On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by Tim McKirdy to discuss the ongoing trade dispute between Italy and Australia around the term “Prosecco.” Does it refer to a place, a grape, or both? Tune in for more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.
Tim McKirdy: I’m in VinePair’s New York City headquarters. I’m Tim McKirdy.
Z: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Tim, you know we’re recording this the same day as the previous episode as — in case anyone couldn’t tell from the way my voice still sounds. I sincerely hope by the time all of you are hearing this, I’m not still sick, but you never know. Joys of fatherhood and all that, or parenthood as our normal hosts can attest to soon, I’m sure they will be dealing with plenty of the disgusting germs that their children will be bringing to their house for years, and years, and years.
T: Yes, I got to ask something from you guys, and this goes out to Joanna and Adam as well, whenever they eventually, if they eventually listen to this. I got to ask that this doesn’t become a parent podcast. I don’t want every start-of-the-week episode to be, “Monday, what did you drink over the weekend? Well, actually I didn’t drink anything because I’m not getting a lot of sleep, and this, and that.” I’m completely sympathetic to parenthood of course and very excited for everyone, but we can’t let this become a parent-only podcast, Zach.
Z: Oh, trust me. It would be my preference to almost never talk about my kids on here. I do think you might have to allow a little grace period for our new parents because when you’re in that stage. It’s kind of hard to avoid doing anything but talking about your kids because they’re all you think about. Anyhow, let’s talk about something more germane to this podcast. Tim, what have you been drinking lately that excited you?
T: That’s a great question, Zach. I’ve had a lot of Martinis, but that’s par for the course.
Z: Yes, you’ll let us know when you haven’t had a Martini recently.
T: Yes, that’s true. I haven’t had a Martini in three days. What’s going on? On that subject, though, last Monday’s episode about the Martini that we covered — later on that week, I was so sad to learn of this new hot Chicago hotdog Martini thing that’s happening that’s getting a lot of coverage. Not for me, it’s just a shame that we weren’t able to include that in the episode, but maybe someone listened to the episode and they’re like, “OK, we need to take this to the next level.” I don’t know. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, this week I recently enjoyed a new, to me at least, rhubarb-based amaro. It’s called Amaro Santoni, and I don’t mean to do this to plug the “Cocktail College” podcast, but one of our guests is involved in that and brought it on during a chat about the Garibaldi. Rhubarb is just an ingredient that I love. It’s a very quintessentially British ingredient too, or maybe we’re just trying to co-opt that. I love rhubarb as an ingredient, I love when rhubarb’s season comes in. Trying this Amaro was, yes, it was wonderful, I really enjoyed it.
Z: Very cool. Yes, I like rhubarb a lot. I have a lot of fun memories of it from being a kid, which I guess is kind of depressing because rhubarb isn’t that exciting as a kid, but strawberry rhubarb is a very common flavor combo here, probably in the U.K. as well. I love that, obviously, the strawberry helps. I also like it as just a salad ingredient, very thinly shaved like you would with celery, just like the tanginess of it is very enjoyable to me. If you finely shave it, you avoid that horrible fibrous quality that makes normally the way you enjoy rhubarb being cooked in some form. Cool, that sounds great. You said the guest was involved with it, but is it an Italian amaro or is it a domestic amaro?
T: Yes, it’s an Italian amaro. It’s based in, I believe, Tuscany and it is available here in the United States. It has this very vibrant pink color, and that oftentimes will get you a little worried, especially when it comes to the amaro category. You’re like, “Well, this isn’t generally a space where the color is the first thing to invite you to the drinks, so is this like a coloring situation that’s going on?” They use hibiscus to get that real nice pink shade. What I love about it is that it smelled immediately like an amaro and not like some rhubarb liqueur, but the rhubarb notes are in there. It’s over 30 botanicals as these things usually are anyway. The fact that everything that was advertised does come across in the glass is wonderful.
Z: That’s awesome.
