Italy is blessed with many beautiful places, but the view from the top of the Cartizze hill in Conegliano Valdobbiadene is still a bit special. The vineyard itself, Prosecco’s only Grand Cru, is so steep that a mountain goat would have trouble ascending it. Gazing down from its peak, with the pre-Alps at your back and a series of lush, vine-covered valleys beneath you, you wonder why this verdant, northern Italian region isn’t better appreciated as a tourist destination.
The same thing could be said of its wines. The Prosecco name is well known enough, but not many people appreciate the difference between the basic stuff grown down on the plain and the wines that come from the higher Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone. Tasting a basic example against something produced at altitude by a top winery is like contrasting a cut-price supermarket Champagne with Roederer Cristal.
Come April 2010, the difference will be clearer cut when Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene is installed as Italy’s forty-first DOCG, a promotion from the DOC status it has held for 40 years. The wines that were previously sold as IGT (those produced elsewhere in northern Italy) will also be elevated, but only to DOC. Yields in the latter will be reduced from 25 to 18 tons per hectare and anomalies such as Prosecco Rosé will be banned, not before time
Conegliano Valdobbiadene is easier to find than it is to pronounce. It is situated in the province of Treviso, mid-way between Venice and the Dolomites in a strip of green hills known as the Colli Trevigiani, or pre-Alps. The vineyards are located at altitudes of between 50 and 500m, but the best grapes mostly come from vineyards above 200m, especially in the hillier, western part of the DOCG.
The area is well suited to fizz. It has a mild, temperate climate with warm summers and cold winters (it’s only an hour to the ski slopes of Cortina) and enjoys considerable diurnal variation, which is vital for preserving acidity in the grapes. Its sloping terrain is a boon too: ventilation reduces the risk of vineyard diseases.
As its semi-detached name suggests, Conegliano Valdobbiadene is a region of two towns, with the former in the east and the latter in the west. The unofficial border between these two sub-zones runs through Soligo and Premaor, although many producers blend grapes across the dividing line.
The Valdobbiadene sub-zone is the where most of the vineyards are located, many of them on steep slopes. The wines made here tend to be lighter and more aromatic in style (the soils are a mix of sand and limestone), whereas those from Conegliano are often more powerful (clay and limestone are the dominant soil types). It is significant that most non-sparkling Prosecco (known as tranquilo) comes from Conegliano.
Prosecco is a grape as well as a sparkling wine. Its origins are unclear — there’s a town of the same name in Friuli — but locals will tell you that it’s been grown in the region for at least two centuries. The key to Prosecco (the grape) is that it is aromatic and high in malic acid content; Italians say that it is “asciutto”, meaning that it leaves the palate refreshed. They also talk about its slightly bitter, “amarognolo” notes. Most Prosecco (the wine) is unblended although producers are allowed to use up to 15% of other grapes: local Verdizo, Perera and Bianchetto and more international Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco.
There are several clones of Prosecco. Prosecco Balbi is the most planted (and arguably the best) but you can also find Prosecco Lungo, Prosecco Tondo and Prosecco Cosmo, sometimes in the same vineyard. “We have all four clones,” says Gianfranco Zanon of Bortolomiol, “but they aren’t that different. Balbi is less productive and really good for still as well as sparkling wines, while Tondo is the most resistant to disease and Lunguo has bigger berries.”
The overwhelming majority of Prosecco is made using the Charmat process, known in Italy as the metodo Italiano. Exceptions are Casa Coste Piane and Bellenda (for one of its wines, called SC 1931), who employ the Champagne method. Umberto Cosmo of Bellenda believes that there is a place for autolysis. “A secondary fermentation in bottle doesn’t just add carbon dioxide; it transforms the aromas and the flavours of the wine. Méthode Champenoise is more interesting than Charmat and Charmat is more interesting than tank fermentation. We like to test the limits of Prosecco.”
