Saturday, September 25, 2010

Prosecco Perils

Italy is a treasure-trove of wines of all styles and varieties – one of the most exciting countries in the world to embark on a grape-stained adventure. And great price / quality ratio as well. So I’m 100% a fan of Italian wines.

But it’s also an unmitigated disaster when it comes to wine regulations, labelling, controls and the genetically inbuilt propensity to stretch, or even flaunt, the regulations wherever possible. Very Irish in fact! The recent “Brunellogate” scandal was just one example where it seems some rather murky blending procedures were going on.

Over in Prosecco-land, or the Veneto, they have recently introduced some legislative changes to the classification of Proseccos – and all sorts of mayhem has been the result. I’m not even sure if I can put forward a sensible explanation of the situation, but I’m going to try and explain the madness. Ok… deep breath….

So we have our fun and friendly Prosecco from the Valdobbiadene region of the Veneto in North Eastern Italy. Over the past 10 years Prosecco gets more popular, and more people want to make it. There’s immediately a problem in that the grape used to make Prosecco is also called Prosecco – at least it used to be until producers tried to encourage the use of the ‘proper’ grape name, Glera. So it was possible to have a Prosecco (the grape) from Prosecco (the effective region) – but of course it was also possible to have a Prosecco (the grape) from nowhere near the region Prosecco – but it could still be labelled “Prosecco”. Hence the arrival of a wide variety of styles and prices on the retail shelves.

Needless to say, the producers in Valdobbiadene started to get a bit angsty about all these other “Proseccos” and they formulated a plan whereby the regulators would create a new DOCG (Italy’s top-level classification) that could only be applied to wines produced in the Valdobbiadene region. Outside that (at a supposedly lower level) would be DOC Prosecco di Treviso – a more general designation.

OK so far? Here in Ireland our friends in Customs and Excise come into the picture. There are of course two main types of Prosecco (irrespective of where it’s from or whether it’s the grape) – Frizzante and Spumante – the main difference from an Excise perspective being the lower atmospheric pressure in the Frizzante. This allows it to be classified as a Still Wine. So Frizzante Prosecco is not only fun and friendly, but also inexpensive. You can even have a mushroom Champagne-style cork in a Frizzante version which is a very important consideration as it adds to the sense of celebration when opening it.

So one day we have a Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante with a mushroom cork that we are happily importing. Then, in come the new regulations and everything changes – or so we think. There are now two choices:
  • Prosecco di Treviso Frizzante DOC, but no mushroom cork allowed under new Italian law. Screwcap OK – but no fun making a “pop” anymore.
  • Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante DOCG and mushroom corks allowed
 OK, we think – at least our producer has always been in the Valdobbiadene region, so we’ll get the DOCG version. Except that they then tell us that they are going to increase the price by 25% - overnight. They now have a new classification and the price magically increases – for the same juice, grapes, fermentation system etc. etc. So we are of course not impressed, but reluctantly enquire about the Prosecco di Treviso DOC option (with the same bloody juice in it as the DOCG as all the vineyards are actually within the DOCG) – and we’re told that it has also increased in price – this time by about 5%!

There’s much huffing and puffing and all sorts of vague explanations about yields being reduced, having to purchase new equipment, needing longer summer holidays, the price of cheese, aliens taking the gapes at night etc. We of course have our own set of excuses for not wanting to pay more – a €400bn Bank Guarantee, economy down the toilet, not much to celebrate etc. etc.

But the Italians, being of course Italian, stick to their guns – exactly the same product that costs one price one day, now costs more the next day. It’s like the Euro conversion all over again – the great Prosecco rip-off.

So we resign ourselves to telling our customers that we have to change to Stelvin closures (they’ll no doubt be over the moon – not) when we stumble across a “Prosecco di Treviso DOC” from a different producer with a MUSHROOM cork in a shop in Dublin! The ever-ready camera phone is put into action and a triumphant email dispatched to our own Prosecco producer – “Ha – you got it wrong – give us the mushroom cork please.”

Not such a good idea apparently. Next thing our own producer reports the other producer to the local Consorzio and the fur starts to fly. Reports are being drawn up, letters are being issued, warnings are being given – oops. We won’t be rushing back to that shop quickly – sorry.

Whilst we hide out back here in Westport before a certain Dublin retailer finds us, two other Prosecco producers have now confirmed to us that they can provide us with Prosecco di Treviso DOC bottles sealed with a Champagne cork!

Regulations – they’re just there to liven up your day! Implement them at your peril –and ignore them at your pleasure!


  1. Interesting piece.

    Must be frustrating, but you can understand the reasoning of the Valdobbiadene people.

    25% a bit saucy, admittedly, but I'm sure those grapes will still have a market after the shake up.

  2. Hi Paul,
    I'm 100% behind the producers when it comes to supporting those that have access to better land and who pursue quality - and happy it is now being formally recognised. The issue of putting up prices as a consequence is frustrating, but as you say, it will no doubt level out.

    However the really frustrating bit is the fact that we are still getting producers telling us they can deliver a product that the regulations now say they can't! What do we do - go with the product that we know will work in Ireland, but is technically "illegal" as far as the new laws are concerned, or go with the newer, "downgraded" product at the old price?

    If they could just get everyone to conform to the same legislation, then we would have half a chance of making a (hopefully!) informed decision!