News editor Joanna Goodman finds out more about Prosecco's recent rise to fame & meets the producers making top-quality wines in Valdobbiadene in the heart of the region.
The Prosecco Phenomenon
It was probably around 20 years ago when I last visited Italy with Sebastian Payne and one wine that certainly didn't feature on that itinerary was Prosecco. Who had even heard of it back then?
Now we have at least three Proseccos 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 everyday 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 Proseccos come 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 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.
The hills of the DOCG Valdobbiadene vineyards from our hotel
Prosecco's meteoric rise to fame
So what is the reason behind the recent Prosecco phenomenon? (Or, as I overheard someone rather nastily 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.
Known as the City of a Hundred Horizons (and therefore lots of steep streets!) Asolo makes a great place to visit while in Prosecco country)
Well, it is easy to pronounce, gently frothy with a touch of fresh fruity sweetness, making it easy 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.
Prosecco - good with cake! Though it is drunk quite happily throughout the meal in the region, it is traditionally served with birthday cake throughout Italy
But increased popularity for this wine has resulted in the market being awash with rather nasty, poorly made examples. Mass-produced fizz 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 up 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.
The introduction of new 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 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.
10 point guide to Prosecco
1. Region of production: NE Italy - Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia
2. Grape variety: glera (previously known as prosecco) must make up 85%
3. Method of production: charmat (tank fermentation)
4. DOC Prosecco can be still, frizzante or spumante
5. All Prosecco is white
6. Two sub zones: Treviso (in the Veneto) and Trieste (in Friuli)
7. Two DOCG regions (ie the best regions for Prosecco): Asolo or Colli Asolani and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene
8. Four sweetness levels: Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec
9. In 2009 the IGT region on the flat lands was upgraded to DOC status
10. Wines produced outside the DOC and DOCG may no longer be called Prosecco and can be called 'glera' instead
La Riva dei Frati - home of The Society's Prosecco
Now that I had a better understanding of the fortunes of Prosecco and a welcome constitutional walk around the steep streets of Asolo, it was time to head out to dinner at the Adami family's restaurant - Trattoria Al Cacciatore, on the outskirts of Cornuda, the town where the winery is based.
Dinner at the Adami's trattoria
Cesare Adami is in charge of the restaurant, both he and his wife Marisa Merotto take care of the wine, now helped by their son Marco. A harder working couple you'd be hard pushed to find.
Despite coming to the end of a busy Sunday, Cesare was all smiles and the epitome of Italian hospitality. He proudly showed us around his gleaming, spotless kitchen with its unique wood-fired grill that he had designed himself. The attention to detail, in particular the emphasis on cleanliness are significant in the production of Prosecco too, as we would discover the following day.
Cesare Adami of Riva dei Frati, producers of our Society's Prosecco greets us at his trattoria
Cesare's cooking was exquisite and there was plenty of it, just as well we had got some exercise earlier. From the hand-made ricotta gnocchi to the incredibly delicate desserts, each course went well with the Prosecco - in the case of the mixed grill, surprisingly so!
Cesare Adami's custom-built grill is the draw for diners from all around the region
The famous grill at Trattoria al Cacciatore which Cesare Adami has patented
Prosecco on tap
Sebastian had eaten here before and much to my surprise he asked for a carafe of Prosecco when we sat down to eat. But I was told that until not so long ago, all Prosecco was served in this way. Marisa explained, 'Prosecco was just a drink that we enjoyed locally, then a few companies started to bottle and even export the wine. There weren't any laws or checks on the wine at that time, so the quality wasn't great. The DOC regulations came in in 1969. Now there are too many checks!' she said.
Marisa also explained that in the past all Prosecco was 'tranquillo', still wine, with a slight spritz, a bit like Vinho Verde. 'It was only when it went wrong that it was fizzy!' she laughed.
But Prosecco in a jug really worked. I suppose this emphasises what the wine is all about; it's light and easy and fresh as a daisy. Local restaurants still serve wine from keg in this way, but if the keg is more than five litres, it has to be called glera not Prosecco. The consorzio has apparently taken action against pubs in the UK serving Prosecco on tap.
To the winery
Cesare & Marisa's son Marco takes us on a tour of the cantina explaining the charmat method and the importance of ultra cleanliness in the process
The following morning we met the family at their cantina on a small industrial estate in Cornuda. The son Marco showed us around. It was soon clear to see what sets this company apart from others.
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, '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.
Just as cheerful in the cellars as in the trattoria the night before, Cesare Adami with Sebastian Payne MW at the Riva dei Frati cantina
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.
