The Buyer
Buyer Debate: Prosecco DOCG’s chances in premium on-trade

Buyer Debate: Prosecco DOCG’s chances in premium on-trade

In the first part of our report on the debate The Buyer held to discuss what leading wine buyers, merchants and restaurateurs think about the possibilities for Prosecco DOCG in the premium on-trade, we looked at how and why more outlets might list different styles of Prosecco Superiore. Here we give the time and space for those buyers to go into more detail and share their thoughts on how sparkling wine is performing in general and the opportunities they think that Prosecco DOCG has on restaurant wine lists in the future.

Richard Siddle
13th March 2020by Richard Siddle
posted in Insight,

The quality and prestige of premium Prosecco is well known in Italy, but how open are leading UK restaurant and distributor wine buyers to giving them go in their businesses?

Jon Clement, senior food and drink buyer for Casual Dining Group

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change after taking part?

Before my perception was there was no fundamental step change in quality between DOC and DOCG. DOCG, using Chianti as an example, isn’t necessarily a badge of quality differential.

But the wines I tasted displayed a clear and obvious increase in quality from the DOC Proseccos – the sales engine that is dominating the market. I was very impressed with the quality and versatility across the different styles we were shown from the traditional method, ancestral, tank and increased time on lees.

What opportunities do you think there is for different levels of Prosecco DOCG in the casual dining sector?

The opportunities are probably limited at this time in the casual dining market due to how familiar our customers are now to DOC Proseccos that have been pushed so hard by the supermarkets. If you supplement the wine list with a DOCG offering on top of the DOC ‘entry level’ Prosecco the barrier would be our guestsunderstanding the difference. Why would I pay more for that Prosecco, because Prosecco is Prosecco?

That said using other categories as an example, particularly gins, tonics and beer, there is definitely an appetite for premiumisation in the market. The key to the success would be the menu, the fundamental selling tool in our market. How do we bring the product to life and provide a real differential to the DOC that resonates with the guest and encourages them to trade-up?

I’m assuming converting only 5% of DOC sales into DOCG in the UK market would represent a big win but the producers and the Consorzio. They would have to invest and work hard to really establish themselves.

Any particular ideas how it could do that?

It should choose a ‘handle’ and stick to it and make a major play on it. Something that resonates with consumers, is easily pronounceable and separates clearly the step-up in quality. ‘Superiore’ or something of that nature. Simple and obvious. ‘Rive’, ‘Cartizze’, ‘Valdobbiadene Conegliano’ will work with consumers who are actively engaged but not with those who are not, where the biggest win will likely be. I think the biggest potential is for the premium quality styles that have higher dosage but are still easy to drink.

There is also an argument to be made about separating these styles of wine from the name Prosecco altogether. Or, build on the brand that is ‘Prosecco’ and add a layer of distinguished and identifiable quality both inside and outside the bottle that, whilst delivering value, has the potential to grow the DOCG volume.

The Consorzio also needs to invest directly with the right partners.

Victoria Sharples, head of wine at St John Wines

Victoria Sharples encourages the Consejo to let its wines “do the talking” at as many trade events and tastings as possible

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change afterwards?

My earlier perception was that Prosecco in the UK doesn’t really reflect the quality of Prosecco that is produced in Italy. Instead we see what is perceived to be what the market wants, ie entry level, simple, cheap bubbles with high dosages. Subsequently after the tasting, it was refreshing to taste dry, zero dosage types with great character.

What opportunities do you think there are for different levels of Prosecco DOCG in the premium on-trade?

The issue facing the sparking category (ie all that is not Champagne) is perceived value. Prosecco has found and secured a strong entry point in the market and then, unless the business has a particular Italian focus which could enable it to showcase a range of sparkling for Italy, the challenge is to show customers (and buyers) that they will be rewarded by investing in higher quality from the same region.

More often than not when sommeliers are looking for a higher price sparkling they opt for Franciacorta instead of a higher quality and drier style Prosecco.

