Continuing our Italian Sparkling wine Journeys (just in time for the holidays), we will continue to head east thru northern Italy. You may recall we started in Piemonte with Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. Then traveled east thru Lombardia and their sparkler, Franciacorta. Continuing on east of Lombardia is the Veneto, home to some world class red and white wines and perhaps the best sparkling wine value (along with Cava from Spain) available on store shelves. I am talking, of course, about Prosecco.
The Veneto lies in the northeast corner of Italy with mountains to the north and the Adriatic Sea to the east. The area of the Veneto was sparsely populated in ancient times. Much of the inhabitable land was lagoons and islands. When the Romans came in the second century B.C., they founded the cities of Verona, Vicenza and Padova and called the area, Ventia. After the Roman Empire fell, local population looked for a place of safe haven from the invading barbarians. They settled in the marshy island areas on the coast that provided them with a safe refuge. It proved to be a wise choice as the barbarians bypassed the difficult to access areas on the march south towards Rome. This safe haven eventually grew up to be the city of Venice. As the city grew, it prospered, eventually becoming one of the worlds leading seaports connecting the trade routes of Africa, Europe and Asia. Venice flourished becoming a multi cultural depository for ideas. As trade routes changed, however, Venice lost its prominence as a trade capital but remained healthy and wealthy based on the industries that flourished there and of course, tourism.
The wine history of the Veneto dates back at least to the Roman times. Prosecco was certainly made as far back as the 1100’s. The wine, however, barely resembled today’s wines. It was a faintly effervescent wine that was made and consumed locally (similar to Moscato d’Asti). The wine is made from the prosecco grape thought to hail originally from the region of Friuli. This grape is a white grape that naturally ripens very late in the season. Accordingly, growers are forced to wait until late in the harvest season to pick the grapes. The winemakers would crush the grapes and the their fermentations would be initiated. However, in the days before temperature control, winter would set in and the lower temperatures would halt the fermentation. The wine was then bottled. When the temperatures warmed the following spring, there would be carbon dioxide bubbles trapped in the wine giving it a light fizzy quality. Because the fermentations were not complete, the wine often was sweet from residual sugar left in the wine. That is, the yeast cells were killed by the cold before they converted all the sugar in the must to alcohol and CO2.
This production method of bottle fermentation changed around 150 years ago. Prosecco as we know it today can trace its roots back to the 1868 with the founding of the Carpené Malvoti winery by Antonio Carpené, a winemaker and a chemist. He began to make his Prosecco in large tanks instead of allowing the fermentations to occur in bottles. The use of pressurized tanks to make wine was created in France and is known as the Charmat (named after the inventor) style. Carpené also founded the School of Viticulture and Enology at Conegliano in 1876. This school is one of Italy’s leading wine schools today and has been dependable for keeping the quality levels of Prosecco consistently superior.
The better Prosecco’s are from the DOC called Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. You may actually see one or both these names on the label of the bottle as the DOC as each is a subsection within the DOC. The DOC was officially created in 1969. In order to list the DOC name on the label, the wines must be at least 85% Prosecco grapes with up to 15% being Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and/or Verdiso. A maximum limit of 10% was set only for the use of the Verdisio grape. Wines must be at least 10.5% Alcohol by volume.
There are some differences between the two areas. Conegliano wines are from the lower lying areas. These wines tend to be a bit fruitier especially showing more of a peach quality than a citrus one. The ones marked Valdobbiadene are from the higher elevations and tend to be crisper and citrusier. I tend to prefer the later as the crispness and refreshing nature of these wines is, in my opinion, one of its most positive characteristics. Some times, both names will be on the bottles indicating that it may be a blend of grapes from both areas. On less expensive bottlings, I have also seen Proseccos labeled generically as IGT Prosecco.
A smaller area also exists within the DOC called Cartizze. It makes up about 205 acres. This is the source for the very best that Prosecco has to offer. The wines are big, that are well made, and much more serious. The alcohol content must be at least 11%. Usually they are vinified a bit drier. They do not fit into the usual Prosecco mold in terms of style, price or when to drink them. They are more on a competitive level with lower level Champagnes and priced accordingly. These wines are worth trying, but for me, the best part of Prosecco is its refreshing qualities as an inexpensive aperitif.
The Veneto makes more than a quarter of a billion bottles of Prosecco annually with around 5,000 producers. Despite the huge industrial amounts of Prosecco made, most of it is pretty good. Proseccos are light wines that are straightforward and revitalizing. The wines have a supple fragrance of limes and peaches with an occasional bit of lanolin. Medium bodied and frothy with large bubbles, they are crisp wines that cut thru and cleanse the palate. On the palate, the flavors are more of seltzer and minerals with some citrus (grapefruit and limes) in the background. Often these wines are on the slightly sweet side but the minerality and acidity balances them nicely keeping the wine from being too sweet. The wines will often be marked Extra-dry (the sweeter ones) or Brut (for the less sweet). Most of these wines are Non-Vintage meaning that no vintage year is on the bottle. There are also some that do carry a vintage designation. In my experience, unlike Champagne, there is no reason to worry about buying a vintage versus a non-vintage style of Prosecco as long as the wine is fresh. These are not wines for ageing. The choice of the producer and the DOC are much more important to the taste of the wine. Proseccos should run between $6 and $20 or so. For the most part, you get what you pay for, although most are good. Some are very good.
Producers to look for include Carpené Malvotti (the winery that started it all run by Antonio Carpené back in 1868), Zardetto, Althea, Col Vetoraz, Frozza, Nino Franco, Ruggeri and Mionetti. That said I have had some very inexpensive ones bought at wine stores and grocery stores (including Trader Joe’s®) for under $10 including Martellozzo, Toffoli & Baortolotti.
Finding the right food match for Prosecco with is not usually as important as with other wines. They make a lovely drink to sip while waiting on a meal or as an aperitif with hors d'oeuvres. Proseccos are not often consumed with a meal. Their lighter qualities match well with salty snacks. Cartizze versions are a bit more serious and go nicely with fruits. They also make a nice treat with fruit based desserts.
Today, the Veneto is perhaps most well known for its most famous city of Venice. In the trattoria’s (café’s) and enotecas (wine bars) of Venice, Prosecco is sipped liberally to end the workday and to begin a meal. It has become something of an institution there. In addition, the conception the mixed drink known as the Bellini has infused added life for Proseccos demand from both for the locals and the tourists. The Bellini was first created in 1948. Giuseppe Cipriani was the head bartender at Harry's Bar in Venice Italy who fancied Italian white peaches. He developed a cocktail utilizing Proseccco and pureed white peaches. As Harry’s Bar became famous for Americans and other tourists traveling in Venice, so did the cocktail and its use of Prosecco. Of course, many recipes may substitute for the white peaches or the Prosecco; but the original recipe is still the best.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.