Not that it’s a very complex issue. It’s not really. It’s fairly straightforward. But decide for yourself, if you haven’t already. And if you want to learn more, check out my previous post called Are You Pro Prošek? 12 Reasons Why You Should Be.
And for those of you who are (like me) short on time and attention, I have compiled this handy, easy-to-reference and share “Wine-o-graph” chart.
Cut and diced like this, it seems clearer than ever that Prošek and Proseccoare distinctly different products. No one has anything to fear from them being allowed to peacefully co-exist in the European Union or elsewhere.
So feel free to print it out, put it in your wallet, hang it on the wall, share it with a friend, or shout it from the mountaintops. In the meantime, I wish Croatia and its Prošek producers all the best in their efforts to save Prošek and continue its legacy as the traditional dessert wine of Croatia.
Suddenly the sweet fruits of Croatia’s July 1st ascension to the European Union have turned to sour grapes. At least when it comes to wine.
Not just any wine, mind you, but one with a centuries-old tradition that is a strong symbol of national pride and family life, as well as a trusted elixir that locals depend upon to treat ailments and celebrate important milestone events in their lives.
Are we talking about Prosecco? Heck, no.
I mean no disrespect to Prosecco. It’s a delightful wine. Simple, bubbly, festive. A popular patio pounder for summer days by the pool. An ingredient in trendy cocktails. Italy, through the venerable Consorzio di Tutela del Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene (the Consortium), deserves to be proud and should protect it. It’s a cash cow, a wildly successful product that supports multiple Italian winemaking regions and helps to keep many wholesalers, advertising and public relations firms in business.
Sounds completely harmless, right?
Not exactly. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported in an article entitled, “A European Name Game Uncorks a Tempest in a Wine Cask”, Croatia’s right to continue using the traditional name “Prošek” for a small-production dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes is under attack. The European Union, prodded on by the Consortium, fears that the two names are too similar and that consumers (you and I) will be confused, thus harming the Prosecco brand and endangering a 300-million-bottle-a-year industry.
So how can one obscure, tiny-production, barely-exported sweet wine called Prošek pose such a threat to mighty Prosecco? Simply put, it doesn’t. But pride, mistaken perceptions, protectionism, and the demands of the powerful often align to trump common sense.
In an attempt to expose the absurd nature of this mess, cut away all the confusion, and clarify the debate, here are 12 ways in which Prošek can be easily differentiated from Prosecco – and visa versa. The bottom line is, consumers have nothing to fear – nor do Prosecco producers or the European Union.
I realize that at this stage in the game these arguments may be mute. But for the sake of posterity perhaps there is some value in showing why Croatia should be able to keep on calling its Prošek “Prošek” – as it has done for centuries – while also distinguishing and respecting Prosecco’s rightful place in the world of wine.
1)Custom and Tradition
The method for making Prošek is ancient and apparently dates back to the arrival of the Greeks to the Dalmatian islands in the 4th century B.C. However, the first written mention of Prošek occurred in 1556, when the Croatian poet Petar Hektorović in his famous work, Ribanje i Ribarsko Prigovaranje (Fishing and Fishermen Talk), lists the local sweet wine among the provisions he and two companions pack for a three-day fishing expedition on the Adriatic Sea.
As on Petar Hektorović’s boat, in the Dalmatia region of Croatia a bottle of Prošek is never far from hand. A straw-wrapped jug of homemade Prošek can usually be found hiding in the pantries and cellars of every household and, if you are lucky, a taste is offered (alongside a plate of dried figs and biscuits) when you arrive as a guest.
Croat families proudly pass down Prošek recipes through the generations. It is often used as an ingredient in traditional holiday cookies and cakes. Parents set aside bottles from the vintage in which a child was born and then customarily open them on the child’s wedding day. Prized bottles are gifted from one family to another at Easter, Christmas and other special occasions. New mothers slurp a spoonful after giving birth to help them mend and regain strength. Suffers of anemia and other ailments are urged to sip some Prošek to bolster the blood.
Old wives’ tales? Perhaps. But these stories serve as seminal evidence of Prošek’s deep-rooted contribution to Croatian culture and its firm place in the social lives of Croatians throughout the centuries.
Prosecco too has an impressive history, with some vineyard sites in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone estimated to be over three hundred and some even a thousand years old. Yet the first written reference to the wine did not arrive until 200 years later (in 1754), when (according to Wikipedia) a fellow named Aureliano Acanti wrote, “And now I would like to wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet“.