To educate consumers and buyers alike the Consejo is going to need to increase its presence at tastings and talk to opinion formers and influencers. Let the wines do the talking, eg in a blind line up against other sparkling wines. It’s a shame there is not a generic Italian wine tasting as that would be a great starting point. The Consejo needs to engage ambassadors that relate to both trade and consumers, as it will need a two prong approach.

Any styles in particular stand out for you?

The drier, savoury, food friendly styles are going to be the key as they differentiate themselves from the typical pub Prosecco.

Andres Rangel, assistant has sommelier at Gymkhana, part of the JKS Group of restaurants

Gymkhana, bringing Michelin starred Indian food to London

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change after taking part?

As a sommelier my perception of Prosecco is a little bit critical. I feel too many producers try and make a style of wine to please everyone, which is impossible. But after taking part in this debate, I can see that there is a work behind the DOCG trying to not only grow sales, but also promote the different classifications across the Prosecco region. It was interesting to hear more about the specific methods of production, the different grape varieties, and individual microclimates there are with their own unique soils types.

What opportunities do you think there are for the different levels of Prosecco DOCG in the premium on-trade?

I am sure there is a place for Prosecco DOCG in all segments of the market. The structure of Burgundy is a great example of how a region can have many different styles from the generic Bourgogne AOC, through to the various districts, villages and then Crus. Everybody knows what to expect from a Bourgogne AOC and from a Grand Cru Batard-Montrachet. In Italy it is similar with Nebbiolo in Piemonte, Langhe, Roero, Barolo, Barolo Crus, Barbaresco, Barbaresco Crus, Gattinara.

Sommeliers and restaurants are looking to represent the true identity of a particular style of wine. Prosecco has already done more than half of the job. Who doesn’t know Prosecco? So it make sense that its next step focuses on prestige.

How do you think the Consorzio di Tutela del Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene should go about promoting its DOCG styles to the trade?

It should work hard to explain the different quality levels and then focus on promoting them to each channel of the on-trade. An individual approach for each segment.

What would be the best approach with consumers in talking about the different levels of Prosecco DOCG?

You have to clarify the differences between each category. Find the right terms to put on the label so that consumers can easily identify the different quality levels. Perhaps you do that by not using the word ‘Prosecco’. There are already producers doing this. But I would not follow what has happened with Cava DO and the creation of Corpinnat. Prosecco should focus on the producers that are doing something different and unique inside the DOCG region.

Are they any particular styles and quality levels of Prosecco DOCG that you think are best suited to the UK market?

For fine dining and gastronomic restaurants I would focus on Sui Lieviti (Col Fondo), Metodo Classico, Rive or Superiore di Cartizze and avoid labelling it as Prosecco.

Harry Crowther wine consultant, Grain to Grape and Grape Times

Harry Crowther, centre left and Danny Spencer, centre right, getting ready for the tasting and debate to begin

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change taking part?

Working with DOCG Prosecco is a challenge for a category that has a reputation for being about cheap plonk. Trying to premiumise it without educating the consumer first is going to be tough. The letters DOCG are not enough.

What opportunities do you think there is for the different levels of Prosecco DOCG in the on-trade?
We tried with a DOCG Prosecco in one casual dining chain and we ended up with a lot of delisted stock. I think the only opportunity for DOCG Prosecco is not to list a DOC option. It will therefore help with the trade up. But operators need to be super careful as there will be plenty of consumers who will get ‘bill shock’ if it is not communicated clearly on the menu or wine list. There also needs to be an alternative entry level sparkling wine to replace the Prosecco but keep the price point.

How do you think the Consejo should go about trying to promote more DOCG styles with the trade and consumer?

As with all of Italy it needs to de-mystify what the differences are between DOC and DOCG. How you pronounce Valdobiadenne?

