A trip to the heartland of Prosecco DOCG – reveals wines vivid of the heroically steep hills of their origin and also – prompts an apology.
By Kim Gertler
I’m sorry Prosecco. I didn’t have a clue. I completely underestimated you. I just presumed you were a bulk-made, mass-market tipple. The truth is I had no idea where you were coming from – or that you could be so great. My bubble has been burst – it’s time to take back Prosecco.
The journey begins in Conegliano Valdobbiadene, the region tucked into the northeast corner of Veneto. Just an hour north of Venice – these striking foothills, studded with historic villages, form a gateway to the Dolomites and Alps beyond.
We’re in the venerable halls of Italy’s oldest school of wine, the Institute of Oenology and Viticulture in Conegliano
“AQVA HISTORIAM NON FACIT”
The Latin motto “AQVA HISTORIAM NON FACIT” or “History Is not made with water” greets all who enter here – including half a dozen Canadian sommeliers and media. We’re getting schooled on how history was made by the pioneer of Prosecco, and the co-founder of this very school – Antonio Carpenè, the chemist who saw the potential for greatness in the hills.
“He had a vision and the knowledge to develop his dream to create Italy’s first sparkling wine.” Professor Antonella Pasquale tells us. “In 1860 he went to France to learn how Champagne was made – and when he came back he tried to produce the same sparkling wine but using the grape grown in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene – it was called Prosecco at the time – but is now called Glera.”
Working with local growers, backed by financial partner, Angelo Malvolti, Carpenè produced the first commercial bottling of a wine similar to what we now know as Prosecco. The wine was called “Champagne Italiano” when it made its debut at the Universal Exposition of Vienna in 1873. From those humble beginnings somehow arose a global industry that sells hundreds of millions of bottles around the world every year. (544 hundred million bottles of Prosecco were sold worldwide in 2018, according to the Italian Observatory of Sparkling Wine.)
CM WINERY COURTYARD
With its majestic marble atrium, the Carpenè Malvolti winery feels like a sort of palace of Prosecco prosperity - but it’s also a shrine to its history. We’re guided into the more humble confines of the original building where gourd-shaped bottles, antique winemaking tools and faded labels begin to unspool the story. We learn that the early Italian sparkling wines were made in the traditional style, fermented in the bottle.
The story ramps up through a gallery of immersive exhibits and installations.
Carpenè continued to experiment as the new wine finds its market – launching patents and publishing research papers – he was in search of a new way to create wine to express the freshness and aromatic aspects of the local grapes. At the time, French and Italian wine scientists were hell bent on a similar mission. Eugène Charmat and Federico Martinotti – were both experimenting with fermentation in larger wooden tanks to make a different style of sparkling wine. In 1907, Charmat perfected the technique by using pressurized tanks made of steel for the first time.
Antonio believed that the new method far better highlighted the floral and fruity nuances in the region’s grapes. The first tank fermented Prosecco was released in 1924. With some enhancements over the years, the wine continues to be made in this same basic style to this day.
Like many, I had held to the fuzzy notion that the truly great sparkling wines of the world could only be made Champagne style, with the secondary fermentation in the bottle. But not so, says award-winning Italian wine expert, author and educator, Ian D’Agata.
“Of course you would think that if you are making fermentation bottle by bottle it’s going to be a better method than an autoclave, which sounds industrial, but in fact it’s not quite like that. What we’re beginning to learn, and this is fascinating, because we didn’t know this 20 years ago, certain grape varieties do much better in the autoclave method. We don’t know why, but Glera – when you take Glera and you try to make a sparkling wine by secondary fermentation in the bottle like they do in Champagne, that Glera wine is actually less interesting. It’s more austere. It loses its aromatic, friendly charm and the wine’s not so much fun. So, the autoclave method is actually better for Glera.”
We’re in the van on the move again and as the hills get steeper and the valleys deeper, you can’t help but notice as the vines somehow still cling to the sharp sides of the most perilous of pitches. That’s why working the vines here, is known as “heroic viticulture.” It’s a short but steep walk from Le Colture winery up to the vineyards. Vancouver sommelier Mark Ryan recalls “how steep it is – It’s one thing to see it in pictures but feeling the hamstring burn – by walking it is a different thing”
Feels like we’re getting close to the peak of Prosecco. We’re still catching our breath as Veronica Ruggeri describes the valleys where she first worked the harvest at age of 4. She’s part of the family behind Le Colture and not even slightly bragging when she says:
“So we are on the top of the pyramid of quality here. There are two crus inside of the area. The most famous is the Cartizze and the other appellation is the Rive. There are 43 of them between Valdobbiadene and Conegliano.”
