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The Battle for Prosecco

How the Italian sparkling wine changed a name and gained a region

Josephine McKenna By April 18, 2023
Landscape photo of Prosecco wine region in Italy
Vineyards of the Prosecco sparkling wine region between Valdobbiadene and Conegliano, Italy. Photo by wjarek/iStock.

It began with a grape and blossomed into a global empire. 

It’s Prosecco, the popular bubbly, which is drunk by millions of enthusiasts around the world.

Italy’s Prosecco sector now produces 750 million bottles a year with a total value of nearly $5 billion. Germany and the U.K. remain the biggest consumers but interest is also growing in other markets. 

What drinkers don’t realize is how hard Italy’s Prosecco producers and their political leaders have worked to enshrine its identity at the expense of foreign competitors. And it’s not over yet.

The birth of Prosecco

Efforts first began in the early 1960s when a dozen producers created the first consortium to protect the sparkling wine that comes from the “ciglioni,” the terraced hog-backed hills, between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, north of Venice. 

The Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG is produced in 15 hilly municipalities between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, while the Prosecco DOC is produced in an area stretching across nine provinces between the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. The Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG represents producers from a small area near Treviso.

In recent years, the number of producers has exploded. While any further vineyard expansion is banned for now, environmentalists have complained of damage to the natural landscape

In viticultural terms, it’s a valuable region that produces an increasingly popular wine made from the Prosecco grape. But over the years the Italians made a critical discovery: When you label wine by its grape and not its territorial origin, it’s impossible to protect it. 

The strength of the Italian brand name was diluted when Italian Pinot Grigio became a hit in the U.S. in the 1970s — because consumers began to buy Pinot Grigio from other regions, having been turned on to the varietal name, not the region of origin. Worse was to come when the Italians lost the battle to name their wine Tocai Friuliani when the European Union sided with Hungarian winemakers in 2007 over their own Tokaji. Tocai Friuliani became Friuliano.

It was a politician called Luca Zaia who led the charge to protect the Prosecco name. As Italy’s national agriculture minister in 2009, he introduced reforms that redrew the boundaries of production so the DOC region would include the town of Prosecco, near Trieste — the town, though it has a history of winemaking dating back to the 1600s, was about 93 miles away from the core of the then modern production area. At the same time, he changed the name of the grape to Glera; previously it had been known as both Prosecco in the Treviso area and Glera in Friuli. 

Zaia, now the president of the Veneto region surrounding the vineyards, effectively gave Prosecco a territorial identity that would make it almost impossible for foreign producers to compete.

He is unrepentant about fighting for Italian ownership of the name. “The first mention of the term ‘Prosecco’ dates back to the 14th century,” Zaia says. “This name has continued over the centuries to indicate the type of wine that comes from the regions of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.” 

“It is only this geographical area, which is completely foreign to other countries, that can be linked to the history of the Prosecco appellation,” Zaia added.

On its webpage, the Prosecco DOCG consortium suggests historian and poet Aureliano Acanti was responsible for the first reference to Prosecco way back in 1754, but the justification for the grape change was far simpler.

Zaia and his team only had to refer to their own national register of wine varieties drawn up in 1960 that describes Glera as a synonym for Prosecco to push their reforms through.

Today, the name Prosecco is one of the best-known examples of what the Italians like to call “Made in Italy.” That was given an enormous boost in 2019 when UNESCO cited the outstanding universal value of the hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene and added the region to its coveted World Heritage list.

The Prosecco wars

In the late 1960s, an Italian from the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG area migrated to Victoria in Australia and began planting vines. By the turn of this century, Otto Dal Zotto was a winemaker noted for introducing new varieties. In 1999, his winery planted what was then legally known as Prosecco. Others soon followed. 

Tony Battaglene, the chief executive of Australian Grape and Wine, represents more than 2,500 winemakers and 5,000 grape growers. He says Australian Prosecco grape production grew by 50% in 2021; it is tipped to reach more than $371 million in export sales. But Australian producers no longer have the right to export wine to the EU if it wears the Prosecco name. And, as of July this year, Australians have also lost the right to export wines bearing the Prosecco name to New Zealand, one of their major markets.

Battaglene has accused the Italian Government and the EU of seeking to alter history by blocking Australian exports and ensuring the name Prosecco remains exclusively Italian.

“They have sought to restrict trade of the variety globally on that basis, despite the fact that Australia and others have been producing it for years,” Battaglene said. “Australian producers grow and market the grape variety by its correct name, which is Prosecco.”