T: How about yourself? What have you been drinking apart from tea, honey, and-
Z: Before I got sick, a couple of things, it was really fun. I was up in Bellingham, which is a city about 80 miles north of Seattle where my mom lives, for her birthday the previous weekend. Up there I visited a friend’s beer bar — great new beer bar called Ponderosa, and had a couple of great Bellingham beers. In particular, a smoked Helles Lager from Wander Brewing. The Helles in general, just a style of German lager that I really enjoy, not too distant from many other German lighter-style lagers, but the smoke-like barley component just adds a slight element of complexity that those beers sometimes lack. They’re so clean and crisp, but that’s a nice thing, but to add just another note in there, it was fun. Then for my mom’s actual birthday, we had — I brought a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Clos de l’Oratoire, so whatever, ‘09. It was interesting to me. Older bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape have been hit or miss in my experience. It’s a style that lately maybe has moved back towards a little more balance, but definitely went through a ’90s, 2000s infatuation with extreme ripeness, probably driven by reviews and stuff like that, scores that really prized the extreme ripeness that in the Southern Rhône is possible for Grenache in particular. This was surprisingly — well, not surprisingly, but pleasantly still balanced, not overly stewed fruit and just lacking in herbal notes. Yes, it was tasty. My stepdad had made some barbecue, so it was a good fit with that. My mom is a lightweight, so after a glass and a half she was really celebrating, so it was good times.
T: Nice, Zach, just there ripping on your kids earlier, now ripping on your mom. Unbelievable. I thought this was a family podcast.
Z: It apparently is a family podcast. All of us have moms one way or another, so it’s a little more universal there. Anyhow, so for today’s episode, we wanted to talk about a piece that was on the site recently talking about this kind of ongoing struggle between Italy and Australia around the term “Prosecco.” I want to set the stage here a tiny bit. A thing that people now may be coming to the wine industry or familiarity with Prosecco may not be aware of is that, until recently, like until 2009, the term Prosecco was used both for the style of wine that we now think of, but also the variety that was used to make it. What happened was the Italians realized, “Well, sh*t. Prosecco is popular,” and yet the way that laws typically work in terms of especially global trade agreements is that if you can protect the name of a region or an appellation, but you can’t protect a variety. That’s why you can make Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir anywhere. You can call it Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, you don’t have to call it whatever else you might choose to call it. You can’t call a red wine you make from Pinot Noir — you can’t call it Burgundy. You can’t call a red wine you make from Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaux or Bordeaux, or whatever. The Prosecco producers basically were like, “Well, sh*t. We gotta fix this, right? We got to figure out a way for us to protect the term Prosecco. We’re going to use a more, at the time, obscure synonym for the variety: Glera. We’re going to say that’s what the grape is now. Prosecco is a protected term for wine from this area made in this style, and no one else can use the term Prosecco. On the one hand, you go like, “OK, I guess it kind of makes sense.” Except if you’re an Australian producer who planted a bunch of Prosecco, now technically maybe Glera, and produced wine and labeled it Prosecco, and are being told basically in the crux of this argument that you have to come up with a different term for this wine that you’ve invested a lot into. To note, as noted in this piece, which I should mention was written by Clay Dillow, ran on the site last week, is a big part of white wine/sparkly wine production in Australia. This isn’t like three producers who on a whim are like, “Let’s plant some Prosecco.” It’s the second most important white variety in Australia. For one, this is just a big battle. The E.U. on behalf of Italy versus Australia. On the other hand, and as this will feed into, it comes back to this question of like, “How do you define what a wine style is, and how do you protect it, or should these things be protected?” Tim, you edited this piece, what are your first thoughts?
T: My first thought was — yes, I thought Clay did a wonderful job with the story, and I also want to give a shout-out to VinePair co-founder Josh Malin who came across this. As often is the case, we published these things, and oftentimes Josh is the first person to have the idea, so wonderful work on his part. My first thoughts are I had no idea there were people in Australia making Prosecco. I had no idea this case was ongoing. We published this last week and there does seem to be a conclusion that may be happening or developments within the case will be happening soon, so it is newsworthy. This thing has been going on for a while now. Those were just my first thoughts that A) this is very strange, and then B) I got to thinking, what makes this a very, very interesting story is not only that to my mind there are no significant precedents of similar things happening. B, that this is probably largely also due to the success of Prosecco in recent years. This wouldn’t happen for, say — I don’t know, Samsó. We’re not going to see this happening with a grape that relatively few people outside of wine lovers know or enjoy. This speaks to how lucrative Prosecco has become, and it seems to be that that is a big part of the story.
