A press release announcing the arrival of a ‘New Luxury Prosecco’ raised a few eyebrows in late 2016. What on earth is ‘luxury Prosecco’?
It’s a fair question. The words luxury and Prosecco are far from synonymous. The sparkling wine from the Veneto region can be found on supermarket shelves across Europe and beyond. Its affordability has made it the sparkling wine of choice for women doing the weekly shop, helping it reach sales of more than 25m 9-L cases – or 302m bottles – in 2016 compared with 10m cases in 2011. Guillaume Deglise, CEO of Vinexpo, explains, “Prosecco is taking over from discounted Champagne,” particularly in the UK and northern Europe.
Yet the emergence of a handful of self-titled luxury Proseccos which sell for the price of non-discounted Champagne, or even prestige cuvées, suggest that the Italians have greater ambitions than being the producers of a fun, fruity, and frothy fizz. Take the headline-grabbing Casanova Prosecco DOC, encased in a bottle encrusted with 3,370 Swarovski crystals and priced at £1,290.00 ($1,652.00). Or, a little more reasonably priced at £28.00 is the Ombra Di Pantera, a vintage DOCG Prosecco that launched in three exclusive venues in Ibiza in 2016 and is now served in a number of high-end restaurants in London. It’s not just new brands that are trying to capture the luxury title: Mionetto (founded 1887) has added to its grocery-focused ranges a luxury collection which retails at around £15.00 to £20.00.
Gucci, Maserati, and Versace are some of Italy’s most-loved luxury brands. What makes them luxury brands? According to a 2013 study commissioned by Walpole, an association of Britain’s luxury goods brands, the ingredients of luxury – or part of the so-called ‘luxury code’ – include brand soul and history, an exquisite product that is both high in quality and has rarity value, and when it comes to fashion, has a cool ‘nowness’. Those who buy luxury goods, it found, tend to be demanding, extrovert, and materialistic. Ownership of luxury goods, whether it’s a Louis Vuitton handbag or a bottle of Krug on the table, is part of a display of wealth; it might make the buyer feel good or the purchase might be an attempt to show that the owner knows what’s good. The question mark here is whether or not one or more Prosecco brands can break the mould of cheap and cheerful sparkling wine to become an aspirational good.
Dr Klaus Heine, assistant professor of luxury marketing at emlyon business school, says “to turn a wine brand into a luxury brand, the basic recipe is to comply with the ‘code of luxury’.” They also need to be authentic – and that can be “a continued commitment to traditions and place of origin.” Yet, the two most recent ‘luxury Prosecco’ launches can’t call on a long history of production and are thus tapping into the heritage of the Prosecco region. Even then, Prosecco does not have a long and storied history as a fine-wine-producing region. In addition, once you get past the beauty of the packaging and the aspirational marketing, the contents have to be exquisite, and they are hardly up to the exacting standards of a regular drinker of Champagnes Krug or Perrier-Jouët.
There are highly respected wine producers – as opposed to luxury brands – within the Prosecco DOCG that have flagship or prestige ranges, such as Bisol. The company, which has a winemaking history that can be traced to the sixteenth century, makes four small-batch wines, including a cuvée from Cartizze, the most expensive vineyard land in the region, which is then aged on lees for 21 months. Thus, the Bisol family has brand history, these wines have rarity value – there are around 5,000 to 6,000 bottles made of each private cuvée – they offer high quality in the category, and the no-sulphur cuvée has a real ‘nowness’. This is a set of wines from Prosecco that tick the luxury product boxes, but it doesn’t make Bisol a luxury brand. In addition, there’s a question mark over whether a wealthy diner would want to order a Prosecco to impress their friends. “If you go to a dinner and you don’t know people, you normally buy Champagne because it’s more of a status symbol,” admits Bisol. “But if you are seeing your friends you bring a bottle of Prosecco.”
Luxury for the masses
There is no disputing that the term ‘Prosecco’ embraces a wide range of quality levels, and so-called luxury Proseccos raise an important issue: Prosecco is not just an affordable supermarket bubbly. Unfortunately, it has become a synonym for fruity, fizzy, slightly sweet wine that people will order in a pub, as Deglise explains: “Prosecco is a brand. People now order it by name, and it is seen as an everyday luxury.” That, however, is both a blessing as well as a curse, says Francesco Vanoli, the brains behind the Ombra Di Pantera brand.
