Prosecco – A Sparkling Story

Chillers lined up with curvy frost-obscured bottles of sparkling wines sitting comfortably over ice, faint abrupt sound of corks pulled out lingering with flowing fizz in the background, sunshine and gently passes through the sheer curtains, plush vineyards and fragrance of the hills outside, amidst that tables setup with delicately paired lunches of exquisite local dishes, an indulgence worthy of being adjudged a memory of a lifetime, that’s how I remember my sojourn in Veneto for a three day extravaganza celebrating the Conegliano Valdobiadene Prosecco Superiore wines and the release of their latest vintages.

Sparkling wines have been the ambassador of joy, celebration, and marking of an auspicious occasion. Leading them from the front undoubtedly, in prestige and production, is Champagne. Its closest rival is Franciacorta, the Italian namesake. Here, although Franciacorta leads, it’s supported by spumanti (Italian term for sparkling) wines of Asti and Prosecco, producing two completely unrelated styles but nonethless soft, fruity, flavoursome, and enjoyable propositions. Amongst them, while Asti is regarded as ‘the perfect breakfast wine’ ­– it’s light, less alcoholic, and usually semi-sweet – Prosecco remains a good-hearted younger sibling in the sparkling wine family who is more fun and vibrant. It does not compete with the two giants of Franciacorta and Champagne as it belongs to a different genre and bears little similarity.

Set on the north-eastern frontier of Italy, close to Venice, is the region of Treviso. In its hilly strips lie the two main towns for producing the highest quality Prosecco – Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. As difficult is pronouncing the names, equally simple to appreciate are the quality wines hailing from these two regions, called Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Supierore. The cold hills of these towns are steep enough to make walking in the yards a herculean task, let alone for viticulture. Workers and farmers have carved the hills inch by inch over years to induce the plausibility to grow grapes here. Today, they represent not just the regional wines but also the royal history (summer home for the Venetian kings), the efforts of the local producers and workers, and still retain their natural beauty to be now running a candidature for UNESCO World Heritage Site acknowledgement. They are the native home to the golden-yellow berried Glera variety, offering floral, pear, stoned white fruit, citrus, and unique almond notes at the finish. It wasn’t the one that flourished in the vineyards from the start though. Verdiso, a racy, acidic, rather neutral and zesty variety ruled before. Its fragile character to the prevailing diseases and low production quality allowed its glory only to be short-lived, letting Glera takeover. It is still cultivated here but only as an ancillary variety.

Found amidst these towns is a small hamlet and home to the hill of Cartizze, amongst the world’s most expensive viticultural properties, 106 hectare land owned by over a 100 producers, each commanding less than 1 hectare (8000 bottles). It is the steepest hill in the province and thus the most regarded. Wines from this vineyard prevail on the top of the quality pyramid and are called Valdobbiadene Supierore di Cartizze. Mostly produced in an Extra-Dry style here, making it a fairly medium-dry wine that are quite scrumptious. Given their high prestige and restricted production, they dictate high prices and in their best examples are discerning too.

Separating Proseccos from these two are many factors. It’s predominantly a single-varietal wine, made from the local Glera grape, previously called the Prosecco variety. Capturing its delicate discerning aromas and their freshness in their wines is the pride of a winemaker. To allow that, they are vinified a tad differently. To cite a comparison, wines in Champagne were made in bottles with second fermentation lasting for months and then letting the yeast breakdown to produce those mushroomy, brioche-like, bready flavours. However, for Prosecco, grapes are painstakingly hand-harvested and brought to ferment, and unlike with champagne which is made in dark and cold underground cellars, these wines are made in sturdy, glittering steel tanks by what is known as the Tank or the Charmat Method. While many may believe, also as commonly told, that the process was introduced by Frenchman Eugène Charmat, in the 1990s, the reality differs. Quite interestingly, it was invented in Piedmont in 1895 by Federico Martinotti. It was only later that Charmat implemented and took it elsewhere. Martinotti’s invention promised soft, fruity, rather simple, often sweet, wines that can be relished in their youth. It became popular given the speed and ease with which it produced as well as the economics when compared to the traditional method. The grapes are crushed and put to ferment to produce a base wine in these tanks, rested, and clarified. A mix of edible sugar and yeast is then added to this clear wine to allow second fermentation where all the fizz is generated and captured, producing semi-sparkling and fully-sparkling versions.

