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Prosecco

A New Buzz
Prosecco: A New Buzz

Wine lovers know Prosecco as a light fruity, slightly sweet , low cost sparkling wine that comes from Italy, and little more.  Annual U.S. sales of Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobiaddene, the prestige Prosecco category, however, have achieved double-digit growth in the last few years.  Reacting to the post-September 2008 economic recession, U.S. consumers steered away from conspicuous consumption of high cost luxury products. With respect to sparkling wines, the move was evident. The consumer trend has been to purchase Prosecco, the majority of labels costing under $15 per bottle, instead of Champagne, normally fetching over $40 per bottle. 

The Veneto area between the towns of Valdobiaddene and Conegliano is one of the most strikingly picturesque viticultural areas featuring steep verdant slopes against the backdrop of the soaring Dolomites.  The area had been one of the poorest in Italy after World War 2.  Due in large part to the hard-working farmer culture and to their success with Prosecco, it has now one of the healthiest economies in Italy.  

Though “imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery” ,  these Italian producers were not flattered when countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Romania which had the “Prosecco” grape variety planted in their vineyards, sent their own “Prosecco” –labeled wines into foreign markets, particularly the high-flying U.S.A.-Canada market.  Nor were Italian Prosecco producers enthused when in 2006 Paris Hilton planned to visit the Veneto area during the harvest in order to endorse Rich Prosecco, sold in gold-colored metal cans.  Producers of the “real” thing in Italy feared their traditions, and incomes, were draining away.  They then did something unusual for Italian producers.  They rallied together.  With the help of the Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Consortium, they came up with a legal solution that would protect the identity of Italy’s Prosecco within the European Union and would leverage the support of the EU with respect to prohibiting other countries’ “Prosecco” varietal wine.  
 
 
In August 2009, the Prosecco Valdobbiadene-Conegliano zone was awarded the DOCG, Italy’s most regulated, and most protected, legal wine category.  The first Prosecco Valdobbiadene-Conegliano Superiore DOCG wines became available in April 2010. At the same time, a smaller lesser known Prosecco zone across the Veneto’s Piave river to the southwest also became DOCG, the Asolo Prosecco DOCG Superiore.  Note that both DOCGs can add the qualifier “Superiore” to the names.  At the same time, all wines formerly labeled Prosecco IGT became Prosecco DOC.  The confines of this DOC span much of the Veneto and include a village in Friuli, named Prosecco. 
Because IGT regulations do not control yields or monitor basic quality control standards, high-volume, low-production-standard IGT Prosecco had long been undermining Prosecco Valdobbiadene-Conegliano pricing. With DOC status, Prosecco DOC wines will be made from restricted yields, thus putting a cap on quantity.  Overall the wine should be better quality.  Deep price discounting should be, as a result, more limited. 
 
As part of their proposals, the Prosecco DOCGs and DOCs relinquished the use of the word “prosecco” as the name of a grape variety.  As a result, “Prosecco” became a place name.   “Glera”, a synonym in long though limited usage, became the EU-wide recognized name for the grape variety formerly known as “Prosecco”.  Habits though are not so easily changed.  In a recent visit to the Valdobiaddene-Conegliano area, producers consistently used the word “Prosecco” to refer to “Glera”.  
 
The trail of my internet searches for Rich Prosecco reached a dead end in 2009. The owner of the brand agreed under pressure to rename the product Rich Secco.   Having the power and the means to protect the word “Prosecco” within the European Union, DOCG and DOC Prosecco producers, are understandably bubbly.  
An additional change is the allowance for any of the 15 communes (townships) in the Valdobiaddene-Conegliano DOCG to apply for a higher status, called “Rive”.  For example, for the commune Colbertaldo, “Rive di Colbertaldo ” would appear on the label. One famous vineyard Cartizze, spanning three communes in Valdobiaddene and 25 acres and owned by over 100 growers, has the distinction of being a “cru”.  
 
The following comments refer to the wines from the Prosecco Valdobiaddene-Conegliano DOCG zone. Asolo DOCG and DOC versions are very similar in style and typology. The Glera grape, easy-to-grow and known for its fruitiness, must make up at least 85% of the grape mix.  The remaining 15% can be made up of any proportion of the local varieties Verdisa (adds acidity), Perera (adds fruit), and Bianchetta (lowers acidity and adds body), as well as Chardonnay and any of the Pinot varieties.  The wine is very pale green-yellow in color.  Commonly between 11.5% to 12% in alcohol content,  the wines have low body in the mouth.  Sourness is marked. The low alcohol level and sourness ensures that Prosecco is easy-to-drink and refreshing.  Levels of effervescence and sweetness vary and labeling regarding such can be confusing.
 
