After a brilliant week in the Douro with the Fladgate Partnership I had a brief stop back at home giving me a chance to walk the dog, say hi to my new wife and be vomited on by my newborn niece! Once tidied up I was back on a plane this time flying to Venice to join the Adami family at La Riva dei Frati, producers of The Society’s Prosecco, for a week in the rolling hills of Valdobbiadene, a UNESCO area of natural beauty.
The previous week in the Douro gave me a taste of what it’s like to be a travelling winemaker, hopping from winery to winery to tinker with fermenting vats of delicious red wine. This week, however, I wasn’t going to have it quite so easy. Within two hours of landing, I was in the vineyard, snips in hand picking with Claudia Adami and the rest of the harvest team. The weather throughout the week was warm and humid, making for sweaty work, and the canopies in Prosecco are thick and green, with impressive yields meaning it was slow going.
After lunch amongst the vines and a few more hours harvesting we followed the tractor packed with grapes to the winery in the town of Cornuda. Here I met Claudia’s brother, Marco, who heads up the winemaking team who took me through the process of grape reception at the winery. Whereas the Douro Valley the week before was pandemonium from the second the grapes enter the winery, Prosecco seemed a more restrained affair. Grapes are brought to the winery, tipped into a large bin where the grapes are pumped into the winery, through a destemmer and into the pneumatic press. After pressing, the juice is transferred to large stainless steel tanks where enzymes and SO2 additions are made to help settling and guard against oxidation, before a slow, cool fermentation. Simple.
It was here I also got a chance to meet Claudia and Marco’s father, Cesare, who is possibly the most delightful man I’ve ever met. He spoke not a single word of English but his ear-to-ear grin and quintessentially Italian hand-gestures told me all I needed to know. An engineer by trade, he was extremely proud to show-off his wacky inventions, everything from a new type of extractor to remove dangerous CO2 from their underground winery, to what I called a ‘yeast bath’, a warming tank where a sample of wine and yeast would be added to start the yeast blooming before adding to the tanks. But his most prized design of all is at their family restaurant – a huge, stainless steel grill that rotates, rises and falls all at the touch of a button. A grill Darth Vader would insist on installing in the Death Star.
The all-important second fermentation – getting the bubbles in!
While I was there to witness Cesare cook ungodly quantities of steak on his prized grill, I wasn’t going to be there for the all-important second fermentation in the winery. Thankfully Claudia had organised for me to spend a day with their head winemaker, Lucano, to really get my head around the more technical details of how the bubbles are formed in tank and maintained in bottle. At the end of the first fermentation the wine is left on the lees in tank until the new year, during which time it’s transferred from tank-to-tank every few weeks to guard against reduction and to slowly remove the sediment from the wine (approximately 1% is removed each time then filtered and added to another tank). Come February the wine is dry and at approximately 9.7 – 10.4% abv and is ready to be transferred upstairs. Firstly, the wine goes through a centrifuge, a machine that spins at 1,600 rotations per minute to separate the solids from the liquid. It is then filtered and pumped upstairs into their specific pressurised charmat tanks.
Achieving the desired style and sweetness level
To kick-off the secondary fermentation an addition of yeast, nutrients and sugar is needed, the level of which is dependent on the final pressure required. Every 4g/l sugar will create 1 BAR of pressure, so 20g/l will create 5 BAR pressure whilst fermenting to dryness. For sweeter styles (‘Dry’ for example is 17 – 32g/l) more sugar is added and then remains in the wine. Secondary fermentation takes approximately 10-15 days and, once at the desired BAR/sugar level, the wine is refrigerated and goes through tartaric stabilisation before a minimum of 15 days on the lees (longer for more premium styles) with stirring every day. It’s during this period that added complexity can be gained – a longer, slower fermentation improves the nature of the bubbles, extended contact with the lees and regular stirring will improve the wine’s mouthfeel thanks to the steady release of mano-proteins, the addition of particular yeasts and nutrients promote estery aromatics and flavours, and the avoidance of fining agents like bentonite can also benefit the nature of the bubbles.
Keeping the bubbles in
When it comes to bottling, the most essential part is of course maintaining the CO2 in the product at the desired level. Firstly the wine is chilled and stabilised, filtered and SO2 altered, then two samples are taken to provide for the consortium – the regional body responsible for maintaining the quality standards and authenticity of Prosecco. One sample is for chemical analysis and the other for tasting. Then nitrogen is used to increase the pressure from 5 to 6 bar as the transfer to the bottle will cause a loss of approximately 1 bar (wines with higher residual sugar may need more) before pumping to the pressurised bottling line where it enters the bottle. A cork is added and viola.
Back to the hills
The next few days were spent back amongst the vines, harvesting a single vineyard just outside of Corduna, before a final day picking in the DOCG Superiore vineyards of Cartizze, the highest level of Prosecco wine. It goes without saying that the region is incredibly beautiful, having been granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019, with some vineyards on almost impossibly steep slopes, where tubes are used to feed grapes down to the bottom due to how perilous they are. But while beautiful, like so many regions across the world, there’s visible signs of damage and disease, with esca (a fungus that attacks and kills vine trunks) noticeable across much of the region reducing yields at whim. And there was threat of rain towards the end of harvest promoting rot in some areas. While the risk of erosion is reduced thanks to the regions heavy clay soils, it’s still an underlying threat, and lack of pickers/skilled workers is a problem the regions shares with many.
It’s fair to say, however, that the brightest sparks and greatest comfort from the region is the Adami family themselves. Italian hospitality is famed for good reason, but the extent to which they went to make sure I was learning and experiencing everything I wanted to in the region was incredible. And as lovely as they are, there’s an even better reason we source our own-label Prosecco from La Riva dei Frati – their wines are genuinely outstanding, and showcase brilliantly the levels in quality achievable in the region, with each wine and style a separate entity with individual character. From their citrus and sage driven Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut, to the more tropical rich and rosy Extra Dry to the concentrated and mineral Cartizze which combines the citrus notes of the Brut and the more tropical pineapple notes of the Extra Dry. All have their own appeal and place in the market.
With Christmas approaching I have my eye on one bottle – the magnums of La Riva dei Frati Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut. And I encourage members to do the same.
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