When it comes to consumers, I don’t think they care about the region or the terroir. It’s just Prosecco. I think the best way to tackle it is to draw direct comparisons with traditional method wines and focus on parallels and difference. Familiarity with originality.

Are they any particular quality levels and styles of DOCG that you think are best suited to the UK market?

The traditional method as it can be easily likened to Cava, English sparkling wine and Champagne.

Any thoughts on what other steps the Consejo should look to take in the UK?
It needs to be careful that too much of a focus on DOCG does not damage the profile of the main driver, DOC. You don’t want to tell people they have been drinking an inferior wine all this time, whilst there has been a better, albeit more expensive, alternative available.

My fear is that the category is so strong it will take decades to change it. So I would argue its best approach is to focus on premium outlets, the hand sells where they can really get behind the wines. But don’t take off your eye off what is happening with DOC.

Roger Jones, owner and chef of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

Roger Jones said his eyes had been opened to the potential of Prosecco DOCG at the debate

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change taking part?

I have not stocked a Prosecco DOCG before as I don’t have any Prosecco on my list. But having taken part in the debate I found it to be very useful and a very interesting tasting. It certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities and quality of different styles of DOCG. My two favourites were ironically the most non Prosecco tasting. I will certainly now look much deeper into the category.

What opportunities do you think there is for DOCG Prosecco in the on-trade?

I think, though, they have a very hard job as the term Prosecco means different things to different people. For many it’s a great value bargain, let’s buy it as it’s the cheapest on the list. It’s also popular amongst people who like sweeter wines and more ‘child friendly’ than more complex wines.

But having tasted so many different styles I think there is certainly an opportunity for knowledgeable wine drinkers who are going to search out and enjoy the very best from this region. The only snag is you mix the three together and it does not work.

So to me it will be individual wineries that will star. But I certainly am now more open to Prosecco.

The panel of buyers were able to give great insights for how the Consejo should manage DOCG Prosecco in the UK

Danny Spencer, co-founder of East Street Wine Co

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change taking part?

I think the DOCG has a tough job, in that it not only promotes itself but also acts as buoyancy for all of Prosecco. But it has other categories to learn from.

Over the last 10 to 20 years, for example, Pinot Grigio has sadly found itself in a race to the bottom in terms of price as the vast majority of customers see it as no more than a commodity. Cava suffered a similar fate, perhaps for different reasons in that it was so heavily discounted to grocers that it lost its value everywhere else too.

Promoting the quality and moreover the diversity of the DOCG can only help to prevent Prosecco suffering a similar fate.

What opportunities do you think there are for the different levels of Prosecco DOCG in your business?
I currently sell three Prosecco at any sort of volume. But how many entry or value Prosecco can one merchant need? The demand for sparkling wine shows no signs of abating (not in the on-trade at least) so offering options of DOCG and vintage Prosecco (along with quality vintage Cava too actually) can offer a point of difference for a merchant and restaurateur alike. It is also probably the only place where a sensible margin can be returned.

What do you think the Consejo should do to help promote DOCG wines in the UK?

It may be parochial to the UK but the message must always be simple, relatable and instantly recognisable. Just consider which of these two has greater resonance within the UK: Gavi di Gavi or Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi Classico?

Whether that means a simplified use of the word Classico or, as suggested in the debate, Riserva, I’m not sure, though it must be consistent. There are lots of businesses and brands who have used something along the lines of:

“There’s Prosecco and then there’s Prosecco Classico. Why follow the crowd when you can lead the debate?” Or similar.

What key messages do you think the trade should be giving to consumers about the different levels of Prosecco DOCG?

It’s about definition. Just like Champagne. There are rules about vineyard location, grape varieties permitted, production method. And then clear steps upwards. Just like Premier Cru and Grand Cru in Champagne.

With duty at £2.77 per bottle for sparkling wine by spending just a little more then the quality will accelerate far more quickly the price. You get a lot more for your money by trading up just 20%.

