Flying Pigs and Prosecco Teeth
I am not a dentist. I’m a professional wine taster specialized in Italian wine. I’m charged with tasting 4,000 wines per year. If I am to meet my goal, I must taste 11 wines per day including Sundays, my birthday, Christmas Day and New Years. Sometimes I skip a day of tasting, but that means I need to taste 22 wines the following day. If I take off a weekend to rest, I should taste 33 wines the following Monday. If I take off a week for holiday, I am faced with 88 wines on the day I return to work.
Evaluating wine entails looking at it, smelling it, tasting it once and tasting it twice. I swish the wine around my palate so that it touches the sides of my mouth, the roof and the back of my tongue. I do so to assess the mouthfeel of the wine. That includes texture, acidity, tannins, alcohol, sweetness and the quality of the effervescence if it is a sparkling wine. My job is to recount the full experience of drinking the wine, without actually swallowing it.
France and Italy compete for the top wine region in the world in terms of volume production. My tastings take me to the deep south of Italy to taste the sweet wine, Passito di Pantelleria, to the far north, where I taste deliciously fragrant white wines in Alto Adige. My tasting beat spans from the 38th to the 45th parallels. The volume of wine that has passed through my lips these past 15 years is enormous. If there were a way to measure that volume, I’m sure I (along with the other 50 or so professional wine critics I know) would be in a league of our own compared to average consumption among even the most ardent wine enthusiasts.
A few days ago, I ran into two articles published in the U.K. The first, published August 27 in the Daily Mail, is entitled, “How Our Prosecco Obsession is Rotting the Nation’s Teeth.” The second, published the following day in the The Guardian is entitled, “Save Your Teeth—And Six Other Reasons to Give Up Prosecco.” In truth, I didn’t just happen to casually run into these articles—I found them posted and reposted dozens of times over on social media by my friends and colleagues in the wine trade who were enraged by the factual errors reported in both and the fabricated concept of “Prosecco smile,” or “Prosecco teeth,” that was floated to the detriment of all wine lovers all over the world.
Do a Google search for “Meth Mouth” and you get an idea of where they were going with this. You’ll find countless photos of irreversibly blackened teeth and rotting gums due to the tragic abuse of illegal methamphetamines. Unfortunately for the U.K. publications, you can search the internet high and low as I did and you won’t find any real photographic evidence of what The Guardian termed “the dodgy Prosecco smile.” Not a single scrap of evidence exists linking tooth decay specifically to Prosecco or Prosecco Superiore wines made in northeast Italy.
I was also particular offended by the insinuation carried forth by both publications that “Prosecco teeth” is a common illness most widespread among women. They both claim that women were especially putting themselves at risk presumably because they tend to giggle and gossip more over a bottle or two of Prosecco. The Guardian article, written in a boozy Bridget Jones voice, even signs off with the cheeky kicker “Stay toothsome, ladies” as if Prosecco abstinence was linked to increased sex appeal.
According to that article, the premise is as follows: Prosecco exacts a price “when the carbonation, alcohol and sugar—dentistry’s axis of evil—destroy your teeth, variously stripping their enamel, making holes in them and pulling them out of your gums.”
Both articles cite Dr. Mervyn Druian of the London Centre for Cosmetic Dentistry. The Daily Mail quotes him as follows: “The signs of ‘Prosecco smile’ are where the teeth come out of the gum. It starts with a white line just below the gum, which if you probe it is a little bit soft, and that is the beginning of tooth decay which can lead to fillings and dental work.”
Again, I am not a dentist, but my logic tells me that tooth decay is most likely the result of poor dental hygiene. I can’t see how drinking too much Prosecco is any different than drinking too much Coca-Cola or too many magnums of the 100-point Tenuta San Guido 1985 Sassicaia for that matter. I suppose we could be talking about “Sassicaia smile,” although that has a whole other ring to it.
It so happens that I had my teeth cleaned this morning right before I sat down to write this post. Given the fact I taste thousands of wines per year—hundreds of which are Prosecco Superiore, Franciacorta, Moscato d’Asti, Frizzante, Talento, Metodo Classico, Metodo Martinotti and other Italian sparkling wines—I pay special attention to my dental care with biannual cleanings, and daily flossing and brushing. My dentist gave me a clean bill of dental health. I asked if he observed any damage that could specifically be caused by Prosecco, and his dismissive manner clearly indicated that the entire premise of my question was unfounded.
Besides the acidity, alcohol and carbonated bubbles that all sparkling wines including Champagne have by definition, the two U.K. articles cite Prosecco’s residual sugar as the determining factor in “Prosecco Teeth.” The article assumes that all Prosecco has high residual sugar, although this is factually incorrect.
The three most popular styles according to the Prosecco Superiore appellation are Brut, Extra Dry and Dry. Brut is the fastest-growing category and enjoys the largest following in international markets. It appears that the non-Italian consumer is particularly attracted to the word Brut because it carried instant recognition. Brut wines range from 0 to 12 grams per liter of residual sugar. It is the driest of the three categories. These wines offer mineral notes with white flower and crisp citrus or lime-like flavors. The second category, Extra Dry, is defined as having anywhere from 12 to 17 grams per liter of residual sugar. Extra Dry is one of the most popular categories and that extra softness adds more weight and creaminess to the wine with honeydew melon and summer peach flavors. The most traditional (and the smallest category in volume) is Dry. These wines have anywhere from 17 to 32 grams per liter of residual sugar and the celebrated single-vineyard Cartizze cru is traditionally made in a Dry style, but at only 106 hectares, these wines are more difficult to find and the most expensive to buy.
Related Read: Italy, Veneto: Prosecco Superiore
Champagne and other Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines follow the exact same sweetness scale. Brut Nature wines are on the driest side of the scale with 0 to 3 grams of residual sugar (or roughly the equivalent of one sixth of a teaspoon of sugar in a five ounce serving). Doux wines are on the sweetest side of the scale with 50 grams per liter of residual sugar (or two teaspoons of sugar per five ounce serving). Most of the Prosecco we see at our local wine shop falls roughly in the middle of these two extremes, just like any other sparkling wine from France, California or the U.K. boasting a healthy sparking wine tradition.
Meanwhile, there are 39 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola and 41 grams in a can of Pepsi. Given the high sugars found in so many other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, it is inconceivable to me that only Prosecco should be singled out as a problem.
What the U.K. press also fails to address is the sad reality of binge drinking and alcoholism. If one’s Prosecco consumption is so large as to rip the enamel off and drill cavities in teeth, I would imagine that the devastating health consequences associated with exaggerated alcohol consumption extend far beyond the mouth.
The Italian wine community and government officials hit back hard—as they should—against the irresponsible reporting associated with the whole “Prosecco smile” narrative. The best response, in my opinion, was given by Luca Zaia, president of the Region of Veneto, who quipped: “A good glass of Prosecco will put a smile on anyone’s face.”
As someone who has tasted thousands of Proseccos in her lifetime, I proudly put my smile on display to anyone who needs proof that these claims are simply false.