Bot­toms up: on­slaught against pros­ecco falls flat among fans on its home turf

The Guardian Australia - - World News - An­gela Gi­uf­frida in Tre­viso

It’s aper­i­tivo time in Tre­viso, a city in the heart of the Ital­ian pros­ec­co­mak­ing re­gion of Veneto, and some of those gath­ered in the bars are still smart­ing over re­cent crit­i­cism of their es­teemed sparkling wine.

“It’s not true that it’s bad for your teeth,” said Mar­i­olina Ticcò, flash­ing a con­fi­dent grin while swirling a glass of her favourite pre-din­ner drink.

“It must have been a joke. I’ve grown up with pros­ecco, and have a glass ev­ery day, some­times a lit­tle more, some­times while cook­ing. It’s nor­mal: ev­ery­one here drinks it.”

Warn­ings that the drink rots teeth and erodes gums due to its sugar and high acid­ity, thus pro­duc­ing a “pros­ecco smile”, came from den­tists in Bri­tain, where de­mand for the wildly pop­u­lar wine re­cently led to scrums at su­per­mar­kets.

The claims trig­gered an out­cry in Italy, as politi­cians leapt to the de­fence of one of their most pre­cious ex­ports. Mau­r­izio Martina, the agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, lam­basted the re­ports as “fake news” while Luca Zaia, pres­i­dent of the Veneto re­gion, re­torted that Bri­tons needed pros­ecco to help them smile amid Brexit woes.

Ste­fano Zanette, a wine­maker, is not dwelling too much on the slight. As pres­i­dent of Veneto’s main con­sor­tium for pros­ecco pro­duc­ers, he doesn’t have time to; a fresh bat­tle is loom­ing.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Italy’s Slow Food move­ment, has taken aim at the wine­mak­ers, sug­gest­ing in an in­ter­view with the Cor­riere della Sera news­pa­per that over­pro­duc­tion of pros­ecco risks turn­ing it into “a com­mod­ity like Coca-Cola”.

Zanette’s re­sponse is with­er­ing: “I don’t want to get into a de­bate with Petrini, but com­par­ing pros­ecco to Coca-Cola shows that he doesn’t re­ally un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence be­tween an in­dus­trial com­mod­ity and a ter­ri­tory that makes a prod­uct that is strictly reg­u­lated.”

Petrini’s com­ments came af­ter Bri­tish shop­pers formed long queues out­side Lidl su­per­mar­kets on the Au­gust bank hol­i­day week­end in the hope of snap­ping up an of­fer of six bot­tles for £20. Many had risen early, only to find that the fizz had sold out within min­utes.

With a bot­tle cost­ing up to £3 to pro­duce, but sell­ing in the UK for as lit­tle as £1.50, the news­pa­per’s columnist, Gian An­to­nio Stella, ques­tioned whether it was worth the sec­tor pro­duc­ing al­most half a bil­lion bot­tles a year, only for them to be sold at rock-bot­tom prices. Petrini ar­gued that the vol­ume of trade was not good for pros­ecco or the re­gion it comes from.

Zanette begs to dif­fer: “We can sat­isfy de­mand with our pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity and at the same time main­tain the qual­ity – we don’t just open a tap and out pours a bot­tle of pros­ecco.

“Be­sides, su­per­mar­ket pro­mo­tions are about sales and mar­ket­ing and have noth­ing to do with qual­ity. Like other prod­ucts, pros­ecco is sold across a price range, with the low­er­priced bot­tles com­pet­ing with other sparkling wines. In that re­spect, pros­ecco is al­ways made the cul­prit in a mar­ket that con­tains un­reg­u­lated va­ri­eties.”

The sen­si­tiv­ity of pros­ecco pro­duc­ers is un­der­stand­able: the UK is now the big­gest mar­ket for the wine, with al­most 105m bot­tles sold here in 2016, com­pared with about 11m in 2011. The drink has over­taken sales of its pricier French ri­val, cham­pagne, and has be­come so fash­ion­able that “mo­bile pros­ecco vans” can now be hired for par­ties.

One of the rea­sons it’s cheaper is be­cause the pro­duc­tion process is more ef­fi­cient than for cham­pagne. The phase of sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion – the process that cre­ates the bub­bles – takes place in­side huge steel tanks, rather than in bot­tles.

