One Nation Under Prosecco

How does a faddish wine become a staple?
Sep 3, 2014

"Personally, I hate Prosecco. I think 99 percent of it is undrinkable," was pretty much the first thing a wine director at a hot Manhattan bar specializing in small, "natural" producers said to me. The somm then opened a bottle of Prosecco. Something a little different: Organic, no sulfur added, aged on the lees, a bubbly that even the most militant of Europhilic funk freaks could love.

That a bottle like this, served in a setting like that, can now be had in the United States is a mark of distinction for the Prosecco region: Stylistic diversity reflects maturity. This wine, from the producer Giol, gilded the light, fresh, typical Prosecco lilt with a bit of oxidative, nutty complexity I identify more often with French sparklers. I enjoyed it very much.

When Mionetto USA, which deserves credit for kickstarting the American Prosecco boom, arrived in 1997, Prosecco barely existed in the U.S. market; by 2012, we were bringing in 2.31 million cases, up from 453,000 in 2007. That now represents 65 percent of Italian sparkling wine in the U.S.—beating out the categories like Asti Spumante and Lambrusco that dominated in the 1980s and early '90s.

When I first wrote about Prosecco mania three-plus years ago, I naturally wondered if the drink would be merely faddish or develop into a bona fide fixture. "We don't want to happen to Prosecco what happened to Soave and Pinot Grigio," said Mionetto managing director Enore Ceola at the time. (Soave has got some of its groove back in the time since.)

It hasn't happened yet. Prosecco is no longer just the generic "champagne" in brunch Bellinis; it's a wine that tipplers now order by name, a known quantity, distinct from other bubbles. There are the obvious attractive qualities: It's low-alcohol, generally off-dry in a pleasing way, welcoming of sweet and spicy cuisine (Chinese, Indian, etc.) and mostly inexpensive. But of course, there have always been and will always be bright and beckoning wines; indeed, those are the ones that bring in the casual wine partaker and get dropped when the next thing comes along.

But Prosecco has been both a beneficiary and propeller of deeper movements in the current of American wine culture. When I talked to Ceola this year, he readily identified the most drastic: "The consumer is starting to enjoy sparkling wines outside the typical special occasion." Bubbly used to be just for December holidays, and Ceola estimated that a decade ago, other months sold a paltry 15 or 20 percent of his December business. Now, "off"-months pull in 40 to 60 percent of December-level sales, with a definite summer surge, which has kept Prosecco in the conversation even after pricier sparklers rebounded from the recession. "[Prosecco] really brings sparkling wine down a notch to be more an everyday drink instead of just for special occasions," he said. Once that's achieved, the "special occasion" barrier falls for fine California sparklers, then Champagne.

And Mionetto's sales track with another demographic's increasingly outsize presence in wine consumption, especially sparkling: "Many more women are drinking Prosecco than men right now."

But to make it in America, a wine can't rest in the $10 mass-market segment. It needs to get on those Manhattan lists. Over in northeast Italy, when wine players first sniffed Prosecco success, they immediately, and with impressive foresight, began tracing the plans to erect a bigger, grander Prosecco tent. Tomorrow, I'll take a look at how the Italians and their importers are positioning Prosecco to stay at the top of the sparkling game.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Italy Sparkling Wines Tasting Reports

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