How Prosecco Became The World’s Most Popular Sparkling Wine: With A Name Change

Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, is the world’s most popular fizz. It sells more bottles than French champagne and Spanish cava combined. But it is a quite recent invention. Up until 2009 Prosecco was the name of a grape, mainly, but not only, grown in north-eastern Italy. Then it morphed into the name of a wine region and became a world-wide success story. But not without some clouds.

Prosecco used to be the name of a grape mainly grown in north-eastern Italy, in the Veneto region, but not only. It is believed to originate from Croatia and has been grown in the Balkans, in particular Slovakia, for a long time. But most plantings were in Veneto.

The most prominent producer of wine from the prosecco grape was the small region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, named after two towns north-west of Venice.

In the first decade of the new millennium (the years leading up to 2009), prosecco-based wines were becoming increasingly popular. Probably helped a bit by Paris Hilton launching Rich Prosecco in 2006, the trend for Aperol Spritz, the glory days of Champagne, and the general craze for bubbly wine. The winemakers of prosecco-based wine in Veneto did not like that others could benefit from the increasing popularity of prosecco (the grape), so they wanted to create an appellation for it to protect it. If there is an appellation, then others are not allowed to use that name. But there was a problem: The European appellation rules state that a grape name cannot be an appellation in itself. So, prosecco – a grape – could not possibly become a DOC (the Italian code for an appellation).

What to do?

The solution, implemented in 2009, was this:

First, change the name of the grape: The grape name prosecco was removed from the official grape register. Instead, the name of the grape was officially declared to be glera, an up until then little-used synonym for the grape.

Then, create a region called Prosecco: There happened to be a village called prosecco in Veneto. According to various sources, the village did not have any vineyards at the time. It was not in the region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, where most of the prosecco was produced. But it was conveniently located in the Veneto region. So the authorities decided to “invent” a new geographic region called Prosecco, based on the village name.

So, now Prosecco was a geographic name, and a DOC Prosecco could thus be created. The name prosecco became a monopoly for the region. And everyone had to call the grape “glera” instead.

For some time there was a discussion of whether prosecco is a grape name or a wine region. Today, that discussion is over, it is from a legal standpoint a region.

But the story is interesting from a historical point of view, and it is also a telling illustration of how the wine industry is sometimes guided more by protectionist initiatives than good reason.

Italians seem particularly deft at this game, but they are certainly not alone. In France, now after the wine law reform, you can put the grape name on the label of a bottle of vin de france (previously vin de table). Except if it is a wine made from the riesling grape. The Alsatians want to keep that for themselves. (But not only they. Aligoté, altesse, clairette, gewurztraminer, gringet, jacquère, mondeuse, persan, poulsard, savagnin, sylvaner and trousseau are also excluded from vdf labels.)

The more recent EU ruling on the grape name vermentino becoming exclusively Italian is another example. You can read more about that here: Italians grab Vermentino now (by José Vuillamoz). Nero d’avola and montepulciano are two other grapes in the line of sight. And so on.

The details of the creation of the new Prosecco region in 2009 are curious.

The village of Prosecco, from where it takes its name, was actually located near Trieste, at the very eastern edge of Italy. It was almost 150 kilometres away from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region and did not produce prosecco wine. It used to be part of Slovenia (and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) where they made, and still make a wine called “prošek”. Trieste only became part of Italy in 1922.

The creation of the DOC Prosecco also included a vast extension of the geographic area. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC covered a rather small arear around the two towns. The new DOC Prosecco region extended from the Slovak border almost all the way to Verona.

The landscape in the original Conegliano-Valdobbiadene area is quite hilly, sometimes with steep terraced vineyards. Much of the land in the newly added extended DOC is flat.

These rule changes were signed into law by the then minister of agriculture in the Berlusconi government, Luca Zaia, a Lega Nord (Northern League) politician. He was born in Conegliano and is now president of the Veneto region. It seems clearly to have been a move in support of his home region.

