how the Italians have geared up the wine for its next phase of ascent.
By the late 2000s, the wine minds of Treviso had noticed that Prosecco exports had begun to accelerate, even while the American love affair with the drink was still in first bloom.
In 2009, when most drinkers considered Prosecco cheap, if they considered it at all, the folks who made it were thinking ahead. That year, to give it a prestige boost and better define the wine as being from a precise region rather than simply a style, the Italian government bumped the Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC, from the hilly areas of the region, up to the loftier Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, a name unwieldy enough to confer distinction (there is also now a lesser-known Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG to the southwest). At the same time, the areas surrounding that zone, where Prosecco was made with an IGT designation, became the protected Prosecco DOC. Around the same time, the producers started calling the grape "Glera" instead of "Prosecco"; now Prosecco, like Burgundy or Port, meant coordinates on a map, no knockoffs allowed.
In recent years, the area has touted further subdivisions on labels: the "grand cru" Cartizze and the forty-three lesser but ostensibly distinct "Rive" communes. That's a tip of the hat to terroir hounds and a foundation upon which to build up prices. The DOCG consorzio has even applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Prosecco, the very same distinction Burgundy and Champagne have tried and failed to attain for years.
This all may sound ridiculous to those of us who know the stuff as a simple, crown-capped $10 sipper—what kind of Montrachet stunt do these guys think they're pulling?—but it has thrown up a ladder for Prosecco to climb. "I think we've seen in well-established markets like New York or Boston, people looking, what is the next best Prosecco?" said Enore Ceola, managing director of Mionetto USA. "So they like to explore and to try the $18 Prosecco. But we are probably five to six years away from being relevant in that category," he estimated.
When the Prosecco drinker is ready to belly up to the nerd-chic wine bar, the organic Proseccos, bottle-fermented Proseccos, zero-dosage Proseccos, single-vintage Proseccos, the single-village DOCG Proseccos, will be in the wings. A few Cartizze versions, like that of Desiderio Bisol, which makes a line of single-vineyard Proseccos, have already crept over the $50 mark.
Of course, the other road upmarket for sparkling wine is the lifestyle route. I recently became acquainted with a new-ish brand called Altaneve, priced at about $30, at a "black-tie Prosecco ice skate" put on by the brand in Manhattan. Slickly packaged and club-ready, to be sure, but also a DOCG blend and, though not labeled as such, a single-vintage bottling, from 2013. (How long before the Coneglianesi start selling the previous harvest's vintage-dated wine, which more and more producers now do, as a must-have for the ice bucket the following summer, a la rosé, another category on the fast track toward premiumization?) It's the Champagne gambit: wines of both substance and sex appeal.
Are we really going to be drinking $50 bottles of Prosecco, comparing the nuances of village terroirs side by side in 10 years' time? It's a question that has been asked and answered, in the affirmative, of dozens of wine styles over the past 50 years, and we're only getting more open-minded about our wine. The mantle of Italy's premier sparkling wine is up for the taking, and in Treviso, they're moving all the right pieces to claim the crown.
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