It’s aperitivo time in Treviso, a city in the heart of the Italian prosecco-making region of Veneto, and some of those gathered in the bars are still smarting over recent criticism of their esteemed sparkling wine.
“It’s not true that it’s bad for your teeth,” said Mariolina Ticcò, flashing a confident grin while swirling a glass of her favourite pre-dinner drink.
“It must have been a joke. I’ve grown up with prosecco, and have a glass every day, sometimes a little more, sometimes while cooking. It’s normal: everyone here drinks it.”
Warnings that the drink rots teeth and erodes gums due to its sugar and high acidity, thus producing a “prosecco smile”, came from dentists in Britain, where demand for the wildly popular wine recently led to scrums at supermarkets.
The claims triggered an outcry in Italy, as politicians leapt to the defence of one of their most precious exports. Maurizio Martina, the agriculture minister, lambasted the reports as “fake news” while Luca Zaia, president of the Veneto region, retorted that Britons needed prosecco to help them smile amid Brexit woes.
Stefano Zanette, a winemaker, is not dwelling too much on the slight. As president of Veneto’s main consortium for prosecco producers, he doesn’t have time to; a fresh battle is looming.
Carlo Petrini, founder of Italy’s Slow Food movement, has taken aim at the winemakers, suggesting in an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper that overproduction of prosecco risks turning it into “a commodity like Coca-Cola”.
Zanette’s response is withering: “I don’t want to get into a debate with Petrini, but comparing prosecco to Coca-Cola shows that he doesn’t really understand the difference between an industrial commodity and a territory that makes a product that is strictly regulated.”
Petrini’s comments came after British shoppers formed long queues outside Lidl supermarkets on the August bank holiday weekend in the hope of snapping up an offer of six bottles for £20. Many had risen early, only to find that the fizz had sold out within minutes.
With a bottle costing up to £3 to produce, but selling in the UK for as little as £1.50, the newspaper’s columnist, Gian Antonio Stella, questioned whether it was worth the sector producing almost half a billion bottles a year, only for them to be sold at rock-bottom prices. Petrini argued that the volume of trade was not good for prosecco or the region it comes from.
Zanette begs to differ: “We can satisfy demand with our production capacity and at the same time maintain the quality – we don’t just open a tap and out pours a bottle of prosecco.
“Besides, supermarket promotions are about sales and marketing and have nothing to do with quality. Like other products, prosecco is sold across a price range, with the lower-priced bottles competing with other sparkling wines. In that respect, prosecco is always made the culprit in a market that contains unregulated varieties.”
The sensitivity of prosecco producers is understandable: the UK is now the biggest market for the wine, with almost 105m bottles sold here in 2016, compared with about 11m in 2011. The drink has overtaken sales of its pricier French rival, champagne, and has become so fashionable that “mobile prosecco vans” can now be hired for parties.
One of the reasons it’s cheaper is because the production process is more efficient than for champagne. The phase of secondary fermentation – the process that creates the bubbles – takes place inside huge steel tanks, rather than in bottles.
Meanwhile, a range of prosecco merchandise has sprung up alongside the drink’s explosive success, including sweets, lip balm and even doormats. In the US, where the drink is just as fashionable, an unofficial National Prosecco Day was launched last year on 13 August. Veneto has also been enjoying the fruits of a boom in prosecco tourism, with visitors now just as likely to hop on a wine tour as they are a gondola in the region’s most famous city, Venice.
Tucked away among the vineyards of the Valdobbiadene area is a farmhouse called Osteria Senz’Oste, or Tavern without a Landlord, where bottles of prosecco and plates of cheese and ham await anyone who calls in. As the name suggests, there is nobody to serve or take cash – guests simply leave an offering. The idea was the brainchild of the property’s owner, Cesare de Stefani, a businessman who wanted outsiders to experience the hospitality of his region over a glass of prosecco. It has proved to be a popular stopover, particularly with British tourists.
“It’s easy to see why the drink has been so successful abroad,” said De Stefani. “It’s fruity and light on alcohol, you can drink it any time of the day, and it’s convivial and uplifting.”
But when it comes to how the drink is promoted overseas, he says producers are perhaps the victims of its success.
“The problem is with who sells it and not who produces it. This can have an impact on the drink’s image.”
Despite concerns over the implications of Brexit, demand for prosecco in the UK is not expected to slow down soon. Total consumption is forecast to rise by 10.8% to nearly 74m litres a year by 2020, according to figures published this year by the research company International Wine and Spirits Record.
“But we’re not indifferent about Brexit,” said Zanette. “The referendum immediately provoked a negative impact with the devaluing of sterling, meaning people had to pay more. We’ll have to wait and see how the UK and EU negotiate, but for sure, prosecco will be a very important card for Italy.”
The producers’ main long-term priority was maintaining the drink’s quality and price while protecting its identity, Zanette said.
When grappling with media storms, part of the problem is down to the name: drinkers assume prosecco covers all Italian sparkling wines.
In fact the wine was named after the hamlet of Prosecco in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a region east of Veneto, where the main grape used to make it – glera – is believed to have originated. The drink dates as far back as Roman times, while the cultivation of the grape expanded across Friuli and Veneto in the 18th century.
As the main ingredient used in Aperol spritz and Bellini cocktails, prosecco has long been a popular tipple in Italy, but sales overseas began to thrive from around 2009, the year it was granted controlled designation of origin status.
While he is relaxed about the latest bout of controversy, Zanette is implacably hostile to one result of his product’s popularity: its availability “on tap” in pubs and bars across the UK.
“There is a lot of confusion in this market, it’s not easy,” said Zanette. “But the main thing is prosecco comes in a bottle and not in a keg!”