The most common degree of effervescence, “spumante”,   is at 5 to 6 atmosphere CO2 gas pressure. This pressure, commonly called full pressure, is nearly always achieved by a second fermentation of still wines in a pressurized tank, though a few producers make limited releases using the more laborious and expensive second-fermentation-in-a-bottle method. There are also lightly sparkling versions, “frizzante”.  Many labels do not identify whether a wine is frizzante or spumante.  Because a frizzante wine cannot use the label qualifier, Superiore, any wine labeled Superiore therefore must be spumante.  At an artisanal level, frizzante character can be achieved by a single fermentation in the bottle, leaving the lees as sediment in the bottle. Producers avoid extended lees contact. The concomitant toasty smells of spent yeast would cover the wine’s fruitiness.  Non-sparkling Proseccos are also allowed in the DOCG regulation and can be found in the zone of production. Very few, if any, enter the US market.  
 
Prosecco should be consumed within two years of release.  Information regarding vintage is usually encoded in a lot number on the back of the bottle.  Precision buying entails asking the producer to decode lot numbers. 
Another source of great confusion for buyers is the official wording used for identifying the sweetness of Prosecco.  “Dry” unfortunately does not mean “no sugar”.  Brut (0 to 12 grams of sugar per liter) is the “driest” version. Barely-perceived-as-sweet is Extra Dry (12 to 17 grams of sugar per liter). Noticeably sweet is Dry (17-32 grams of sugar per liter).  The Brut version showcases the crisp, slightly bitter taste of Prosecco.  Usually, the sweeter the wine, the more aromatic the wine is.  The Cartizze wines typically aromatic and sweet (i.e, Dry) can surprise a Prosecco lover accustomed to Brut Spumante.
 
The historic peasant farmer culture of the Veneto region has determined the traditional Prosecco-food pairing: salami and cheese.  For a modern, professional view of food pairings I turned to Chef Paola Budel of the recently opened Venissa Estate Hotel.  A half-hour boat ride takes one from Venice to the nearby island of Mazzorbo where the hotel is located.   Diners find themselves dining at the edge of a vineyard adjacent to the hotel.  Chef Budel recommends serving Brut Prosecco Spumante with raw sea bass or semolina pasta served with a simple olive oil sauce sprinkled with Asiago.  Frizzante versions, commonly Extra Dry, are best served as an aperitif.  She recommends Cartizze nearly always at the Dry level, with fresh ripe fruits (white peach!!) and light, slightly sweet cakes such as panettone.  She warns that Prosecco can easily be thrown off balance by strongly flavored foods.
 
During my late August 2010 stay in the Valdobbiadene-Conegliano zone, I visited producers listed and described below. Note that some producers attach Valdobbiadene but,not Conegliano ,to Prosecco.  This usually means that the fruit has been sourced from the western part of the zone, a cooler zone on steeper hillsides where the wines are sourer.  Other producers list Conegliano and not Valdobbiadene. This usually means that the grapes come from the easterly hills near the town of Conegliano.  It is warmer there and the wines are richer and stronger.  Other producers list both, implying a blend of grapes from both areas.  Actually by law, even the word Prosecco can be dropped from the label of a DOCG wine provided that the names Conegliano and/or Valdobiaddene are on the label.  Producers dream to do this because it would mean that they could be known by their territory only, as Champagne is so named.  In preparation for this eventuality, sommeliers and wine servers will need to master the pronunciation of Conegliano (koh-nehl-YAH-noh) and Valdobbiadene (valh-dohb-B’YA-day-neh).  Not so easy!
 
Bellenda 1986:  In 1986, the Cosmo family moved from mixed agriculture and grapegrowing to vinification and sale of bottled wine labeled with their brand name.  “San Fermo” a Brut Spumante which features grapes from a precise locality in the Conegliano zone. Among Bellenda’s other estate wines is a no-dosage, metodo classico Prosecco, “S.C. 1931”, named after patriarch, Sergio Cosmo.  “Methode Rurale” is a traditional artisanal sparkling wine bottled as an IGT Colli Trevigiani.  Glera grapes are first fermented on their skins in wooden vats. The wine is then put in bottle to continue fermentation until sparkle is achieved.  Lees remain in the bottle. 
 
