Peter Ranscombe explores the “Prosecco hills” – online – as he gets to grips with the quality end of Italy’s ubiquitous bubbles.
THE numbers surrounding the success of prosecco are mind-boggling; Britons guzzle more than 110 million bottles of Italy’s flagship fizz each year, with the drink accounting for more than 60% of UK sparkling wine sales by volume.
It’s easy to see why – with its approachable apple flavours, slight sweetness and affordable price tag, prosecco is the drink of choice in wine bars and supermarket aisles up and down the country.
Despite a slight dip in sales in the UK during the past couple of years, one part of prosecco is continuing to boom – the posh end.
Most lower-priced prosecco comes from the flat plains of Veneto and Fruili in north-east Italy, between Venice and the Dolomite mountains.
Those bottles carry the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) label, which was awarded to the area in 1969.
Yet the top-notch fizz is designated as denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG), a higher level that was gained in 2009 for certain areas within the wider DOC.
DOCG wines come from the area between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, or from the smaller nearby Asolo area.
During an online tasting this morning, master of wine Sarah Abbott compared prosecco’s smaller DOCG areas within the wider DOC to the traditional “classico” area within the wider Chianti region.
The hills are alive
There’s a difference in the landscape too; the “prosecco superiore” wines carrying the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG designation come from the “hogback” hills that last year were designated as a Unesco world heritage site.
These steep hills quickly rise from 50 to 500 metres above sea level, forcing the farmers to construct grassy terraces on which to grow their grapes.
The steepness of those hills is an asset when it comes to growing grapes because it helps with drainage – an important factor because, during May, the area’s wettest month, Conegliano Valdobbiadene can receive between 15 and 20 inches of rain, compared with just four or five in June.
With steepness comes erosion though, and so farmers maintain wildflowers in between the rows of vines to help build up the root systems and other organic matter beneath the surface to hold the soil in place.
That focus on soil retention and combating erosion brings with it environmental benefits; glyphosate herbicides were banned in the area last year so they don’t kill flowers in the vineyards.
And less grass cutting means more wildflowers, which in turn leads to more insects and fewer pests.
It takes on average around 600 hours per year to farm each hectare of vines on the hills, compared with about 150 hours on the plains.
While their landscapes may differ, one aspect that the flatter and higher lands have in common is their grape variety – glera – once known as “prosecco” but renamed to help Italy defend the moniker of its sparkling wine phenomenon in overseas markets, and Australia in particular, where winemakers descended from Italian immigrants argue they should be able to use the name too.
In Conegliano Valdobbiadene, winemakers can add up to 15% of other varieties – at that level, due to the European Union’s laws, the names of the other grapes don’t have to appear on the label.
Abbot said that local varieties like verdiso with its herbal notes, bianchetta with its floral aromas and perera with its ripe, aromatic white peach character are proving popular, with international varieties like chardonnay and the three shades of pinot – blanco, nero and grigio – proving less so.
Conegliano Valdobbiadene’s wines now account for about 10% of prosecco sales in the UK, having doubled during the past year to 12.7 million bottles.
The surge meant the UK overtook bubbles-mad Germany to become the DOCG’s biggest export market, swallowing nearly 14% of all the area’s 92 million bottles.
The locals know they’re onto a good thing though – less than 44% of production is exported, the opposite for the wider DOC, for which overseas sales account for the lion’s share of output.
Never going out of style
As well as the differences in geography and who’s buying the wines, there’s a difference in style too.
Prosecco already tastes different to other sparkling wines like France’s Champagne and cremants, Spain’s cava or Italy’s Franciacorta thanks to the way it’s made.
Most fizz is produced using the “traditional” method, in which the second fermentation – the one that adds the bubbles to the wine – takes place in a bottle.
With prosecco, that second fermentation takes place inside a tank under pressure – known locally as the “Martinotti” method and in France as the “Charmat” method.
That leads to the difference in taste – tank method sparklers tend to be centred on primary fruit aromas and flavours, like green apples in the case of prosecco, while bottle method fizz has more bready or “autolytic” characteristics.
The taste test
Yet there’s a difference between the DOC and DOCG wines within prosecco too.
In very general terms, many of the wines from the hills tend to be drier – in fact, last year the local winemakers went so far as to create an “extra brut” category for wines containing less than six grams of residual sugar per litre, compared with 6-12g/l in their “brut” wines, 12-17g/l in their “extra dry” and 17-32g/l in their – perhaps not-so – “dry” bottles.
