Head for the hills

  • Thursday 2 February 2006

The Prosecco wine route may not be the slickest operation, but SARAH WOODWARD urges a visit for the mesmerising scenery, fantastic food and fresh mountain air

The sun shone and the alfresco tables under the dappled shade were crowded with beautiful people in dark glasses. Large hunks of beef sizzled over a fire made from vine clippings.

This was the Trattoria alla Cima, near Valdobbiadene, at the beginning of the Prosecco wine route. As we sat down, the waiter said he presumed we wanted some Prosecco. We did indeed, though we were somewhat surprised when he popped the cork and poured the contents of the bottle into an iced jug.

‘That is how we serve it here,’ he announced grandly, looking at our bemused faces. After the drive up from the plains, we were not about to take issue. We were just glad to be here.

Whether you start on the Strada del Prosecco from its eastern end at Conegliano (as the tourist board advises) or (my preferred option) from the west at Valdobbiadene, you must first – assuming you are coming from Venice or Treviso – endure the, admittedly short, drive through the industrialised flatlands of the Veneto. This is where Benetton has its factory outlet. The Benetton family also has a magnificent villa up in the hills of the region, but here it is regarded as the newly wealthy. Since the 15th century, these foothills of the Dolomites have been the playground of the wealthy families of the Veneto. In summer, they came to their villas to enjoy the cooling mountain breezes, and escape the insufferable heat and humidity of the plains. Come the autumn, they regarded the area as their private larder and wine cellar.

It was this historic influx of wealth into an essentially agricultural area that made the hills of Prosecco such a splendid area for a wine tour. The steeply sloping vineyards, the snowy Dolomites in the background, and the woods filled with the game and wild mushrooms that feature heavily in the regional cuisine combine to offer spectacular scenery, with the added promise that you will eat and drink well that night. There are also plenty of substantial villas to admire along the way – from the outside at least, as they are generally still privately owned. And, quite frankly, hurrah for that.

If you do want to visit a magnificent villa before you set off on your wine tour, make it Villa di Maser, near the medieval hilltop town of Asolo, a perfect Palladian villa in miniature with frescoes to match. Asolo itself offers a much better choice of hotels than Valdobbiadene, including the Villa Cipriani – this is no longer any relation to the Venetian version, but rather magnificent in a slightly shabby way, a good place to sip your first glass of Prosecco with a view over vineyards. If it is a Bellini you are after, stop off at the Danieli in Venice at the beginning or end of your trip. Only here are you guaranteed fresh, white peach juice (when in season, of course).

But back to the hills. Setting off from Valdobbiadene on the Prosecco wine route itself, you will immediately find yourself on a switchback route, up and down through small wine villages. I would love to say that the route is well-marked, and indeed there are occasional signs, but this is Italy, after all. The best advice is to stick to the high ground, as the ‘main’ road can be hard to distinguish from the many sidetracks leading to alluring properties.

One place that certainly is not signposted is the Cartizze hill, just beyond San Pietro di Barbozza, where the hectares are by far the most expensive in Prosecco. If, that is, you could lay your hands on them at all. The 106 hectares are divided among 140 proprietors, and they aren’t letting go of them in a hurry. The Italians

are notoriously secretive about their property deals, but rumour has it that the last time a vineyard was sold there was more than 20 years ago.

Cartizze exemplifies the peculiarities of this region. It enjoys its own micro-climate, due to its combination of exposure to the hot sun over the plains to the south and the cooling winds from hills to the north. At 300m at its summit, and with a steep slope with sandy soil, it may not be exactly scenic, but it is highly prized. You won’t be offered a free tasting of Prosecco produced from a Cartizze vineyard but, to be honest, tastings are hard to come by anywhere along this wine route – unless, that is, they are prearranged.

For while Prosecco may boast of being Italy’s first strada del vino (it was established in the late 1940s), it is not the slick, professional tourist experience one can expect in say, Bordeaux or Burgundy. Where there are degustazione spots, they are often designed to accommodate tour groups.

One exception to the rule, however, is the highly regarded Bisol (its Cartizze wine has even been applauded by Robert Parker). Book in advance and you can visit its winery in the hills near Santo Stefano for the chance to blend your own Prosecco. But, by and large, to taste quality Prosecco, you will have to either buy a bottle in a wine shop (of which, be warned, there are few – Treviso is your best bet), or order in a restaurant.

In compensation, the scenery here is marvellous, especially if the views to the Dolomites are clear. And there are other temptations besides winery visits. Even the Italian Tourist Board recommends that ‘you can, and should, lose your way here, climbing one or other of the hundred or more hills covered with grapevines’. And in at least one aspect, its advice is right, even if you don’t really want to get lost. For, rather than following the main Strada del Prosecco down to the plains below Farra di Soligo, strike instead across country (and very hilly country it is, too) towards Follina. You will find yourself driving through pine forest, then down into steep valleys, where cows graze amid tumbledown barns. Suddenly, it all seems a long way from the expensive vineyards of the Cartizze hill.

