Way back in those interesting and historic days of the 1960’s, when young people were finding their loud political voice and the wine industry had at best a muted cry, imbibers were growing weary of whiskies, beers, and idle, yet endless, conversations about the meaning of the cover of the 33 1/3 record album, Abbey Road.
There arose at this moment a whole raft of ersatz beverages, parading as “wine,” with manufacturers spending more bucks on packaging than on product.
The party-lexicon soon expanded to include the names of Riunite, Lancers, Italian Swiss Colony, and Carlo Rossi, who seemed to be invited to every social occasion, but in actuality you would not want to get within a full bar’s-length of this character.
At this time, they were also making an appearance were other beverages that entered into the American semi-conscious, including Valpolicella, Soave Bolla, Prosecco, and Lambrusco. There was also the ubiquitous Hearty Burgundy, but let’s leave that alone since it is neither Italian, which is where this conversation is centered, nor was it even close to being Burgundy.
The rush to cheaply quench America’s new-found search for fermented fruit juice caught the attention of a then little-known wine region in northeastern Italy, where many of these real wines originate.
The producers of Valpolicella, located in the province of Verona, felt that their red wines, by design light, fruity, and aromatic, would nicely fit America’s demands for uncomplicated, inexpensive grape juice. They began a marketing effort and turned up the production, churning out hundreds of thousands of gallons of pretty simple product.
Yes, Americans lapped it up…for awhile. The good news: Valpolicella wine producers from Verona sold the heck out of their wine. The bad news: as Americans continued to develop “real” wine palates, they turned their backs on the wines and the region.
To this day, the makers of Soave Bolla, neighbors of Valpolicella, continue to churn out simple, not complicated, and not particularly good wines.
Interestingly, many of the producers of Valpolicella came to their senses and now produce wines of structure and, in some cases, elegance. They even send some of their wines through a process known as ripasso, which means they air-dry fruit, then add other grape elements, like skins, to the first mix, achieve a second fermentation, and create wines of strength and layered flavors.
Many producers of Valpolicella recognized that short-term gains did not endear them to the consumer and did not position the business for succeeding generations. These winemakers heeded the call to make the best wines they could and they are doing some terrific work today.
It’s tough to turn around a brand-name, but they are doing just that. Yes, there are still some Valpolicella’s out there of lesser quality, but there are also some fine wines proudly wearing the name of the region. After short-cutting themselves to plenty of sales but reaping a mediocre reputation, they woke up and brought themselves to a better place.
The folks who make Prosecco, just up the road from Valpolicello, simply had their brand name taken from them and watched as sickening sweet wines with no character headed to market with their moniker.
To be sure, some Prosecco producers also played a role in cheapening their region’s efforts to make a quality sparkling wine, using the Charmat method, which is like making Champagne, but without the second-fermentation occurring in the bottle. Charmat creates its second fermentation in large vats and then puts the sparkling wine into the bottle.
Importantly, Prosecco is a place, which should mean that only wines from that place can be called by the name of the place. Same goes for Rioja, Cognac, Champagne, and Burgundy.
But a good name does not stop marketers from “borrowing”.
What really is saving Prosecco right now is the miserable economy. As sparkling wine drinkers react with sticker-shock to the stratospheric pricing levels their beloved Champagne has achieved, they have sought alternative solutions.
Prosecco does have the advantages of 1) possessing bubbles; 2) having usually good quality bubbles; 3) coming in the familiar grades of sweetness, i.e. Brut, Extra Dry, etc.; and 4) not being anywhere near as expensive as their French counterparts, who don’t seem to want to catch on that there are economic issues being faced by just about every consumer.
In an odd sort of way, Prosecco would have continued to play a completely secondary role among people who can’t live without sparkling wine in their daily diet, except for the financial straits of many. Prosecco may, in actuality, owe a great debt of gratitude to Bear, Stearns, Shearson, Lehmann, and Citibank. The same may also be true of cavas, sparkling wines from Spain, but cavas never achieved the low market-esteem as Proseccos, because no one stole their identity in another era.
Either way, if you are “off” Valpolicella and Prosecco because of experiences long ago, perceptions and/or reputations, give them another whirl. Good work is being done in these regions. But don’t skimp on the price-point. That’s what started this whole mess to begin with.