Category analysis: A rosé future for prosecco

As the Italian fizz reaches saturation point in certain markets, could a pink version of Prosecco prolong its success, asks Patrick Schmitt MW.

While the best measure of Prosecco’s success will always be the size of the market – now almost 600 million bottles ­– the power of this Italian fizz should also be judged by trends in other drinks categories. With alcohol consumption in Prosecco’s key markets of western Europe and the US stagnating or in decline, the growth of this famous sparkling wine has come at the expense of other sectors. As a result, the declining sales of Pinot Grigio, discounted Champagne or blush rosé, can be seen as a further tangible sign of Prosecco’s strength. Their loss has been Prosecco’s gain, or, put another way, Prosecco’s growth has been at their expense. Whether a sweet pink drink or an inexpensive fizz, the space to sell these sparklers is diminished, particularly if they occupy the pre-dinner drinks sector, where Prosecco is so dominant.

Prosecco has had to grow to supply this demand. As db commented in last March’s edition when compiling the 10 biggest drinks trends of the century so far, Prosecco has expanded almost tenfold in a decade. Doing this has required an expansion in plantings, and keeping yields high – with, like Champagne, a system of storing wines in reserve to offset less-productive harvests (such as the frost-stuck 2017 vintage). There’s a sense today, however, that Prosecco has reached its peak size, with supply and global demand roughly in balance, and assurances from the much larger DOC Prosecco that the vineyard area will not be expanded, at least for now. The region, which is a collection of areas under different governance – with three consorzi, one for the DOC, and two for the DOCGs – is looking to secure a profitable future for its growers and producers by limiting supply and moving to more sustainable vineyard practices. The DOCG of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, which governs 8,430 hectares of vineyards, has banned Glyphosate, and has strict rules on the use of herbicides, which can only be applied where slopes are too steep for mechanical weed removal.

Extra wine
Meanwhile, the much larger DOC, which covers 24,450ha, is capping yields and, although it is allowing extra wine to be put aside, should the demand not grow enough to require it, db has been told it won’t be turned into Prosecco, but sold as still wine.

So what’s turned Prosecco from a niche product from northern Italy to a byword for sparkling wine? It’s a combination of Italian style as well as the distinctive taste of this fizz that also happened to tap into a trend among consumers for something soft, light in alcohol, and thirst-quenching. It’s worth remembering that Prosecco is just 11% ABV and quite sweet, with most of it containing around 15 grams per litre of residual sugar. Such a level grants it the nomenclature Extra Dry, which has the benefit of suggesting to consumers that it doesn’t contain much sugar, while being sweeter than Brut. The fact that it’s fizzy is also key, as the ‘creamy’ bubbles of Prosecco make it refreshing, despite its sweetness. Adding to its appeal has been Prosecco’s versatility, with it being ideally suited to cocktails, traditionally the Bellini, but much more widespread being the Aperol Spritz – which benefits from being brightly coloured, light, and ice cold. And there is the price, with Prosecco providing a sparkling alternative for cash strapped consumers at a time when other fizz, especially Champagne, is becoming more expensive.

Although there’s a feeling that Prosecco as a global market is peaking at around 600m bottles, there was continued growth for the category in 2019. Although the domestic Italian market for DOC Prosecco has suffered a decline of almost 5%, such has been the rise in sales in export markets, overall shipments for the DOC are estimated to be up by almost 5% on 2018 to a total close to 490m bottles (with a further 92m sold by the Prosecco Superiore DOCG for Conegliano Valdobbiadene and around 17m by the DOCG for Asolo).

In the UK, Prosecco’s largest market, accounting for more than 30% of sales, last year’s shipments were up by more than 7%, according to the DOC. Nevertheless, Nielsen figures for the end of last year – which cover the leading UK retailers – paint a different picture, with a 4% decline in volume and value for ‘sparkling wine’, which is primarily a reflection of Prosecco sales, though not entirely, as it includes French crémants, Cava, New World fizz, and English sparkling. Germany, a mature and lower-value market for Prosecco, is also in growth, but at below 5%, leading to a feeling that this huge sparkling wine market is reaching saturation. So, the big growth areas for Prosecco are elsewhere – the US and France – which are second-and fourth-largest export markets for the fizz respectively.

