Underestimate The Consumer? Only At Your Own Risk, Especially When It Comes to Sparkling Wines

Food & Drink

It had been few years since we’d last conducted a consumer tasting of Prosecco wines, where we brought together a dozen or so enthusiastic consumers and asked them for their candid opinions on a range of Prosecco bottles that our group blind-tasted together.

You can read the details for yourself (a bit of foreshadowing: the article is called “Is Expensive Prosecco Worth the Price?”) but here’s the bottom line: even without any formal training in analyzing wine, and even while tasting blind, the consumer group picked out the bottles of Prosecco that would generally be considered superior quality.

Whether they would pay upwards of $40 to $60 for those bottles is another question.

But my point today is that the consumers knew. Which is something I ought to have kept in mind as we chose the wines for an updated version of the tasting this past week.

“Let’s change things up,” we thought. “Let’s include a few non-Prosecco sparkling wines in the line-up, and see how they fare.” Particularly since this would also be a blind tasting, it seemed like a good opportunity to get an unbiased read on a few different examples of the sparkling category.

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So we did. We included a sparkling wine from California (2013 vintage from Carneros) and another one from Italy (2010 vintage from Trento DOC), along with a set of Proseccos ranging from $12 bottles you could find anywhere and $30+ bottles classified as Prosecco Superiore DOCG.

You can probably guess what happened. The consumers knew. Even tasting blind, they knew.

Did they know that one bottle was a 2013 vintage sparkling wine from Carneros? No, but they nailed the “higher alcohol content than I expected” of this wine and its yeasty character that caught them off guard. They knew that, as the old children’s song goes, “one of these things was not like the other.”

Did the tasters know that one bottle was a 2010 vintage sparkling wine from Trento DOC? No, and nor were they overly familiar with Trentino-Alto Adige (one of my personal favorite areas) in Italy as a region of origin for sparkling wine. But they noticed the difference in color straight away, as a “tip off” that something was unusual about that particular pour. They noticed the fuller flavor and the deeper fruit, and they wondered whether this wine had a higher percentage of a different blended grape.

One taster called it the “Goldilocks” version of a wine (meaning not too dry and not too sweet), and another said he “wouldn’t think of it as a Prosecco at all,” well before we revealed that is was not, indeed, a Prosecco at all. Several tasters identified this wine (2010 Millesimato from Altemasi) as their favorite of the night.

That’s one major takeaway from this tasting: underestimate the consumer only at your own risk, even in the case of Prosecco as a category. Though Prosecco producers often fight against an unfortunate reputation of mass-produced, lower-quality wines flooding the market in order to satisfy demand, consumers nonetheless differentiate fresh and satisfying options from limpid or bitter ones.

Where does all of that leave the Proseccos that we tasted blind last week? Here were five additional takeaways from the group discussion that caught my ear.

  • Tasters looked for a point of access, that is, something they could relate to that was already familiar such as the rind of cheeses or the yeasty characteristics of certain styles of beer.
  • The Proseccos they identified as “sharper” and with higher alcohol content were discussed in relation to food and complementary pairings.
  • The favorite Prosecco of the night (Fidora, an organic DOC wine from Tenuta Civranetta) was also the one that met the most expectations, that is, “simple but sophisticated” and “everything I’m hoping for a Prosecco, that I want to drink from the back of a boat on the lake.”
  • Pricing raised some curious questions, and even suspicion, particularly when Prosecco Superiore or DOCG wines cost $25 or less. If the origin of the wine was that particular, and presumably that challenging to produce, how could they cost so little?
  • Carbonation levels and bubbles were, naturally, a significant part of the conversation, with descriptors ranging from “the bubbles hit my tongue like angry bees” to “the bubbles dissolve so quickly that I feel like I miss out on the flavor” to “this wine is nostalgic, because it reminds me of parties and bad decisions. I love it.”

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