The American recession may be the best thing to happen to Italian sparkling wine in decades. No other major style, save Argentinean Malbec, has grown as dynamically in the U.S. market since 2008. Driven largely by Prosecco, sparkling imports from Italy to the U.S. surged 73.1 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. The number of cases imported last year, 2.58 million, more than doubles the figure from 10 years ago and is on track to best the last Italian bubbly boom of the mid-'80s. In 2009, Italy leapfrogged France to become the top sparkling wine exporter to the U.S. for the first time since 1996.
Large, market-savvy producers like Gallo, Cavit and Santa Margherita have all picked up the ball and begun shipping Prosecco to the U.S. within the last few years. Sales of Moscato, a lightly sparkling wine of Italian origin, grew 100.7 percent at U.S. retail last year in volume, by Nielsen's calculation. Cavit, Yellow Tail and Platinum Brands, through its VOGA line, are all debuting Moscatos this year.
“The Prosecco category is to me the most exciting thing that's happened in sparkling wine in the last decade,” said Marc Taub, president of Palm Bay International, whose new Cavit Lunetta Prosecco recently became the category's top seller in the U.S. Enore Ceola, managing director of Mionetto USA, which represents 30 percent of Prosecco sales in America, agrees and adds that he also sees major new demand in Finland, Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Italian sparkling winemakers have good reason to pop a bottle of their best stuff. But what accounts for this phenomenon? And with Champagne sales regaining strength, can it last?
Italian sparkling wine is not new. Especially in cooler regions like Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont, Italians have been inducing secondary fermentation in their wines for well over a century. Moscato-based Asti Spumante, from Piedmont, has long been a premium sparkling wine. In the 1980s, Lambrusco, a fizzy red of Emilia-Romagna, enjoyed major stateside popularity behind the aegis of the brand Riunite, but the effect was ultimately damaging: Italian sparklers were seen as cheap and unserious.
Prosecco and Moscato still feel the aftershocks of this perception, but things are changing. Moscato is usually made in a frizzante, or semi-sparkling style, in which fermentation is cut short enough that the resulting wine is sweet or off-dry with a low alcohol content. Much of it today comes from vineyards in Lombardy, though Californian and Australian versions are also effervescing in popularity.
Prosecco production is all-Italian and comparatively more regulated. A varietal wine made from the Glera grape, Prosecco's secondary fermentation is typically achieved by the charmat method, in stainless steel tanks. Before 2009, Prosecco was a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC, but non-DOC Proseccos were made in lesser areas surrounding it and labeled IGT, for Indicazione Geografica Tipica.
But beginning with the 2009 harvest, much of the old appellation is now the Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadine DOCG (the higher Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita category), and many of the old satellite growing areas in the Veneto, in Northeast Italy, now wear the Prosecco DOC instead of the IGT label. The Glera is usually made into a dry, fully sparkling (spumante) wine at about 11 percent alcohol.
In 2007, Americans received 453,000 cases of Prosecco; by 2009, that number had grown to around 750,000, a 65.5 percent jump. All the merchants Wine Spectator spoke with attributed Prosecco's booming expansion first to the belt-tightening that followed the economic collapse of 2008. “The bad economy that we experienced three years ago really helped the category,” said Ceola. “Consumers were looking for alternatives to Champagne and pricier sparkling wine from California.”
Premium DOCG Prosecco, at the upper limit of the category, usually retails at about $18. “Champagne prices have consistently gone up to the point that they are in the mid-$30s to $40, where it's no longer an everyday affordable luxury for the average consumer,” said Taub.
But even with the recession receding—and Champagne rebounding 25.7 percent in 2010 over 2009—Prosecco sales growth is still accelerating. Lighter and less yeasty than traditional French sparklers, “the profile of the wine itself is quite appealing for the American palate,” said Massimo Tonini, export director of Santa Margherita, which focuses on DOCG Prosecco.
Both Prosecco and Moscato have been embraced by younger drinkers less likely to equate sparkling wine with just a handful of premium French and American labels. “We can tell [from company sales statistics] that the profile of demographic in the American market associated with Prosecco is more feminine and definitely younger than other categories that we see,” Tonini said. Ceola forecasts two to four more years of double-digit growth in the American market, largely spurred on by new drinkers. As for Moscato, VOGA press materials accompanying the debut specifically target a “Millenial/socializer" consumer, [ranging] in age from 21 to 35 and drawn to anything hip, stylish or fashion-focused.”
Versatility is also a plus. “Prosecco is perfect by the glass, for cocktails, for parties. It's good for mixology,” said Tonini.
Braithe Tidwell, wine and beverage director at the Union Square Café and a Prosecco acolyte, agreed. “It's not as heavy as Champagne,” she said. “It adds a little bit of bright freshness, but also does not get in the way of the other flavors.”
But though Santa Margherita, Mionetto and Cavit have all seen double-digit (or in Cavit's case triple-digit) growth in their brands over 2010 in the American market, with growth comes growing pains. Ceola regards the new DOC classification as a net positive. “The trade maybe was thinking Prosecco is a frivolous drink, but it's not, because the region is very unique; we have a lot of different areas with different microclimates. The perception and the actual quality of the Prosecco will go up,” he said. But “because of that, the other thing that will go up is going to be the price, unfortunately.”
When Mionetto bought juice from growers from the 2009 harvest, it cost them $1.35 per liter. For the 2010 harvest, the Italians are charging $2.84. “We can't control it. We keep telling everyone, 'Don't get greedy,'” Ceola said. “The success of Prosecco is the pricing. The minute it's going to go closer to $20, it's not affordable anymore. The excitement we have here [in the U.S.] has excited the producers too much, and everybody thinks they can make more money.”
Still, Italian sparkling producers are optimistic about the future of their market. Americans consumed 13.8 million cases of sparkling wine in 2009, up from 12.1 million in 2000; the number is expected to grow to 15 million by 2015. Much of that growth is from imported sparkling wine-consumption has spiked 42.1 percent over the past decade.
Producers credit new drinking attitudes that do not relegate bubbly to births and weddings. “I think that the consumer being able to access quality sparkling wine products in that mid-teen price point offers a common everyday luxury, where they can have excitement, and they don't have to wait for a special occasion,” said Taub. Italian sparkling producers believe there is enough room in the U.S. market now for sparkling wine to grow at all price points.
Only time will tell if Italian sparklers have staying power. But producers claim they have learned from history and are determined to avoid oversaturating markets or weakening quality. Said Ceola, “We don't want to happen to Prosecco what happened to Soave and Pinot Grigio.”