“God bless America!” states Paolo Lasagni, managing director of Casa Vinicola Bosco Malera, one of the largest co-operative grower producers in northeastern Italy, and a major supplier of branded and private-label Prosecco to retailers. “In terms of large volume markets, the US is the most attractive at the moment, and we have been so lucky, because there have been no new tariffs or duties on wines from Italy,” he says, referring to the 25% import tariffs imposed by the US on still wine made in France, Germany, Spain and the UK (as long as it’s not over 14% ABV).

As you can see from the table on page 88, for DOC shipments, the US was up by almost 22% in 2019, but the fastest growth rate among the biggest markets was in France, which saw a remarkable rise of nearly 35%. As the nation that makes Champagne, and a raft of crémants, the growing demand for Prosecco may seem surprising. Not for Richard Halstead, chief operating officer at Wine Intelligence, who sees the demand for the Italian fizz in France as a product of this nation’s ingrained taste for sparkling wine, and a desire among a new generation of drinkers to consume something different from their elders. “France has always been a big drinker of sparkling, from Champagne to regional sparkling wines, and consumes on average five litres per person a year, which is double the consumption in the UK, and Prosecco has probably grown in the French market because of some kind of age-related desire to drink something different from your parents.”

According to Villa Sandi export manager, Flavio Geretto, such has been the growth in Prosecco sales to France, the country is the third-largest market after the UK and US for the Italian fizz, leapfrogging Germany, if you consider shipments of just Prosecco spumante – Germany is a huge buyer of the lower-pressure and cheaper Prosecco frizzante.

Geretto puts the increasing demand for Prosecco in France down to this nation’s major retailers, who have been listing more of the sparkling. This is probably thanks to the introduction in France in January 2019 of rules to restrict the nature of promotions on certain domestically produced goods, from foie gras to Champagne, which are part of a wider government act called the Loi EGalim.

With the new legislation putting limits on the amount of Champagne that can be sold on promotion, and the extent of the price discount, consumers who are chiefly attracted to buy the product because of the deals in French supermarkets have not been tempted to pick up the fizz in the same quantities.

And, with the increased availability of Prosecco on the shelves of these retailers, it has been easy for such consumers to shift from cheap Champagne to the Italian fizz. While this is benefitting sales of Prosecco, Geretto mourns the fact that the Italian sparkler is being sold by the French retailers at low prices. “The average price of Prosecco on the shelf is €6.3 (£5.38) in France, while it is around £7.50 in the UK, and in the US, it is US$10.99 (£8.54) to $12.99,” he says, providing a contrasting picture of sales in Europe compared with the US, where demand is generally for higher-priced producer-branded Prosecco.

Light and fresh
Lasagni comments on the rise of Prosecco sales in France, describing the increase for Casa Vinicola Bosco Malera as “incredible”. He says: “French people do not like to admit it, but they buy a lot of Prosecco, either because bartenders want it to use in cocktails or because consumers want it as an apéritif at home, as it is cheaper than Champagne and it is very light and fresh.”

However, he also draws attention to another reason why France might appear such a large market for Prosecco, and that’s because it acts like a hub for distributing the Italian fizz worldwide. “If you look at the French market you will see that it includes big wine groups like GCF (Grands Chais de France), which buy a lot of Prosecco from Italy and then sell it worldwide. It’s the same in Spain, where you have a company like Freixenet, which buys a lot of Prosecco, but sells it elsewhere, so the invoice is to Spain, but the product is for the English,” he explains.

Nevertheless, he confirms that “the consumption in France is increasing a lot”, and notes that his team experienced “a lot of demand for Prosecco” at last month’s Wine Paris exhibition.

Despite a widespread belief that the French are loyal consumers of their own produce, the IWSR’s research director for wine, Daniel Mettyear, confirms that shoppers in this most famous of wine producers are happy to buy foreign goods. “Cheaper supermarket Champagnes are losing out to Prosecco in France, and we have seen a huge growth for Cava in France over the past few years too. The loyalty to French products in France is not as strong as the French might hope it is, and now we are also seeing a lot of cheap Spanish wine coming into the French market too.”