It really isn’t all about being cheap. For example, we have tremendous success with high quality vintage Prosecco to sophisticated West End cocktail bars who want their wine offering to be as high quality as the rest of their drinks. In fact, very often they expect even more from their Prosecco. They can adapt and influence the style and quality of the cocktails they sell whereas their Prosecco has to stand for itself and reflect all of the values of the venue itself.

Are they any particular quality styles of DOCG that you think are best suited to the UK market?

There should be a place for everything, though of course, volumes will change dramatically for different styles and price points. Wines need to be clean and easy drinking whilst offering real grip and retained length.

An awful lot of consumers who like Prosecco will all the same have a certain perception of what they should be drinking. It should not be too great a leap to have those same consumers saying: “Wow, that’s fabulous, it’s the best Prosecco I’ve evertried. What’s it called?”

Paola Tich, owner of Vindinista wine merchants

Paola Tich, centre, was really pleased to see the diversity there is with Prosecco DOCG

What was your perception of Prosecco DOCG before the debate and did that change taking part?

I was pretty aware of Prosecco DOCG before – my parents used to have a house near Valdobbiadene. I’ve always tried to stock a superiore around Christmas and did the same again this year. Normally, I stock an organic frizzante from Conegliano and a Col Fondo from Colli Asolani.

What was great about the debate was tasting so many great examples, and diversity in styles of Superiore. The challenge, of course, is communicating these styles – especially the dry and extra dry categories which really should be reviewed by the DOCG

Another revelation was that two of the best examples were from producers imported suppliers I work with. The downside was that the particular ones tasted aren’t in these suppliers portfolios – so it would be good to see the circle joined there.

What opportunities do you think there is for the different levels of Prosecco DOCG in the independent sector?

As an independent retailer in London, I have the luxury of not having to stock a cheap-as-chips Prosecco as there are several supermarkets within walking distance and it is pointless competing. So the opportunity for me to offer something different and upgrading fans of our regular organic frizzante Prosecco to Superiore DOCG for occasions – not just Christmas.

The opportunity for Col Fondo is for customers who normally find Prosecco too fruity, or sweet (often because their experience is of the mass-produced stuff). As Sarah Abbott MW pointed out during the debate, the trade (including myself) can be very dismissive of wines that lots of people love. Prosecco Superiore DOC is an opportunity to show how Prosecco doesn’t have to be synonymous with cheap party swill.

How do you think the Consejo should best promote DOCG wines in the UK?

I think the Consorzio needs to be selective in its targeting with sommeliers and independent retailers – and the cellar selections of premium multiples.

It was clear from discussions around the table that casual dining would find it too hard a sell, and customers are not going there for finer wine, but uncomplicated drinking for fun times. Tutored tastings, round table discussions and trips – plus, for hybrid retailers like me, supported by-the-glass programmes and in-store tastings.

What key messages do you think the trade should be giving to consumers about the different levels of Prosecco DOCG?

That one size doesn’t fit all. Many of my customers can get their heads around different styles of Champagne so I don’t see why it can’t be the same for Prosecco DOCG – so long as there is someone at hand to help them navigate through these styles.

There is the romanticism of steep slopes, hand-picked grapes, smaller production versus the mass-produced supermarket cheapies. Then there are the single vineyards – the Cru and Grand Cru (different Rive and Cartizze).

Where it gets complicated is then explaining the style of the individual producer – thought isn’t that the same for many other wines in many other regions? The sweetness levels are complicated – so sticking to Brut or Extra Brut styles are probably the best way to introduce many UK consumers to a more refined style of Prosecco.

I am stocking Frassinelli’s Rive di San Pietro di Felleto 2017 from Thorman Hunt which is has a captivating salinity about it, 4 gms/l residual sugar from one of the most northerly, highest Cru. I called in a sample after tasting another Frassinelli Prosecco at the round table which isn’t imported by Thorman Hunt. I had sniffily ignored them for years! I reckon it will convert a number of Prosecco haters…