That focus on dryness combats one of the criticisms of prosecco among “serious” wine drinkers in the UK – they find it “too sweet”, although that doesn’t seem to be an issue for the millions of shoppers plonking a bottle of DOC wine into their trolleys each week.
After all, prosecco – like politics – is all about perception; it’s not simply the residual sugar that’s a factor when wine is tasted, it’s also about how much acidity is present to balance or even mask that sweetness, as is often the case with the very best German rieslings.
Those drier styles of wine were in focus during this morning’s online tasting, and yielded some exciting starting points for an exploration of Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG…
Malibran Credamora 2017 (£19.95, Buon Vino)
Malibran’s Credamora wouldn’t look out of place on a natural wine bar’s list – it’s made in the “col fondo” style, which means there’s sediment in the bottle. That sediment comes from the second fermentation, which takes place in the bottle instead of a tank – contrary to the typical prosecco method – but, instead of being ejected during a disgorgement, the sediment is left inside. The result is a wine that’s got a touch of toast on the nose and then classic green apple and pear flavours to balance its fresh acidity. It’s definitely fruitier than a crémant or Champagne, with what Abbot described as a “nakedness” to its fruit flavours thanks to its “natural” wine-esque lower levels of sulphur and no residual sugar.
Bellenda Sei Uno 2017
The other example from this morning’s tasting that underwent secondary fermentation in a bottle instead of a tank was the Bellenda Sei Uno, which had a fruiter and warmer nose, with butter and a touch of peach in among the riper pear and red apple. That roundness and buttery touch continued onto the palate, along with more red apple and peach and just a tiny trace of sweetness from its 3.48g/l of residual sugar.
Bortolomiol Grande Cuvée del Fondatore Motus Vitae Brut Nature 2017 (£16.69, Drinks & Co)
Back to the tank method for Bortolomiol’s “Rive” or single commune wine, which was certainly the liveliest of the bunch, continuing to fizz away in its bottle on my desk as I type this blog post. On the nose, it was the stalkiest and greenest of the bunch, with a savoury element on the palate too, stretching from granny smith green apples through to asparagus notes. Abbot praised its minerality, but for me it sat towards the more vegetal end. A savoury example with no residual sugar to revisit with food.
Canevel Terre del Fae Extra Brut 2019
Weighing in at 3g/l of residual sugar, this example was much fresher and fruiter on the nose, with lemon and peach adding to the complexity of the red and green apples. For me, the flavours on the palate – crisp green apple – were the closest to the more mass-market DOC proseccos we see in our bars and supermarkets, yet with the dial turned up to 11, making it brighter and livelier. The acidity was really crisp, which masked the small amount of residual sugar and made it feel even drier.
La Farra Rive di Farra di Soligo Extra Brut 2018
La Farra’s Rive single commune wine had a really complex and enticing nose, with red and green apples, plus savoury lemon rind aromas. Its palate was a mix of traditional green apple prosecco flavours and with a fresher twist of lemon. I was surprised it had 5g/l of residual sugar, as the mouth-watering acidity provided balance. Another good foody contender.
La Tordera Otreval Rive di Guia Brut (£27.99, Shawbury Wine)
A blend of glera and verdiso, the Otreval from La Tordera was an intriguing mix of lemon and sweeter lemon sherbet on the nose, which led into more savoury lemon rind on the palate. There was no residual sugar to hide any of the fresh acidity, but that was no problem thanks to its concentrated fruit flavours.
Vincenzo Toffoli Conegliano Valdobbiadene Biologico Brut 2019 (£17.50, Davy’s)
I wasn’t blown away by Vincenzo Toffoli’s organic prosecco at Davy’s old world tasting in London before lockdown, but it shone during today’s online tasting, with savoury lemon, lemon rind and apricot on the nose adding complexity to the red and green apples. The fruit was much fresher on the palate, with more of those red and green apples. The 7.5g/l of residual sugar was more noticeable following the drier wines. Although it’s not on sale in the UK yet, keep your eyes peeled in the future for Vincenzo Toffoli’s zero dosage wine, which is a barnstormer.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s blog entries about wine, whisky and other drinks on The Grape & The Grain at https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/grapegrain/