But what about the UK ­– is there potential for further growth? Already, this is Prosecco’s largest market, representing more than 30% of shipments of DOC Prosecco, or more than 115m bottles, and a further 6.5m of DOCG Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior. Although the number of bottles shipped into the UK in 2019 shows growth, Andrea Ruggeri, who consults for Oenoitalia – the world’s second-largest bottler of Prosecco – says that the UK market is slowing. “The global market for Prosecco is very strong, up by about 8%, and while the UK went into growth again on inbound Prosecco, the market is actually suffering, and is down by around 4%,” he says. “What was bought in because of concerns over Brexit was more positive than the sales-out number. I don’t think anyone did brilliantly well over Christmas, and I know there is an element of latent stock in the UK, both in retail and the on-trade,” he adds.

The cause of this “has nothing to do with other sparkling wines.” Rather, he points out that the major competitor to the Italian fizz is gin. “There is only so much cash the consumer has, and so much of it has gone into gin – the competition for Prosecco is not another sparkling; it is gin,” he states. Such has been the rise of gin – mixed with tonic – that without this newly fashionable white spirit, Prosecco would still be in major growth. “If it were not for gin, then Prosecco growth would be in decent single-digit numbers, and if you speak to brasseries, then they will tell you that Prosecco is probably losing 25% of the pre-dinner drink market to gin.”

Saturation point

Halstead of Wine Intelligence agrees: “Most data sets suggest that the growth phase of Prosecco in the UK is over, but it hasn’t fallen off a cliff either. It has grown to reach saturation at around 110m bottles a year, and that’s because the Prosecco occasion, which is pre-food and early evening, has been recolonised by gin or rum-based drinks.”

Nevertheless, according to Alex Canneti, who is director for off-trade sales at Berkmann Wine Cellars, the growth phase for Prosecco in the UK may have come to an end, but the scale of demand is unlikely to fall away. “The big boom is over, but it’s still massive – one-third of all prosecco is sold in the UK, and that’s not going to change.” He adds: “It has got to point where not much more Prosecco could be sold, but we won’t see major declines, the main business is very secure – like Pinot Grigio, Prosecco will always be a massive business and with a very good future.”

He also says any volume decline has occurred because there has been less promotional activity from the UK retailers on Prosecco, and, indeed, on all alcoholic drinks, and, having gone through that phase, Prosecco is increasingly being sold on an everyday low price basis, meaning little is expected in the way of sales volume decrease.

Mature market
But if quantities are unlikely to increase further in a vast mature market like the UK, can the producers of Prosecco shift to selling their produce more profitably? Certainly, the volume of Prosecco sold internationally is growing at a higher rate than the figure for turnover, while Lasagni tells db that the bulk wine price for Prosecco dropped in 2019 compared with the 2018 harvest, falling from around €1.80 a litre to €1.55. This, he stresses, “is not because of decreasing consumption”, but “because of general uncertainly at a global level”. Such a view came before the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus into Europe, which, as db was going to press, has just reached the production heartland of the Veneto in northern Italy.

However, even as that news broke, Sebastiano Bonomo, export manager for DOCG Asolo Prosecco producer Giusti told db that he fears an impact from the virus’s spread in the Far East. “There will be a lot of fizz in Europe in the next few months, because all the Prosecco that was supposed to be sold in Asia will be in Europe, and America,” he predicts. While mainland China may not be a significant market for the Italian fizz, he says there is a reasonable amount of branded Prosecco going into tourist resorts of Thailand and Indonesia, and Japan is a large market.

Furthermore, the supply of DOC Prosecco is greater than shipments, with the equivalent of 507m bottles produced from the 2019 harvest, although a bit less than 20% of that, or around 70m bottles, has to be kept as a reserve, which can be released as Prosecco DOC if needed.

The impact of Covid-19 aside, the US is the great hope for absorbing an increased supply, and for becoming a key market for higher-priced Prosecco.