“People will walk into a bar and say, ‘I will have a Prosecco’. It’s like saying ‘I will have a white wine’ – usually, there’s a follow up with white wine [a customer will specify a variety, brand or style] but with Prosecco, there’s no follow up. And rarely will you see a bar ranging more than one Prosecco on the list.” Vanoli’s ambition is to see superior-quality Proseccos listed in addition to an entry-level style on wine lists.
However, Francesco Zonin thinks that having a customer walk into a bar and order a Prosecco rather than a Sauvignon Blanc or beer is a step in the right direction – many struggling-for-recognition regions would kill to achieve the level of renown that Prosecco enjoys. “If people are saying, ‘I will have a glass of Prosecco’, that’s a big step. We have hundreds of appellations and something like 700 grape varieties [in Italy]. Consumers might know 20 of them – Chianti, Brunello…” And now Prosecco is part of the exclusive group of recognised wine-producing areas. This marks a departure for a wine whose consumption was largely confined to north-eastern Italy less than 30 years ago.
The G spot
For those in the know, the Prosecco DOCG area is a small enclave within the wider DOC area, centred around the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. Lower yields and superior hillside sites contribute to the step up in quality. However, many Prosecco drinkers aren’t aware that this differentiation exists. A €35,000.00 ($37,500.00) study of the US market commissioned by the Prosecco DOC and DOCG consorzios in 2016 stressed the importance of making this distinction between standard and premium Prosecco. The lead researcher, Professor Eugenio Pomarici of the University of Padua, explained that information on the bottle is key to understanding this distinction. “Consumers should become aware of the differences between DOC and DOCG wines, and among DOCG Proseccos, of those coming from delimited slopes produced under more severe rules [for example, Prosecco Superiore Rive – 43 specific villages or vineyards]. What’s more, it is important to offer involved consumers appropriate communication regarding Prosecco: tradition, people, landscape, production techniques, wine sensory features, rules, and so on. In short, it is necessary to communication able to deliver to consumers all the ‘reasons why’ it is reasonable to pay Prosecco more, at least sometimes, making consumers ready to receive positive recommendations from professionals [such as sommeliers, fine wine retailers, and critics].”
However, it’s not an easy task for Prosecco when every other wine region claims to want to educate the consumer about their piece of dirt. Gianluca Bisol sees it as an uphill struggle. “It is very difficult for people to understand DOC and DOCG,” he says. “When you go outside Italy it is more difficult to sell DOCG. It [Conegliano Valdobbiadene] is hard to pronounce, and there’s no clear strategy to help consumers understand the differences.” Professor Pomarici suggests that structured tastings, comparative tastings alongside Prosecco, and educational sessions “to fix in professionals’ minds, through personal experience, that different levels of finesse in Prosecco may exist.”
Zonin believes that segmenting the market is key to successfully communicating about DOC vs DOCG. “You need to remember this is a quarter-of-a-billion-bottle market, and 80% are drinking Prosecco [DOC] because that is what they are looking for – it’s sparkling and slightly aromatic, with a little bit of residual sugar that makes it very smooth and easy to drink. But then the other 20% are people that are wine lovers. They’re the same people that are looking for a Chianti Classico single vineyard, Valpolicella vs Ripasso – they want to know the differences.”
Certainly, there are different levels of quality when it comes to Prosecco, and for the highly involved or curious consumer there is a pyramid of quality that they can ascend from the common starting point of DOC wine up to Cartizze. However, luxury Prosecco is currently a self-made concept, driven by marketing. There are some Proseccos that tick sections of the luxury code: there are some premium, small-batch Proseccos, and some long-established producers, but can the Glera grape – made fizzy by second fermentation in tank – ever reach the exquisite heights of a prestige Champagne? Even if it could, would consumers of other luxury goods be happy to serve a bottle of Prosecco instead of Dom Pérignon to their high-flying friends? That day is a long way off.