FEATURE-Italy's prosecco sets its sights on champagne

Mathias Wildt
Reuters North American News Service

Jul 22, 2008 08:04 EDT

PROSECCO, Italy, July 22 (Reuters) - Gianluca Bisol has great expectations for the white sparkling wine his family has been making since 1542 in the Valdobbiadene and Conegliano regions north of Venice.

A 22nd-generation prosecco producer, he is hoping prosecco's growing international renown will help his fizz gain ground over pricier champagne. Prosecco production has grown to 150 million bottles from 5 million a year in 40 years, mainly driven by demand for exports to Germany and the United States.

Now its makers aim to increase production to 250 million bottles, moving it closer to the the world's leading bubbly. France last year produced a record 339 million bottles of champagne.

"Prosecco is softer, easier to drink than champagne," Bisol said. "Add the good price/quality ratio, and prosecco could become the leading world bubbly over the next 30 years."

Taking on champagne will require boosting exports, which amounted to about 16 million bottles last year, a fraction of the 150 million bottles of champagne France exported.

One battleground will be emerging wine markets like China: exports of champagne to China soared 30 percent to 650,000 bottles last year, a nine-fold increase in five years, according to the association of champagne producers. Prosecco sales totalled less than 100,000 bottles.

In prosecco's favour may be the fact that its taste is sweeter than the traditional bruts favoured by champagne-buyers: some Chinese consumers still like to mix their white wine with lemonade to make it palatable.

But mostly, it needs to get trendy.

It will have to find favour with the young, rich clientele of places like i-Ultra Lounge, a Beijing bar that mixes DJ beats and a dance floor with a champagne collection including vintage Dom Perignon.

"Very few of our guests know about prosecco," said Gary Li, the bar's manager, adding his brand-conscious clients order Moet (et Chandon) the most because it does a lot of advertising.

"Prosecco definitely has potential," Li said. "Champagne leads the market because it broke into China first and prosecco may need one or two years, but its quality is no less than champagne's. It just has to attract an audience."

INDUSTRIALISED

With economies slowing down across the globe, prosecco's affordability may prove to its advantage. A factor here is that most is made in large industrial containers, while champagne producers induce fermentation in each bottle, a process that takes longer and is far more costly.

So prosecco retails from as little as 1.5 euros ($2.37) a litre if you fill your own bottles from a jug at a hole-in-the-wall shop in Venice, to 25 euros for Cartizze, the highest quality of hand-picked prosecco grown only on one hill.

In contrast, a popular champagne like Moet & Chandon sells for 30 euros a bottle in Milan and top champagne names can fetch hundreds of euros.

In 1969 the prosecco producers of 15 villages in Valdobbiadene obtained the DOC designation -- Denominazione di origine controllata, the Italian equivalent of the French AOC or Appellation d'origine controllee -- which certifies the content, production method and regional origin of the wine.

Today the DOC area cultivates 4,700 hectares, producing 56 million bottles a year from the steep hills of the valley.

But in the plains from nearby Treviso all the way to the border of Slovenia 165 kilometres (102.5 miles) away, a further 5,000 hectares are planted with prosecco grapes, making 100 million bottles a year as they have no limit on production per hectare.

Though prosecco thrived in Valdobbiadene for centuries, it originated in a Slovenian village called Prosecco that became part of Italy in 1918.

Located on the border between the two countries, Prosecco's population of several hundred are still majority ethnic Slovenian and the street signs are written first in Slovene and then in Italian.

Prosecco growers are pushing to create a new DOC area to regulate all the prosecco producers that are not in Valdobbiadene, which will keep its own specific DOC. They will then ask the European Union to reserve the name prosecco only for the grape grown in northeastern Italy, so it remains a regional brand and not a generic name.

Italy's newly elected Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, himself a wine-making specialist from nearby Conegliano, has said he supports the move to protect prosecco's name. Producers said they hope Zaia will push for it at next month's meeting of European Union agriculture ministers on wine quotas.

In a similar case, the EU ruled that only wine from Hungary's Tokaj region could be named Tokaji, forcing Italian producers of Tocai Friulano to drop Tocai from their label.

Much is at stake.

"If prosecco made in Brazil -- where they already grow it -- floods the market, it's not just the name and the quality for the consumer that are at risk. It's our jobs too," said Walter De Florian, one of Bisol's 80 employees.

(Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing; Editing by Sara Ledwith)

Source: Reuters North American News Service