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The Superiority of Prosecco Superiore
By Michael Franz
May 29, 2018
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As most wine lovers are aware, Prosecco, Italy’s frothy, fun-loving sparkling wine, is booming.  However, recent history in the wine trade has proved that not every boom is a boon.  Whenever a wine category catches commercial fire, the wine trade strains every nerve to keep up with skyrocketing demand.  But just as a rocket in the boost phase torches everything beneath it, a booming wine category can incinerate the reputation of the high-quality wine that provided a foundation for the initial lift-off.

That is exactly what booming--but often uninspiring--Prosecco DOC is threatening to do to the high-quality Prosecco Superiore DOCG grown on the steep hills in the Prosecco heartland around Valdobbiadene and Conegliano.  I’ve just returned from my third visit to the primo DOCG region, and will be writing about current releases in my column next month.  But for now, it is crucial to understand how the plight of Prosecco Superiore arose in the first place.

The situation is actually not new, but rather a new chapter in a story that has become all-too-familiar in recent years.  Consider these cases in point:  When Merlot boomed in the early 1990s, growers around the world planted the variety like mad, flooding markets with diluted renditions because anything labeled “Merlot” could sell on the fashionable force of that word alone.  That particular party ended the moment that the character Miles in the film “Sideways” leveled his famous excoriation against Merlot, but the movie touched off an equally instant fad for Pinot Noir, one that also proved equally disastrous for quality in that category.

When demand for Pinot outstripped supply, producers rushed to plant vines or to buy juice from wherever they could get it.  Almost overnight, famous California brands like Beaulieu Vineyard were selling Pinot that actually came from--get this--Corsica.  The wine was not bad, but neither did it taste much like Pinot to experienced tasters.  Nevertheless, experienced tasters were not the consumers driving the action, and selling Pinot from anyplace to new converts with no frame of reference was like shooting fish in a barrel.

“Sideways” was released in 2004, and by the spring of 2006, relatively inexpensive Pinot Noir had become the worst wine in its price category in the world.  Not the worst-selling, mind you, but the worst in terms of quality and consistency--precisely because it was selling so well.

Then there’s the case of Yellow Tail, the line of inexpensive wines from Australia that proved so successful that it altered the USA market’s perception of Australian wine per se, and not for the better.  You’ve heard the old expression about bad situations in which a tail is said to be “wagging the dog”?  Well, Yellow Tail didn’t just wag the dog of the Australian wine industry--it damned near choked it to death.

Which brings us back to Prosecco.  In light of the examples just considered, you might be thinking to yourself, “How could the Italians commit the same mistake?”  In fact, the Prosecco problem is not quite the same, and those who made the decisions that created the current situation acted more from necessity than from greed, and were really playing defense more than offense.

Here’s the short version of the story:  In the mid-2000s, Prosecco as a general sparkling wine category went fairly suddenly from being a big deal only in Europe to being a big deal around the world.  At that point, a distinction was already in place to offer special recognition to wines sourced from the prime growing region around Valdobbiadene and Conegliano:  Wines within a delimited area held DOC status as a controlled appellation, whereas lesser wines from the surrounding flatlands were entitled only to the less honorable IGT distinction.

So far, so good.  Except that “Prosecco” was a word designating two distinct things at that point:  A sparkling wine, but also the grape from which the wine was made.  And since the wine was selling like crazy, why wouldn’t wineries in Brazil or Australia start planting the grape so they could sell wine bearing the booming name?

Before 2009, there was no negative answer to that question because “Prosecco” wasn’t legally protected as a product associated with a particular place.  Think of it this way:  You can’t plant vines in Brazil and sell the resulting wine as “Burgundy” (at least not if you want to get along with the European Union), but you are perfectly entitled to sell it as “Pinot Noir.”  The only way to prevent what the Brazilians and Australians were doing was to grant DOC designation to virtually all Italian Prosecco in connection with a particular geographical area, and to change the name of the grape to something else.

So that’s what was done.  The wines made from flatland vineyards were elevated from IGT to DOC status.  Equally importantly, the grape variety’s name was changed from Prosecco to “Glera,” a designation that Jancis Robinson MW and her co-authors in the definitive reference volume Wine Grapes call “…both confusing and misleading.”  They are correct about that, but there’s no point in detailing their reasons here, because the real reason for the change wasn't ampelographical accuracy but rather product protection.

These moves resulted in the intended consequences, plus one very significant unintended consequence.  The good news, for starters, was that the Australians and Brazilians did indeed choose to continue getting along with the European Union, and accordingly stopped selling “Prosecco.”  The bad news was--and remains--that elevating wines grown in the prime area around Valdobbiadene and Conegliano to DOCG status has largely failed to raise them above the rising tide of DOC Prosecco that threatens to drown them.

