Sunday, April 29, 2018

Prosecco: What it is and what it isn’t

Of the epiphanies I had at Vinitaly this year, one of them was over Prosecco. Watching the Prosecco phenomenon over the last 25 years has been one for the books. As I have written before, somewhere in this blog, one of my first encounters with Prosecco was to find a pallet of the stuff in the corner of a warehouse, wondering what the heck it was. What it was at the time, was more frizzante (although the product was so old, it had been “stilled”) than what we now know Prosecco to be. But enough of the rear-view mirror stuff, let’s dive in.

What Prosecco isn’t
Prosecco isn’t Champagne. Or Cava. Or Cremant. Or some new world traditional method sparkler. In fact, I believe calling Prosecco a sparkling wine does it a disservice. For immediately, folks want to start categorizing it as an ingredient for Mimosa’s. Yes, yes, I know some of you will be going, “But, but, the Bellini at Harry’s in Venice!” Yeah, there’s that. And if you’d tried the frizzante version which I did, that day in the warehouse (or if you were some creative type at Harry’s), you’d probably also be trying to find a way to make the stuff palatable. Prosecco wasn’t as pretty as it is today.

That folks would migrate from Champagne to Prosecco has been a thing of wonder for me. The two couldn’t be more different. I think the reason this happened, ten or so years ago, was because of the world-wide economic meltdown, which had folks scurrying to substitute a luxury item for a more affordable alternative. And the Italians (and their worldwide marketing army) are always there to play another song on the hurdy-gurdy. As I’ve written, Italians have something inside their DNA that (generally) compels them to want to please, to want to be of service, to be included, to get inside the room where the warm fire is burning. And the events of ten years ago, set it up for a perfect substitution. But I’m not buying that. There’s probably another reason, in tandem, that caused Prosecco to blossom and blow up in places like England. But I’ll get to that later, when I’m talking about what Prosecco is.

Prosecco isn’t Cava. No way. If it were, why would the Spanish Cava companies be coming out with their own (Italian) version of Prosecco? Possibly because right now (and for some time) Cava has been in the crapper. Which could be a bit of a cautionary tale for the Italians. What happened to Cava to cause it to plummet in popularity, for surely 25 years ago, it had a greater place in the world, was more well known that Prosecco and things were moving along pretty smoothly for the Cava producers.

As an industry watcher, my view on this is that Cava started cutting corners, making the wine more profitable for the producers but the final product started losing some of its initial charm. Remember, 30 or so years ago, people used Cava for Mimosas and as a substitute for Champagne. And the wine goer in those days wasn’t as savvy as they are now. We also didn’t have an army of sommeliers on the floor, educating and influencing diners, like we do now. Cava got dumbed down. And the really good producers (and there some really good ones) got caught in the riptide. Prosecco producers, right now, are luxuriating above them in waves of foam (foamies, my surf buds used to call them). But the tides change. And Prosecco producers are well aware of the dangers that their extreme popularity present them. There is always someone looking to make a quick buck (or Euro) on the latest craze, and Proseccoland has been penetrated by any number of marketer(s), looking to cash in before the tsunami crashes upon the shore.

Prosecco is not from Australia. Come on folks, talk about a pitiful exercise in wannabe-ism. Again, I remember seeing an Australian “Prosecco”, maybe 10-15 years ago, and thinking “What the hell are they thinking?” It’s just pitiful and the doctors and scientists just can’t explain it into a rational answer. Prosecco, like Burgundy, like Chablis, like Chianti, like Champagne, has a “place.” And it ain’t “down under.” Jesus, forgive me, for even having to bring it up. It’s a global embarrassment. Find a name, folks, make it your own. But Prosecco it ain’t.

What Prosecco is
Look, this could go long. If you want more, there is plenty of that on previous posts I have written over the years. But I’m going to expand upon the epiphany I had last week during Vinitaly.

I was in a smart booth, it was as if I were in the vineyard, with a well-made video above me, and the owners scrambling around the room, doing what they do best: making people feel welcome and acknowledged. Acknowledged? Yes, in that, at Vinitaly, this is the place where hospitalitas, that most Italianita of things, is extended in a warm and open manner. Lovely to experience. And Italians do it so well.

As we went through the wines, it was as if I had never had Prosecco in my life. Maybe that was one thought process, but I really had the mind set of “OK, let’s look at this thing from the eyes of someone who never has had Prosecco.” And what transpired, transformed me.

Prosecco is the soft cloth that polishes the solver, not the sandpaper that sands down the rough plank.

Prosecco is lanugo- the delicate, featherlike hair that you find on a new born.

Prosecco doesn't drip luxury like Champagne, but one can luxuriate in the glow of the downy dew of Prosecco. Think linen shirt and trousers vs. a white tie tuxedo. It is access, without the aggravation of influence.

Prosecco has a place, and it is in the Veneto. I know there’s a place in Friuli that is called Prosecco, and I know the politics of Italy gives that place the benefit that the Veneto (and really those defined areas, like Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, Asolo, etc.) has by right of its locus. And place is very important, in the case of Prosecco, because it isn’t a product that one can (or should) find anywhere else in the world. The mere accident of its popularity has obscured this very important factor. One can best realize this by being there. Go to Valdobbiadene, stand in the vineyards of Cartizze and be still for ten minutes. And breath. And it will reveal all its secrets to you. It’s the closest thing to magic you will experience. In the world.

Because of that, Prosecco is in a privileged position in the cosmos. But popularity and our consumer driven world doesn’t have time for this stuff. But you must know this. Prosecco’s place has power. The power that Yaqui shamans talk of in their worlds. The power of the place is what has made this phenomenon possible. Yes, the product is on fire. And yes, you can get any number of types of Prosecco, from the fruity and soft and “Sunday brunchable” to the senza zolfo, col fondo, brut zero, metodo ancestrale, “gone to Burning Man” types. Good for you. but don’t be distracted by all this yammering. There is Spirit that permeates this wine, beyond the trends and the quirks and the buzzwords and the marketing clichés. You must go there and experience this for yourself.