Most producers believe that the flavours of Prosecco (stone fruit, banana, apple, pineapple and citrus fruit) are altered for the worse by autolysis. This may be true, but until the Charmat method was adopted in the 1920s, sparkling Prosecco would either have been disgorged or sold with sediment from refermentation in the bottle, so there is a precedent of sorts for the Bellenda style.
The Charmat process is simple enough: gentle pressing (70 litres of juice from 100kg of grapes is the maximum permitted), followed by a first fermentation in stainless steel at 18-20C to produce a still base wine. The second fermentation, which adds the bubbles, takes place in sealed pressure tanks (called auto-clave), leaving the wine with up to five bars of pressure. The second part of the process normally lasts for around 30-45 days at a controlled temperature of 15-18C.
That said, the process varies from producer to producer. Different influences include the retention of skins (and even stems) for the first fermentation, early filtration to retain fruit and leaving the wine it in the autoclave after it has acquired its bubbles to take on more richness, a process known as Charmat lungo. Some wineries prefer to go straight from must to wine, rather than storing base wine for six months or more. “We think the wine is fruitier if you do it our way,” explains Elisa Bronca of Sorelle Bronca. “It’s more expensive, but there’s a difference in quality.”
As freshness, lightness and fresh, primary aromas are the keys to Prosecco, most wineries make as many as 90 batches a year. That’s why the majority of wines are labelled as non vintage, as batches may be fermented at any time over a twelve month period. It’s also rare to find older, vintage dated wines.
There are four types of Prosecco from Conegliano Valdobbiadene: spumante (which accounts for 80% of production), Superiore di Cartizze (of which more in a minute), semi-sparkling frizzante and tranquilo (still). One hundred years ago, all Prosecco was still. The sparkling style probably began by accident when a wine was left sur lie and refermented when the weather warmed up in the spring.
Sweetness levels vary from bone dry (very rare) to 35 grams per litre of residual sugar. The different styles are labelled as Brut (0-15 g/l), Extra Dry (12-20 g/l) and Dry (17-35 g/l). Of these, the most common by far is Extra Dry, which accounts for 70% of production. This was as high as 85% 20 years ago, but styles are getting (slightly) drier as more and more people consume Prosecco as an aperitif rather than, Asti-like, at the end of the meal.
Sweetness levels are a matter of taste. They are also a subject of mild disagreement in the region. Balance between acidity and sugar is the key here. As Franco Adami of the Adami winery puts it: “Residual sweetness is not a number but a sensation. A well made Extra Dry shouldn’t taste sweet, while a Brut needs more body because you have less sugar in the bottle.”
The hill of Cartizze is the source of the most expensive Prosecco. This 106 hectare vineyard is situated in the Valdobbiadene sub-zone and is entirely south-facing. Its steepness and aspect ensure that it produces ripe grapes (almost) every year, which may explain why it’s so costly to buy land here. (Think E1m per hectare). Those 106 hectares are divided between 140 different owners; the biggest parcel is the 6 hectares owned by Toni Zaneton. The grapes here are picked late and very ripe, so the wines are normally made in a “Dry” (that’s to say pretty sweet) style. Silvano Follador’s brilliant Cartizze, made with only 11.5 g/l of sugar, is a significant exception.
The so-called Golden Pentagon of Cartizze isn’t the only steep slope in the region. In fact, far from it. Three other vineyards that are almost as well sited are Funer, Mogliana and Montagnon. Once the new DOCG has come into force, producers will be allowed to use the words “Rive de….” on labels to distinguish wines from 12 villages and 31 “sub-villages” and single vineyards. The 12 villages are Cison di Valmarino, Colle Umberto, Farra di Soligo, Follina, Miane, Pieve di Soligo, Refrontolo, San Pietro di Feletto, San Vendemiano, Susegana, Tarzo and Vidor.
And what of the wines themselves? Well, I’ve chosen 10 of my favourites below, made in a variety of styles and pitched at different price points. As the DOCG develops, I think we will see greater interest develop in wines from individual villages and vineyards and an even broader diversity of styles. Prosecco is entering a new age.
