When we think of Prosecco, what comes to mind is the easy-drinking, cheerful, bubbly white wine that is made throughout the Veneto and Friuli regions of Northern Italy. Lovers of Prosecco can’t seem to get enough. And thankfully, there’s plenty to go around. In fact, an estimated one billion bottles will be produced annually in the coming years to meet the continuing demand. This means there are differences in quality from one to the next. In a sea of bubbles, where do we begin?
One way is to start is by understanding the difference between Prosecco DOC and Prosecco DOCG. Italian wine labels around the bottle’s neck will indicated the letters DOC or DOCG. These represent quality levels. The DOCG level is more difficult to achieve based on higher production standards, for example, and therefore, in principal, better quality.
“Not that Prosecco DOC is bad, it’s just that DOCG is different,” says Ian D’Agata, author of Native Grapes of Italy and senior editor of Vinous. “Prosecco DOC wines are made on the sands of Venice, the fertile inland zones, stony areas of Friuli Grave and so on – across 556 communes. To quote Gertrude Stein, ‘There is no there there. The DOCG area of Prosecco is made up of only 15 communes.”
This narrows down the selection to a specific area with lower production, allowing wine drinkers to get more intimate with Prosecco. And one way to appreciate it is to go right to the heart of Prosecco. Situated in the province of Treviso just an hour north of Venice and below the Alps is where Prosecco DOCG territory resides. The enchanting landscape is resplendent with ever-changing hues. Its extraordinary beauty is formed in mounds of conical hills tightly packed with vines. The unique mix of thick woodlands, meandering waterways, gurgling streams and sunny farming countryside has created a rural tapestry devoted to viticulture that has been respectfully tended for centuries. Here is where the best Prosecco is found in and around the 15 townships between Conegliano in the eastern section of the DOCG and Valdobbiadene in the western portion of the denomination.
Much of the Prosecco Superiore DOCG, also known as Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG (it’s a mouthful, but worth remembering) zone is limited to hillside country so precipitous that terracing is often a must. Grapes are picked by hand and many farmers employ the use of buckets and pulleys to transport the fruit up and down the steep hills.
“The people, the grape, the climate, the topography will give you very different and unique terroir expressions in the glass,” says D’Agata.
Generally speaking, the Eastern part around the town of Conegliano is dominated by clay soils where big structured wines that are less perfumed are produced. To the western part of the DOCG, Valdobbiadene has soils of marl and wines from here are more elegant and fragrant.
Vines have been present in the region since ancient times. Steep hillsides and stony soils with alpine and marine breezes create a moderating effect to promote ideal growing conditions for Prosecco’s star grape, Glera. These are the reasons why the lightly aromatic grape grows most famously in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene zone. Producers are required to include a minimum of 85% Glera grapes, with the remaining percentage option to include other indigenous vintage varieties, such as Verdiso and Bianchetta Trevigiana.
Prosecco DOCG can be made in the Martinotti (Charmat) method, where secondary fermentation occurs in a pressurized tanks or autoclave. It can also be made in the classic method, the way Champagne is made where bubbles develop in the bottle. Either way, the bubbles for Prosecco DOCG strive to be soft and creamy, lively and fresh.
While considering Prosecco DOCG, look for bottles that read Rive. In the local dialect, the word refers to hillsides that are characteristic of the zone. This category of wine is based on soils of the area and highlights the diverse expressions of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Grapes are often obtained from the most precipitous, high-quality vineyards in a single commune or area thereof, thus underlining the characteristics that a particular terroir gives to the wine. In all there are 43 Rive, each one expressing a distinctive combination of soil, exposure and microclimate.
Prosecco’s “Grand Cru”
But to discover the luminescent sparkle of Prosecco that possesses unparalleled purity and elegance, go to Cartizze. Located east of Valdobbiadene, Prosecco Superiore di Cartizze, a mere 107 hectares, is regarded as the grand cru. Due to the elevations, grapes are exclusively cultivated by hand. The soils are mineral-rich and marine in origin. This gem of an area ensures elegant wines without compromising freshness. Cartizze is so prized, it holds the highest land value in Italy, just behind Barolo. These are fuller-bodied wines that are usually just a bit sweeter, but the acidity is high enough making them taste more off-dry. Just call the wine Cartizze.
Stunning and complex bubbly wines in brut, extra dry and dry, Prosecco Superiore DOCG is made in the most artisanal manner from a very specific place. The hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a true cultural landscape, rich in the labor of tireless vine-growers who contribute toward creating the place that is absolutely unique and the home of the very best Prosecco. Look for the following producers: Adami, Biancavigna, Bisol, Borgoluce, Bortolomiol, Canevel, Drusian, Ruggeri just for starters.