Z: For sure. It’s also part of it that what people are really latching on to with Prosecco is the style of wine more than the specific characteristics of the variety that goes into it. While Glera itself as a variety has some characteristics that lend it to making Prosecco well, it’s certainly possible that you could make a similar- styled wine in other places using other varieties, and people do. Obviously, the success of Prosecco has spawned many imitations, not just the ones in Australia that I, like you, was somewhat unfamiliar with. In fact, there’s a lot that goes on in Australia because of the nature of their wine industry that just doesn’t make it to American shores or onto our radar. Also, there aren’t as many places that you can think of where the style of wine and the variety share a name. Again, this is just a unique circumstance, but also, I don’t know how to describe it other than just it’s a little bit of a case where the Italians, it’s like, how would I — I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase this. They realized that they had screwed up and tried to rectify it, but it’s a little bit of a — for example, to provide context, one of the long-standing points of contention for this discussion between the E.U. and the U.S. in a lot of these discussions is about the existence of California Champagne. The U.S. has for a long time protected the rights of producers in California that have historically made California Champagne, mostly Korbel, to continue to do so, even though the E.U. obviously has a strong interest in limiting the sales of anything that’s labeled Champagne that isn’t from Champagne. At least there you can plausibly and reasonably say Champagne is a region, and describes a wine made in that region. If you buy into the argument in the first place that it should be possible to effectively globally trademark the names of or protect the names of regions associated with wines, then Champagne is a natural choice. It’s because there’s no Champagne grape, there’s no point of conflict there. The thing that’s raised in this piece that is really interesting is, OK, so the Italians, in this case, the Prosecco producers, wanted to protect Prosecco. They had to change the name of the variety to be able to argue credibly that it was a distinctive thing. What’s to stop them, and indeed, as they are trying to do in some cases from continuing to be more aggressive? In the end, there aren’t a lot of great other examples of this other than that they are trying to also, you see some people, they’ve successfully argued, at least within the E.U., that the variety of Vermentino should only be able to be called a Vermentino if it’s Italian. Even though more Vermentino is grown in France than in Italy, in France, they now are required to call it Rolle, which is a local synonym, which is fine, but Vermentino has more caché these days. If a producer in France wants to use the name Vermentino, shouldn’t they be able to? What’s to stop? The origins of varieties are hard to pin down in a lot of cases. Many of the varieties that are grown in Europe may have origins in another country. Again, it gets into a messy world very quickly. Again, it comes back to this question of like, it’s fine to say those names, as we discussed before, like Burgundy or Barolo. Those are names where the variety, obviously, is critically important to those, but so far, no one has tried to argue that you can only grow Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo in those places, or call it Pinot Noir Nebbiolo. It’s very funny to me that the Europeans, who for generations at this point, have argued that what really matters is the place, not the variety. It’s why variety labeling in Europe is still relatively rare in most places, especially unless they’re looking at the export market, to now come back and say, “Varieties are what’s important. We should be able to protect those as well.” It’s just ludicrous to me.
T: That’s a great point. It really highlights something that I wanted to mention here too. Can we be real for a second here, Zach?
T: Let’s be real on a few things. First of all, you talk about that question of variety versus place. Now, I’ve got the article up here in front of me, and this is a quote from one of the producers. I don’t want to call them out. People can go and find the article. The quote here says, “In my mind, Glera is one of the most delicate grapes in the world in terms of flavor.” Then they go on to add, “These flavors are influenced a lot by the area in which the wines are cultivated.” This is a topic of — what we’re talking about here is terroir. Zach, how many bottles of Prosecco on the market that retail for 10 to 15 bucks and are being pumped into Mimosas are people picking up the nuances of terroir?
