Global demand for Italy's signature dry sparkler is on the rise, and it's beginning to attract some major foreign investment. Graham Holter reports
27 August, 2008
It's a good time to be a Prosecco producer. The understated Italian wine has never, it seems, been more popular - there were 50 million bottles produced in 2007, up 14 per cent on the 2005 figure, and Prosecco is winning over new admirers in undeveloped export territories.
Wine consumption in Italy and in Germany, Prosecco's top export market, is not expected to grow (see box), leaving producers with no option but to seek out new opportunities in other markets. It's no easy task, with Champagne sales booming around the world, but Prosecco has a different story to tell. It promotes itself as a less fussy, more everyday indulgence than its prestigious rival - something that particularly appeals to consumers who are either intimidated by Champagne or can't afford to drink it as often as they would like.
About a third of Prosecco is exported, increasingly to the relatively untapped markets of the UK and the US. UK sales have risen five-fold since 2000, to reach 1.1 million bottles in 2006, while sales in the States have more than doubled to 1.4 million bottles over the same period. In the UK it has been dubbed by some "the new Pinot Grigio"; the LA Times recently declared "Prosecco is definitely the bubbly of the moment in Los Angeles" and reported that "retailers are having a hard time keeping the stuff in stock".
"Five or six years ago, trying to sell Prosecco was like trying to sell Asti Spumante or something," Lance Montalto, the buyer for Wine House in West Los Angeles, told the newspaper. "It just had this huge stigma, like trying to sell rosé in the old days. Now it's just a force. It practically sells itself."
The first major UK tasting was organised by the Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Consorzio in London last October. Attendance was encouraging: the event attracted around 100 journalists and trade representatives. Peter McCombie MW, who conducted a Prosecco masterclass at the event, urged on- and off-trade retailers to feature at least two different Proseccos on their lists: one for appreciation as an aperitif or food wine, the other as a mixer in Bellini cocktails.
"The whole point of Prosecco is freshness and delicacy," he said. "When pairing sparkling wine with spicy food, bubbles can handle spicy food well, but the higher acidity of Champagne can be too much for Thai food, for example, whereas Prosecco can work very well."
This month , for the third year in succession, the US trade experienced an American version of Vino in Villa, "a walk-around tasting of the finest brut, extra dry, dry and cartizze Proseccos from 25 leading producers", according to the Consorzio.
The events took place in New York City on June 5 and in San Francisco on June 9 and were an offshoot of Vino in Villa Italy, hosted each May by the Consorzio at the Castello di San Salvatore in Susegana, Treviso. The two-day festival is built around a grand tasting comprising more than 70 producers of DOC Prosecco and attracts more than 12,000 visitors annually.
Max Gancia, export director at Fratelli Gancia, says exports are "performing well" and not just in the traditional key markets of Switzerland and Germany.
"New markets such as Belgium, Finland, Russia, Poland and Greece have seen a significant growth for Prosecco," he adds. "Overseas we increased our quota in China, Japan, the US and Canada."
Gancia believes Prosecco has some in built advantages when it comes to export marketing. "The term Prosecco has a positive connotation around the world as it is easy to pronounce and its name is linked as a sound with 'secco' or 'dry'," he says. "Not many consumers are aware that Prosecco is a grape variety coming from the Veneto region. Prosecco has a recognisable name easily associated to Italian oenology and typical 'made in Italy' products."
Gancia argues that leading producers "are always working to improve the image of Prosecco in terms of restyling and quality". But some things are beyond their control. "Critically, at a stage when the product is meeting a favourable demand, the 2007 grape harvest has witnessed a considerable increase in the cost of the grapes, which has doubled. We have increased the [selling] price by around 15-20 per cent, so we have only partially absorbed the cost increase. The increase in the price of Prosecco will probably affect retail prices."
The idea of marketing Prosecco in cans does not appeal to Gancia, who claims it "devalues the product image".
He is not alone. There has been some opposition to Rich Prosecco, a canned wine which does not qualify for DOC status. The way it has been marketed - namely with American heiress Paris Hilton in various stages of undress - has not won it too many admirers among the traditionalists (who also fret about developments such as rosé Prosecco).
The Austrian supplier sells Rich Prosecco in 27 countries, something which worries Italian producers who fear the Prosecco name is being abused. They want greater protection for the Prosecco name - not a simple task, given that it's a grape variety, and the one that Rich uses in its product.
But, with or without the help of Paris Hilton, Prosecco is enjoying a new-found momentum. Whether it continues its recent progress will depend on how it deals with cost increases, and if it can open up new markets to compensate for those which are mature or declining. In other words, it faces exactly the same set of challenges as most wine regions on the planet.