This dated but cute quip could easily serve as a contemporary marketing slogan for Prosecco. Indeed today’s consumer identifies with Prosecco as a metropolitan, early-drinking, affordable and pleasant everyday quaffer. According to a report in Meininger’s Wine Business International, consumers do not identify with, or care all that much about, Prosecco’s history, background story, or protected DOC status (granted in 1969) and much-heralded DOCG status (approved in 2009). They do care about access to low-priced, easy-to-understand and appreciate alternatives to pricier sparkling wine.
Prosecco is a product of the modern world. Modern technology (the Charmat tank, autoclaves, sterile filtration, bottling under pressure) has enabled Prosecco to be produced in mass quantities and become the very successful and ubiquitous export product it is today.
Unlike Prošek, wine lovers buy bottles of Prosecco for casual consumption and instant refreshment – not to tuck away for decades or until their children get married. In fact, consumers are advised to purchase Prosecco young and avoid bottles that have been too long on the shelf. Conversely, an intact bottle of Prošek from 1899 was recently discovered in the cellar of a wine bar on Hvar island.
How do you like them apples?
The two names – while similar – are written and pronounced in completely different ways. “Prošek” is enunciated as “Pro-shek”, while “Prosecco” is pronounced “Proh-sec-coh”. Two syllables versus three. A “sh” sound as in “Shirley” versus a “sec” sound as in “secular”.
Prošek is produced from any one or a blend of several different varieties – white and red – indigenous to coastal Croatia. Permitted white varieties include bogdanuša, dubrovačka malvasija, grk, malvazija istarska, maraština, plavac mali, prč (aka parč), pošip, tarpinka, trbljan, vugava, andžlahtina. Red varieties are primarily babić, lasina, plavina, and plavac mali.
Prosecco is most often produced from the glera grape variety (previously known as prosecco), but small amounts of bianchetta, charnonnay, perera, pinot noir, and verdiso are permitted.
4)Area of Production
Prošek is produced all along the Adriatic coast of Croatia but mainly in southern Dalmatia and on many of the islands where vineyards thrive in limestone soils among olive, fig, and pine tree groves. As winemaker Alen Bibićobserved to the Wall Street Journal, when you sip on Prošek, “you can feel the Mediterranean”. Dried fig, raisin nectar, candied orange peel, and roasted nut characteristics reflect the wine’s sun-baked, seaside terroir.
Prosecco is clearly a product of Italy, where it is produced throughout the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Conegliano, and Valdobbiadene regions in the northeast corner of the country. Much of the growing area lies in the foothills between the Dolomites and the Adriatic Sea, with the highest vineyard elevations located in the Valdobbiadene zone, particularly in Cartizze. The clean, zippy green apple, fresh melon, and citrus character of the wine reflects its pristine Alpine terroir.
5) Production Amounts
Traditional Prošek is typically made by small, family-owned wineries, of which 27 are registered producers (I do not count the non-traditional, industrial Prošek produced from cooked musts and caramelized sugar, such as the supermarket products from Dalmacijavino and Vinoplod) with an annual production of 15,000 liters – or 30,000 500 ml bottles. For example, BIBICh winery produces about 5,000 bottles a year of the multi-vintage BIBICh Ambra, while in a good year Andro Tomić of Bastijana winery produces up to 4,000 bottles of his acclaimed Hektorovich Prošek.
Over 3,000 registered wineries produce Prosecco in Italy, and over 2,400 are members of the Consortium. The Prosecco DOC zone contains 19,700 hectares of vines planted to allowable varieties, and the Consortium reports that another 5,650 hectares are registered within the DOCG growing area (for a grand total of 25,350 hectares). Wine production amounts total approximately 225,000,000 liters – 300 million bottles a year.
By comparison, the total area planted to all varieties across every winemaking region in Croatia equals 24,000 hectares, with approximately 10,000 hectares under vine in Dalmatia where Prošek varieties are cultivated as a minor component of the grapes reserved for still dry wines. Total wine production in Croatia amounts to 60 million liters – or 80 million bottles – of all types.
At 15,000 liters, Prošek production equals less than 1% (.025%) of the total amount of wine made in Croatia and .006667% of Prosecco production.
