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Prosecco’s New World Order: Simple Bubbly Gets Serious

2012 March 6

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ITALIAN INVASION PART I: PROSECCOS – Terra Gallery, San Francisco, California (2/9/2012)

The light, frothy, seemingly simple Italian sparkling wine Prosecco has been through some complex changes lately.

In 2009, the region formerly demarcated as Prosecco DOC (since 1969) became a DOCG, the highest categorization of Italian wine. The area formerly known as Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOC is accordingly now titled Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. Wine from the neighboring area of Prosecco del Montello Colli Asolani DOC became Colli Asolani Prosecco DOCG. The vaster surrounding region of northeast Italy that formerly could use the term Prosecco IGT on the label has likewise moved up to Prosecco DOC. And a very small area on the hill of Cartizze in the commune of Valdobbiadene at an elevation of 1,000 feet consisting of about 260 acres of vines, long thought to be the cru of the Prosecco region, was elevated from Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOC to Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG.

With these changes, yield limitations went into effect designed to cut back on the very high yields producers in the former IGT had been achieving. And as part of these same regulations, the grape formerly known as Prosecco—a lightweight, late ripening, moderately acidic white grape native to these parts—is now supposed to be called “Glera,” a Latin synonym for Prosecco. This change was intended to further distinguish wines from the now exalted Prosecco DOCG from lesser wines made from the same grape in areas outside of the DOCG and DOC, which can now no longer be sold as “Prosecco” in Italy.

Glera, formerly known as Prosecco, actually makes up at least 85% of the still, frizzante and sparkling wines of this region. The remaining 15% can include such other indigenous grapes as Verdiso, Bianchetta, Boschera and Glera Lunga, as well as Chardonnay.

In a further change, designed to highlight the various terroirs of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region, is the new category of Rive Prosecco. For sparkling, vintage dated Proseccos only, they may carry the designation Rive if all of the grapes came from the same hill or district. There are 43 steep areas in the region designated as Rives.

So what do all these political/legal changes mean for the world of bubbles?

Last month, one of three wonderful Italian trade tastings that descended on San Francisco included not only a morning seminar on Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore but also an afternoon grand tasting that included samples from 19 Prosecco Superiore producers.

I am not capable of resisting a serious, theme-organized tasting, so I happily ploughed through all the wines on offer from the Prosecco Superiore producers—a total of 48 wines. (I’ve also tasted a baker’s dozen of Proseccos from 10 other producers over the past year in my mission to better understand this category of sparkler.) What I found was a remarkable consistency overall—all were at a very good quality level, even if nothing stood out as truly exceptional in terms of great sparkling wine.

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Some had more noticeable minerality and complexity than others, and some had higher sweetness levels that helped to emphasize the apple and white fruit qualities of the wines. I’ll talk more about the sweetness levels of the appellation in a moment. The differences, however, were subtle.

The packaging is almost uniformly attractive, and these are very quaffable wines—perfect as aperitifs, with such lighter appetizers as smoked salmon canapés, and possessing enough acidity to pair nicely with doughy dishes like pesto pasta or dim sum.

What I found most compelling is the new DOCG’s producers’ drive to upgrade standards to distinguish their product from a foaming sea of Italian sparklers. Conegliano and Valdobbediane are home to a very distinct, hilly, cooler climate terroir, and producers here appear to be doing everything they can to make the best quality and most appealing wines possible from the grapes that have proven to grow best there, using processes they have developed and refined over a period of nearly 150 years.

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The method used today by most producers for making sparkling Prosecco was developed by chemist and enologist Antonio Carpenè in 1868. It is basically what the French call the Charmat method, in which already fermented base wine has additional yeast and sugar added to it. This is done in large pressure tanks, where the resulting secondary fermentation generates the bubbles.

In the case of Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbediane, the prescribed method starts with hand picking the wines in each vineyard (the vineyards are typically so steep that it’s not practical to mechanize the process). The grapes are then pressed gently by machines designed not to press more than 70 liters of wine from 100 kilos of grapes (a DOCG requirement). Racking then takes place, after which the cloudy must is left to settle in steel tanks at low temperatures—41 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Ten to 12 hours later, the clear part of the must is separated from the sediment and transferred into another steel tank to begin fermentation. Yeasts are added and the must ferments to dry at 64 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 days.

Once this base wine becomes clear, the tasting process begins, to guide the assemblage of different batches to make a final blend. Once the final blend is assembled, autoclaves—large, sealed pressure tanks—are used, into which the wine is pumped, along with sugar and yeasts. The secondary fermentation generated by this additional sugar and yeast creates the bubbles.

The whole process takes about 30 days, after which the wine is bottled. After 30-40 days, these bottles are ready to be sold. The wines are best enjoyed within a year, but will generally keep for up to two years.

There are three sweetness categories of Prosecco Superiore, depending on the residual sugar level of the resulting wines. For Brut, the driest version, residual sugar must be zero to 12 grams per liter. A little less dry, i.e., slightly sweeter, is Extra Dry, the traditional version of Prosecco, with residual sugar of 12 to 17 grams. The sweetest category is the misleadingly named “Dry,” with residual sugar ranging from 17 to 32 grams per liter.

In the 48 samples I tried at this tasting, I found I generally preferred wines in the Extra Dry category to the Brut or Dry versions from the same producer. A couple of the Superiore di Cartizze wines stood out for their refinement and complexity, but not all of them. One of the wines, the Bellenda Brut SC 1931, was actually fermented in bottle by the methode champenoise instead of being made by the charmat method, and its yeasty, autolytic nose and palate stood out as a result. And one wine, one of the best of the tasting in my opinion, came from a single vineyard, Sorelle Bronca’s Brut Particella 68.

