How Prosecco Became the World’s Most Popular Sparkling Wine: With a Name Change
Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, is the most popular sparkling wine in the world. It sells more bottles than French champagne and Spanish cava combined. But this is a fairly recent invention. Until 2009, Prosecco was the name of a grape variety mainly, but not exclusively, grown in northeastern Italy. Then it turned into the name of a wine region and became a global success story. But not without a few clouds.
Prosecco was once the name of a grape variety mainly grown in northeastern Italy, in the Veneto region, but not only. It is believed to have originated in Croatia and has been cultivated for a long time in the Balkans, particularly in Slovakia. But most of the plantations were in Veneto.
The most important producer of wine made from the Prosecco grape was the small region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, named after two towns northwest of Venice.
During the first decade of the new millennium (the years leading up to 2009), prosecco-based wines were becoming increasingly popular. Probably helped a little by Paris Hilton who launched Rich Prosecco in 2006, the Aperol Spritz trend, the glory days of Champagne and the general sparkling wine craze. Winemakers of prosecco wine in Veneto didn’t like that others could benefit from the growing popularity of prosecco (the grape variety), so they wanted to create a designation to protect it. If there is an appellation, others are not allowed to use that name. But there was a problem: European appellation rules state that a varietal name cannot be an appellation in itself. Thus, prosecco – a grape variety – could not become a DOC (the Italian code for an appellation).
What to do?
The solution, implemented in 2009, was as follows:
First, change the name of the grape: The grape name prosecco has been removed from the official grape registry. Instead, the varietal’s name was officially declared glera, a hitherto little-used synonym for the varietal.
Next, create a region called Prosecco: There happened to be a village called prosecco in Veneto. According to various sources, the village did not have vineyards at the time. It was not in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region, where most of the prosecco was produced. But it was conveniently located in the Veneto region. The authorities therefore decided to “invent” a new geographical region called Prosecco, based on the name of the village.
So now Prosecco was a geographical name, and a DOC Prosecco could thus be created. The prosecco name has become a monopoly for the region. And everyone had to call the grape “glera” instead.
For a while there has been a discussion about whether prosecco is a grape name or a wine region. Today, this discussion is over, it is legally a region.
But the story is historically interesting, and it’s also a telling illustration of how the wine industry is sometimes driven more by protectionist initiatives than good reasons.
The Italians seem particularly adept at this game, but they are certainly not the only ones. In France, after the reform of the wine law, you can put the name of the grape variety on the label of a bottle of french wine (previously table wine). Unless it is a wine made from the Riesling grape variety. The Alsatians want to keep that to themselves. (But not only them. Aligoté, altesse, clairette, gewurztraminer, gringet, jacquère, mondeuse, persan, poulsard, savagnin, sylvaner and trousseau are also excluded from the vdf labels.)
The more recent EU decision on the varietal name Vermentino becoming exclusively Italian is another example. You can read more about it here: Italians take over Vermentino now (by José Vuillamoz). Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano are two other varieties in the line of sight. Etc.
The details of the creation of the new Prosecco region in 2009 are curious.
The village of Prosecco, from which it takes its name, was actually located near Trieste, in the far east of Italy. It was almost 150 kilometers from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region and did not produce prosecco wine. It was once part of Slovenia (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) where they produced and still produce a wine called “prošek”. Trieste only became part of Italy in 1922.
The creation of the DOC Prosecco also included a vast extension of the geographical area. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC covered a fairly small area around the two towns. The new DOC Prosecco region stretched from the Slovakian border almost to Verona.
The landscape of the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region of origin is quite hilly, sometimes with steep terraced vineyards. Much of the terrain in the newly added extended DOC is flat.
These rule changes were signed into law by the then agriculture minister of the Berlusconi government, Luca Zaia, a Lega Nord (Northern League) politician. He was born in Conegliano and is now president of the Veneto region. This clearly seems to have been a gesture in favor of his home region.
The fact that Prosecco is a DOC (now with some DOCG sister regions) has important consequences. It is a protected name in the EU and the name prosecco grape can no longer be used. And as the EU actively protects its geographical names through trade agreements, prosecco is banned as a grape name in more and more countries.
New Zealand recently signed a trade agreement with the EU which means (among other things) that in a few years they will no longer use this grape name and will no longer make Prosecco. Australia is the big holdout that still hasn’t given up the name prosecco for grapes. It is also planted in Argentina and some other countries.
It is also curious to note that even the Italians still sometimes use prosecco as the name of the grape variety.
Some people are of the opinion that prosecco has always (for a long time) been the name of wine, so the DOC is based on a long tradition, but this argument is difficult to understand. Wine has undoubtedly been produced there since Roman times, but it is doubtful that this creates a historical basis for DOC Prosecco. “In the 19th century, viticulture was still a secondary activity in this region, and small-scale production was mainly intended for self-consumption. This situation remained relatively unchanged until the 1960s”, explains Stefano Ponte in a research article on prosecco. And if prosecco was then used to describe wine, it was no doubt mentioned as the name of a grape.
It is also hard to see how “tradition” can be an argument when the “traditional” production area was a small region near Conegliano-Valdobbiadene about 40 km wide and now extends over 250 km from east to west. Or for that matter, what is the tradition of the recently launched pinot noir-based prosecco rosé?
Yes, there has been an Italian DOC Conegliano Valdobbiadene since 1969, sometimes called Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Some people claim this is proof of a long history of a Prosecco region. But this formulation is just the Italian way of saying “wine made from prosecco grapes from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region”. As DOC Nebbiolo d’Alba, wine made from nebbiolo grapes from the Alba region.
Another argument supporting Prosecco as a justified protected region name is based on consumer perception and expectations and goes as follows:
“Consumers who buy prosecco expect a certain type of wine, with a specific style, from a specific place.” I’m not so sure. I wonder how many consumers who buy a glass or bottle of prosecco know (or care) where it comes from. Or are they just looking for a very affordable, light and refreshing sparkling wine?
So what’s the point? Today, Prosecco is a region. The “prosecco is a region” camp won the debate.
But sometimes it is important to know the history and the context. This story is an example of how wine regions take (in my opinion) a protectionist approach to gain a trade advantage. It is important to understand the history and important to understand how wine regulations came about and how they work. This could contribute to the development of better wine regulation in the future.
It’s also important given other recent rule changes, for example that the varietal name “vermentino” is now banned in France and can only be used in Italy, if the news reports are to be trusted. There are other examples of viticultural regulations drawn up with a similar restrictive theory.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
It seems pretty clear to me that before 2009 ‘prosecco’ always referred to the grape variety, sometimes in conjunction with the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region. A variety that has never been exclusive to northeastern Italy.
This is, of course, irrelevant. Today it is a DOC and DOCG region in Veneto and a very prosperous region. Together they make some 700 million bottles of champagne each year. However, I wonder if Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Asolo (the other prosecco DOCG) would be better off not associating themselves with the prosecco name. Prosecco is famous for its fresh, simple and affordable sparkling wine. The most ambitious producers struggle to achieve the premium prices needed for their top quality wines. Perhaps they regret this association today? Is this another example of the Beaujolais Nouveau effect? Something is getting great, but the quality isn’t quite there and it’s hurting the reputation of the whole region. There are certainly very good Prosecco wines and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene in particular, but perhaps not 700 million bottles.
(By the way, there is a Croatian sweet wine called Prošek that Italy is keen to ban, although the village of Prosecco was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – of which Slovenia and Croatia were part – until the end of World War I. Ongoing legal proceedings.)