Monday, December 26, 2011

Prosecco vs. the world

Sergio Mionetto on top of Cartizze
Wine writers must be running out of meaningful subjects, the latest diversion from significant stories being this little piece about Prosecco finally triumphing over Champagne. Perhaps this is just an unconscious jab at France and Sarkozy over dragging the Italians into the current existentialist predicament of the Euro zone. Or maybe it’s that folks have run out of things to talk about between Christmas and the New Years. It would be better for most of the writers to take another stab at a turkey sandwich, watch the “Law and Order” marathon and let the ship pass. This is not important news. Somewhere in the world other sparkling wines are outselling Prosecco and Champagne combined. Should we write that once again for the 25th year, Andre has outsold Champagne too? That’s the image I get in my head when I see these silly stories.

I don’t have a bone to pick with Prosecco. They are riding high. Price increases are forthcoming, by the way, so the Ferris wheel, she goes up, the Ferris wheel, she also goes down. Rarely does the Ferris wheel stop for one at the top. So there will be challenges in 2012, with an election year in the USA, to move the category forward in double digit growth territory.

Champagne, what do they care? They sell everything they make. Veuve-Clicquot (I was told by a highly placed person in the company) has been in “allocation” mode this year. Regardless of how you fell about any brand of Champagne, one can rest easily knowing the plans the Champenoise have for their brand can take you or leave you. Not so with Prosecco.

Sergio (R) and longtime grower and friend Giuseppe (L) in Valdobbiadene
Prosecco is a loosely strung out collection of producers, spread out over a territory that is vastly different in the terrain, and hence, the final results. There are classes of Prosecco, as there are in Champagne. But the stylistic differences that Champagne denotes in their vineyard classifications, let’s say the Italians are playing with a looser set of values. Example: One can find Prosecco wine from the Cartizze site which is sublime and rich and delicate. And with retail prices approaching $60 or higher. And then there are all those ones that are not DOCG and can be produced in large quantities that will sell for $10. Nothing wrong with a sip or two or mixed with mango or peach in a sparkling cocktail. But not something one might have with poached fish or risotto. The Italians haven’t made Prosecco into a premium brand. In Italy that should be the role of Franciacorta, and for those who are in the trenches of that skirmish, everyone there knows that is no easy battle. Not quite a hopeless charade, but something that has taken years of work and will require many more years.

If there is a dog in the fight against Prosecco, look to Cava. Their export business has been steadily growing in the last 30 years. From 10 million bottles in 1980 to 149 million in 2010 sent abroad. According to Alberto Mattioli (of LA STAMPA/Worldcrunch) "Coldiretti, Italy's largest farming group. Coldiretti reported that in the first nine months of 2011, 200 million of bottles of Prosecco were exported, versus 'only' 192 million of bottles of Champagne." With the O-N-D season unreported and with that time period showing the highest volume of sales, traditionally, those numbers will jump.

Renzo Montesel, trained as an agronomist in the Coneglioano-Valdobbiadene zone, now makes and excellent Prosecco DOCG from his Vigna Paradiso vineyard
What I am looking at are several things. First, Cava has shown organic, steady growth in exports and in a time when prices sensitivity is an important determining factor. The other consideration is that Cava tends towards a dry style, while Prosecco has played in to the arms of folks who love White Zinfandel and Moscato. The trash heap of wine marketing history is littered with the remains of sweet wines (Blue Nun anyone?) and with the newest foray by Johnny-come-lately marketers with sweet red and flavored reds (Chocolate being the current darling) that bus is getting pretty crowded.

Meanwhile, Champagne doles out their cases to the countries who still seek status. But the dry factor is still high up on the list of desirable qualities Champagne possesses. And Cava is no slouch in that department. Add to that the method of production is similar.

Now Cava might not be your cup of Macabeo, for folks who prefer their sparkling wines made of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but I would train my eye to stay on the rise of Cava. Not as a substitute for Champagne, but as a good honest product (in most cases) that screams value.

It seems the Italians are in the process of shooting themselves in the foot on that one. Not that such a factor will matter much in the trendy bars of Santa Monica or Manhattan’s meat packing district. But for the tea rooms in Omaha and Birmingham, price might be more of a consideration than style. And as anyone who has crawled around the coasts in the trendy areas, style in those circles is a moving target.

Final conclusions for now. Champagne has nothing to worry about. Cava is a good bet for continued, steady growth in the sparkling value market. And Prosecco? Where is it going in the second decade of the 21st century? Hop on the Ferris wheel and take a ride with the rest of us. I am sure of one thing; the Italian penchant for tinkering with success will provide all of us in the trade with creative challenges in the coming months and years.


Wine Curmudgeon said...

Pretty damned good analysis (as usual). What too many wine critics don't understand, in their fascination with Champagne, is that cava doesn't compete with Champagne, in the same way that Central Coast merlot doesn't compete with Bordeaux.

What Prosecco doesn't understand is that it does compete with cava. So if and when it takes its price increases, and consumers can buy a fabulous bottle of cava for $10, they're not going to keep buying Prosecco.

Ritchie said...

Interesting thoughts, prosecco makers must focus and choose their strategies wisely.

Anonymous said...

What you said, Wine Curmudgeon. So true. Why do people have to make it so complicated? An admirer

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