Manuela Oregna paints an evocative picture of growing up in a small farmhouse hugging the steep hills surrounding Valdobbiadene, with uninterrupted views of fields and cows. Apart from the occasional roaming wild boar, animals are now long gone, carted off to make way for grapes in what has become one of the most expensive vineyard regions in Italy.
Oregna, who is Villa Sandi’s export manager, has witnessed first-hand the region’s meteoric rise in fortune in just 30 years, thanks to the boom in Prosecco, Italy’s trendy fizz, which has cast a long shadow over the days when Asti was the height of fashion.
She recalls: “Prosecco used to be a still wine, it was the everyday drink of the locals. The area was known as the Garden of Venice because it provided vegetables and fruit to the city. It was all agricultural land and very poor.”
It’s hard to imagine that now. Prosecco is going like a rocket and in the past year alone surged 68% in value to £153 million (Nielsen, year to October 12, 2013).
A considerable amount of its success lies with the huge efforts producers have invested in expertise and equipment to develop more complex styles, giving body and depth to the rampantly growing Prosecco grape and implementing more sophisticated production techniques.
Regulations have moved on too, with more introduced to help govern the region’s output and ensure quality hasn’t been diminished at the expense of worldwide demand.
In 2009, 40 years after the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region obtained its DOC appellation status, it was reclassified to the higher DOCG level in recognition of its quality.
At the same time, a new DOC was created to sweep up the remainder of the region’s production.
Seventy million bottles are made in the DOCG each year, compared with around 230 million in the DOC region.
With such vast differences in production between the DOC and DOCG tiers, it’s easy to see why the UK and other markets have been flooded with products of varying quality. And despite its staggering success, there are concerns that poorly made, volume-grabbing wines, coupled with the kind of kamikaze pricing that drove cava’s reputation to the bargain basement, could put the brakes on a category currently proving it can outpace much of the competition on shelf.
Cheshire independent Corks Out has seen 33% growth for Prosecco this year, but owner Ruth Yates says its image risks being eroded by supermarket pricing. She adds: “It’s starting to happen already, customers mention they can get cheap Prosecco for £5 and if they continue to prostitute it they will lose important market share.”
Oddbins wine buyer Ana Sapungiu agrees the multiples pose a threat to Prosecco’s sales, but with careful pricing it can still avoid the pitfalls of cava.
She says: “So far Prosecco seems to have escaped its image being tarnished as much as cava, but this may change in time.”
Conversely, to mitigate against the dangers of being perceived as a value offer, some producers are taking a different stance and upping their prices to artificially engineer a position of higher worth in consumers’ minds.
Dawn Davies, wine buyer at Selfridges, says this could be just as harmful to Prosecco, which surged 33% in its stores last year, as cheap pricing.
“The damage is likely to come from producers putting up prices too much to premiumise the brand. What is appealing to the customer is accessibility, once that is gone there is a problem,” she says.
Although Davies counsels against raising prices, it demonstrates that suppliers are prepared to take whatever measures they deem necessary to protect the value of their product. Producers are so emphatic in the defence of the region that they have mounted a bid for the Conegliano Valdobbiadene vineyards to win UNESCO World Heritage status.
If successful, it would leave the Champenois, who were vying for the same accolade, smarting.
As Gianluca Bisol, the managing director of Bisol, one of the best known Proseccos, says: “We work tirelessly so that Conegliano will gain the same prestige as Reims, Valdobbiadene the same charm as Epernay and Prosecco the same notoriety as Champagne.”