I ended up rating 13 of the 48 wines, just over 25%, at 90 points or higher. The producers responsible for one or more sparklers I rated 90 points or higher were Bellenda, Bellussi, Bortolomiol, Il Colle, La Farra, Perlage, Sorelle Bronca and Spagnol. The most consistently impressive producer for me was La Farra. Other producers whose Proseccos I’ve enjoyed over the past year have been A.G. Ferrari (the NV Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Il Sogno di Annibale) and Nino Franco (2009 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut Grave di Stecca).

My takeaway from the tasting was that producers in the new DOCG have made tremendous strides in distinguishing their wines from those from neighboring areas made from the same grape but at much higher yields and without any pretense of being artisanal. There is still a lot of experimentation going on within the DOCG with other methods of generating those bubbles, including methode champenoise, and they are still finding their way with terroirs–single vineyards and “rives” that deserve highlighting. One can generally rely on getting good quality bubbles from producers in the DOCG, which should sell for $15 to $28. Buying from the producers identified above and aiming for the Extra Dry category are your best guides to a truly superior Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore experience.

My highest rated wines of last month’s tasting, wines I rated 90 points or higher, were:
2009 Bellenda Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Brut SC 1931 – 90 points
2010 Bellenda Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Extra dry Miraval – 91 points
N.V. Bellussi Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Dry – 90 points
N.V. Bortolomiol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Senior Extra Dry – 90 points
2010 Bortolomiol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Bandarossa Extra Dry – 91 points
N.V. Il Colle Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry 46 Parallelo – 90+ points
N.V. Il Colle Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry – 90 points
N.V. La Farra Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut Selezione – 90 points
N.V. La Farra Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry Selezione Oro – 90 points
2010 La Farra Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry Rive di Farra di Soligo – 91 points
2010 Perlage Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry Rive Col di Manza di Ogliano – 90 points
N.V. Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut Particella 68 – 91 points
N.V. Spumanti Spagnol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry Col del Sas – 90+ points

For my complete tasting notes on the 48 wines in the tasting, see below.

Astoria

Bellenda

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Bellussi

Bortolomiol

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  • NV Bortolomiol Prosecco Valdobbiadene Brut – Italy, Veneto, Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow color with significant mousse; very minerally, tart apple nose; tart apple, mineral palate; medium finish 88+ points (8 grams RS) (88 pts.)
  • NV Bortolomiol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Senior Extra Dry – Italy, Veneto, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; focused, tart pear, floral, blossom nose; tasty, poised, dry, tart pear, tart peach palate; medium finish (15 grams RS) (90 pts.)
  • 2010 Bortolomiol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Bandarossa Extra Dry – Italy, Veneto, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow color with tiny bubbles; lovely, floral, lime blossom, pear nose; tasty, floral, lime blossom, pear, chalk palate; medium finish (18 grams RS; 45-day secondary fermentation) (91 pts.)

Cantine Vedova

Carpenè Malvolti

Collalto

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Drusian

  • NV Drusian Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut – Italy, Veneto, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow with lots of steady tiny bubbles; floral, ripe pear, light peach nose; tart peach, green apple, tart lime, chalk, mineral palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • NV Drusian Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry – Italy, Veneto, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; tart apple, green apple nose; tart green apple, mineral palate; medium finish (87 pts.)

Furlan

  • NV Furlan Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry – Italy, Veneto, Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow color with plenty of tiny bubbles; focused, tart apple, Fuji apple, tart pear nose; tasty, poised, tart peach, tart pear, green apple, mineral palate; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2010 Furlan Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry Millesimato – Italy, Veneto, Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene
    Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; tart peach, tart pear nose; green pear, Asian pear, mineral palate; medium finish 87+ points (87 pts.)

Il Colle

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La Farra

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Mionetto

Perlage

Santantoni

Sorelle Bronca

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Spagnol

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Toffoli

Valdo

Zardetto

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m4s0n501
4 Responses leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012

    Great post RJ! Lots of good information here…

    I’ve had the Sorelle Bronca, and enjoyed it, and recently had the Mionetto Cartizze as well, that I enjoyed, and likewise rated 89pts. Based on your ratings here it’s doesn’t seem to me that the Prosecco from Cartizze hillside significantly distinguished themselves in this tasting. All things being equal, to the extent there’s a premium to be paid for Cartizze, I’m not sure it’s worth it. What do you think?

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      March 8, 2012

      Hi Martin,
      I always think of you when I’m working on a piece about sparkling wines.
      Good question about Cartizze cru wines. I liked the Bellussi, but generally didn’t think the wines labeled Cartizze were worth the extra tariff. It’s a large vineyard–260 acres–divided among 140 producers. In that way, it’s like some of the lesser grand crus in Burgundy–Clos Vougeot and Echezeaux–i.e., too large that all of it should be cru, and very variable between producers. At any rate, I have yet to taste a Cartizze that suggests to me that the wines in general are worth a premium.
      –Richard

  2. May 4, 2012

    Great post here – very informative. I’m sharing it on FB and twitter today. During our tours in Italy, or during my cooking classes here I spend a lot of time explaining what prosecco is – and what it is not. When I’m there, I spend a lot of time asking the locals their thought, and get more erroneous answers than not …

    So, it’s not worth that last climb on your bike up the hill to taste the Cartizze? :) It is a beautiful area though, and worth a visit just for the view.

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