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Cheap Prosecco: Who Pays the Price?

The temptation to buy inexpensive wine is real. There aren’t too many people in this world who actively turn away a bargain, a point proved recently by the hundreds of people who queued for hours at a supermarket in England to buy Prosecco at £3.33 (roughly AUD$5) a bottle. The glass bottle and the cork would cost that much alone. The thrill of paying less is satisfying, but in the end, is it always worth it?

Wine is ultimately an agricultural product. Depending on the producer and where the grapes are grown, it can be on an industrial scale or something made by hand by just a few people. Either way, the resources needed for grapes to be drinkable, contained within a sealed bottle and then delivered to a point where you, the consumer can purchase it, are immense. As winemaker Lucio Canestrari of Fattoria Coroncino puts it, “Bottles of wine don’t grow out of the ground.”

Earlier this year, many vineyards in northern Italy were hit with a devastating, late-spring frost which damaged or killed many newly sprouted grape bunches in the critical stage of development known as “bud break”. To make matters worse, persistent high temperatures and a serious drought has plagued most of the Italian peninsula for almost the entire summer. These conditions have created a situation where in some areas (such as in Friuli and Veneto where Prosecco is grown) the production rules have had to be stretched in order to prevent devastating financial losses.

In a “normal” or favourable year, there would ideally be ample rainfall in the spring, hot days and cool-ish nights across the summer, and then dry, sunny conditions during the harvest. Winemakers have the best chance to make great wine under these circumstances, and for the top producers, they will enjoy an increased demand for their wines in those years. But of course, the overall season is not so predictable or forgiving, and when your livelihood is tied to the weather, some years can be incredibly difficult.

Now, think again about paying $5 a bottle for Prosecco. Over the last few years the Italian bubbly has skyrocketed in popularity across the world and has essentially become a commodity, with prices set by the lowest bidder. Industrial production of Prosecco is largely driving this boom, but there still exist many small-to-medium-sized producers who have been making quality wine for many years and are seeing their efforts being lumped together with the Prosecco behemoth.

In Italy, all wine production is governed by a system of regulations and regional denominations. Prosecco is protected by these designations and is categorised into tiers of quality based on its area of production, grape yields and production methods. The perception that all Prosecco tastes, or is the same, is a myth perpetuated by the ubiquitousness of the product. Most people are willing to pay for quality once they understand what they’re buying, but the fact that Prosecco is everywhere—even Australian Prosecco is part of this equation—the perceived value of the category as a whole, rightly or unfairly, has plummeted.

On the bright side, there is a movement underway in the wine world—as there was in the food industry in the early 2000s—to consume wine that is produced on a smaller scale, and with less interference in the vineyards and in the winery. Without diving too deeply into that conversation, it is only to your benefit to go to the effort to ensure you are consuming a quality, genuine, regionally-representative product that has been made with grapes that were grown with care and attention.

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