That Prosecco is a DOC (now with some DOCG sister-regions) has significant consequences. It is a protected name in the EU, and the grape name prosecco can no longer be used. And since the EU is actively protecting its geographical denominations through trade agreements, prosecco is forbidden as a grape name in more and more countries.

New Zealand recently signed a trade agreement with the EU that (among other things) means that they will, in a few years’ time, no longer use that grape name and no longer make prosecco. Australia is the big hold-out that still has not abandoned the prosecco name for the grape. It is also planted in Argentina and some other countries.

It is also curious to note that even people in Italy still sometimes use prosecco as the name of the grape.

Some people are of the opinion that prosecco has always (for a long time) been the name of the wine so the DOC is based on a long tradition but that argument is hard to understand. Wine has no doubt been made here since Roman times, but that this creates a historic base for the DOC Prosecco is doubtful. “In the 19th century, viticulture was still a secondary activity in this area, and small-scale production was mainly aimed at self-consumption. This situation remained relatively unchanged until the 1960s” says Stefano Ponte in a research paper on prosecco. And if prosecco was used to then describe the wine, it was no doubt mentioned as a grape name.

It is also hard to see how “tradition” can be an argument when the “traditional” production area was a small region close to Conegliano-Valdobbiadene some 40 km wide and now it extends over 250 km east to west. Or for that matter, what’s the tradition of the recently launched prosecco rosé based on pinot noir?

Yes, there has since 1969 been an Italian DOC Conegliano Valdobbiadene, sometimes referred to as Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Some people claim this is proof of a long history of a Prosecco region. But this wording is just the Italian way of saying “wine made from prosecco grapes from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region”. Like DOC Nebbiolo d’Alba, wine made from nebbiolo grapes from the region of Alba.

Another argument supporting Prosecco as a justified name for the protected region is based on consumer perception and expectations and goes like this:

“Consumers who buy prosecco expect a certain type of wine, with a specific style, coming from a specific place.” I’m not so sure. I wonder how many of the consumers who buy a glass or a bottle of prosecco know (or care) where it comes from. Or are they simply looking for a very affordable fizzy wine that is light and refreshing?

So what’s the point? Today, Prosecco is a region. The “prosecco is a region” camp has won the debate.

But it is sometimes important to know the history and background. This story is one example of how wine regions take a (in my view) protectionist approach to get a commercial advantage. It is important to understand history and important to understand how wine regulations come about and how they work. This might contribute to developing better wine regulations in the future.

It is also important in view of other recent rule changes, e.g. that the grape name “vermentino“ is now forbidden in France and can only be used in Italy, if news reporting is to be trusted. There are other examples of wine regulations made with a similar restrictive theory.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

It seems pretty clear to me that before 2009 “prosecco” always referred to the grape variety, sometimes in conjunction with the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region. A grape that was never exclusive to north-eastern Italy.

This is, of course, irrelevant. Today it is a DOC and DOCG region in Veneto and a very successful one. Together they make some 700 million bottles of bubbly every year. However, it makes me wonder if Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Asolo (the other DOCG prosecco) today might be better off not associating with the prosecco name. Prosecco is famous for fresh straight-forward and affordable sparkling wine. The more ambitious producers have a hard time achieving their premium prices needed for their top-quality wines. Maybe today they regret this association? Is it another example of the beaujolais nouveau effect? Something becomes tremendously successful, but the quality is not quite up to par and drags down the reputation of the whole region. There are certainly some very good wines from Prosecco and from Conegliano-Valdobbiadene in particular, but maybe not 700 million bottles of it.

(By the way, there is a sweet Croatian wine called Prošek that Italy is keen to forbid, in spite of the village of Prosecco being in the Austro-Hungarian empire – of which both Slovenia and Croatia were part – until after the end of the First World War. Legal process pending.)

—Per Karlsson