There are three reasons for visiting Follina. The first, and most practical, is if you want a bed for the night – hotels are also few and far between here,

and two of the best in the region are situated opposite each other. Opposite them, however, is another, even more compelling, reason to visit: the medieval Cistercian Abbey Church of Santa Maria, with its magnificent cloisters. But perhaps the biggest reason of all for food and wine lovers to visit is the opportunity to worship at the gastronomic shrine of Da Gigetto. Like all the best country restaurants, it looks unprepossessing from the outside. But if you want to truly appreciate the food of the region, this is undoubtedly the best place to do so. If you are lucky enough to visit in autumn, when the colours of the trees are at their most beautiful, make sure you have the fresh pasta with wild mushrooms, followed by some game. A little later in the year, ask for the radicchio-flavoured risotto, possibly preceded by some lardo (cured ham fat). In late spring, choose the meltingly tender baby lamb, cooked over a wood fire. But, whenever you go, ask to see the wine cellar, a labyrinth of rooms below the restaurant filled with extraordinary treasures.

From Follina, you can drive back down to the wine route ‘proper’, always heeding the advice to the stick to the high ground. From Refrontolo onwards, you will find yourself in a gentler countryside, where the hills are more rolling and, consequently, the vineyards less steep. There is plenty of rivalry between the winegrowers’ organisations at the two ends of the Prosecco region, and you have now entered the area ruled by those of Conegliano. You are also getting closer to the motorway to Venice and beyond, and the area becomes more built up, with fewer grand villas and more modern constructions (that’s the reason I prefer to start from the other end).

But there are compensations along the way, in particular the Molinetto della Croda in the Lierza valley, where the old mill is still functioning, and the little church at Pieve di San Pietro di Feletto, where the frescoes surprise with their magnificence for such a spot. As ever in Italy, though, you will probably have to knock on a few doors to get the church opened (clue – the caretaker lives next door). You might also want to plan to stay a night at Il Faè, where, with prior warning, Prosecco tastings, vineyard visits and cooking classes can all be arranged.

But if you are pressing on to Conegliano, follow the road as it winds down through vineyards, until you reach the town’s unprepossessing outskirts. Persevere, for the old centre of the town itself is attractive, topped by a castle reached by foot up cobbled lanes, from where there is a view over the vineyards.

From here, it is a short hop to the motorway back to Venice or Treviso, home to so many of the wealthy industrialists who have their villas in the Prosecco hills. Or you could always turn around and do the route in the other direction, taking a few side turnings. In theory, after all, it is only 47km. But getting lost is half the fun of it. And there’s always a jug of Prosecco waiting for you at the end.

Places to stay:

Hotel Villa Abbazia in Follina is a member of Relais & Châteaux. Your best bet is a room in the older villa. During summer, guests can relax in

the garden hot tub! +39 0438 971277; www.hotelabbazia.it

Hotel dei Chiostri is opposite the Villa Abbazia but couldn’t be more different. Although parts of the old abbey are incorporated into the grounds, the rooms are funky and modern. +39 0438 971805; www.hoteldeichiostri.com

Hotel Villa Cipriani is a charming hotel on the outskirts of Asolo, offering enchanting views of the surrounding countryside. +39 0423 523411; www.starwood.com

Il Faè in San Pietro di Feletto offers both villas for rental and

bed-and-breakfast options. It can also organise Prosecco appreciation classes led by a local sommelier, cookery classes, and vineyard visits and tastings. +39 0438 787117; www.ilfae.com

Prosecco producer Bisol has recently opened a farmhouse in Rolle, east of Follina, where it offers B&B as well as cookery classes. The Bisol winery offers a range of visiting options, from a straight tasting and tour of the winery to lunch at Da Gigetto followed by the chance to blend your own cuvée. +39 0423 900138; www.bisol.it

Places to eat:

Da Gigetto in Miane, near Follina, offers delicious traditional food.

A visit to the wine cellar is also a

must. Closed Monday evenings and

all Tuesday. +39 0438 960020

Trattoria alla Cima in Valdobbiadene will provide you with a warm welcome and offers a good wine list.

+39 0423 972711; www.trattoriacima.it

Festivals

At harvest time, walks are arranged between vineyards, with local delicacies and wine tastings to be savoured en route. The main tourist office for the region, which is based in Treviso, should be able to provide details (+39 0422 541052; www.marcatreviso.it),

or try the local tourist offices in Valdobbiadene and Conegliano.

Between March and June every year, the Primavera del Prosecco is celebrated, with a series of local tastings, events and exhibitions across the region. For details of 2006 events, email info@primaveraprosecco.it

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