It was probably around 20 years ago when I last visited Italy with buyer Sebastian Payne MW and one wine that certainly didn't feature on that itinerary was Prosecco. Who had even heard of it back then?
Now we have a number of Prosecco wines on our List and the purpose of our visit this time was to meet the suppliers of two of these - the Adami family, who produce The Society's Prosecco for us, and Nino Franco, from whom we buy the more premium Primo Franco Prosecco.
I was keen to understand the differences between the more entry-level wine and the top-end bottlings. I also wanted to find out the secret behind producing good-quality Prosecco, the popularity of the category having led to some pretty awful wines flooding the market!
Sebastian had always told me that the good Prosecco comes from the hills. I hadn't truly appreciated the significance of this statement until our drive from Treviso airport to the agriturismo where we would be spending the night.
Suddenly out of the flat Veneto plain rise these funny little bumpy hills. That the best DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines come from vines grown here and not the vast, flat vineyards on the plain, is easy to understand. Their steepness would mean that they would have to be cultivated by hand not machine, they obviously have better exposure to the sun, the vines would enjoy better drainage, ripening would take place later, altitude would also help retain freshness and yields would be lower.
Prosecco's meteoric rise to fame
So what is the reason behind the recent Prosecco phenomenon? (Or, as I overheard someone saying,'when did Asti Spumante get renamed Prosecco?'!). We had a bit of time to kill after checking in to the family-run Colle del Rana hotel, so took their advice and went for a stroll around the nearby hilltop town of Asolo. Over coffee and cake, we pondered the question of Prosecco's popularity.
Well, it is easy-to-pronounce, gently frothy with a touch of fresh fruity sweetness, making it easy sparkling wine to drink, and it's relatively inexpensive. It's also a wine that had benefited greatly from improvements in technology making it no longer just a drink for the locals or ingredient for Bellinis, but an enjoyable and eminently exportable wine.
Sebastian pointed out that Prosecco had always been popular in Italy - it's a great choice for birthday cake and the locals like to drink it throughout the meal. But the wine was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the drop in sales of Champagne on export markets after the slump of 2008; quality was better and importers were suddenly a lot keener to consider listing the wine.
But increased popularity for this wine has resulted in the market being awash with poorly made examples. Mass-produced sparkling wine is not something Wine Society members appreciate, so our focus is on the small, traditional family-owned producers of the region whose vineyards lie on the bumpy hills (Colline del Prosecco) not the sprawling plains and whose preoccupation is not with the packaging but the contents of the bottle!
This region of Italy is traditionally quite poor; the factories of big-name fashion brands are dotted along its flat plains, but these have suffered from cheap imports and when Prosecco took off as a fashionable drink it was a life-saver for the region and those involved in the fashion industry knew how to take advantage of trends.
Everyone is trying to buy vineyards - there's money to be made out of Prosecco - all you have to do is buy up land, build a winery, employ some staff and manufacture the wine. We even drove past the 'bourse' - the stock exchange where bulk wine is bought and sold. Naturally, there is a bit of ill-feeling amongst the locals who have been growing the grapes and producing the wine for centuries. Some feel that their land is now so valuable that they can't possibly carry on farming it and should sell; others feel the wine that they lovingly produce is being commoditised. But still others are grateful for the wider recognition their wines are now getting.
Whichever side you were on, the perfect storm that brought around the stratospheric rise of Prosecco looked as though it could also bring it to its knees. Something had to be done.
Prosecco DOC regulations
In order to maintain high standards of quality and protect the image of Prosecco, the consorzio introduced a number of measures introducing new regulations under DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) law in 2009. New laws restricted the area of production and gave the principal grape a new name, glera. Previously, the grape had gone by many synonyms, but the fact that one of these was 'prosecco' caused considerable confusion and legal complications.
Importantly, the new regulations mean that Prosecco has been transformed into a geographical place-name, exclusively, just like Champagne. It may not be used as a wine style or name of a grape.