VERONICA RUGGERI THEN AND NOW
She’s right – Cartizze is prized as the very top designated region of all Prosecco. In this pentagon shaped amphitheatre surrounded by steep slopes, the grapes ripen a bright yellow. Cartizze is said to receive sunshine – “all day long - from sunrise to sunset.” The soils are a mix of ancient moraines, sandstone and clay.
“There’s an old saying about how to pair with Cartizze,” says Veronica as we cluster around the tasting room table back at the Le Colture winery – “A glass of Cartizze pairs well with…another glass of Cartizze”
True words. The wine is like no Prosecco I have had before – it’s an evanescent swirl of aromas – sleekly textured tones of wild flowers, citrus bitters and just a hint of marzipan. It’s the ‘aha’ moment – a taste of the heroic hills. This is what the winemaker described to us as “a melody in the nose.”
The question is raised. Can Prosecco DOCG Superiore taste of its place? According to Veronica – absolutely – and it’s all about the Rive:
“Rive means “steep slopes. Rive are like the small crus of the area so they give that appellation name to give more identity to the terroir or the soil or the sun’s position in a small vineyard. For example, Le Colture has a Rive – Rive San Stefano. So with that vineyard over there – my grandfather’s, we decided to plant a Rive. It’s only .4 hectare but here you see this white stone – this Dolomite. It has a calcareous quality that gives a superior minerality to the wine.”
STEEP HILLSIDE (RIVE)
The relatively new Rive designation is inspiring the current generation here to make Prosecco that expresses the hillside and village it comes from. Each specific site expresses a distinctive and different soil, aspect and microclimate, is grown in limited yields and must be harvested by hand. Labels bear the name of each Rive and are also vintage-dated.
This region is also abuzz over its new (July, 2019) status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – an acknowledgment of its rich winemaking history: “Over the course of a thousand years the inhabitants here have managed to adapt steeply sloping fragile hillsides, where rows of vines cling to the contours of hogback formations that are so steep, they can only be worked by hand. This heroic viticulture is a key factor,” says Giulia Pussini of the Consortium of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG.
Master Sommelier Pier-Alexis Souliere found the visit to the region and the quality of the wines, to be a bit of a revelation:
“You know I was extremely impressed by those green hillsides -the first thing that comes to my mind is this whole thing around heroic viticulture. You know, it’s very hard to imagine for me that it would be as dramatic as it was – in the sense that – you know that there’s a lot of really dramatic vineyard in there. There’s a lot of super steep slatey hillside vineyard in Germany – there’s obviously the Hermitage but those wines command prices that are quite high…With Prosecco DOCG Superiore, you can find a higher quality most of the time not for a bigger price and that’s where for me it was eye-opening.”
Mani Sagge is an ambitious project designed as a “symbol of Prosecco Superiore and the UNESCO landscape.” With construction workers buzzing in the background, founder Marco Cescon tells us about his mission - to transform the historic wine estate started by his great-grandfather into a state of the art, largely underground winery along with a wine bar, visitor centre and guest house. The goal is to attract wine lovers from around the world.
“Mani Sagge means wise hands or expert hands – dedicated to protect and preserve this place. So Mani Sagge is a celebration of the generations that came before us and at the same time a philosophy of wine making based on historical wine estates, sustainability, green approach and scientific research,” says Marco.
Like those of many of the best producers, the wines of Mani Sagge are made with wild ferments, extended time in the tank on the lees, and with a focus on organic and sustainable practices in the vineyard and the winery.
After a full site tour of the winery construction and a stroll into the vineyards we pull up folding chairs around a card table to taste through the wines picnic style with plates of pizette, in the late afternoon open air. The Rive di Manzana, Extra Dry 2018 Prosecco Superiore invigorates with layers of pear, soft apple and white flower. The texture is remarkably rich. Taking another sip we ask Marco about his vision for Mani Sagge and for the region:
“It’s a never ending story to which the end can never be written. If you try to find the region’s roots – they are lost in the fruits of time – but each new generation would love to continue this journey – so we are just a care-taker.”
It’s the final afternoon of our Prosecco pilgrimage and after visiting a historic mill and dashing back to Le Coulture to snag a bottle at the winery shop, our driver Roberta has a surprise for us. We turn off the main road – onto a side road, winding straight up the biggest hill in the area. We run out of road and park between rows of vines. One path leads upward to yet another path – and there awaits the ‘Holy Grail’ – the Prosecco vending machine.
