Twenty years ago the entire sales of Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, in the United States market amounted to less than 500 cases a year. Last year sales exceeded two million cases and that was up 27% from the previous year. This is a category that we love, but why? What is it that makes Prosecco so popular?
I tried to throw some light on that recently when Prosecco producer Mionetto sent me samples of five of their wines, from simple and inexpensive to pricier examples near the top of their line. It is fitting that Mionetto should do this as they were the producer that first shipped Prosecco in volume to the USA (in 2000).
For most of its existence here, Prosecco has been popular for two things: its competitive price versus the best known sparkling wine, Champagne (from the homonymous region in France), and as a mixer to make the Bellini cocktail. While giving the wine publicity, neither role promoted the wine as a first-class style of sparkling wine in its own right.
Prosecco has also changed over time, making it harder to pin down hallmarks as easily as one can do for Champagne. United States troops marching up Italy during the second world war and postwar travelers in the area prior to 1960 would have found Prosecco to be a sweet wine (like modern day Asti Spumante from Piedmont). How it came to take on the modern-day dry character is somewhat hard to fathom, but better production techniques are considered an important part of the transition.
In the process, Prosecco began to spring up from areas of Italy outside the original production area of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. In fact, some of it came from outside Italy. The original producers decided to protect the Prosecco name as a designated production area and to phase out the use of the word to describe the predominant grape used to make the wine. That became standardized as Glera and the classical production areas obtained DOCG status with tighter yield standards. There was a renewed focus on quality. The range of wines that Mionetto produces is a product of that, and the fact that they sent out the range to the media indicative of their desire to publicize that fact.
I gathered five private collectors, all of a skeptical cast of mind, at Momo’s Italian Kitchen (a good Italian restaurant that is also BYOB), to taste through the Mionetto wines on their own and accompanying a variety of food. We tasted the wines in order of (what I thought would be) increasing quality.
Two points up front: First, Prosecco is usually not made the same way as Champagne. The latter becomes sparkling through a second fermentation in the bottle in which the final wine is sold (the so-called méthode traditionelle). Prosecco can legally be made this way but most of it is made in a tank using the Charmat process. It undergoes a secondary fermentation in the tank and is then injected into bottles. This is a less expensive production technique.
Second, almost all Prosecco is not vintage-dated. This allows producers to blend wine from multiple years to make the final product, helping to maintain a ‘house style’. Vintage wine (a millesimato) is legal and will, I predict, become more common in the next few years as Prosecco producers strive to distinguish themselves from a host of lookalike sparkling wines..
We started at the budget end of the range with “Il” Prosecco, DOC Prosecco ($11), Mionetto’s budget offering. This actually comes with a crown cap which, far from being a marketer’s abomination, is the traditional closure in Italy. It is a simple, low-alcohol (10.5%), slightly sweet (it is too sweet to be labelled ‘Brut’, for dry, in Europe), fruity and spritzy wine made from Glera. It is ideal for poolside drinking or with food such as dessert tarts or fruit.
Next the Prosecco, Brut, DOC Treviso ($12) was a step up the quality ladder into Mionetto’s mid-range collection. Yellow straw in color. It is dry, but not bone dry (the sugar is 12g/litre, on the boundary between brut and ‘extra dry’) and made from 100% Glera grapes. The pleasant palate has hints of golden apples and peach and a lively acidity. This can be quaffed or served with salad, gnocchi in cheese sauce, or with fruity pastries and desserts.
A sideways step to the Prosecco, Organic, DOC Treviso ($16) which is made from organically grown grapes and vinified with 18g/litre of sugar, enough to push it out of brut and extra dry status and into the ‘dry’ category. Yellow color. Lime flavor from the fruit. More yeasty flavor, and heavier mouthfeel. Less sweet to the tongue than the residual sugar level would lead you to believe.
The Cuvée Luxury Valdobbiadene Superiore, DOCG Valdobbiadene Extra Dry ($19) was the first example from Mionetto’s top-end line and the first example from the DOCG area for Prosecco. The terrain in Valdobbiadene is characterised by steep hillsides that have to be hand-harvested and which is owned by hundreds of small growers with average plots of between 2.5 and 10 acres.
This wine is crisper than its predecessors. It has more mineral components to the flavors. It is complex and less defined by primary fruit flavors. The color is straw. This is the first wine that I would serve someone who wanted evidence of Prosecco’s quest for quality. A very refined example.
The Cuvée Luxury Cartizze, DOCG ($35) is from the closest thing to a Grand Cru in Prosecco, the Cartizze vineyard is 260 acres on a steep hillside. The vineyard land here apparently sells for over a million euros per hectare (2.5 acres).
This wine is similar in character to the last in eschewing forward fruit for a more complex balance of mineral and fruit. The color is yellow straw. The nose is very faint, it is very much a palate wine.
As with Champagne, I found the range of food that Prosecco, particularly the last two, could be successfully paired with was very broad. We tasted them throughout the meal and, with the exception of heavy red meats, which overwhelmed them, they were an impressive match.
Add me to the list of those who are persuaded of the Prosecco region’s improvements. I look forward to seeing how far non-vintage, Charmat method wines can go. The levels achieved thus far easily exceed what I would have expected.
Mionetto wines are available in the Dallas area at HEB, Kroger, Central Market, Whole Foods, Total Wine & More, Spec’s Liquor, United Market Street, Trader Joe’s and Target (only IL Prosecco).