Prosecco: How the Italian sparkling wine knocked champagne off its pedestal

Where has Britain's penchant for prosecco come from? Supermarkets, branding and wine experts explain the drink's explosive growth

Olivia Blair
Wednesday 24 May 2017 18:13
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The transformation of "bringing a bottle" equating to "bring a prosecco" began about four years ago, for me. While my student days were reliant on cheap vodka and whatever mixer I had around the house, shamefully incorporating Ribena squash on more than one occasion, my mid-twenties have been replaced with prosecco. I head to the supermarket, select the bottle on offer (usually around £7) and head to a friend’s house, often skipping the bar or club in that classic "millennial" fashion.

Prosecco, sparkling wine from the Veneto region of Italy, is often regarded as champagne’s younger, more broke and trashier cousin. However, its rise in popularity over the last few years has been phenomenal and unprecedented: From 2013- 2014, prosecco consumption in the UK doubled.

Sainsbury’s own-label prosecco has grown 40 per cent year-on-year and its Taste the Difference Conegliano Prosecco, which was launched in 2011, is consistently one of its top-performing products from the premium range.

Tesco says its sales of the drink started soaring five years ago, and this year alone customers are buying 26 per cent more bottles than the last.

The craze peaked earlier this month when there was a two-day prosecco festival in London where revellers could enjoy eight different brands and attend masterclasses.

“Prosecco has become an increasingly popular drink over the last few years in the UK but real knowledge about the product, brands and methods seems to be lacking,” the festival's founder, Jordan Gross, told The Independent. “We wanted to bring together the best bits of wine-tasting events with the fun of a festival environment all under one roof, where customers can sample, learn and have fun."

Gross believes the drink’s ever-increasing popularity has partly come from the fact that many of the prosecco brands are now able to rival champagne in taste as well as price.

The rise of prosecco has been more apparent in Britain than anywhere. According to the International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR) company, the UK is the biggest consumer of the drink behind its native Italy. The UK is also the largest importer of all sparkling wines in the world.

So why has it tempted the tastebuds of Brits more than anyone? The IWSR’s wine analyst Ania Zymelka said that buying a bottle to mark an event is part of British life, therefore “the UK was a natural fit for a new sparkling wine trend”.

How did prosecco become this new sparkling wine trend? According to the experts, it is down to a number of factors.

A gap in the market

Ms Zymelka says that there was a “gap in the sparkling wine category” that prosecco has managed to fill. Champagne was too luxurious, heavy and unaffordable for a weekly treat or small event. On the other hand, cava was “affordable but had a dusty image and was viewed as the ‘cheap alternative to champagne’”.

“Prosecco came along and presented itself as a life-affirming, positive, Italian drink – this hit a nerve,” she said. “In essence, consumers get the ‘bubbles’ which are associated with luxury, at a good price point – an affordable, everyday luxury.”

The changing nature of events

It is a change in the "occasions" we drink bubbly that has also allowed for prosecco to flourish.

“In an age, where staying in is the new going out, buying a bottle of prosecco can feel celebratory even when you are ‘only’ celebrating on your own or with a friend at home,” Ms Zymelka says.

James Davis, master of wine at Tesco, echoes these sentiments, telling The Independent: “People’s attitudes to drinking ‘bubbly’ has changed… It has become a much more accessible experience and an everyday luxury”.

Andy Barr, a branding expert at 10 Yetis, said that most people don’t really care what fizzy wine they are drinking at a celebration, so there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a cheaper, yet for many just as enjoyable, alternative, such as prosecco.

“They just want the feelgood fizz factor,” he said. “I’ve been to plenty of weddings where the bride and groom have switched champagne for prosecco in the toast to save money and most people won’t even notice, or care for that matter.”

The price is right

The reasonable price of the beverage has helped its cause, also explaining its popularity among young adults.

“As the nation has become less focused on splurging and more on saving (some might blame the recessions we’ve faced), it has become more widely acceptable to celebrate the cheaper alternatives that are so readily available to us, and prosecco is one of them,” Mr Barr says.

In fact, the celebrated affordability of the wine can actually hamper individual prosecco producers’ efforts to ramp up prices, Ms Zymelka says.

“Attempts to try and ‘premiumise’ prosecco have so far been very limited,” she says. “Consumers are not brand loyal, with ‘prosecco’ itself regarded as the brand. People will generally just buy whichever prosecco is currently on promotion, which makes it difficult for suppliers to up the price.”

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There are mixed feelings as to whether this trend will slow down. Brits are drinking an incredibly large amount of a beverage whose producers are concentrated in one small area in Italy. Last year, following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, bottomless brunch go-ers and anticipant brides and grooms alike were concerned by the news that Brexit could impact importation.

So far, the dire prophecy has not yet materialised, but Ms Zymelka says that as with “most volume-driven trends”, growth rates are slowing. She also warned that production capacity is not endless, so increased demand and supply pressure could forecast a deterioration of quality.

However, Tesco’s Mr Davis says that so far prosecco sales have not weakened.

“We don’t see any signs of it slowing down,” he said. “At the moment, over half of the sparkling wine we sell is prosecco, and the sparkling wine category as a whole is continuing to grow.”

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