Z: The overarching conversation around terroir is a fun one. A little bit ends up being you get out of it what you want to get out of it, in general. I do think that it’s true that if you look at the large-scale production of Prosecco, it’s pretty hard to argue in my eyes that that process preserves terroir in the same way that the way that grand cru Burgundy, or Barolo, or even, to be fair, DOCG Prosecco is made. It’s not aiming at the same thing. I can certainly understand very much the desire of these producers to protect the term Prosecco. To some extent, they’re not wrong. I don’t think it’s a gross argument that sparkling wine made from the same variety from a different place should have to find a different name. It’s certainly the case that the producers in Australia weren’t training on the fame of the Prosecco grape. They were training on the fame of Prosecco wine, which is fair also. I suspect that if you gave them their druthers, people in the Burgundian producers would happily take a monopoly on the word Pinot Noir at this point because it’s so popular. The variety is so well known. Then if anyone else who grew Pinot Noir anywhere else, or let’s say outside of maybe the historic European regions even. Obviously, Pinot Noir, as some of you might know, has for many, many, many years been grown in Italy and in Germany and some other places too. It’s not as if it’s an exclusively French or even Burgundian thing. Nonetheless, if they were to say to all producers in the U.S. and Australia and South America and et cetera, now you can’t call it Pinot Noir. Come up with your own name for this variety, that would cause a lot of consternation for producers here. They count on the recognizability of the variety as a huge selling point. In fact, in a lot of ways, as I was getting at before, European producers, the European wine industry forced other wine regions down this path by saying, “You can’t use our place names. Our place names are sacrosanct. You can’t use the term “Burgundy” to sell your wine anymore. You can’t use the word “Chablis” to sell your wine anymore. These are specific places where wine comes from, and we have to be able to protect those.” I’m broadly sympathetic to that idea. I don’t like the idea of buying a white wine from California that’s called Chablis. You can call it Chardonnay, which is the grape in Chablis, and that’s what producers now do. If you then say, “Well, actually, Chardonnay is only a French grape, or whatever, a European grape, and if you grow it anywhere else, you no longer — no, you can’t call it the place name that you may be aspiring to model your wines after, but you also can’t call it the variety. That is taking things several steps too far.” I also don’t think that will ever be accepted by anyone outside of the E.U. There’s no — it would be a complete abandonment of your domestic wine industry to agree to a trade agreement where producers had to — even if it was only for export, had to strip the varietal labeling off their wines and again, come up with just another — I don’t even know what you could call it. It’s not like you even have a handy synonym in your local language. Many of these varieties we only know through their French or Italian or Spanish name for the variety. That’s how they came to the countries where they’re not planted.
T: You’re right. We’re not going to get to a situation where that scenario is going to happen, but you could see how that would be the logical, not entirely illogical, but the next step in this process. That’s what it could spur on. That’s the thing about this story that we’re talking about today in this situation which is that this has nothing really to do with wine. This is a story about trade, about money, and purely that alone. I’m not inclined to take either person’s side. I do somewhat sympathize with the Australians who, as you said, “Planted those vines a long time ago when the grade was still recognized via the name Prosecco rather than Glera.” I do have some sympathy there, but I also understand the knock-on effect this could have and the precedence it could set. Again, I do want to say here, I’m an impartial person in this case. I do have maybe a devil’s advocate argument here. When it comes to what we’ve seen otherwise in the Prosecco space. On the one hand, we have a region as part of a country, as part of a group of nations that does not want other people, other countries to use the term Prosecco because of this terroir-driven wine that they have that can only be made in one place in the world. OK, that’s fine. Then on the other hand, I see because we’ve recently done our Prosecco roundup, so we had a lot of great Prosecco coming through here at the VinePair office. I see a number of American brands that have Proseccos. I see Josh Cellars Prosecco. Great choice by the way. I see Vera Wang has a Prosecco. Now, Vera Wang is, I would imagine for most people that know her, not associated mostly with Italy. Actually, I don’t know anything about fashion, but I don’t think so.
Z: We need Adam for this one, I don’t know.
T: Yes, we need Adam back for this one. I can say this, the fine folks over there at Josh Cellars you see the Netflix ads, this is a very, very America-forward wine brand. We can assume they’re probably sourcing their product and bottling and selling it on the U.S. market. Great. If Prosecco is a region and Italy as a nation is so worried about there being confusion over where the real Prosecco comes from, why would you let an American brand, a very recognizable American brand such as Josh Cellars sell a Prosecco because surely there’s some confusion there like, “Oh, is this California Prosecco?” I know Josh is all-American or maybe it’s just about money.
