What’s a Prosecco? Italian Sparkling Wine vs. French Champagne

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A new word for the New Year, just don’t call it cheap Champagne. But, whether you know what Prosecco is or not, chances are very good you’ll have some New Year’s Eve.

Prosecco is generally a dry Italian sparkling wine made from the grape variety Glera which is grown in the Veneto region of Italy. Up until the 1960s, Prosecco sparkling wine was basically rather sweet and barely distinguishable from the Asti Spumante wine produced in Piedmont. Since then, production techniques have improved, leading to the higher quality dry wines produced today.

Prosecco was introduced to the U.S. market in 2000 by Mionetto (still the largest importer of Prosecco) and has experienced double-digit percentage increases in global sales since 1998 (according to a 2008 New York Times article). However, unlike Champagne, its main commercial competitor, Prosecco is produced using the Charmat method, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks (instead of the bottle), making the wine less expensive to produce. Also, unlike Champagne, Prosecco should not be aged, it should be drunk as young as possible and preferably before it is two years old.

Prosecco is mainly produced as a sparkling wine in either the fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante) varieties. Prosecco spumante, which has undergone a full secondary fermentation, is the more expensive variant. Cheap Prosecco frizzante is also sold in cans (see article on Paris Hilton’s endorsement of Rich Prosecco in a can).

Prosecco in cans

2010 was a good year for Italian sparkling wine, it will be long-remembered by Italian winemakers as the year it finally surpassed the production of French Champagne.

This year’s production of “bollicine” (“Bubbles”, as sparkling wine is referred to in Italian) primarily Asti Spumante and Prosecco, will hit a stunning 380 million bottles, overtaking France’s much more expensive (and much more valuable) Champagne by 10 million bottles, according to forecasts by Italy’s wine expert association Assoenologi.

Rivalry between the world’s two top producers of bubbly has always been great, with France flaunting its brand supremacy and perceived superiority over Italy. But since on average sparkling wine costs much less than Champagne, the price factor has given Italian sparkling wine a distinct advantage in this economic climate.

Exports of Spumante and Prosecco rose 17% within the first 9 months of 2010, as reported by the Italian farmer association Coldiretti. In Russia imports soared a hefty 166%.

Following the trend, Vinitaly, a festival that promotes Italian wine globally will put “bollicine” in the spotlight in 2011. In addition to Prosecco, another important Italian sparkling wine region is Franciacorta. Franciacorta´s bubblies are considered to be the creme de la creme of sparkling wines in Italy, and it uses the “Champagne Method” of fermentation.

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