Now a fresh battle is looming in the identity wars as Croatian winemakers step up their bid for EU recognition of Prošek, the sweet dessert wine from the Dalmatia region. Prošek, which is made using dried grapes using the passito method, dates back to the 15th century when Croatia was ruled by the Republic of Venice and bears little resemblance to Prosecco.

Croatia has been trying to get the trademark recognized since Italy blocked its first attempt in 2013, arguing that the name Prošek was too similar to Prosecco. The Italians are unimpressed.

“If Europe was to give in to Croatian demands, it would create a very dangerous precedent,” Zaia insisted. “It would be unthinkable for Europe to authorize the term, Prošek, which historically identifies our production.”

“Prosecco has become a commodity like coffee or sparkling mineral water; it’s no longer a wine,” Tommaso Canella said. “We were one of the first to produce Prosecco. We were lucky. Now it is a very competitive market.”

Prosecco today

But while the Italians may have fended off external competition, there’s plenty of debate inside the country about where the industry goes next. 

Canella is one of Italy’s most prominent and oldest Prosecco labels. Founded by Luciano Canella in 1947, his eponymous brand is now run by his son, Lorenzo, and grandson, Tommaso. Canella produces four million bottles of Prosecco annually and has been selling it in the U.S. market for 30 years.

“Prosecco has become a commodity like coffee or sparkling mineral water; it’s no longer a wine,” Tommaso Canella said. “We were one of the first to produce Prosecco. We were lucky. Now it is a very competitive market.”

Canella recently added a Prosecco rosé to the brand’s extensive sparkling wine range. It also produces a bottled version of the Bellini, a blend of Prosecco and peach puree, and other cocktails. Tommaso says the profile of Prosecco remains important and wine lovers want to see the name Prosecco on the bottle.

“People are looking for history and they are looking for quality,” Canella said. “Prosecco is a delicacy. It is unique. But I also think there is a place for everyone since we have five-star Michelin restaurants and pubs so there is a huge market for sparkling wine and we also produce that as well.”

Elvira Bortolomiol, the first female president of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, believes so too.

“Prosecco, as we know it today, was born in the hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene and it expresses the identity of the product that was born from the enological culture of these places and centuries of experience in the vineyard,” she says. Not surprisingly, Bortolomiol is adamant the name must be protected. “The name Prosecco represents a wine with a designation of origin, just like Champagne. If other wines adopt the same name, then what is the point of having the designation of origin system?”

6 Proseccos to try:

Note: These wines were chosen by our editorial team.

Bottle of Mionetto Prosecco DOC

Mionetto Prosecco Brut (~$16)

When you’re looking for a bottle that’s equally suitable for sipping in the sunshine or mixing with orange juice, Aperol, or whatever you prefer, this bottle is a great option that performs well in both settings.

Bottle of Santa Marina Prosecco DOC

Santa Marina Prosecco (~$11)

Another affordably priced bottle for sipping or mixing, this wine is a touch richer than the Mionetto, allowing it to stand up to slightly heartier fare like a cheese plate or even light appetizers, though it of course can also be enjoyed with nothing more than a good conversation.

Bottle of Sommariva Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Brut

Sommariva Prosecco di Conegliano Superiore Brut (~$19)

The Sommariva family, like many, has been growing grapes in the region for generations, but were one of the early advocates for the Glera grape (then known, as Prosecco), choosing to plant it exclusively at the expense of international varieties, which they use to produce this bright, fruit-forward but balanced wine.

Bottle of Tiamo Organic Prosecco Rosé DOC

Tiamo Organic Prosecco Rosé NV (~$15)

Rosé Prosecco is a new addition to the region, though sparkling rosés have long been made in small quantities. Here, the addition of a small amount of Pinot Noir (known locally as Pinot Nero) gives the wine a lovely pinkish hue and notes of tart cherry and raspberry.

Bottle of Adami Vigneto Giardino Asciutto Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore Rive di Colbertaldo

Adami Vigneto, Rive Colbertaldo Dry, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Prosecco (~$23)

That entire paragraph of a name might have scared you off, but what it mostly means is that this is a single-vineyard Prosecco from the historic heartland of the region, and in fact this vineyard was the source of what was almost certainly the first single-vineyard Prosecco ever.

Bottle of Bisol Cartizze Valdobbiadene Superiore Di Cartizze DOCG

Bisol Desiderio e Figli Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze (~$48)

If you truly want to enjoy some excellent Prosecco, this is the bottle to do it with. From the hillside of Cartizze, considered the “Grand Cru” of the entire region, it’s an elegant, complex, and somewhat restrained expression of the Glera grape.