Fizz and Prosecco 15 March 2019

If you think Uber and AirBnB have been disruptive, spare a thought for Champagne (the real thing) reeling from the impact of Prosecco on its market. Ten years ago it produced and sold 300m bottles from 330000 hectares of vineyard – more than twice the total production of this now fashionable Italian sparkling wine. At the time, more than half of all Prosecco came from the 5000 hectares of prestigious DOCG appellations in the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene sub-regions.

Today the DOCG volumes of Prosecco remains largely the same at about 100m litres – it’s not legally possible to expand the vineyards. But cheap DOC Prosecco from a vast swathe of northeastern Italy has grown from roughly 50m to 500m bottles – all in less than a decade, the result of increased plantings and increased yields. With an estimated 600m bottles from the 2018 vintage, Prosecco now dwarfs Champagne, decimating what used to be pretty much a French monopoly.

You don’t need a degree in agricultural economics to work out that Prosecco’s raw material is significantly cheaper to produce than Champagne’s – even before you take account of land values, farming methods and the costs of hand- versus machine-harvesting. If you add to the equation the different cost inputs in the production methods, it’s easy to see why Champagne cannot compete on price.

Champagne grapes cost more because yields are strictly controlled, only fruit harvested from vineyards in designated appellations can be used, the Champagne production method involves a second fermentation in the bottle in which the wine is sold, as well as an extended ageing period before release. Prosecco can be still, frizzante or sparkling, and whatever fizz it comes with is (in 99% of the cases) the result of a carbonation process – the vinous equivalent of Sodastream. No wonder the French derisively describe it as “Italian Coca-Cola.”

Except that it sells, and it is clearly selling to at least some of the consumers who were previously willing to pay for the luxury brand value of the Champagne appellation. The Champenoises never saw this coming. Even if they had anticipated a slight attrition because Prosecco was suddenly a la mode, they could hardly have expected that within a few short years its sales volumes would exceed Champagne’s in the UK, one of their most important markets.

Hindsight, being the exact science it is, suggests that they should have known better. The shift of world fashion from Paris to Milan was already in full swing by the time Prosecco emerged from the obscurity of a regional beverage to a potential world-beater. Once Italy supplanted France as the darling of the fashionistas, Italian fizz was certainly going to make inroads into a market which, until then, was branded solely with the tricolore.

As you may have guessed, I’m not sold on the idea of Prosecco as fine wine. True, the top appellations (the 15% which bear the DOCG seal) are significantly more nuanced than the torrents of sweetish bubbly which have suddenly become the gout du jour among people who want a pretty package filled with something not too sweet, not too dry, not too flat, not too gassy, not really wine, and not really water.

South Africa has not escaped the contagion, though we have been well served by importers who have generally selected good wines from reputable producers. The latest newcomer is Masottina, with some fine DOCG examples (I particularly liked the Extra Dry, though the DOC Biologico – in other words, organic –  was surprisingly good). Still family owned, and with very good sites in the Ogliano hills, Masottina makes some of the purest expressions of Prosecco currently available in South Africa.

Judging from how the market is expanding here, the timing of the first shipment was not a matter of coincidence. For Masottina to gain traction however, consumers will have to be ready to shop at the more premium price points, using the DOCG appellations as well as brand as a guideline.

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