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 the malo 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.'
Assiduous 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.
Sweetness levels for Prosecco
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
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. He likes to shake the bottle to mix the sediment up with the wine - a bit like a bottle-conditioned wheat beer…we weren't convinced, it's probably an acquired taste.
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 Proseccos 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.
Primo Franco explains how he makes his Prosecco to Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW
Nino Franco - producers of fine Prosecco
Primo Franco is widely considered one of the best producers of Prosecco and has done much to demonstrate the heights of quality that can be reached
It's market day in Valdobbiadene and the weather is filthy! A circuitous route around the closed-off town, leads us to the cantina, where a chic, urbane-looking Primo Franco greets us and shows us round.
One of the finest producers of Prosecco, Primo has just got back from a trip to California; he travels a lot and is one of the trailblazers of the region. His grandfather started the company after the first world war, beginning as a négociant firm buying up wines from growers.
Primo explained that the secret behind making top-quality wines is having access to the best plots of land. They own four hectares themselves and have built up good relations with owners of the other best vineyards in the area. In this part of Prosecco country, the soils are poorer and the slopes steeper, making more elegant, finer Proseccos than its main rival DOCG based around the town of Conegliano. Primo said that his family had lived in the area for many generations and knew where the best plots were. The company makes several single-vineyard wines as part of their collection.
Primo took us on a quick tour of the cantina - I was poised ready with pen and pad in hand, anxious to pick up the secrets that went on in the production process that make these wines better than their peers.
But though Primo's English was perfect and we all listened with great intent, the secrets, if such exist, were not divulged.
What was clear though, was that everything was done on a small scale in tiny quantities, 'Making fine wine cannot be done in bulk,' Primo says, 'it's like making a risotto for four rather than 400.'
He also emphasised that he used fresh yeasts for the second fermentation, it's like a cream not the usual powder, 'more expensive, but better,' he informed us. They make the fresh yeast locally and keep it in the fridge.
Primo says that he likes to avoid using sulphites as much as possible, they don't decant the wine after the first fermentation, but let it stay on its lees, giving some extra flavour and structure to the wines. They use a centrifuge to prevent the malolactic fermentation from occurring.
A 1992 prosecco from the archives. Proof that Primo's wines can age
Tasting the wines with Primo's wife Annelisa and daughter Silvia, we found out that Nino's wines are also capable of ageing. A 1992 wine was produced from the cellars which proved the point demonstrably. It was still fresh with a honeyed nose and golden colour. We were impressed!
Primo tells us that his wines are all about balance and complexity and purity of fruit, 'the challenge,' he says, 'is achieving complexity but retaining elegance.' Working with prime vineyard sites has encouraged them to release single-vineyard wines, bringing even more kudos to the region and thus putting up the price of land in the best parts.
Before trying the single-vineyard wine, we tasted the Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG from vineyards in the Cartizze hills, one of the best parts of the DOCG; a grand cru area in the making. The wine displayed the characteristic Nino Franco creaminess combined with a gentle hint of rose petal and William pear on the nose. Primo told us that traditionally this style works well with panettone, fruit tarts and of course, gelati! But it would go beautifully with cheese or even sushi or on its own as an aperitif.
The ageing cellar at Nino Franco - something you don't usually associate with Prosecco! Their logo on the wall is made up of a symbol of a plough, underpinning the philosophy that it's the quality of the grapes that count.
Next came the single-vineyard Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano - a high, south-facing vineyard in the heart of the Valdobbiadene DOCG. Though the wine was from the 2015 vintage, this isn't marked on the label, but Primo says that the point of single-vineyard wines is to make a distinction between vintages to show off the differences between each year. 'Very delicate and attractive,' Sebastian wrote in his notes, I loved the heady floral character and the subtle, yet persistent character.
When it came to tasting the 2015 Primo Franco (Primo's 32nd vintage) - the wine we currently list - we were quietly patting ourselves on the back, or rather Sebastian should have been! The wine that bear's Primo's name was one of the first that he made on his own (with the help of his oenologist); it's a standard bearer for the heights that can be reached in top-quality Prosecco. The packaging harks back to the company's beginnings in 1919, using the picture that appeared on the original labels and the traditional 'staple' closure. This is one of the driest styles that Primo makes and it treads that delicate line between sweetness, acidity and complexity with ease.
At this point a plate of local Sopressa salami appeared to help fortify us for our onward journey. The drizzle outside had turned to sleet. It was time to head south.
Where to go next?
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