As the IWSR’s Mettyear says: “The UK and Germany have reached a peak, but outside these two big markets Prosecco has been in the growth phase, and especially in the US, and considering that Prosecco has not been affected by the tariffs on European goods, everything favours Prosecco, which can get a lot bigger in the US.”

On premiumising Prosecco, one element that is often touted as important for the category’s future is an enhanced understanding by consumers of the difference between DOC and DOCG Prosecco. The latter, which covers the smaller, historic region of Prosecco production, above all the hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene – a Unesco World Heritage site – are at a production limit, selling all they can produce, with the UK a particular growth area. “One of the fastest-growing markets for Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG is the UK, where we went from 500,000 bottles sold in 2003 to 6.5m sold in 2018,” says Innocente Nardi, the president of the Consortium Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore.

Premium Prosecco
Ruggeri confirms such sales success: “The premium end of Prosecco is doing incredibly well, particularly the DOCGs; if you speak to any of major multiple retailers they will tell you that DOCG Prosecco volumes have grown very strongly, and it’s reached a point where they are finding it difficult to access more wines from those areas.”

However, Ruggeri and other feel this has less to do with a consumer appreciation of the difference between DOC and DOCG, but the fact that the more upmarket retailer own-label Proseccos are made with DOCG grapes. “I don’t think consumers understand the difference, but they are buying DOCG Prosecco because retailers, as a general rule, have DOCG Prosecco in their own premium brands, and that’s helped hugely,” he says, pointing out that Tesco Finest Prosecco and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference are made with DOCG grapes – highlighting Valdobbiadene and Conegliano respectively.

Canetti feels similarly, and says that most people are buying Prosecco on price, rather than quality, and feels that more effort should be placed on promoting the DOCGs. “The UK consumer does not know what Conegliano means or Valdobbiadene means, but to draw a comparison with Chianti and Chianti Classico, they know the cockerel as a symbol for Chianti Classico, and I think the Prosecco DOCGs need a logo to make it easier for consumers to understand the difference.”

As for other more niche Prosecco products, such as the high-priced fizz from the Cartizze hill, or the special sparklings from steeply sloping sites, classified as Rive, along with other producer-led innovations, such as Col Fondo Prosecco – the Italian equivalent of France’s Pétillant Naturel – there is plenty to get the sparkling wine lover excited when it comes to Prosecco. Nevertheless, when it comes to getting the trade to take on such products, Canetti has met a barrier. “When you get to a certain price for Prosecco, the trade – whether it’s the sommelier or the wine buyer – tends to switch to Franciacorta,” he says.

Organics on the rise
But he sees “huge potential” for premium Prosecco, and like others in the trade, this need not simply concern the region’s classifications. Bonomo, for example, says Giusti is doubling the production of its Giusti ‘Extra Brut’ Asolo DOCG Prosecco – part of the smaller and emerging much-drier category of the fizz that is taking off in the Nordics. Lasagni says organic Prosecco in on the rise, and will be launching an organic label at ProWein, while he also mentions the success of his company’s Vigna Dogarina Prosecco, which is from a special vineyard site. The latter also benefits from “fancy packaging”, as it’s available in a gold bottle – a colour more closely associated with the Bottega Proseccos, which have been such a hit in travel retail.

For Ruggeri, the packaging is the key to driving the premium end of Prosecco. “You got the Freixenet DOC Prosecco, that has the packaging element done very well. The supermarkets love that, and you find that it’s at a slightly higher price point, and not discounted as heavily, and we have Pendium in Asda, which is doing very well, and not only being bought on promotion, so with Prosecco, you can be premium in terms of packaging, or DOCG,” he says.

While all these elements are important to the sales, image and financial sustainability of Prosecco, there is one aspect that most producers believe would bring a major fillip – the addition of pink Prosecco onto the market. “I think the term Prosecco would be invigorated if the DOC allowed rosé Prosecco,” says Ruggeri, before making it clear that a pink product would “move Prosecco along, but not the sparkling market, because rosé sparkling is already everywhere”.

