Help! I fear I’m turning into a Prosecco snob. You might think this is slightly silly – like favouring one daytime soap over another – but I’m serious. There are lots of wines on the market that use the P word and the differences between them can be profound. Tasting a bog-standard example, made from high-yielding grapes grown on the flatlands north of Treviso, alongside one from a precipitous hillside in Valdobbiadene is like comparing Cristal with a supermarket Champagne. Until you go there and start asking questions, Prosecco sounds like an uncomplicated wine. It is made from one eponymous grape, although Prosecco can be blended with up to 15% of local Verdiso, Perera and Bianchetta or more international Chardonnay. It uses one production method, called Charmat. It is generally sold (and drunk) within 18 months of the harvest. And it comes in three main styles, based on sweetness levels: Brut (dry), Extra Dry (medium) and, bizarrely, Dry (sweet).
Still with me? Good, because this is when things get more complicated. As in most other regions, the place where the grapes are grown is important. The best area for Prosecco, which has its own appellation or DOC, is called Conegliano Valdobbiadene, a beautiful region of green hills tucked up against the pre-Alps. From next April, Conegliano Valdobbiadene will be promoted to DOCG status alongside the likes of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, no less.
Within Conegliano Valdobbiadene, there is one vineyard, Cartizze, which is regarded as a sort of grand cru. If you want to buy a hectare of vineyard on this vertigo-inducing slope it will cost you €1.5m, which makes it among the most expensive dirt in Italy. Cartizze is small – 107 hectares – and is farmed by about 140 different growers, so quality varies. But the best stuff is sweet (or rather Dry), rich and intense with an extra dimension of flavour.
Charmat next. Fermenting the base wine in a pressurised tank is how most producers get bubbles into their wine, but a handful use the Champagne method of bottle fermentation, too. Other key factors are how long and at what temperature the base wine is kept before it’s re-fermented and, once it has been, how many weeks it is kept in tank on its texture-inducing lees.
You won’t find many Prosecci on the market that are older than 2008 – even the ones that don’t declare a vintage are invariably young – but some producers release their wines with extra bottle age. The results can be interesting: what you lose in peach, pear and apple fruit, you gain in complexity.
There is a general move in Conegliano Valdobbiadene towards drier wines, which is a good thing, in my view. With the exception of the best Cartizze, the sweeter examples work less well with food and lack the refreshing crispness of a good Brut or even Extra Dry.
The good thing about being a Prosecco snob, or aficionado if you prefer, is that the decent wines don’t cost much more than the poor ones. With £10 in your hand you can buy a bottle of the perfumed, pear-fruity Tesco Finest Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Spumante, Bisol (£8.99, 11.5%, Tesco) or the drier, citrus-like Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Trevisiol (£9.09 by the case of 12, 12%, Berry Brothers, bbr.com), both of which are very quaffable. But if you’re prepared to spend a little more, you can drink something truly delicious, such as the intense, slightly tannic Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Particella 68 Extra Dry (£13.80, 11%, Indigo Wine, 020 7733 8391), made from a single vineyard of very old vines, or the very dry, yeasty 2008 Bellenda Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene San Fermo Brut (£11.99, 11.5%, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 554 750). Trust me, you’ll never drink Prosecco in the same way again.
• Tim has just been named Wine Columnist of the Year for his Observer column, in the 2009 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards
Originally published in The Observer