Wine Sense: Prosecco Aims High

After several years of torrid volume growth, Prosecco seeks to move further upscale.

Prosecco made in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG (vineyards pictured) typically sells for higher prices than DOC labels, although the region’s exports remain low.
Prosecco made in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG (vineyards pictured) typically sells for higher prices than DOC labels, although the region’s exports remain low.

In recent years, Prosecco has come into its own. Long regarded as a cheaper alternative to Champagne—and battling associated perceptions of lower quality—Prosecco’s niche has emerged among consumers seeking everyday sparkling wines. Now the category is looking to premiumize.

Sales of Prosecco in the United States saw a 34-percent jump to 3 million nine-liter cases in 2014, according to Stefano Zanette, president and chairman of the Prosecco DOC Consortium. He expects U.S. sales to surpass 4 million cases this year. The Consortium uses bottleneck strips to guarantee a Prosecco’s authentic origin and quality. “We’re working to create a consumer behavior of verifying the neck strip on every bottle,” Zanette says.

The Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG represents a more exclusive tier, with many brands commanding higher prices than DOC Prosecco. Although the DOCG accounts for roughly a quarter of all Prosecco production at 6 million cases, it only exported about 225,000 cases to the United States in 2013, according to Alan Tardi, U.S. ambassador for the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Consortium. But new marketing efforts—and consumers’ growing taste for upmarket Prosecco—may lead to more sales for this category. “I believe American consumers can understand and appreciate the distinction between DOC and DOCG Prosecco if it’s made clearly,” Tardi says.

At Prosecco Restaurant in Chicago, each guest receives a complimentary glass of Mionetto Brut Prosecco before dinner. Managing partner Kathryn Alvera says that about 50 percent of customers stick with sparkling wines throughout their meal. The restaurant boasts a list of more than 50 Prosecco and Franciacorta labels, and Alvera has noticed a rise in spending since the venue opened in 2007, with the average sparkling wine purchase at around $65 a 750-ml. bottle. “People are also buying larger format bottles, such as magnums,” she notes.

With sales reaching 500,000 cases last year, Mionetto offers Proseccos at every price point, with its core Prestige Brut label ($12 to $14 a 750-ml. bottle) making up two-thirds of the business. “It’s a very exciting moment for Prosecco,” says CEO Enore Ceola. “We’re growing as much as the category, especially in national chains both on- and off-premise.” He notes that the brand’s Luxury line ($16 to $20) is doing well. “The people who embraced Prosecco five or 10 years ago now want to drink something that’s more expensive and better quality,” he explains.

Altaneve ($30 a 750-ml. bottle) is also targeting the luxury tier. The brand from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG entered the market in 2013. “We want to raise the standard of Prosecco,” says founder David Noto. He’s releasing the ultra-premium Altaneve Z ($45) this month and wants Altaneve to become synonymous with high-end Prosecco. “Right now, there’s little brand recognition in that area,” Noto adds. This year, Altaneve aims to double its 2014 case sales to a total of 4,000, and Noto has partnered with The Winebow Group to grow the brand’s footprint.

At Chicago’s 31-unit Binny’s Beverage Depot, director of wine sales Doug Jeffirs notes that the “sweet spot” is in the $10-to-$14 range. Top-sellers include Mionetto ($10.99 a 750-ml. bottle) and La Marca ($13.99). Many customers buy Prosecco as “a first entry into sparkling wine,” but Jeffirs has noticed an increase in sales of premium labels. “As Prosecco continues to grow, the slightly higher-end brands like Adami ($14.99), Nino Franco Rustico ($15.99) and Santa Margherita ($16.99) get discovered more,” he adds.

As sales outpace supply growth, producers are concerned about a possible shortage. “We expect demand to surpass our capacity,” says Prosecco DOC’s Zanette. “The price is likely to rise.” Ceola of Mionetto agrees. “When September comes, we’ll see people scrambling to find Prosecco to sell,” he says.