You have to see it to believe it. Osteria Senz'Oste - literally meaning bar without a host – allows travelers to purchase picnic charcuterie, snacks and bottles of the vineyard’s Prosecco all from a row of customized vending machines on this stunning site high up in the hills. From the outdoor vending area another path leads up to picnic areas where revelers, one playing an accordion tonight, enjoy the food, the wine and the view. We purchase a bottle of the house made Prosecco Col Fondo from the vending machine. It’s a zesty fruit-slap that finishes with a mouthful of fresh, slightly piney alpine herbs.
This style of Prosecco has become more popular recently. It has to be 85% Glera but is fermented in the bottle without any disgorgement. The sediment of the lees remains in the bottle and imparts a cloudy aspect and herbal and fruity notes in a somewhat less bubbly wine, classified as ‘frizzante,’ and sealed with a crown cap.
We look up and notice - Roberta is waving over to us from the old stone house that the owner maintains on the property. Surprise. We’ve been invited to share some wine and food with the Osteria’s founder, a well-known local legend.
We gather around the table in the stone walled room in the top floor of the house where proprietor Cesare De Stefani welcomes us with his wine, grown here on the estate, and a selection of artisanal sausages (his main business) We gaze out a giant open-air view overlooking the entire valley. As the sun begins to set over the crest of the hills, Cesare recounts the story of how he invented the world’s first wine vending machine, and against all odds, defied government bureaucracy to open up this one of a kind destination. New friends all – we nosh, sip and laugh as night begins to fall. We toast the hills where the wine comes from, as Cartizze fades into a small ribbon of sparkling lights below.
Five Things You Need to Know About Prosecco
- Prosecco is all about the Glera Grape, an ancient grape dating back to Roman times. It used to be called “Prosecco.” Now that word is a legally protected term (not unlike Champagne) that applies to the wine only.
- Prosecco must be made with 85% of the grape Glera.
- The other 15% of the grapes used to make Prosecco are often comprised of traditional grapes like Perera, Verdiso and Bianchetta Trevigiana.
- The very best quality Prosecco is known as Prosecco Superiore (DOCG) and most of it comes from Conegliano Valdobbiadene, a region in Veneto. A second region nearby, Asolo, is also a designated DOCG.
- The top of the quality pyramid is the single site - Cartizze but the Rive designation identifies 43 specific village hillside sites, chosen based on local qualities of soil, aspect and terroir. These wines must be hand picked with limited yields.
Prosecco History Timeline
- 1873 The world’s first Prosecco style sparkling wine, made with the Glera grape is introduced at the “Universal Exposition” of Vienna.
- 1924 The Prosecco is made in a steel tank by Carpenè Malvolti casting the template for modern Prosecco production.
- 2009 Conegliano Valdobbiadene, along with the smaller region of Asolo are granted DOCG Prosecco Superiore status.
- 2014 Prosecco eclipses Champagne as the world’s most popular sparkling wine selling over 307 million bottles. Champagne sold 304 million that year.
- 2019 The Prosecco DOCG region of Conegliano Valdobbiadene is designated as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Prosecco DOCG Superiore -The Quest for Quality | Interview with Ian D’Agata
The key to greatness in Prosecco is in the ‘G’ as in the DOCG. Most of the top tier Prosecco grows high up in the clustered hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene.
KG: I had a bit of an epiphany in Prosecco country. A lot of people don’t really know that Prosecco can be a wine of finesse and quality – worthy of a fine celebration in life not unlike champagne. Can you comment on that?
ID: Oh absolutely – I couldn’t agree with you more. It all boils down to terroir. All Prosecco is made with the same grape variety, Glera, but what changes, is the terroir that it’s grown in. So we talk about the wine but in fact there are many different Proseccos and the one you are referring to is the Prosecco made in the DOCG area of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. That really is the grand cru for the Glera grape. It’s a very steep high mountainous area and it’s really extreme viticulture. If you look at those vineyards, you realize Prosecco is a serious wine.
Vice versa a lot of the Prosecco that people drink is made in the DOC land. The DOC land extends over 500 different communes, two regions, Friuli and Veneto and most of it is flatland viticulture that gives nothing interesting. I don’t mean to dis it but there is a Prosecco that is a cheap, everyday quaff and then there is a very serious Prosecco that is like a high quality sparkling wine.
KG: How would you describe the aspects of that Prosecco and the difference on the palate?
ID: Definitely the key to a good Prosecco is creaminess. A good Prosecco is never tart and thin. A good Prosecco will remind you of white peaches and white flowers.
KG: I would love to get your feedback on some of the terms I have learned about the indications of quality and the different types of Prosecco and what their importance is. Let’s start with Cartizze.