Critics may call it a bland, neutral kind of wine lacking the complexity and flavour of its more distinguished rivals. They said the same about Pinot Grigio - and look how consumers have fallen in love with that Italian export. Who's to say Prosecco can't emulate some of that international success? ?
----=== Henkell steps it up ===Henkell & Söhnlein Sektkellereien is continuing its march European expansion with the purchase of Italian Prosecco producer Mionetto. The deal was agreed on April 1 and now awaits ratification from the German monopolies and mergers commission.
Mionetto, founded in 1887, has a turnover of more than12 million bottles from a portfolio including Mionetto, La Pieve and Amistani. The company is also successful internationally and is expanding its activities, particularly in North America, according to its new owner.
"Henkell & Söhnlein will be investing in the Italian location and, from now on, working closely together with Mionetto on the German market," Henkell added.
"Following the takeover of the market leader in sparkling wines in the Ukraine, Kiev Sparkling Wine Cellars, which finally took place on Oct 1 2007, this acquisition represents an important further step for Henkell & Söhnlein in its process of becoming consistently more and more international.
"The group is now active with subsidiaries in 10 European countries, in six of which it is the market leader for sparkling wine and in two countries each it is the market leader for wine and vodka."
----=== Sparkling wine sales growth ===Canada 4% (7%)
Germany -0.9% (-1.2%)
Netherlands 5% (4%)
Sweden 13% (3%)
UK 8% (4%)
US 5% (7%)
Value sales growth 2002-07 in selected markets. (Figure in brackets is total wine market growth).
=== Focus market: Germany ===Prosecco's number one export market is not displaying much potential for growth. Wine Intelligence data shows that, of all sparkling wine drinkers in the country, 49 per cent regularly consume Prosecco - not bad in a nation noted for its domestically-produced fizz. But sparkling wine sales have been slipping since 2001, according to Euromonitor, which also paints a general picture of a market that appears to have peaked.
"In Germany in 2007 the long-term trend of slightly but steadily declining total volume sales of alcoholic drinks continued," said its Alcoholic Drinks in Germany report, published in February. "On average, the German population continues to grow older, and older people tend to drink less alcohol.
" In line with modern lifestyles, the consumption of alcohol is becoming less accepted socially. Finally, alcohol is more and more perceived as being contradictory to the growing health awareness of many Germans. The result of these combined factors is an increase in demand for non-alcoholic drinks at the expense of alcoholic offerings."
But the report adds: "Germany's per capita consumption of alcoholic drinks is still among the highest in the world and drinking alcohol is still taken for granted by the vast majority of German society, resulting in flat volume sales predicted for the forecast period instead of a decline."
Germany remains the number three export market for Champagne, though this only accounts for a mere 2.4 per cent of sparkling wine volumes and 17 per cent of sales value.
Domestic sparkling wine is more front-of-mind for consumers than most imports. A Wine Intelligence study of regular wine drinkers found that, among the top 10 brands with the highest consumer awareness, only one - Mumm - came from outside Germany. "This is a market," the report noted, "where Rotkäppchen and Deinhard are more familiar than Dom Pérignon."
----=== Hot debate: fizz
in a can ===The idea of marketing Prosecco in cans may horrify the purists, but the packaging format is one that is proving increasingly interesting to producers. For the consumer the can is lighter and more portable than glass, chills faster and can be easily crushed and disposed of when empty. For the retailer, it costs less to ship aluminium containers than glass, and aluminium is easy and cost-effective to recycle.
l Germany's Black Tower recently launched Fizz, a sparkling wine in 20cl cans, in a move designed to make the Reh Kendermann brand more appealing to younger consumers. Fizz is aimed principally at markets where Black Tower is the top selling German wine brand: the UK, Brazil, Canada, Korea and Sweden. In March this year the company announced it had broken its summer 2008 global sales target of 1 million 9-litre cases of Black Tower .
l Cool Cache, marketed by UK-based Cool Cache Brands, offers Austrian and Italian versions of its canned sparkling wines, which it says are ideal for picnics, festivals and other outdoor events. They are "the perfect introduction for those who desire the taste and kudos of sparkling wine, but may be deterred by the confusion of varieties and the arcane vocabulary and rituals that surround it", the company claims.
l Niebaum-Coppola has set out to prove that canned sparkling wine need not be downmarket. Launched in 2004, its Sofia single-serve premium wine is aimed at what the company describes as the Sex And The City crowd. The 18.7 cl blanc de blancs is supplied with a matching straw and is produced with the same liquid as the bottled wine of the same name.
l Another US sparkling wine in a can, Floot from Strong Brands, is reportedly popular among clubbers in New York and Boston. "One of the consumer's biggest concerns is whether the product will absorb the taste of the metal from the can, but new technologies in can production and lining have eliminated this problem and have greatly increased shelf life of the product," the company claims.