Prosecco, as we know, is flying in the UK. Last year sales were up 75% and overtook Champagne for the first time as Brits splashed out an estimated £1 billion on the stuff in the on- and off-trade. Sales of the fizz are up by around 40% in supermarkets, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and M&S all reporting strong growth. It’s a similarly rosy picture in the on-trade, where sales are surging due to Prosecco’s image as an affordable luxury that suits all occasions. Light, fresh, slightly sweet, and with an appealing price point, Prosecco ticks all the boxes, meaning guilt-free cork popping from living room to bar. The recession brought about a change of mindset, meaning a certain kudos is now attached to bargain hunting, thus wallet-friendly Prosecco has emerged as the ultimate crowd-pleaser. The strength of “brand Prosecco” has solidified to the point where it now seems bulletproof, having carved a niche as a stylish sparkling wine rather than simply a cheap alternative to Champagne.
As consumers become better acquainted with the category, they are more likely to trade up from DOC to DOCG Prosecco, and in some cases, to the top drops from Cartizze. But is the difference in quality perceptible enough to warrant the extra cash? And can you really taste the terroir in the top examples from the region? We attempted to answer these questions at our second annual Prosecco Masters competition held in March at the über-swish Punch Room housed within Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel in Fitzrovia. Having received just under 100 entries, we gathered a panel of seasoned sparkling wine experts, including wine writer Michael Edwards, Italian wine expert Tom Bruce-Gardyne and Alex Canetti, off-trade director at Berkmann Wine Cellars, to taste through the line-up.
Overall, the judges were impressed by the quality of the wines on show, though all agreed that there was less of a perceptible leap in quality from DOC to DOCG than they anticipated. All sought freshness, bright fruit, purity and prettiness in the wines, with those that were evidently trying to ape Champagne being marked down. “Prosecco is meant to be fruity and fresh; it isn’t Champagne and therein lies its charm,” believed Tom Bruce-Gardyne. “I think the brut styles are trying too hard to be Champagne-like.” Canetti of Berkmann concurred: “I’m looking for softness, roundness and prettiness, that’s what you want from a Prosecco. The best were delicate, ethereal, spicy and soft. There were no bad wines in the line-up but a lot of boring wines. I’m looking for commercial wines in that there’s something in them that consumers will love,” he said.
Michael Edwards, meanwhile, was impressed with the lower end of the spectrum. “The standard of the wines on show was much higher than last year. I was particularly impressed with the DOC wines,” he said. In 2009, the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region north of Treviso – where grapes are hand-harvested from steep, south-facing hillside slopes – was elevated to DOCG status, while the DOC name was extended to the wider Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions, supposedly marking a crossroads for quality.
At the same time, Glera became the official name for the grape variety used in Prosecco production and the practice of selling Prosecco on tap was banned. The tasting threw up an interesting debate about the quality differences between DOC and DOCG Prosecco with all agreeing that the two were closer in character than they were expecting. “When we got to the DOCG wines I thought there would be a step up in quality but there wasn’t really, which was disappointing. I expected more from the category,” lamented Canetti.
The other judges agreed: “Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference in quality between the DOC and DOCG wines,” said Edwards, while Bruce-Gardyne observed: “The first round of DOCGs wasn’t very good but thankfully there were no shockers.”
The DOC category put in a strong performance, scooping five silver medals in the £10-and-under price bracket and four gold medals in the £10-20 bracket. Moving up to £20-30, a single DOC Prosecco – Bottega Gold – won a medal, but made it count by scooping a Master. In the DOCG category, only one of the wines in the £10-20 bracket won a Master: Val d’Oca Le Rive Di Colbertaldo Extra Dry, while six of the £10-20 DOCG wines were awarded gold medals.
Canetti was disappointed not to be able to taste the terroir in the DOCG wines: “I expected them to be richer and more flavoursome, and for the terroir to come through, but it didn’t really happen,” he said. “Glera is quite a neutral grape – it’s neither Chardonnay nor Pinot Noir, nor is it trying to be. The key is in the delicacy and freshness.” Moving up to the top of the tree, just one Prosecco from Cartizze scooped a gold medal: Bisol Jeio. The 106-hectare “grand cru” is viewed as the jewel in Prosecco’s crown, producing low yielding, surprisingly sweet Prosecco due to the extended hang time the grapes undergo. Canetti was full of praise for the three that entered: “When we got to the Cartizzes it was a real step up – you could taste the terroir in the wines. They are better than ever,” he enthused.
Sugar levels were also a sticking point during the tasting. Produced as either a fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine, Prosecco is increasingly being made in a brut style, which may contain up to 12g/l of residual sugar. “Dry” Proseccos confusingly contain 17-32g/l of sugar, “extra dry” between 12-17g/l and demi-sec 32-50g/l. Both Michael Edwards and Tom Bruce-Gardyne believe that Prosecco benefits from the presence of sugar. “The best Proseccos are on the cusp of brut and extra dry,” said Edwards.
“Glera is a delicate grape; it’s hard to achieve the depth of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with it, so it needs the sweetness to work. I prefer the extra dry styles to the bruts. Prosecco with a touch of sweetness is a great proposition for Asian food.” Bruce-Gardyne, meanwhile, described the extra dry examples as “crowd pleasers” that “slipped down easily”.
When rounding off the tasting, talk turned to value for money, with all agreeing that there is fantastic value to be had at the £10 mark, with Bruce-Gardyne questioning whether the £20 DOCG Proseccos were worth the money given the quality available for half the price at DOC level: “An £11 Prosecco compared to a £19 should be a very different proposition – they need to offer something more if consumers are having to splash out on them,” he said.
Overall, it was the DOC category that surprised and delighted the judges most in terms of the quality on offer for its price point. “Prosecco DOC was the stronger of the two categories – there were a lot of winners in there, particularly for their price,” said Canetti. Bruce-Gardyne agreed, highlighting that it was the wines that weren’t trying too hard that impressed him most. “Prosecco isn’t a wine to be taken too seriously. The best examples offer notes of apple and pear, fresh acidity, balance on the palate and complexity without losing their elegance,” he said. Prosecco’s charm lies in its lightness of touch. When on point, it offers such balletic poise and delicacy that it dances across the palate. The wines that stayed true to Prosecco’s signature style shone, proving that the category should carry on doing what it does best.
Scroll through for this year’s medal-winning wines…
The Prosecco Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, Rioja and fortified wine, as well as its Global Masters series for major international grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Prosecco and the entries were judged blind by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic White Burgundy glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Proseccos were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their score, and those that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Prosecco Master. The Proseccos were tasted over the course of one day at the Punch Room within Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel in Fitzrovia.