Mean­while, a range of pros­ecco mer­chan­dise has sprung up along­side the drink’s ex­plo­sive suc­cess, in­clud­ing sweets, lip balm and even door­mats. In the US, where the drink is just as fash­ion­able, an un­of­fi­cial Na­tional Pros­ecco Day was launched last year on 13 Au­gust. Veneto has also been en­joy­ing the fruits of a boom in pros­ecco tourism, with vis­i­tors now just as likely to hop on a wine tour as they are a gon­dola in the re­gion’s most fa­mous city, Venice.

Tucked away among the vine­yards of the Val­dob­bi­adene area is a farm­house called Os­te­ria Senz’Oste, or Tav­ern with­out a Land­lord, where bot­tles of pros­ecco and plates of cheese and ham await any­one who calls in. As the name sug­gests, there is no­body to serve or take cash – guests sim­ply leave an of­fer­ing. The idea was the brain­child of the prop­erty’s owner, Ce­sare de Ste­fani, a busi­ness­man who wanted out­siders to ex­pe­ri­ence the hos­pi­tal­ity of his re­gion over a glass of pros­ecco. It has proved to be a pop­u­lar stopover, par­tic­u­larly with Bri­tish tourists.

“It’s easy to see why the drink has been so suc­cess­ful abroad,” said De Ste­fani. “It’s fruity and light on al­co­hol, you can drink it any time of the day, and it’s con­vivial and up­lift­ing.”

But when it comes to how the drink is pro­moted over­seas, he says pro­duc­ers are per­haps the vic­tims of its suc­cess.

“The prob­lem is with who sells it and not who pro­duces it. This can have an im­pact on the drink’s im­age.”

De­spite con­cerns over the im­pli­ca­tions of Brexit, de­mand for pros­ecco in the UK is not ex­pected to slow down soon. To­tal con­sump­tion is fore­cast to rise by 10.8% to nearly 74m litres a year by 2020, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures pub­lished this year by the re­search com­pany In­ter­na­tional Wine and Spir­its Record.

“But we’re not in­dif­fer­ent about Brexit,” said Zanette. “The ref­er­en­dum im­me­di­ately pro­voked a neg­a­tive im­pact with the de­valu­ing of ster­ling, mean­ing peo­ple had to pay more. We’ll have to wait and see how the UK and EU ne­go­ti­ate, but for sure, pros­ecco will be a very im­por­tant card for Italy.”

The pro­duc­ers’ main long-term pri­or­ity was main­tain­ing the drink’s qual­ity and price while pro­tect­ing its iden­tity, Zanette said.

When grap­pling with me­dia storms, part of the prob­lem is down to the name: drinkers as­sume pros­ecco cov­ers all Ital­ian sparkling wines.

In fact the wine was named af­ter the ham­let of Pros­ecco in Fri­uli-Venezia Gi­u­lia, a re­gion east of Veneto, where the main grape used to make it – glera – is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated. The drink dates as far back as Ro­man times, while the cul­ti­va­tion of the grape ex­panded across Fri­uli and Veneto in the 18th cen­tury.

As the main in­gre­di­ent used in Aperol spritz and Bellini cock­tails, pros­ecco has long been a pop­u­lar tip­ple in Italy, but sales over­seas be­gan to thrive from around 2009, the year it was granted con­trolled des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin sta­tus.

While he is re­laxed about the lat­est bout of con­tro­versy, Zanette is im­pla­ca­bly hos­tile to one re­sult of his prod­uct’s pop­u­lar­ity: its avail­abil­ity “on tap” in pubs and bars across the UK.

“There is a lot of con­fu­sion in this mar­ket, it’s not easy,” said Zanette. “But the main thing is pros­ecco comes in a bot­tle and not in a keg!”

The prob­lem is with who sells it and not who pro­duces it. This can have an im­pact on the drink’s im­age.

A race­goer swigs from a bot­tle of pros­ecco dur­ing Ladies’ Day at the Cheltenham fes­ti­val. Pho­to­graph: Joe Gid­dens/PA

Val­dob­bi­adene in the Veneto wine­grow­ing re­gion of north­ern Italy. Pho­to­graph: Gi­toTre­visan/Getty Images/iS­tock­photo

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