Adami (Adami USA) : Franco Adami loves crisp dry Prosecco as exemplified by his pear-dominated “Bosco di Gica” Valdobbiadene Brut.  “Dei Casel” is an Extra Dry Valdobbiadene.  Slight sweetness supports fruit cocktail on the nose, but the wine finishes tart and slightly bitter. Vigneto Giardino Dry is a single vineyard Rive di Colbertaldo.   Less expensive than his Cartizze Dry, it is just as complex.  
 
Bisol:  The Bisols have been one of the leading families in the area since the 16th century.  They have three brand tiers starting with Belstar, a Prosecco DOC, then Jeio, a creative line-up of Proseccos and non-Proseccos.  A notable Jeio is  “noSO2”, a no-sulfite-added very dry Prosecco, aluminum-foil-wrapped.  In their “Cru” line, “Molera” is a still Valdobbiadene Prosecco that has a pleasant salty finish. Bisol owns more Cartizze than anybody else, a mere 4.4 acres. The wine has an apple-thyme-banana nose and is rich and noticeably sweet in the mouth.   I highly recommend that you sit down with Paola Budel at Venissa and pair it with one of her “zaeti” a traditional Venetian butter cookie with raisins. 
 
Ruggeri (Villa Italia): Another branch of the Bisol family reigns here.  From the 120 farmers that supply them, Ruggeri makes a wine from 80 to 100 year old vines, called VecchieViti , a Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut. Verdisa, Bianchetta, and Perera accompany Glera in the blend.  The wine is very pale, smells of pear, and has a salty finish.  Quartese is a Valdobiaddene Superiore Brut which is rounder in the mouth and is lower in cost.  “Giustino B”., named after grandfather Giustino Bisol, is an Prosecco Extra Dry Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore on the sweeter style.  
 
Carpene-Malvolti: Antonio Carpene founded this winery in 1868. A forward thinking scientist and enologist, he also co-founded the famous enological institute at Conegliano in 1877.  Carpene and the generations that followed have played a leading role in developing the Prosecco production technique and its equipment.  The company was the first to print Prosecco on the label. The company sources its grapes from 100 farmer families.  The wines are great technical expressions of Prosecco in every typology
 
Mionetto (Mionetto USA): Mionetto, a Prosecco long popular in the U.S., was founded shortly after Carpene-Malvolti, in 1887.  The company buys in only must and wine.  Five enologists work with grape suppliers to ensure quality grapes.  In 2009, the Mionetto family sold the winery to the German group, Henkell, a major producer of German sparkling wine.  Besides making fine quality Prosecco, the company excels at packaging. Valdobbiadene  Prosecco Superiore Spumante Extra Dry was penetratingly clean and slightly sweet. “Il Prosecco” DOC showed off the packaging design:  a soft shouldered bottle featuring “Il” in golden script and topped with a gold crown cap. It is well designed for a younger demographic in the US market.  Directed at the US market is an Extra Dry Organic Treviso DOC Prosecco. 
 
Casa Coste Piane:  This tiny estate of 9 acres features a Frizzante Naturalmente, Sur Lie, which is a Glera,that is refermented in bottle without the addition of selected yeasts.    The first pour is clean, fruity, and sparkling.  Successive pours become cloudier and cloudier and richer and richer.  Raffaelo Follador also makes a  Valdobiaddene Prosecco Extra Dry called “San Venanzio” which is about the smell of pear and controlled delicacy on the palate.  
 
Marsuret:  The Marsura family has made the jump from grape farmer to Prosecco producer.   A large vineyard owner with 66 acres owned and with 18 rented, brothers Hermes and Valter feature Valdobbiadene  DOCG and Treviso DOC  Proseccos.  A Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut “ San Baldo” show gas and aromatic lift in the nose and a brittle sour palate.   The “Il Soller” at the Extra Dry level and the same appellation was fruitier in the nose, and still quite sour despite the higher residual sugar.  A 2009 “Agostino” Prosecco DOC Treviso Sec was flowery in the nose and soft in the mouth. 
 
Montesel:  Montesel is an excellent example of a Conegliano Prosecco as it is located on hills that open up to the south to the Piave river plains. This is the warmest area in the zone where base wines are the fullest and richest.  Among other wines, the company makes “Riva dei Fiori” Brut as well as “Vigna del Paradiso” an Extra Dry, a Millesimato (Vintage) Dry, and a “Bosco delle Fate” Frizzante , all with the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene designation.
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