Confusions and misconceptions have haunted the scene of this wine from the start. A little clarity was brought in 2009. First, the grape varietal was brought to front clearing the fog of it being called Prosecco grape to its original name, Glera. Then, partially even now, Prosecco meant a wine coming from the Prosecco region of Italy. This was reinstated and Conegliano and Valdobbiadene were brought to the front. Most important clarity came from the point that Prosecco meant a wine from a larger defined area that followed the rather convenient rules but was a more industrial and basic quality produce, thus the second-in-repute designation of Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP). These could be still or sparkling with grapes coming from easy-to-operate flat terrain. The highest guaranteed quality Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines were called Conegliano Valdobiadene Prosecco Superiore, ensuring stringent rules were followed in handling and converting the best grapes from the best sites to develop only the best-crafted wines. An idea of quality differentiation between Prosecco DOP and Conegliano Valdobiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG can be drawn from the fact that while the former requires 150 work hours in the vineyards per hectare of cultivation every vintage, the latter incurs 600 hours to produce the same. This is just to produce the grapes for these two designated wines, considering that, work to follow in the winery thereafter can only be imagined. This has come as a blessing in disguise for the local producers and has registered a better understanding and respect for the wines produced here, alongside a steady rise in demand and production.

In my recent trip to the area, I tasted wines from various producers and was allowed to visit a few. It is overwhelming to see how closely knitted is the relation between man and nature here where wine is not just a beverage just also a part of their daily lives, culture, and existence. On my last visit I returned understanding the three versions of the wine – Brut, Extra Dry, and Dry. While ‘Dry’ in still wines refers to complete absence of detectable sugar on the palate, here it is the sweetest avatar. Extra Dry was the version I appreciated the most then. However, this changed this time. Maybe it is my growing palate or just a better understanding of the other styles, but I was drawn more to the Brut version, which also has a considerable amount of sugar to tickle your fancy. Higher sugar levels than the Brut style made it a tad difficult to enjoy the following wines, restricted the drinkability, and was able to coat the natural nuances of the grape. Amongst many, Bisol, Bortolotti, Le Colture, Carpene Malvolti, and Villa Sandi were especially impressive and had a more approachable drinkability. Capene Malvolti and Le Colture are the two ends of the production capacity. While the former is amongst the pioneers and flag-bearer of establishing Prosecco as a winestyle, La Colture focuses on smaller yet controlled capacity. Their Bruts represented their philosophy and style and were built to impress. Villa Sandi’s Vigna La Rivetta Cartizze remained a personal favourite with ripe and concentrated intense floral aromas and a delicately fruity palate.

My most educating discovery came from visiting a winery that claims to be the first and only producer organic wine producer. Organic viticulture and winemaking is a school of thought that believes in letting the vineyard soil and the vine develop a strong immunity against the deadliest prey and diseases that can attack the production. For this, the vineyards are not allowed to be treated with chemicals of any form, minus the essential few. This has no proven bearing on the vine and grape quality and/or taste of the resulting wines. However, it is believed to improve the age and structure of the vineyard and makes it a home of better conditions for the vines to live in. Wines from chemical-free and healthier vineyard sources are perceived to be healthier and thus do record a marginally better market image and cater to the nature-loving denizens too. There is an increasing trend for such wines however in some markets vinos do not really select these wines over others simply because of the certification. Taste is the only parameter that rules their decision. Perlage, a winery started in 1985, has grapes coming from 86 hectares of self-owned and outsourced vineyards, all organically operated. Owners take pride in being the first company in the region to be completely certified. They produce a range of wines for the domestic as well as international market serving numerous countries. Upon putting their wines to the taste-test, the wines failed to impress, even upon including the fact that they are organically grown and may taste in a different manner. They were mushy, dusty, with aroma of moist long-left vegetables, and were mostly yeast. Be it in a blind tasting or a black-tie dinner, it’s better to appreciate them only from a distance.

I have enjoyed Proseccos and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore at every occasion they have been offered. Fruity, vivacious, and character-driven, these wines break the insistence of appreciating the wines for their high-valued price-tag. Its evolution may have come only in the recent past, yet, it has rapidly earned its share of aficionados converting them towards it enticing them with its unique allure, and I’m a convert for sure. With these delectable wines waiting to be uncorked and enjoyed, I can’t wait to plan my next visit to these towns and its cellars. Cin Cin!

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