VALDOBBIADENE, ITALY – Small vans carrying mounds of green grapes crossed the road to Prosecco. Workers harvesting in the terraced vines squinted at the sun. Drunk tourists stopped for tastings. Couples toasted at the city’s quaint prosecco bars.
But behind the effervescent front, the producers of Italy’s hugely popular sparkling white wine in the northeastern region of Veneto were on the verge of war.
“I feel like I’m going to fight,” said Elvira Maria Bortolomiol, mimicking a gun in an airy tasting room next to her vineyards. Owner of the Bortolomiol winery and new president of a consortium of producers, Ms. Bortolomiol said that a surprise attack had “confused” us.
War and internal conflicts have arrived in the land of Prosecco. The European Union, in a major buzz kill for a multibillion-euro industry fueled by Spritz, agreed last month to consider a long-standing request from Croatia to recognize Prosek, a method of making an obscure sweet dessert wine – and again – of the same name.
Big Prosecco has fought a myriad of other salvos – fakes like Meer-secco and Cansecco, and warnings from British dentists about the sweet spumante rotting the country’s teeth. But little Prosek, a legitimately old wine from an EU member state, presented a unique threat.
An important part of the Italian economy is based on typical Italian products whose names and sounds are protected from imitation. If the EU allowed Prosek today, producers say, could Farmesan be far behind?
This is how Prosecco producers and local officials joined with the Italian government in crushing Prosek. The argument is that recognition by Brussels would confuse consumers and set a dangerous precedent.
“Recognizing Prosek could legitimize a ton of other products that are knockoffs,” said Luca Giavi, president of the Consortium to Protect Prosecco.
As if demonstrating the performance of DEA drug trafficking, he put on his headquarters table a seized Romanian “Pro-Secco”, a packet of 10 “Prosecco Bath Bombs” and shower gel. Prosecco Princess. “The important thing is to have an enemy,” he said. “It unites us”
But not everyone.
In a dark, vaulted cellar under a stone Prosecco museum on the hill of Valdobbiadene, Enrico Bortolomiol – Ms Bortolomiol’s first cousin – argued that the conflict over Croatian wine offered a rare chance to advance a radical agenda: the time had come to abandon the name Prosecco.
The grandmaster of the brotherhood of Valdobbiadene – a sacred society of Prosecco producers from the traditional wine house on the hills of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano – Mr Bortolomiol, 55, wore a heavy white futaine cape, a black velvet cap and a gold medallion stamped with the brotherhood crest. Around him, frescoes depicted the company’s four founding fathers knocking down chalices with stunned medieval knights, a bare-breasted Bacchus, and women in tight-fitting togas.
With his back to the dusty bottles of the best spumante on the hill over the decades, he sat with outstretched hands in a raised seat and argued that Prosecco’s good reputation had been irrevocably tarnished by overproduction in the mechanically harvested provinces and without wine interest which represented 500 million of the 600 million bottles on the market.
“We have nothing to do with it,” Bortolomiol said.
“We are trying to put the name of Prosecco in the background,” Mr Bortolomiol added as another knight in a red robe gravely nodded his head.
Over the decades, Italy has given different protected geographical indications for different bottles of Prosecco depending on where they are produced. Traditional hills get a brown seal; nine new provinces where wine is produced obtain a blue. Old hills get an extra G for guaranteed origin. The new ones don’t. But most consumers don’t know the difference; they’re just looking for the name Prosecco.
And Mr. Bortolomiol thinks there isn’t much left in that name.
Its purity, he said, had been tainted by Aperol and Campari and the sickening Jolly Rancher-colored Spritzs that conquered aperitif time around the world. Prosecco’s lower prices were also blasphemous to the minds of the Brotherhood’s founders, including her uncle and Ms. Bortolomiol’s father.
A billboard outside of town advertised a bottle of Prosecco for 2.79 euros if purchased with a six-pack of canned tuna.
Mr Bortolomiol believes that Prosecco has become “a generic name” for any boiling water with bubbles and no longer worth defending – from Prosek or anyone else.
His fellow knight, Daniele Buso, hopes the latest dispute will lead Prosecco producers to “enlightenment”.
The only way to avoid the confusion and the insanely low prices was to break up and change brands, putting the good stuff in bottles marked with a V, which the Brotherhood sold. Call it Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superior Spumante, or a permutation of it, as long as the wine was explicitly linked to its traditional and inimitable territory.
For many Prosecco growers in the surrounding plains, the position of the Knights is both economically suicidal and betrayal in wartime.
Croatia, argued Giorgio Polegato, the president of Astoria wines, a giant of the neighboring plains, had shown a “lack of respect” by pushing his Prosek.
As mechanized grape harvesters sucked up his vines, he showed huge steel tanks, decked out as if ready for a party, bright lights and stylish accessories. In the cellar’s Fashion Victim Lounge, bottles labeled “Glam”, “Diva” and “Funky” stood on the shiny walls. He embraced the Spritz and attributed the insane success of Prosecco in part to its price. He also described it as “easier to drink” and extremely popular with Americans, Brits and women.
“Women like it,” he says.
More and more people are coming to drink aperitifs, and pre-aperitifs, and pre-aperitifs, in the Prosecco hills.
In 2019, after a huge lobbying effort, UNESCO declared Valdobbiadene and Conegliano a World Heritage Site.
“It changed everything,” said Marina Montedoro, leader of the effort. She now worries that Prosek’s recognition will lead tourists to accidentally travel to Croatia. “It could happen,” she said.
For now, people know where to go. Two Slovak women emerged from the vineyards of Valdobbiadene and stopped next to a couple enjoying two glasses of Prosecco in the morning.
“No husband, no children, just Prosecco,” said Lucia Figurova, 33. “This place is for me.”
It’s music to the ears of the mayor of Valdobbiadene, Luciano Fregonese, who, while proud that a pope was born in the city some 700 years ago, is striving to make his community a place of pilgrimage. for Prosecco lovers. Outside the Town Hall – which sells wine corks in its tourist office – workers have pounded cobblestones into a pedestrian plaza turned into a roundabout to make the town more attractive to growing numbers visitors.
“The nightmare,” he said, “is that tourists walk through and see the hills and leave, like Jurassic Park here.”
In a Prosecco bar in the square, Agostino Piazza, 22, celebrated his university degree after completing his thesis, “Resilience of the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene Prosecco value chain”.
In the cellar of the brotherhood, Mr. Bortolomiol remained convinced that the real resistance of the local sparkling wine lay in its quality and its dissociation from a word which had lost all meaning.
Protecting the spirit, if not the name, of Prosecco was the mission of his knights, who, he said, solemnly pledged before a vine-shaped sword to renounce water, which brought only misfortune, and to exalt the local bubbling. Each new member was then to drink half a bottle of the winner of the Brotherhood’s annual blind tasting test.
“And then,” Mr Buso said, “they are named a knight of prosecco”.
“Valdobbiadene,” corrected the grandmaster.
“Okay,” said Mr Buso. “Slip of the tongue.”