TEN PROSECCO TO BUY NOW
All drinking well now
Bortolomiol Prior Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Brut (£8.60, 11.5%, Marc Fine Wines; 0207 647 1878; www.marcfinewines.com). 17/20
Very much a Valdobbiadene style, this is appealingly dry (8g/l) with lots of stone fruit aromas, backed up by apples, pears and a tangy citrus fruit finish. The acidity is crisp and focused and there’s a pleasant bitter twist on the finish.
2008 Bellenda San Fermo Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Brut (£11.32, 11.5%, Les Caves de Pyrene, 01483 538820, www.lescaves.co.uk). 17/20
A comparatively dry style (with 8.5 g/l of residual sugar), this is aged for 40 days on its lees after the second fermentation, producing a wine with some creaminess to balance the citrus fruit and crisp minerality.
2007 Nino Franco Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Brut, Grave di Stecca (£25, Sommelier’s Choice, 0208 689 9643; www.sommelierschoice.com). 18.5/20.
One of two top notch single vineyard wines made by Nino Franco in Valdobbiadene, this benefits from low yields and very chalky soils. The result is a wine that combines finesse with power, concentration and some bottle age.
Biancavigna Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry (£12.45, 11.5%, armit, 0207 908 0600; www.armit.co.uk). 17/20
A wine made from grapes grown on the Conegliano side of the DOCG. This spends 70 days in autoclave and has 10% Pinot Bianco in the blend. Grapey and floral on the nose, with 17 g/l, but with good spice and white pepper concentration on the palate.
Sorelle Bronca Particella 68 Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry (£13.80, 11%, Indigo Wine, 0207 733 8391; www.indigowine.com). 18/20
The Bronca sisters source this blend of 90% Prosecco with 5% each of Bianchetta and Perera from a single vineyard in Valdobbiadene. Complex, old vine fruit, with hints of straw and pear and a nip of tannin. Beautifully balanced.
Perlage Col di Manza Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry (£10.99, 11.5%, Vinceremos, 0113 2440002; www.vinceremos.co.uk). 17.5/20
You don’t notice the 19 g/l of sugar on this wine, partly because you’re distracted by so many other flavours. This is quite a wild style of Prosecco, made using bio-dynamic practices, but I love its depth and earthy strangeness.
Case Bianche, Undici, Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Dry (£14, 11.5%, Bat & Bottle, 01572 759735; www.batwine.co.uk). 17/20
A blend of 85% Prosecco with 15% Perera, this comes from the Conegliano side of the DOCG and is made by a former academic. It’s a fairly full flavoured style with the sweetness (22 g/l) balanced by acidity and classic boiled sweet notes.
2008 Adami Vigneto Giardino Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Dry (£17, 11%, Astrum Wine Cellars, 02033 284620; www.astrumwinecellars.com). 18/20
A single, amphitheatre-like vineyard is the source of this intense, complex, hauntingly perfumed Prosecco from one of the best names in the DOCG. Balanced, appley and fresh, this is a fizz that tastes much drier than its 20 g/l.
2007 Silvano Follador Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze (£17.95, 11.5%, Great Western Wine, 01225 322800; www.greatwesternwine.co.uk). 18.5/20
Silvano Follador is a young producer who is taking Cartizze in a new, drier direction. This is fine, yeasty and stylishly made, with Cartizze intensity offset by tiny bubbles and engaging freshness and palate length. Brilliant stuff.
2008 Bisol Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze (£22.49, 11.6%, Bibendum, 0207 449 4100; www.bibendum-wine.co.uk). 18/20
Making a very good contrast with the Silvano Follador wine, this is a more classic Cartizze with 25 g/l of residual sugar and power and depth on the palate. Pears, grapes and stone fruit flavours are nicely balanced by focused acidity.
Originally published in Decanter