All this passed through my being, sitting there in that booth, tasting this family's (Ruggeri) wines. It was transformative. It was revealing. It was liberating. It was what I have come to see Italy as a source of my love for wine (and life). And yes, it was an epiphany.

That’s what Prosecco is to me.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Monzù said...

Excellent post to put Prosecco back in the true perspective of what it is and is not. "Col fondo" is what I was trying to think of as I was talking with a customer at my local retailer a few days ago. I recommended Bisjol Crede to him. Next up is Ruggeri for us.

Emma S said...

I'm sorry, but you're wrong when you say that prosecco can't be Australian. When the grape was imported into Australia it was known as prosecco, not, as the Italians seem to want to call it now, glera. What's more it was primarily at first planted in the King Valley, an area of Australia settled primarily by Italian families in the 1940s and 1950s. Because the grape was known as prosecco, naturally they decided to call their wine prosecco, just like a Chardonnay grower would call their wine Chardonnay even if their vineyard is not in the French village of that name.
Australian winemakers have every right to call their wine prosecco and claiming otherwise is simply buying into Italian bullying, and ignoring the culture and heritage of that part of Australia.

Max Allen wrote a good article here:

Alfonso Cevola said...

Dear Emma,

The Italians who came to America also called their wines Chianti, as well as other settlers calling their wine Hock, Rhein, Burgundy, and Champagne. Some still do. Migrant Italians also had their surnames changed and misspelled, many times, as they settled into their new worlds. Doing something wrong (to use your word) for over 100 years doesn’t make it right. Just ask the native American or Aboriginal Australian peoples.

I do not believe Australians have the right to call their wine Prosecco, anymore than the Americans have the right to call their sparkling wine Champagne. Will that stop it? no.

Have you been to Valdobbiadene? It is a special place and has the right, by virtue of its territoriality, to exclusivity for that name. And on that I shall not waver. It is deceptive, even if it had innocent (and uninformed) beginnings.

The culture of the Italians, in this case, supersedes the cultural appropriation of the Australians (and the Americans). You want to rationalize it by calling it bullying? I’m not buying in on your argument, I'm sorry.

ken gargett said...

Dear Alfonso,
All of this would have been avoided had the Italians called their wine by the name of the region and not the grape. You won't won't find Australian Champagnes or Chiantis or Hocks or Rheins or Burgundies, thankfully. Nor should you. But you will find Australian Sangioveses, Rieslings, Chardonnays, Pinots and so on.
To suggest that this is an attempt at some sort of cultural appropriation is ridiculous. Though nowhere near as ridiculous as equating this with the history of native Americans or Aboriginals.
Australian winemakers are not trying to replicate the wines from Valdobbiadene or any other region which might grow Prosecco, wherever in the world that might be. They are making a style of wine with that grape as best they can from their vineyards. And just as if they were making a Chardonnay, which would be called Chardonnay, it is called Prosecco - the name of the grape. Concocting some weird name and attempting to impose that on anyone who dares to make wine with the Prosecco grape is just silly.
And yes, i have been to Valdobbiadene, been to VinItaly, visited wineries, even attended a few local ceremonies blessing the vintage (or possibly winery).
It was European authorities who insisted that this practice was exactly what the Australians should do (rightly so) and that all names such as Champagne, Burgundy etc, be dropped from any wines not made from those regions and in accordance with the rules and requirements of those regions. Name your wines by variety (and local regions), they insisted. Australian winemakers have done that (i think most of us would agree that is proper).
You can't have it both ways.
It is anything but deceptive.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Dear Ken,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. There is a lot of passion and emotion around this subject and heated debate can be a constructive thing, although I rather doubt if the leaders of these opposing factions will look to either of us for any concrete solutions. Nonetheless it is important to air the different views. And I thank you for that.

We have a tendency at times, in our new worlds, to think we are the center of the whole world. We have energy, we have passion and we are young and ready to grab life and run with it to the mountain top. I love the new world energy, it propels the whole world into greater quests, inspires and offers an often balance to the “we’ve always done it this way” folks in the older, more settled cultures.

In this case, there have been missteps on both sides. I don’t imagine I will change your mind, and on this I have an intuitive response to know there are always things I won’t know completely. There are older cultures, like the Italian one (which is not just Italian, but many things over the past 2,000 + years). And while no culture is perfect (or complete) it is my belief to respect an older culture for what they have brought to us over many years and centuries. Italy has brought wine to the world from a place which was effectively a feral, wild, happenstance occurrence, to one in which some of the greatest expressions of the grape are available and offered to the world. I think civilized people can and should recognize the place for respect for these cultures. Your argument makes sense, and it is rational. But the Italian culture, like the American and the Australian cultures, is not a static thing. There will be change. And give it up to the Italians for knowing they need to change. And did. There are many more informed about this than I, in regards to the change of the name from Prosecco to Glera, and like you, I didn’t like it either. I thought it was confusing. But I also didn’t like, initially, changing from the Lira to the Euro. But now I love that I can use one set of many for many different countries. This said, to offer a suggestion to you to consider our older (but not always wiser) cultures, like Italy, in giving them the benefit of the consideration of their fallibility, to respect their need to change and move in the world. After all, they have brought so many of us, in wine and many other things, happiness and joy, beauty and truth. They deserve respect for the territoriality of Prosecco – and we, in the new world should be young and flexible enough to understand that our older brothers and sisters merit such consideration.

Marco Schiavelli said...

Prosecco is Prosecco is Prosecco.

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