ID: Cartizze is super-important. It is the grand cru of Prosecco. It is in the Valdobbiadene area. It is actually – it was until recently – the single most expensive piece of vineyard land in Italy. Believe it or not, one hectare of Cartizze sells at a million eight hundred thousand Euros. Only Barolo recently has been sold at two million, even a bit more than two million but up until recently, until that sale of Barolo land was made, Cartizze was the most expensive land in Italy. So that tells you how important it is. It’s only 107 hectares. Everybody and their sister would love to own a piece of Cartizze. In fact, Cartizze probably is still the most expensive vineyard land in Italy as far as vineyards go because unlike Barolo where you can buy some from time to time - nobody sells Cartizze. There’s only 107 hectares and the only way you can get a piece is by inheritance.
ID: Rive is the high quality, hillside slopes where the better Prosecco wines are made. It is basically a cru system if you will, where they identify areas and it’s brand new so we are still learning about them but the really exciting thing is that there are obvious differences in wines made in the different Rives. For example there is one Rive called Rive di Ogliano – Ogliano is a town that is in the Conegliano sub-zone; for example, another one called Rive di Santo Stefano that’s in the Valdobbiane sub-zone gives completely different wines because the Conegliano sub-zone has more clay in the soils - and so gives bigger, more structured Proseccos. Santo Stefano has a bit more limestone in the soil and the wines are more floral and citrusy. So there’s a real terroir effect. The Proseccos of one Rive are different than the other. So that’s very exciting.
ID: Millesimato means vintage date and as the wine can be vintage dated like any other wine so why not?
A further note on quality is that many of the DOCG wines are made with wild ferments, extended lees contact – and can also feature a variety of native grapes other than Glera (more info below.)
KG: I was also stunned to learn that – I thought all Prosecco was 100% Glera – I didn’t know that there was a history of local grapes like Bianchetta, Perera and Verdiso - what’s the role of those grapes?
ID: Terrific – I am so happy that you know about that because most people, even in Italy, don’t know. Well historically Prosecco was never made with Glera alone. It was actually a blend of 30-30-30-10 usually Glera, Perera, Verdiso and Bianchetta Trevigiana; the last of these three is a grape that gives body – it doesn’t have much perfume, while Perera – which has amazing perfume (Perera means pear) and it really has a pear-like note and Verdiso which is a high acid grape and gives acidity. So, Glera combined with the other three grapes is a very interesting proposition. Still today, old vine Prosecco vineyards have a little Perera, a little Verdiso a little Bianchetta in there. So while most Proseccos today are 100% Glera, the old Prosecco vineyards are not made up just of Glera, and actually I find those Proseccos to be far more interesting because the blend of a 10 % -15 % (and possibly more) of Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta really adds something. The problem is Perera is really susceptible to diseases and therefore nobody wants to grow it anymore but Perera is a great grape and I wish it would come back.
Sommelier Field Notes
Pier-Alexis Souliere, MS
(Canada’s top competing sommelier, 9th in the World, Antwerp 2019)
Top Winery Visited: Gregoletto
“I was probably most impressed by the extremely traditional and family oriented winery called Grigoletto – we had one of their wines at dinner – the Verdiso – but I tasted them all at the winery the day before and for me those Proseccos were superior to most of the Proseccos that we tasted.”
“For me I think one of the things people don’t think about is freshness. Those wines are made to order like most Italian wines used to be and you need to be extremely careful how old the bottle is that you are putting on your wine list and how long it has been in your cellar. Now Prosecco, when it’s a better quality level is better served fresh than anything and that’s the hope and expectation of any guest really. So that is where I would try to focus.”
Top winery visited: Mani Sagge
“I loved the texture of the wine, his vision, his history, his vineyard. Just outstanding!”
“It’s too easy to see Prosecco as cheap and cheerful, but in reality this is a high quality wine with a long history from a magical area! Having the opportunity to try lots of high end, well-made Prosecco opened my eyes to it. I knew of a difference but it took trying lots of it to cement it my mind. The difference in terroir and the skill in making it were striking. -There is definitely a place for it on the list. For a while it will be a hand sell but, its a great all rounder. Good with food; check, Good to sip on its own; check, High quality; check, Reasonable price for the quality; check Comes with a great story; check.”
Five Foods to Enjoy with Prosecco:
- Cured ham and figs
- Gravlax and capers
- Biscotti or cookie-like crackers
- Semi-hard Italian Cheeses and green olives
- Fritto Misto Di Mare
If You Go: Helpful Links for Travel and Research:
Consortium of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Heroic Viticulture (video)
To order in Canada: Lori Kilmartin
A Mano Import
Prosecco Vending Machine and Cartizze Scenic Picnic Area:
Osteria Senz'Oste (no website – lots of reviews online)
Driver and Guide Extraordinaire:
Photos by: Roberta Bozzatto and Kim Gertler