Before turning to the reason behind this, we should be clear about the facts:  As a group, the DOCG wines clearly stand above the DOC ones in quality, just as the vineyards that source them tower over the surrounding DOC flatlands.  The problem is one of perception--or rather mis-perception--on the part of consumers and even members of the wine trade.

Anyone who visits the prime region can see instantly why the two product categories are different, but how many consumers (or trade members or wine educators, for that matter) have ever done that?  Ask most members of the wine trade to pinpoint Valdobbiadene on a map, and they’ll break into a cold sweat of incapability.  But seeing is believing:  The DOC-eligible land on one side of the roadway that marks the appellation border is flat as a pancake, whereas the other is so steep that the tops of the hills can't even be planted and must be surrendered to forest.

Similarly, how many consumers around the world really appreciate the distinction between DOC and DOCG-designated wines?  The percentage is very low, but the fault doesn’t lie entirely with consumers.  The Italians themselves have engaged in “grade-inflation” by awarding too many DOCG designations, thereby deflating every DOCG that is really needed.  When regular Chianti gets to bear the same honorific as Chianti Classico, you know that DOCGs are being handed out like youth soccer trophies.  Consumers can hardly be faulted for not gasping in admiration in the unlikely event that they notice “DOCG” on a bottle of Prosecco from Conegliano or Valdobbiadene.

The one word that sticks in the public mind as this category is expanding rapidly in commercial terms is "Prosecco."  Period.  The DOC / DOCG distinction is lost on almost everybody.  Moreover, it is an exercise in futility to hope that consumers will spurn “Prosecco” when ordering in a restaurant or retail store and ask for, “Conegliano - Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG Superiore.”  Research has shown that consumers won’t even say, “Gewurztraminer,” so there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that the long version is going to catch on, and even “Valdobbiadene” can only be pronounced with practice.

Clearly, then, the consortium of producers in the prime zone is wrestling with a very difficult problem.  One factor in their favor is that their zone is so obviously different.  Higher altitude and hillier topography translate directly into superior quality on the DOCG side.  Hilly sites with poorer, quick-draining soils reduce yields and increase depth of flavor in the wine.  A cooler climate preserves aroma and acidity in the grapes, and most DOCG wines are manifestly more expressively perfumed and more seriously structured with freshening acidity.

You might conclude from this that superior quality will inevitably prevail, and perhaps it will, but some producers in the DOCG zone may not survive long enough to see that happen.  On the flat DOC side of the boundary, producers can use machines to prune and harvest, and can crank out high vineyard yields, theoretically without ever setting foot on the ground.  By contrast, growers on the DOCG side must labor in vineyards so steep that most vines must be individually staked onto the slope, as in the Mosel and Côte Rôtie, with vastly lower yields and dramatically higher production costs. 

This brings us to the key problem of the moment, which is that the product categories are still so little known that DOCG wines can fetch prices that are only marginally higher than DOC wines.   That isn’t true on France’s Rhône Valley, where Côte Rôtie can sell for four times the prices that lesser Crozes-Hermitage wines sourced from the flats will bring.  The present situation in Conegliano and Valdobbiadene is quite possibly unsustainable over the longer term for many growers and producers, as they have difficulty getting their wines to sell when offered at prices 50% higher than DOC Prosecco, rather than the 400% differential in our Côte Rôtie example.

I don’t know what the solution to this set of problems may be, but I do know my modest role in it, which is to review outstanding examples from the DOCG zone and prod you to try them.  Toward that end, I’ll be back next month with lots of recommendations.  If you taste some of the wines I’ll profile, you’ll soon realize that Prosecco is more than a commodity--it is also, at its best, a wine of place, one that is highly distinctive and indisputably delicious.  The only problem is that you can only experience this if you get your Prosecco from the right place, which is off the steep slopes around Valdobbiadene and Conegliano.   Altitude translates into cooler temperatures and greater diurnal swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures in the district's vineyards, which, in turn, translates into more expressive bouquets, brighter acidities, and more exciting interplay between fruit and structure.

I’ll “see” you back here next month, but for now, if you need to stock up on sparkling wine for a wedding or a graduation party, please ask your wine merchant to show you not just a Prosecco…but a Prosecco Superiore DOCG.  That shortened description will get you to “the good stuff,” which usually only costs a few dollars more.  The price difference should actually be significantly greater, but that’s not a problem for your conscience as a consumer, and for now at least, the best thing you can do to help producers is to enjoy a bargain and buy their wines….