Prošek is made from grapes harvested with a sugar level of 100° Oechsle (approximately 23.5 Brix, or the equivalent of the German Auslese classification). Once harvested, the clusters are laid out on straw mats to dry in the sun for 3-4 months or until the grapes shrivel and achieve a sugar concentration of 120° Oechsle (28 Brix, or the equivalent of Beerenauslese). The grapes are then crushed and the must is macerated for 2-5 days, when the juice is pressed off the skins. Yeast must be selected based on its ability to function in a thick must with a high concentration of sugar. Fermentation can be extremely slow – often lasting up to a year or longer. Once the wine has finished fermenting, it is then aged in wood casks (usually older, neutral wood) for a minimum of one year. Most producers do not filter the wine. Typically it takes about 1 kilogram of dried grapes to produce 750 ml of Prošek.
Grapes for Prosecco are harvested with low sugar levels and high acidity. The (usually) non-vintage wine is produced using the Metodo Charmat (tank method), whereby the secondary fermentation takes place under pressure in large steel tanks called autoclaves and not in the bottle, as with Champagne (Méthode Champenoise). The idea, as described by Tom Cannavan in Wine-pages.com, is to “capture the fresh fruitiness” of the glera grape and highlight the wine’s distinctive “icing sugar and lemons” character. The wine is then bottled under pressure to retain its carbonation and quickly shipped off to market.
7) Wine Styles
Prošek is a still wine with a minimum alcohol content of 15%-22% that has been aged in wood for at least one year. Residual sugar content ranges from 70-150 grams per liter (g/l). Prošek is dark, thick, unctuous, and sweet, with flavors of dried fig, raisin nectar, coffee, toasted hazelnuts, burnt toffee, candied orange rinds, honey, vanilla, and carob.
Prosecco is a sparkling wine with an average alcohol content of 11% and no wood exposure or influence. Depending on the level of carbon dioxide, Prosecco can be either Spumante (3.5 bars of pressure) or Frizzante (1.0-2.5 bars of pressure). Styles include Brut (0-13 g/l residual sugar), Extra Dry” (12–17 g/l) and “Dry” (17–32 g/l). Prosecco is light, bubbly, delicately perfumed with notes of citrus, apple, melon, and spring flowers.
8) Wine Color
Depending on the types of grapes used and the age of the wine, the color of Prošek can range from deep gold to amber, neon orange, maple syrup, and dark brown.
Prosecco is simply straw-colored or light to medium yellow with a watery white rim.
9) Bottle Shape
While there is no standard bottle shape for Prošek, traditionally it is stored in large straw-covered jugs or demijohns for home or non-commercial use. When available for commercial sale, dessert wine bottles of 375-500 ml are the norm. These vessels are often fancy and oddly shaped and include short, small jug-like bottles (BIBICh Ambra) to tall clear cylinders and tapered obelisks.
Prosecco is typically packaged in the easily-identifiable and customary sparkling wine bottle, which is similar in shape to the Champagne bottle and includes the mushroom-shaped cork and often a metal cage under a foil wrap. Prosecco can also be packaged in aluminum cans similar to those used for beer.
Customarily Prošek is served in a small, tulip-shaped dessert wine glass. However, there is no “official” serving glass; any small, flared-rim vessel will do.
The most commonly used glass for Prosecco is the Champagne flute.
11)Availability on Export Markets
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw a bottle of Prošek in your local wine shop? Most likely the answer is, never. Because of the tiny production, very little of Croatia’s famous dessert wine is exported. In the U.S. BIBICh Ambra Prošek is imported by Blue Danube Wine Company but in such limited quantities that it quickly sells out. If you are in the NYC area, Bin 56 wine bar in Huntington, NY serves BIBICh Ambra Prošek. Grab a glass while it lasts!
Needless to say, Prosecco is ubiquitous and warehoused in wine shops everywhere. It is often the best selling sparkling wine in wine bars and restaurants. To highlight this point (according to Shanken News Daily), in 2012 the top six Prosecco brands in the U.S. collectively represented 1.6 million cases (19.2 million bottles) of wine, with an annual sales growth of about 35%.
That’s a lot of bubbly.
Prošek: A 500 ml bottle of BIBICh Ambra Prošek retails for about $50.
Prosecco: Retail prices in the U.S. for a 750 ml bottle range from $10 to $20 for DOC bottles, and a bit more for DOCG labels.
