ROME– Over the last few years, prosecco has gone from the poor man’s Champagne to a happy hour staple. But the world’s thirst for the refreshing wine is starting to take its toll on the planet.
A recent study by the University of Padu, which was backed up by Italy’s agricultural ministry’s own findings, sparked panic this week when researchers announced that prosecco production accounts for the erosion of some 880 million pounds of soil each year. And with exports setting all-time records–up nearly 50 percent in the last five years alone to some 700 million bottles sold annually–the cost to the planet will soon become unsustainable if the global demand for the Italian bubbly keeps growing and changes aren’t made to the vineyards.
All prosecco is made from at least 85 percent glera grapes–which dates back to Roman times when it was produced as Pucino Vino, according to ancient depictions found in Pompeian ruins. Prosecco producers are allowed to use other grape varieties as long as they don’t make up more than 15 percent of the final blend.
In Italy, prosecco is produced in about 20 regions across the cooler northern section of the country either as DOCG or DOC. The DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) area consists of the municipalities of Conegliano, Valdobbiadene and Asolo around Venice where the grapes are grown in terraced and hedged vineyards to produce prosecco “superiore.”
The DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) area, which accounts for 80 percent of production of all Italian prosecco, is where the problem lies because the fast-growing vines are planted on the south-facing hills to ensure maximum production. The study suggests that adding the terraces and hedges needed to stop erosion would mean ripping out valuable vines. And that would cut into the country’s $1.2 billion yearly sales of exported prosecco, according to data from Italy’s agriculture consortium Coldiretti.
“In such viticultural production context, the economic and production factors are driving drastic changes in land use, undermining an ecosystem stability based on soil system, and fueling the debate about the sustainability of vineyards cropland,” says Salvatore Pappalardo, one of the authors of the Padua study.
The demand for Italian prosecco continues to grow substantially, according to Coldiretti. Its own study shows that some of the recent surge in exports is Brexit-induced, with 18 percent of all bottles of the DOC prosecco going to the United Kingdom where distributors are stockpiling it in warehouses to avoid paying possible future higher import tariffs. The fizzy wine has become so popular in the U.K. that some pubs have complained that it is becoming more popular than even a pint of beer.
Last year, a spate of articles in British tabloids came down hard on the effects of prosecco, including its supposed damage to teeth dubbed by the Brits the prosecco smile. “It’s definitely fake news, so let’s just leave it there,” tweeted Luca Zaia, president of the Veneto region where most prosecco is produced. “However, our British friends know very well that where there is prosecco there is a smile, so good that they celebrate it, and consume it more every day.”
But the big concern is the soil erosion, which unabated will possibly mean much less prosecco for everyone. “Soil is a non-renewable resource,” says Pappalardo the author of the study. “A territory like the prosecco area gives excellent results from an economic point of view, but this level of production in the long run will hardly be sustainable.”