The Rising Tide of Prosecco – Why?


Everybody had the notion, across the U-oo-K

to use Prosecco, to start and end the day . .

Paraphrasing the Beachboys, 60s – come on, you remember bopping away to them, and there is a link, I promise!

Ok, hands up – I agree these are probably Cork Talk’s worst ever opening lines, since its inception eighteen years ago! However, I plead mitigating circumstances – please blame it on my Prosecco pickled brain!

prosecco logo

 And the link? Well, did you make it back to the UK over the Christmas period? If so, I’m prepared to wager that you tasted, no doubt on several occasions, the current darling sparkling wine fad. I’m talking Prosecco, Italy’s de riguer fizz. Am I right?

Thought so! The UK is awash with it at the moment. Marks & Spencer and the Co-op, for example, have reported spikes in Prosecco sales over the Christmas period, with Lidl delighted to brag that their Prosecco sales have tripled! Other retailers are also reporting increased sales.

All this equates to the UK being the world’s third largest importer of Prosecco, buying five million bottles annually with an ex-cellar (cost directly from the producer with no taxes added) value of approaching 25 million pounds! So it’s not surprising that when we were in the UK we were always offered Prosecco as an aperitif, with many no doubt employing this less expensive sparkling wine on Christmas Day and to bring in the New Year.

My apologies to our Italian friends, but, why?

I’ve taken a quick, wholly unscientific straw poll amongst several friends in the wine world as well as fizzaholic family and friends – no names, to protect the innocent! It seems we are in agreement – most of the Prosecco in the economic to mid-price range is just too sweet! And this is Prosecco labelled as Brut, which according to EU regulations means that it should be dry!

prosecco tesco
Tesco Prosecco Brut – Dry?

 The EU is specific about how many grams of residual sugar there should be in the various styles of Sparkling Wine produced in Europe. This ruling applies to all – Champagne, Cava, Sekt (German Fizz) Prosecco et al.

However, there is room for manoeuvre. The driest style of fizz is Brut Nature – in fact my favourite. Here producers can so label their sparklers if it has fewer than 3grms of sugar per litre. Therefore, 1grm, 1·5grms etc all qualify. The next driest style is Brut, but the margins here are wider.

Brut Sparkling Wine can have between 3grms – 12grms per litre. Herein lies the problem. If we take the starting point as 3grms (were it fewer, it would be labelled Brut Nature) and the maximum as 11·9999grms that gives the producer a lot to play with.

With a mid point of, more or less, 7·5grms, this is where we might expect most Brut Sparkling Wines to be, hedging bets between those who like a slightly sweeter dry and those who like it close to the bone! When I first started drinking Cava here in Spain, I found that most were at about 8grms – just right. But Cava, too, seems to have started to up the ante in terms of its sweetness over the last few years, although only slightly – 9grms to 9·5grms is now common.

This is why I now prefer to go for Spanish Sparkling wine that is designated Brut Nature as I feel it goes better with aperitifs as well as remaining a super, fresh, palate awakening celebratory drink –  but this, of course is simply a matter of taste.

But back to Prosecco. The Italian sparkler is made with different grapes, of than Cava, and Champagne. In fact the grape goes by the same name, Prosecco. In times long gone this grape, sometimes harvested as late as November was used to make still wine in covered vats. It had the habit of stopping fermentation when the ambient temperature dropped, leaving a relatively high level of residual sugar. When the temperature rose, fermentation would restart. The end result would be quite sweet slightly sparkling wine.

prosecco waitrose

 Prosecco, the sparkling wine, had been born. Modern day producers tried to replicate that which had happened naturally in the past and as such most Prosecco today is made by a different method than most of the rest of the world’s sparkling wine.

The method invented in Champagne, and now termed ‘The traditional Method’ for fear of being sued by the powerful liturgy-happy lawyers of Champagne, is how Champagne, of course, is made, Cava and most other Sparkling Wine. Here a second fermentation is provoked in the bottle, causing of course, the bubbles and the famous ‘pop’ as the cork flies.

Prosecco also has a second fermentation, but this is induced, not in the bottle but in the large, sometimes, huge, fermentation tanks. It is called the Charmat process. My worry is that, in trying to replicate the ‘accidental’ sparkling wine of the past, producers are also making the wine too sweet, in the mistaken belief that this is what the consumer wants. If it’s legal, it must be below 12grms of sugar per litre, as we’ve seen, but how much below?

Sainsbury Prosecco - how close to the 12grms/litre max for Brut Sparkling Wine?
Sainsbury Prosecco – how close to the 12grms/litre max for Brut Sparkling Wine?

Another word of caution, and this very much on the side of Prosecco. There is a concern amongst Prosecco producers that much of the sparkling Italian wine that is dispensed from kegs in UK pubs, is in fact not Prosecco. But other (in their view, lesser) Italian (perhaps!) sparkling wine. In law Prosecco can only be sold in bottles, so if the slightly sweet sparkling style is for you, then be warned!

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