Monday, August 9, 2010

Prosecco anyone? Or should I say Sparkling Glera?

On hot summer days I can think of few greater pleasures than a bottle of Prosecco and a book on the patio. With temperatures in Minnesota heating up to 103 degrees Fahrenheit this week, coupled with a humidity of 96% humidity, I'm thinking about just staying home. I won't even go outside, just open my window a crack and sit near it while reading In Search of Bacchus and drinking Prosecco. Or should I say Sparkling Glera?

Before I explain the Glera/Prosecco debacle we better break the wine world in to two categories: Old World and New World. Old World wine producing countries are basically classic European wine producing countries. France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Germany for example. New World wine producing countries are anywhere Old World countries sent prisoners or explorers. Australia, New Zealand, United States, Argentina, Chile are examples of New World countries.

Old World wine producing countries are more focused on site selection, or region, than they are on what grapes are used to make the wine. So commonly Old World wines display the region the grapes were grown in on the label. Chianti for example is a region in Tuscany, Italy where they grow grapes and make red blends using the Sangiovese variety as the base. Another example is Bordeaux, France, a region where they make red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few others. In Burgundy, France they make red wines from Pinot Noir and whites from Chardonnay but simply label them as Burgundy or a more specific region or vineyard.

Champagne, Chablis, Vouvray, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo, Amarone, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Tokaji are a few examples of popular wine producing regions in Europe that you may have seen on a bottle. Each of these regions uses different grapes to make wine. Sometimes it's a blend, other times it's a single variety (grape). Of course there are exceptions to the rules. Countries like Germany and Austria commonly put the grape on the label.

New World wine producing countries on the other hand are more focused on grape varieties. Not to say New World wine producers don't care about where they grow them, it's just that the region doesn't tell you what the wine's profile is like. For example if I said Napa what would you describe that wine as? Napa makes wines from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and many, many more. So it would be impossible to label a wine from Napa, California by its regional identity. This isn't just limited to California, all of the New World countries put the name of the grape or their proprietary name (ie. if it's a blend calling it "the red") on the label.

So why did you need to know Old World vs New World wines? Because the label is what scares a lot of people when purchasing. Are most people going to buy a $20 bottle of wine that says Cahors on the label? If they didn't know that Malbec is grape used to make it, probably not. But if people see Malbec on the label and they like big reds, they are more likely to purchase it. We know grape profiles better than we know regional profiles, especially if they are obscure. This has resulted in some Old World producers putting the grape names on the label.

Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene, more simply Prosecco, use to be the best of both worlds; it was the name of the grape and the region in the Veneto, Italy that produces sparkling wine. It was easy to sell Prosecco because you could simply tell the consumer just that "Prosecco is the name of the grape AND the region." There was no more grape/region confusion. But in 2009 the Prosecco region was promoted to the highest Italian status level, DOCG, and so begins the confusion.

In Italy there are basically 4 quality tiers with the best, DOCG, being made from grapes grown on the finest sites in the country. These regions are restricted to specific grapes, styles, labeling and aging requirements, and more. Now that Prosecco is a DOCG it is more valuable, and the Italian government wants to protect it.

Prior to 2009 a producer could make wine outside of the Prosecco region using the Prosecco grape and simply put Prosecco on the label. Because the Prosecco region was only a DOC (the tier below DOCG) nobody really cared. But now that it's top dog, the producers from the region want to eliminate the ability for others to tarnish the name. Enter Glera. Glera is the Prosecco grape's new name. So now if a producer makes sparkling wine from the Glera grape and it doesn't fit in to the DOCG specifications, they can't put Prosecco on the label.

I don't blame the Italians for wanting to protect the name, although they are not making Italian wines any easier to understand. I think my real beef with Italian wines are the DOCG laws in general. I mean, Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco are in the same quality tier as Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo. Don't get me wrong, Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco are delicious and I love them as a nice affordable summer sparkling alternative. But the fact that they are in the same tier doesn't make sense. The best sparkling wines are made when the second fermentation is done in the bottle, this is called the Traditional Method. It is used in the production of Champagne, Cava and many other quality bubblies. Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco are made using the tank method, the process of making the wine in big tanks and shooting them under pressure to the bottles. This is not the most artisan or quality method so it can't be the highest standard in Italy, in my humble opinion.

So Prosecco is the region and Glera is the grape. And while Glera has always been the name of the grape, the region used the Prosecco name to identify it (like Brunello for Sangiovese). They could have at least made up a new name for the producers making Prosecco that don't fall under the DOCG, maybe one that had a better ring to it. If you are a producer across the street from Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG and you have been making "Prosecco" all of your life you now have to change the name to Sparkling Glera? Sexy. More importantly many wine professionals like myself have spent their careers selling and promoting Prosecco and now we have to go back and explain "well, it use to be called Prosecco..."

So for the consumer, not a whole lot has really changed. Prosecco produced in the region will still be Prosecco. Prices will rise a little for Prosecco because it now has DOCG status and parties with the cool cats. But it will still taste and look the same. On the flip side though there maybe a new value find...Sparkling Glera anyone?

As always thanks for reading and if you liked it feel free to pass it along to a friend.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

See Nick and learn more at

1 comment:

George Ronay said...

Good post - but I gotcha... To my knowledge, all the "Old World" regions you mention are regions - except for Amarone!! (On the other hand, very good point - putting Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco in the same category as Barolo and Brunello? ah well, that's why we love the Italians!!