To the surprise of many outside the industry, Prosecco rosé is not allowed under the regulations of the DOC, meaning any producer making a pink fizz cannot use the word Prosecco on the label (so, for example, Freixenet’s pink sparkler may hail from Prosecco, but is labelled as simply ‘Italian Rosé’). Discussions are ongoing, and it is thought that the law won’t be authorised until the summer, meaning it’s more likely that Prosecco rosato will be made using grapes from this year’s harvest, rather than last year’s.

The rules for this additional product are believed to stipulate that pink Prosecco can only be made using Glera grapes blended with up to 15% red wine made from Pinot Nero (Noir).

“It’s becoming a soap opera,” says Lasagni, referring to the delay in gaining DOC approval for Prosecco rosato.  “Everything is ready, and the new regulations are sitting with the Ministry of Agriculture, so we are waiting for approval, but it should have been ready for this January, and for some reason it has been delayed,” he says. “I am hoping it will be ready for the next harvest – for us it is a plus because the Prosecco appellation is so well known, and the colour pink has been growing in popularity for the past five years, and in our company we already have quite a lot of Pinot Noir that we can vinify as pink.”

Lasagni says based on the amount of Pinot Noir planted, there is potential for 100m bottles of rosé Prosecco. In contrast, Andrea Battistella, technical director at the DOC, gives a more conservative figure, but focused on sales, rather than production potential. “Based on our studies, we think the potential for Prosecco rosato is 25m to 30m bottles,” he says. Such an estimate is based loosely on the proportion of pink sparkling sold by Champagne and Cava, which he says is around 8%. Meanwhile, in an interview with db last year, Guido Federico Rossignoli, the owner of Prosecco producer Azienda Agricola Ritter de Zahony, said that he believed Prosecco rosato could add 15% to the global market for the fizz, or around 75m bottles.

Speaking about the demand for such a product in the UK, Canetti says: “Potentially it could be huge, but, because it has got to be Pinot Noir-based, the volumes will be restricted at this stage. But it would be the start of something, and if the law changed in the future to allow more red grapes, it would have a bigger impact,” he adds.

Ruggeri, who believes the delay in authorising pink Prosecco may be connected to a desire not to upset the market balance between supply and demand with a surge of higher-priced rosatos, also suggests the potential is there, but not as big as some say.

Pink Prosecco
Noting that the proposed rules for pink Prosecco also stipulate a minimum ageing period of two months in tank – double the time for DOC Prosecco – and a vintage date on the label, and a spumante pressure, he says it will be a higher-priced product that will only feature in the “premium branded section”. He predicts: “I think it will invigorate the market for Prosecco a bit, but not the market for Italian sparkling, as there will be some substitution, with the odd sparkling Italian rosé coming out.”

Nevertheless, the fact that DOC Prosecco rosato should be approved for production this year brings a high level of hope for a category that may be in growth, but also has a big market to maintain, bearing in mind the now vast production volumes from the combined regions, but particularly the DOC. Such a large supply of fizz could be a future challenge with the growing threat to sales from the spread of Covid-19, and the still present risk that the US may impose crippling tariffs on Prosecco, when another review of President Trump’s trade strategy occurs in mid-2020.

It’s these threats, as well as the rise of competitor categories such as gin, that make it all the more important that the region communicates clearly what makes Prosecco special, and that producers invest in building brands, particularly in a major market like the UK, where the best-selling bottles at the moment are supermarket-exclusive brands or private labels.

Thankfully, Prosecco has many credible stories tied to a beautiful region with a burgeoning oenotourism sector. It also has the impending pink Prosecco category to boost sales, and a world of consumers to educate about the product. Prosecco may be the largest sparkling wine region on the planet, but that is a recent phenomenon – it is still a relative newcomer to consumers.

Prosecco is in its infancy, and, as it matures, one shouldn’t expect more of the product, but a broader, and more branded offer. Already, the category is enjoying the rising prominence of recognisable names and increasingly diverse products. Prosecco 2.0 is coming, and the current trends favour its establishment.

A version of this article first appeared in the March edition of db.
Over the following pages are comments from key players in Prosecco, the latest figures from the region on production and shipments, and news from the producers.

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