Caroline Gilby MW cut her buying teeth in the wine trade in the late 1980s. Italy (along with Eastern Europe) was her first patch as junior buyer, at a time when Lambrusco was seriously big business. Here she muses over whether Lambrusco's rise and fall may have parallels with Prosecco.
It was listening to a friend heading to Croatia on holiday, announcing that she was looking forward to plenty of Prosecco that made me think. Why would you go to a country that produces so many lovely wines in its own right and opt to drink Italian fizz? Or is it that Prosecco has become short-hand for any easy-to-drink bubbly, in a way that the Champenoise fought so hard to stamp out?
Either way there seems to be no stopping the Prosecco bandwagon, but at one time I might have said that about Lambrusco. More mature readers will recall that Lambrusco was 'the' party drink in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sweetish, bubbly and uncomplicated, it certainly hit the spot for millions of consumers and I used to buy it by the container-load for the off-licence chain and pub group I worked for.
That commercial Lambrusco was the bastard offspring of a traditional Italian DOC, made from a grape of the same name (there are several different forms but all red). The traditional product was typically a dry sparkling red with plenty of acidity that went well with the rich food from Emilia-Romagna.
Emilia Romagna, the land of Lambrusco, as lovely as all the more famous wine regions
The birth of Riunite Lambrusco
However, a small US importer called Banfi Vintners was looking for a fizzy red in the late 1960s. They thought the wine was too sharp and thin for American tastes and briefed an Italian winemaker to invent something more suitable. So Riunite Lambrusco was born.
Making it less fizzy meant lower duty while a good amount of sugar appealed to palates raised on Coke. This was not long after second fermentation in pressure tanks had been introduced to the region along with other technical innovations like pasteurisation which meant that sweeter wine could be kept stable.
A man called Martinotti from the Prosecco area invented the pressurised tanks essential for the creation of this type of sparkling wine
At its peak, Riunite Lambrusco was selling around 140 million bottles into the US market, more than enough to allow Banfi to invest in a major estate in Montalcino. Lambrusco broke away from the snobbery that often went with wine – advertising Riunite as 'Nice with Ice' and making it accessible with an earlier generation of screw-caps.
Lambrusco soon loses its colour in the UK
In the UK, Lambrusco first gained a foothold as a sweet fizzy red but then someone had the idea of making it white by quick pressing (and possibly colour removal) and so Lambrusco Bianco arrived on the scene followed soon after by a Rosato style.
...and then the alcohol
The bubbles were always kept at a relatively low pressure to avoid paying the higher rate of duty that fully sparkling wine attracted. But huge volumes and almost no brand loyalty meant that price became all important and in the race to the bottom, another idea was to make Lambrusco 'light'.
Below 5.5% alcohol duty rates reduced substantially, though the product could no longer be labelled wine. Out of interest, in 1993 duty on Champagne was £1.56 per bottle, standard Lambrusco £0.94 while Lambrusco Light paid just 16p per bottle. Lambrusco had become a price-driven commodity and by then the New World had begun its rise.
And what of Lambrusco today?
Today proper dry sparkling DOC Lambrusco is still available and is better than ever, but has never caught on very widely. And cheap IGT (table wine with geographical indication) Lambrusco is still produced in vast volumes (125 million bottles in 2012), and while not much makes it to the UK, it sells strongly in markets like Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Asia.
Parallels with Prosecco
I see some parallels with Prosecco in all this. Despite much snobbery around the trade, Prosecco undoubtedly delivers a product consumers want to drink (as did Lambrusco at its peak). It's usually made quite sweet, something consumers like, but helpfully it is usually labelled Dry or Extra Dry.
Research has shown that many consumers like to think they drink dry but prefer sweeter tastes. It is a quirk of labelling for sparkling wines that means 'Dry' wines can have between 17 and 32 g/l of residual (that is not fermented sugar) and 'Extra Dry' can have 12 to 17g/l of sugar, while 'Brut' is less than 12 g/l. For many drinkers, Prosecco is more appealing than cheap Champagne which can be nastily sharp, while it's fruitier and softer than Cava.
