Given the huge – and growing – popularity of Prosecco, it’s a good bet that a lot of that Italian fizz will be uncorked during the holidays, especially on New Year’s Eve. A lot of it will be from the broad Prosecco DOC production zone. Most of that wine is inexpensive, sure, but for not that much more money, you can buy a Prosecco Superiore from the smaller heart of Prosecco, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG area.
The Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone is a stunning landscape of hillside vineyards in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. The area is wedged between the Dolomite mountains, which protect the region from more extreme northerly weather, and the plains that make up much of the Prosecco DOC zone.
“I’ve visited a lot of wine regions, and I really believe Valdobbiadene is one of the most beautiful,” says Matteo Bisol, whose family has grown grapes in the area since the 1500s and produced wine since the late 1800s.
Conegliano Valdobbiadene is the historical production zone of Prosecco. The town of Conegliano became home to the first enology school in Italy in the late 19th century, and the school went on to promote sparkling wine production using the “Italian method” – essentially the Charmat method, in which bubbly is produced in a pressurized tank. That’s still how nearly all Prosecco is produced today.
At first, most Prosecco was consumed in the local area or in nearby Venice, the city where Americans were first exposed to it after World War II. Prosecco was further popularized after the creation of the Bellini, a cocktail of Prosecco and peach puree, at Harry’s Bar in Venice.
Prosecco was growing in popularity, but the name “Prosecco” – which referred to the region, the wine and even the grape – wasn’t regulated outside Italy, so the name was open to imitation. So in 2009, some changes were instituted. The name of the primary grape used for Prosecco was changed to glera. Conegliano Valdobbiadene was elevated from a DOC to a DOCG. And a much larger Prosecco DOC was created in the Veneto and neighboring Friuli. (There’s also a tiny Colli Asolani Prosecco DOCG, as well as the Cartizze subzone. More on Cartizze later.)
Most of the Prosecco sold in the U.S. comes from the broader Prosecco DOC, which produces four times as much wine. Those less-expensive DOC wines have largely driven the recent growth in U.S. Prosecco sales, which are up about 27 percent over the last year. Nielsen reports that Prosecco now accounts for 15 percent of U.S. sparkling wine sales.
Price certainly is a factor in the growth. But Alan Tardi, U.S. ambassador for Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG, says the flavor profile also has a lot to do with Prosecco’s popularity. Compared with, say, Champagne, he says, “Prosecco is lighter, simpler, fresher and very user-friendly.”
That’s a view that’s seconded by Desiderio Bisol, chief enologist for the Bisol winery and Matteo Bisol’s uncle. Prosecco, he says, is “the most friendly wine in the world.”
I’ve tasted a lot of Prosecco, both DOC and DOCG, and I gravitate toward the latter. They’re more expensive — while DOC wines are generally $10-$12, DOCG wines are in the $18-$22 range – but their additional complexity and finesse justify the price.
Tardi says the consortium representing Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG isn’t trying to portray the DOC wines as being inferior. “Actually, the distinction is not so much about quality per se,” he says, “as about the character and personality that comes from a compelling and complex wine-growing area compared with the simpler, perhaps more commercial, product that comes from the DOC area.
“The fact is that the little DOCG area with its often very steep hills, handcrafted vineyards and high cost of production could never supply the worldwide demand for Prosecco. There’s enough room in the world market for everyone.”
There are a few other DOCG subcategories worth noting. The Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG has introduced a sort of cru system: 43 villages (known as rives) whose names may be included on the label. All rive wines are vintage-dated. Finally, there are the wines from the Cartizze subzone, which is about 265 acres of south-facing hillside vineyards. Grapes from Cartizze tend to be riper than those from elsewhere in the DOCG, and the resulting wines are usually extra dry. A lot of Cartizze wines are a little too sweet for my taste.
Which brings me to sweetness levels in general. Bottles labeled as brut are the driest (there is no extra brut or brut nature allowed in Prosecco Superiore). Extra dry is a little sweeter (and the most traditional sweetness level), and there are also some wines that are labeled with the sweetest designation, which, curiously, is “dry.” My recommendations are all brut wines.
Prosecco typically exhibits flavors of apple, citrus and sometimes mineral and herbal notes. Three DOCG wines that provide outstanding examples are the 2015 Bisol “Crede” Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut ($21), non-vintage Adami “Bosco di Gica” Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut ($18) and 2015 Bortolomiol “Prior” Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut ($18). All three are fresh and flavorful with good complexity. The 2015 La Tordera “Brunei” Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut ($18) has a little more weight.
Two more wines that I’d recommend are the non-vintage Nino Franco “Rustico” Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut ($20) and the non-vintage Santa Margherita Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut ($22), the latter from a company much better known for its pinot grigio.
Two rive wines that I’ve found impressive are the 2015 Adami “Col Credas” Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Brut, Rive di Farra di Soligo Brut ($22) and the 2015 Zardetto “Tre Venti” Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene Brut, Rive di Ogliano ($25). Both display quite a bit of stoniness, in addition to their bright fruit.