Similar-sounding words and spellings abound in the English language – and presumably in other languages. Take, for example, the head-spinning number of wine grape varieties that begin with the letter V: Verdejo, verdelho, verdello, verdicchio, verdiso, verduzzo, vermentino, vernaccia, vespaiola, vespolina, vignoles, vinhão, viognier, viosinho, viura, vugava…. Yikes!
Yet no one seems to be getting too excited about that muddled madness. Governments are not demanding new rules and regulations to sort it all out. Why? Because they are just names and we humans are able and accustomed to figuring out the subtle variances. I know a guy named Dana and a girl called Dayna. I would have to be a dope to confuse the two.
Then there’s McDonald’s and McDoogal’s. One is a famous hamburger conglomerate, the other an Irish pub in Kokomo, Indiana. Each has its loyal customers. And I think it’s safe to say that not one of us is foggy about which assembles Big Macs and which tops off Guinness on tap.
Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonia. The first two are each sovereign countries, the latter a wine-growing region in Croatia. All three manage to survive, despite their names sounding alarmingly alike. And I suspect that few travelers would accidently board planes for Slovenia when they meant to go to Slovakia.
Prošek and Prosecco. The first: a hand-made, limited-production, sweet dessert wine that will never be exported in large quantities and most likely attracts only consumers who have heard of it and seek it out. The latter: a mass-produced, widely distributed, usually dry to off-dry sparkling wine that is synonymous with summer, quick refreshment, and good cheer.
Simply put, the two wines have NOTHING in common, like apples and oranges. Cannot they happily co-exist without bureaucrats in Brussels spoiling the brew?
In that wonderful spoof of a movie from 1980, Airplane!, an in-flight emergency prompts Dr. Rumack (brilliantly played by the late-great Leslie Nielsen), to ask Ted Striker (an ex-pilot suffering from a fear of flying played by Robert Hays), if he can safely land the jet. Striker responds, “Surely you can’t be serious?” To which Dr. Rumack famously retorts, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”.
So let us not call Prošek Prosecco. Or visa versa. Surely we are all sophisticated enough to manage that without getting ourselves tied up in knots and discovering that the bottle we just grabbed off the shelf is not our beloved wine.
(Note: In the summer of 2012 I was asked to contribute a piece for the next edition of the “Every Wine Tells a Story” book compiled annually by Tara O’Leary. Unfortunately, the book was never published, but here is what I wrote for it, now shared for you here. I hope you enjoy it. ~Cliff)
THEY SAYTHAT LIFE is made up of moments. That at the end when we look back on our individual lives certain fragments of time will blink like stars in a dark sky. That along the timeline of our lives certain small personal interactions or experiences will be recalled with laser clarity: distinct milestones – either meaningful or nostalgic – that we may or may not have noticed at the instant of their occasion.
Every once in a while, a lucky wine lover will encounter a certain vino that changes the game, shifts the boundaries of perception, and leaves one stunned, mystified… Gaping like a beached fish, overwhelmed by the mysteries of the universe, by the inexplicable ways that wine evolves in the bottle. A wine that transcends this world and dispatches the drinker’s consciousness into a parallel dimension where muses enlighten, angels and deities celebrate, and the sands of time flow not to make us old but to revive us with revelations and new discoveries.
In 2012, I had the honor of being visited by one such wine – a 1963 Graševina “Arhivsko vino” (archive wine) from the Kutjevo winery (a historic bastion of cellared treasures in the Slavonia region of Croatia) on two separate and equally memorable occasions: once at the winery, and subsequently at a vertical tasting workshop of aged graševina wines called “Wine of Grace” at the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend in Croatia.
Tasting the same wine on two separate occasions did not diminish the profundity of my experience but reaffirmed it. Indeed both encounters left me paralyzed in awe, helpless to summon my professional sommelier training to conduct a point-by-point assessment and expound pretentiously upon the wine’s merits and misdemeanors.
Instead I sat there dreamy-eyed, slack-jawed and loose-limbed, struggling to suppress the urge to whimper and weep like a baby. Lost in this dumbfounded comprehension of the implications associated with being touched by such a wonder of creation, I yielded to its mysteries and allowed myself to be absorbed.
Forty-nine years of dormancy and leisure in a mold-crusted cellar deposited a patina of fossilized dust and organic matter on the bottle, cloaking it in ash-colored velvet. I watched with mixed emotions (excitement, sorrow, anticipation, unworthiness) as the bottle was opened, revealing a cork that was amber and black with age, ripe and moist.