A 10 point guide to Prosecco
- Region of production: North-east Italy - Veneto and Friuli
- Grape variety: Glera grapes (previously known as Prosecco) must make up 85%
- Method of sparkling wine production: charmat (tank fermentation)
- DOC Prosecco can be still, frizzante or spumante
- All Prosecco is white
- Two sub zones: Treviso (in the Veneto) and Trieste (in Friuli)
- Two DOCG regions (ie the best regions for Prosecco): Asolo or Colli Asolani and Conegliano Valdobbiadene
- Four sweetness levels:
- Brut – less than 12g/l sugar
- Extra Dry – between 12 and 17 g/l sugar
- Dry – between 17 and 32 g/l sugar
- Demi-Sec – between 32 and 50 g/l sugar
- In 2009 the IGT wine region on the flat lands was upgraded to DOC status
- Wines produced outside the DOC and DOCG zones may no longer be called Prosecco and can be called 'glera' instead
La Riva dei Frati - a tour of the home of The Society's Prosecco
Why is it so good? First of all, they have their own vineyards (many producers buy in made wine before refermenting it): 10 hectares of glera vineyards in prime sites (with some additional rented land), within the DOCG Valdobbiadene district (emphasise the 'a' in the middle).
'Riva' means hills and 'Frati' were the brothers from an abbey that is long since gone but whose emblem still graces the family label. Though there was snow on said hills when we visited in March, in the summer it can get pretty hot. Glera is a late-ripening grape and it is vital that its fresh, fruity character is retained. The vineyards on the hills benefit from the colder air, then warm air from the valley floor is sucked up at night and the warm and cool air is constantly circulating ensuring gentle ripening and the preservation of freshness.
Adami then talked us through the charmat method of secondary fermentation in tank. Though some might think of Prosecco as a somewhat frivolous wine, the way it is made is anything but. Less labour-intensive and therefore cheaper than the traditional method of secondary fermentation in bottle, it is nonetheless, highly technical.
Making the wine - an explanation of the charmat method
Key to getting it right is preserving the fruit character in the base wine and preventing malolactic fermentation from occurring.
Glera grapes are harvested by hand in small crates and brought to the winery in refrigerated lorries, then pressed gently in a bladder press. The first fermentation is a slow and cool one (around 13°C). Then in order to block malolactic fermentation from happening, everything has to be sterile - just one speck of dirt can get the acetic acid going and make the wine taste a bit off. This requires lots of water in the winery, the scrubbing of all equipment, every hose joint and valve meticulously cleaned.
'Now everyone tries to use the minimum amount of SO2 as well,' Marco tells us, 'whereas in the past the wine would have been dosed with it to block the malolactic fermentation. Now some use ionisers to sterilise the air.'
Cleanliness in the winery is vital in achieving this, and having witnessed the scrubbing down of the restaurant kitchen the night before, we knew this was something the Adami family had down to a fine art!
The wine will be racked off its lees which forms in the tank six or seven times before being filtered and then gently pumped to special autoclaves - pressurised stainless-steel tanks - for the second fermentation.
Up to this point, the wine has been kept chilled to preserve the fruity aromas, now the temperature is raised, yeast and sugar are added. This is another highly precise part of the operation. In order to obtain the desired sweetness level (see below) and atmospheres of pressure (the difference between frizzante or spumante), plus the minimum alcohol levels of 10.5% for frizzante and 11% for spumante, the exact amount of sugar to be added has to be calculated.
Unlike Champagne, there is no dosage added to sweeten the wine at the end of the process. Marco went on to explain how getting the right speed of fermentation was also crucial in obtaining the fine, frothy mousse that is one of the beguiling characteristics of Prosecco.
'The aim is to get 0.2 bars of pressure per day, ' Marco tells us, and that the process needs constant monitoring.
Eventually, when the wine is ready, they take the temperature down to stop the fermentation. After filtering, sterilising and outside analysis, the wine is ready for bottling under pressure; the final, technical aspect of the production.
Before we left, Marco was keen for us to try the traditional method Classico Prosecco, where second fermentation takes place in the bottle and the sediment remains. Marco said it was his preferred style and was becoming quite trendy.
For us, the bottling we ship under our own Society's label ticks all the right boxes and now we understood why, more clearly, it continues to stand head and shoulders above other Prosecco on the market.
With an improved grasp on the key quality factors affecting Prosecco and the process involved in its production, it was off up into the hills to the heart of the Valdobbiadene DOCG region. We were going to visit Nino Franco, producers who have taken Prosecco to another level again and who are widely regarded as one of the most prestigious outfits in the region.