Z: I have a surprise for you, Tim. Most of the Prosecco industry is mostly about money. It’s an inescapable reality that the overwhelming majority of Prosecco it’s an incredibly commercialized, industrialized process of product and that doesn’t make it bad. Prosecco is great in a lot of ways but it’s true that it is a little bit hard on one side to listen to or to read about these producers being up in arms about the use of the term Prosecco in Australia where the overwhelming majority of the Prosecco is a domestic product. It’s not like it’s really competing on the global stage with Italian Prosecco. Yes, see all these deals where obviously there’s the anecdote that clearly relates in the piece about Paris Hilton’s Prosecco, RICH Prosecco — she endorsed it. I don’t think it was her brand. Maybe she owns it, I don’t know, and many others. You mentioned a couple now, there are many more producers or many more Proseccos now on the market that have an American name attached to them. It’s just a case of yes you guys are a little bit talking on both sides of your mouth here. If you really care about preserving the Italian-ness of Prosecco then it perhaps would behoove you to as a group get the word out that like, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.” Conversely, if Prosecco is about monetizing the term any way you can then maybe this isn’t the place to get too up in arms.
T: Yes. Also, if you look at those markets where Prosecco has traditionally done so well, I would imagine off the top of my head beyond Italy, they are Britain and the United Kingdom and the United States, both countries in which European wine is overwhelmingly easier to access than Australian wine.
Z: For sure.
T: Now, there are good ties between the U.S. and the U.K. but look, just from a financial standpoint, I can’t imagine a world in which those Australian producers are able to compete with those from Italy in the U.K. market, perhaps and certainly not in the U.S, market.
Z: You also face the realities in both cases where you’re dealing certainly with the U.K. as a market for Australian wine. There is a strong market in some ways for Australian wine in the U.K., but it’s really centered around the red wines, that they know the Shirazes, the big red wines, the cabs, et cetera, that are more commonly associated with Australia in the average consumer’s mind. I don’t think there’s a huge market for comparably priced or more expensive Prosecco from Australia when especially in the U.K., Italy’s right there.
T: Yes, exactly.
Z: It’s a lot easier to get wine from Italy to the U.K. Maybe not post-Brexit, I actually don’t know.
T: Slightly harder than it used to be.
Z: At this point, the consumer preference is well established. Maybe, whatever. Again, it goes back to this last piece. The last thing I want to mention before we wrap up here which is that it does also speak to this ongoing struggle that in particular, sparkling wine regions face, which is getting people to understand that whether it’s Prosecco, whether it’s Champagne, whether it’s some others, that there is a place tied to these wines. That place of production is relevant to the story. Again, maybe that is a slightly more compelling argument or easier argument to make in the case of Champagne. There’s plenty of large-scale production Champagne like there is in the case of Prosecco where sometimes terroir is like steel tanks if I may be candid. Regardless, I am sympathetic to the notion that to some extent, many people may not even really associate Prosecco with Italy or specifically with the Veneto where it’s made, but I do think that there is — all more reason why you can see why these producers are perhaps sensitive about protecting their placement. There is some risk that if Prosecco gets out into the wilderness or into the wild like that, then who’s to stop anyone from making it? They can call it Prosecco, from any grape, and sell it and be like, “Hey, this is our Prosecco.” In the same way that somebody might say, “Hey, here’s our Chardonnay or here’s our Pinot Noir.” Some of this stuff is a little bit silly, but I do understand the attempt to at least protect the thing that is most closely associated with the area of production, which is as it turns out the word “Prosecco” and let the name of the grape be damned.
T: I got one final point here Zach and I’m not the first person to bring this up or highlight it. Someone smarter than me first noticed this. It was either 2020 or 2021 where we saw the first rollout of rosé Prosecco. If we’re talking about authenticity here, one might assume — I don’t speak fluent Italian, but one might assume that you would keep it Italian you call it rosato. You wouldn’t call it rosé, the French term. Unless — I don’t know, maybe you wanted to profit off of another very financially lucrative, wildly popular style of wine? I don’t know. That’s my question.
Z: Tim, I find the whole allegation shocking. I will not give it any dignity.
T: There was no allegation made there.
Z: Insinuation, let’s call it that. Insinuation.
T: I’m just saying. I’m seeing the facts as they’re in front of me.
Z: That is all we do on the podcast. Tim, I appreciate it. As always, folks, if you have questions, comments, ideas for episodes, thoughts on Prosecco, firstname.lastname@example.org is the place to reach us. You can also find us on social media. We’re out there. Tim, appreciate it and I’ll talk to you on Friday.
T: Cheers, Zach. Get well soon, man.
Z: Thank you.
Z: Cool. That was good.
T: All right.
Z: My voice didn’t completely give up. I am pleased.
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