The hillside landscape of Prosecco in the evening, north of Conegliano
Most people are by now aware of the huge commercial success of Prosecco in many markets. More bottles of Prosecco (almost 500 million recently) than of Champagne are produced annually, and this figure will probably continue to grow for Prosecco as this region has authorized high yields, is unconstrained by high prices for grapes, as well as having the possibility to sell its wines within the year following harvest. The combination of these factors, added to a secondary fermentation in tanks that avoids the riddling and disgorgment process, means that the cost price at production of a bottle of Prosecco is at most a quarter of that of a bottle of Champagne, and around third of that of a bottle of Crémant or other sparkling wine that uses the bottle as the container for the secondary fermentation.
The architecture of the town of Conegliano clearly shows Venetian influence. No canals here though: we are in the hills further north.
But Prosecco is not just about price, even if this brings it a serious advantage when used, as is so often the case, as an ingredient in various forms of aperitif cocktails. A couple of days spent recently in this most attractive and (at least partly) very hilly countryside of the Veneto region of North-Eastern Italy gave me the opportunity to take a closer look at some aspects of this fashionable and easy-drinking fizz. In fact the Prosecco production area oversteps the regional boundary of Veneto and strays into neighbouring Friuli, although the most prestigious part, which carries a DOCG status rather than the larger and looser DOC one, is entirely within the Veneto and carries the specific sub-regional name of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore. Another recognised sub-region is Asolo.
Although I did not undertake extensive tastings on this occasion, I managed to visit four small to medium-sized producers, all within the above-mentioned sub-regions whose hilly landscapes and regularly ploughed soil under the vines (between the rows they grow grass, as shown above) showed me that, from the viticultural point of view, producers here seem considerably more virtuous than most of those in Champagne!
The Charmat, or tank method used for the secondary fermentation (see above) is often sub-contracted by smaller producers to specialists. It uses pressurised and resistant tanks called autoclaves, with different levels of atmospheric pressure authorized, between 3 and 5 bars. The wine is filtered and bottled under pressure just a few months after fermentation, which meant that most of the wines that I tasted early in May came from the 2017 harvest. This rapid turnover is clearly a huge financial advantage when compared to the necessity to keep a vintage Champagne for at least 3 years on its lees.
The dominant grape variety for Prosecco is called Glera and has to constitute at least 85% of the final blend. Other authorized local varieties are Verdiso, Bianchetta, Trevigiana and Perera, but Chardonnay is also allowed. Dosage levels for the various designations follow the same rules as Champagne, but current fashion, at least in Italy, tends to favour the Extra Dry category (12 to 17 grams of residual sugar) over the Brut (up to 12 grams). I did however taste the occasional Prosecco that was dosed more lightly, around 6 grams, and found that this added the peps and precision that is, to me at least, often lacking in these wines since the combination between a warmer climate and the Glera grape makes for much lower natural acidity that in Champagne.
Here are a few comments and tasting notes from the producers that I visited:
Villa di Maser
This very beautiful estate lies not far east of Asolo and surrounds one of the most remarkable of the Palladio villas, with its frescos by Veronese, its sculptures, its woods and gardens, as well as 40 hectares of vines. These are not entirely dedicated to Prosecco as I also tasted some very good still wines, including a wonderful Verduzzo Dorato, almost amber in colour, suave in texture and enrichened by skin maceration. They also have a very nicely arranged and well managed restaurant and bar in one of the neighbouring buildings Their Asolo Prosecco Superiore was very pleasant, delicately rounded and fruity. Straightforward and easy to enjoy.
Tenuta Amadio, Monfumo
This modernized estate, which builds on a family viticultural heritage, is managed by a young brother and sister team. It lies just north of the medieval town of Asolo, well into the hills with some spectacular views as you climb up the narrow lanes to get there. I liked their wines very much and thought that they were the best of all the Proseccos that I tasted on this trip. We unfortunately did not have enough time for a full tasting of the range, but I especially enjoyed their Asolo Prosecco Extra-Brut 2017: fine and delicate, floral and fruity, that flowed seemingly effortlessly across the palate.
Borgo Antico, Ogliano di Conegliano
A vineyard of 21 hectares currently under conversion to organic agriculture. When I was there, staying nearby for a few days, it rained every night so the tractors were out spraying every day as the rain constantly washed off the stuff that they are allowed to use (no systemic products in organic farming). Made me wonder about the carbon balance of this approach, as well as the quality of copper being used. Modern equipment in a recently-built and impeccably clean winery, but they sub-contract the secondary fermentation. Their Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut 2017, dosed at just 6 grams, showed perfumes of linden and lemon and was pleasantly dynamic. I liked less the Extra-Dry which had more body but less finesse and the dosage seemed to partially mask some bitterness. Of the still wines tasted, I enjoyed the pale red wine made from a local variety called Marzemino (2017), with its lively flavours of bitter cherries.
Vigne Matte, Rolle, Conegliano
This modern estate, with vineyards spread out over several sites (above is a view of part of the main site), is the creation of someone who made his money in the motor industry. The site is very spectacular and shows just how steep and had to work are a lot of the vineyards in this northern sector of the Prosecco region. They do everything here, including the secondary fermentation. Just 20% is exported. My favourite wine here of their Proseccos was the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut Cuvée, which incorporates 15% Chardonnay with 85% Glera: quite fine, nicely fruity and just a touch of bitterness on the finish. The others were too heavily dosed for my palate, with the exception of a sparkling wine made outside the Prosecco appellation but using the tank method: à 100% Chardonnay called 007. This had length, complexity and precision. Made me wonder whether this grape might not be more interesting in these parts than Glera. Is this ridiculous?
So yes, Prosecco can be a very pleasant sparkling wine. What it does not have, at least in the wines that I tasted, is complexity and length. High yields and a very short time spent on lees see to that. Maybe also the natural limitations of the Glera grape variety, but of that I am not so sure. But why should all wines be monsters of complexity, especially when they retail for around 6 euros a bottle? Horses for courses is the name of the game. In any case it is a beautiful region to visit if you are ever in Venice. An hour’s drive north from the airport will get you into the heart of it.