The appeal of Prosecco
Prosecco also delivers a consistently light, fruity and floral style. It's almost always tank-fermented by a method invented by an Italian called Martinotti from the Prosecco area (though later patented by a Frenchman called Eugene Charmat – more on making sparkling wine here).
Marco Adami, producer of The Society’s Prosecco, explains the rather complicated charmat method
Usually, the base wine is fermented and stored cool until the second fermentation to trap the bubbles. This takes place in sealed pressure tanks and then is bottled after as little as 30 days.
Some producers even prefer to chill the unfermented must and store it until required, putting the juice through fermentation and trapping the bubbles in one step for extra freshness.
This production method with very short contact with the yeast is great for reliably fresh and fruity wines, but not for producing complexity or depth of flavour.
Prosecco now the largest DOC in Italy
Another similarity with Lambrusco lies in the huge volumes being produced (sales reached 362 million bottles in 2015) and massive price competition as many retailers feature Prosecco to bring in customers.
Prosecco is now the largest DOC in Italy and has just added a further 3,000 hectares (ha) to the zone (now 23,250 ha) to chase more volume, with production potential for 3.78 million hectolitres (close to 500 million bottles).
The Riva or hills in the best parts of DOCG Prosecco where the riper and fresher grapes are grown
And as happened with Lambrusco, there is a danger of cannibalisation of Prosecco by lower quality options. Prosecco hasn't gone this far yet but is showing some signs of undermining itself.
One way is this increase in plantings on, presumably lower quality, land and another is the rise of 'frizzante' category. It keeps the all-important Prosecco name but is bottled at around 2.5 atmospheres of pressure instead of the fully sparkling 5 to 6 atmospheres. This makes it cheaper as it pays still wine duty instead of sparkling wine duty, but lacks the lively bubbles and foam of the sparkling style.
Protecting the Prosecco name
Then there is the question of DOC versus DOCG – what difference does a letter make I hear you ask? The Prosecco region has been cunning in how it has protected the Prosecco name.
The grape itself used to be called prosecco but was renamed in 2009 as glera. At the same time, the region extended the Prosecco DOC to cover all the flatlands where IGT Prosecco had previously been produced, taking in the village named Prosecco in Friuli.
EU law only allows protection for a region of origin, not a grape variety, so this move stopped all the imitators in one clever move. At the same time, the better hilly vineyards (which had been DOC) around Conegliano and Valdobbiadene gained that 'G' for garantita and the 'superiore' designation.
Worth noting that DOC vines here can produce an eye-wateringly massive crop of 18 tonnes per ha whereas DOCG vines can only produce 13.5 tonnes. There's also a 'Rive' category covering 43 specified communes or vineyard sites and at the top of the pyramid is the 107-hectare hilly zone of Cartizze, which produces the most ethereal Prosecco of all.
What does the future hold?
So, will Prosecco implode like Lambrusco? It certainly needs to be wary of racing to the bottom on price, and compromising quality for the sake of lower prices.
Prosecco Frizzante risks undermining the style, though at least the DOC rules should protect against 'light' or fruit-flavoured versions. It needs to be wary of allowing Prosecco to become a commodity used to drive footfall, a danger when there is simply so much wine being produced.
The region has been clever in protecting the Prosecco name but has largely failed to raise it above generic level – most consumers don't distinguish DOC from DOCG let alone consider the differences between producers or where they grow their grapes, and as for pronouncing Valdobbiadene, just don't go there!
Recent moves to have the region’s beautiful vineyards listed by UNESCO should help draw attention to the area’s long history and cultural heritage.
Riva dei Frati’s vineyards on the hilly slopes where the glera grape retains freshness in the summer heat
There's more to both Prosecco, and indeed Lambrusco, than most people know and there are definitely wines worth exploring. But Prosecco could usefully keep a wary eye on the history of Lambrusco to avoid the same trap.
Caroline Gilby MW
Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and a scientist by training. She is a wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe and contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.
> Read more articles by Caroline Gilby MW
Wine Society members can rest easy in the knowledge that their Italian buyer, Sebastian Payne MW, will only select the best bottles from the producers that aim for quality and authenticity above all else.
> Browse our range of Proseccos and Lambrusco
> Find out more about our Prosecco producers and the Prosecco phenomenon in our Travels in Wine feature on the region