What emerged from within was a beautiful liquid genie: older and wiser, perhaps, but no less enchanting with sultry hues of gold, a brilliant clarity and regal structure. Now exhumed from her confines, this “wine of grace” released – or rather, bestowed upon us like a cherished, granted wish – an alluring, continuously unfolding tapestry of rich aromas: honey, roasted nuts, candied citrus peels, autumn bouquet, buttered forest mushrooms, something akin to apricot cobbler….
Ensconced as I was in such a blissful stupor – sniffing, swirling, marveling – I quietly flipped back pages of history. Over the decades in which the 1963 Graševina laid still in the damp darkness of its lonely old cellar in Kutjevo, the world outside the cold stone walls was bustling, with many things coming to pass: my parents’ marriage; my birth; Beatle Mania; the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon; the Vietnam war; Jimi Hendrix’s ascent to guitar god; Watergate; Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong; the heady days of Led Zeppelin; the ’69 Mets; the first Apple computer; Disco; mullet haircuts; Jaws; the Space Shuttle; Michael Jackson’s lifetime; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia; Seinfeld; cell phones and smart tablets; the Millennium; September 11th; endless wars in the Middle East; Facebook and memes; the unrealized Mayan prophesies; the first African-American U.S. president…..
Like wrinkles and wisdom, history was now woven into the wine’s fabric. While graševina is not a wine noted for its noble pedigree or ability for long-term aging, the 1963 from Kutjevo winery decisively dispelled any generalized notion about the inability of certain white wines to age. Barely frayed or faded, it was clearly still a living thing, delivering layer upon layer of rich texture, exotic nuance, and vibrant character.
I was not the only one to notice. Judging by the reflective silence and mesmerized faces of those with me, the moment in time we collectively shared while in the throes of vinous enlightenment was truly an enchanting and unforgettable experience.
A wine of such grace and rarity may not come our way everyday. But if you ever have the opportunity to discover an older vintage or indulge in a unique bottle of some strange varietal wine from a far-off land, please don’t miss it. The experience may turn out to be one of those moments in life that you will treasure forever.
IF THIS WINE were a celebrity it would be Meryl Streep: an actress of such grace and charm who grows more lovely, sophisticated and relevant with age. Like Mona Lisa on canvass, on screen Meryl shines with just the right balance of profundity, grace and sass, coddling the soul, providing comfort to the heart, and stoking the fires of imagination – all this while defying the ravages of time with her elegant poise, child-like charms and timeless beauty. (Note to Meryl: I still have one more bottle of the 1963 Kutjevo Graševina in my cellar. Stop by anytime. I’d be happy to open it for you. 🙂 )
“In a recent column in Wine Spectator magazine, Matt Kramer mentioned a fabulous quote from the novelist Henry James: ‘There are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition’. This story captures the taste of surprise perfectly.”
So begins the enlightening tale of drinking Ðakovačka Biskupija 1987 Trnavački Traminac Arhivsko Misno Vino, as recounted by sommelier and founder of Wines of Croatia, Cliff Rames, in the new book “Every Wine Tells a Story”.
Every Wine Tells a Story is a compilation of 39 stories – including two about Croatian wines – written by a number of notable international wine professionals and experts, including Steven Spurrier of Decanter Magazine; Joe Roberts, aka 1 Wine Dude; and Paul Kienan of Grapes of Sloth. The 131-page book was published in November 2011 and was edited by Tara Devon O’Leary, aka the Wine Passionista.
To check out the full list of contributors, click HERE.
Another passionate voice among Croatian wine lovers who contributed the second story in the book is Judith Burns, wine importer and founding partner of Pacta Connect, a U.K.-based import company specializing in Croatian wines. Her story celebrates her experience tasting Clai 2009 Brombonero, a 100% Refošk wine from the Istria region of Croatia that Judith refers to as the “Johnny Depp” of wines and a “truly special” offering.
“In every wine-growing country there is usually one producer whose ‘hallowed’ name you hear above all. In Croatia, that producer is Giorgio Clai,” writes Judith.
To read the rest of Judith’s and Cliff’s Croatian wine stories, as well as the other 37 interesting and touching wine tales, please follow this LINK to purchase your copy of this keepsake book.
And to tease you a little further, check out this promo video for the book. Happy reading!