When visiting Venice, ensure you make time to explore the Prosecco DOCG, to stock up on great wines as well as gourmet fare. Fiona Sims takes a trip.
Venice and Prosecco travel guide
Planted area 6,577ha
Main grapes Glera, Verdiso, Perera and Bianchetta
Production (2013) 72,420,570 bottles
Main soil types clay and limestone
It’s just a 30-minute drive north from Venice airport to Conegliano in Prosecco country. Yet visitors flock eastwards in their millions to the famous city in the nearby lagoon, ignoring the gentle hills whose wines have brazenly nudged Champagne off its perch, selling more bottles globally for the first time last year.
They’re missing out. It makes a great contrast to do both. Spend the first couple of days sedately cruising the pretty, vine-clad foothills, dotted with Palladian palazzos, former summer homes of the wealthy merchants of Venice, and refuelling in the good-value trattorias with the region’s distinctive meaty cuisine. Then finish your trip, blissfully car-free, by exploring the canals in search of Venice’s unique bacari (Prosecco bars) and enjoying the lagoon’s bountiful seafood. It’s all about Prosecco here too, from the lauded bellini to the humble spritz.
There are many reasons for Prosecco’s ascendancy – but in a nutshell, we like our bubbles and most of us don’t want to pay too much, or even think about it too much. Even at the very top level, single-vineyard Prosecco DOCG (the highest quality tier) won’t break the bank, and yes, there is complexity to be had, even ageing potential.
Not that Prosecco wants to be compared to Champagne – it’s an entirely different fizz. Made from the Glera grape, at its best it has drink-me sweetness, with a mineral, savoury flavour and tight bubbles. Picking out the best is another matter. You need to know (and most people don’t) that the really good DOCG stuff comes from the steep slopes between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene – and this is where we are heading.
The dramatic hillside of Cartizze doesn’t disappoint. The most expensive vineyard in Italy produces the best wines in the DOCG. It’s tiny – just 106 hectares, and occupies an entire southwest-facing slope that tumbles from its summit in the hamlet of Santo Stefano down into a steep patchwork of tiny terraced parcels to the Piave River valley below.
Huge respect goes to all those who work these perilously steep hills, on the waiting list for UNESCO World Heritage status. Ruggeri is one such producer and when you visit, you can admire the gnarled Glera vines that have helped to make its name, planted alongside minor varieties, Bianchetta, Perera and Verdiso. Ruggeri’s Giustino B is unexpectedly complex, and older vintages help to challenge the long-held view that Prosecco is only fresh, young and fruity.
Over breakfast the next day at Villa Barberina (owned by Nino Franco), winemaker Primo Franco explains the need for an image change. ‘Consumers know the difference between cheap and expensive Champagne, but the universal image of Prosecco is that of a popular wine,’ he says. ‘People need to know that everything is done by hand in the DOCG, and that it’s a way of life here.’
Just down the road is Fasol e Menin, one of the new breed of Prosecco producers. Inspired by the Australian boutique model, the winery holds regular music events and art exhibitions, and is open every day for tastings and tours.
As the afternoon sun disappears behind the snow-capped Dolomites, we drive 20 minutes south (nothing is more than 20 minutes away in the DOCG) to the pretty town of Susegana and the winery, osteria and agritourism business of Borgoluce. Here you can enjoy Prosecco as well as cheese and sausage from its own herd of buffalo, all available from the popular restaurant, farm shop and café and rural farmhouse B&B.
Even wineries that haven’t quite got the wine tourist in mind know they need to play the game if they want to change Prosecco’s image – even if it’s just a battered mahogany desk set up by the packing cases. This is where we find Graciano Merotto one Saturday morning holding forth to a group of eager German visitors about his multi-award winning, tissue-wrapped, wax-sealed, flagship Prosecco – a snip compared to most decent Champagne at £19.30.
It’s not Champagne that greets you at the legendary Belmond Hotel Cipriani in Venice – it’s DOCG Prosecco (Nino Franco’s, in case you are wondering).
Prosecco is everything in Venice, from the many bacari, with their increasingly inventive cichetti (bar nibbles), to the ubiquitous bellini cocktail that combines fresh peach juice and Prosecco; it is consumed by the container-load in piazzas throughout the city.
Armed with recommendations from the region’s winemakers – another reason to travel into the DOCG – we make tracks to Naranzaria, hidden on a quiet kink in the Grand Canal, to drink ‘spritz’ (Prosecco, Aperol, a splash of soda and a wedge of fresh orange) and nibble on artichoke cichetti, watching the setting sun bounce off the crumbling palazzos.
After, we move to the pavement terrace at Osteria dai Zemei for more stellar cichetti – salt cod is a favourite – before finishing at the city’s oldest bacaro, the postage-stamp sized All’Arco (Sestiere San Polo 436). You can do a spirited tour of cichetti bars with Venice Bites Food Tours.
And then it’s a Prosecco-friendly dinner at the Cipriani’s Oro restaurant that looks out over the water like a prow on a ship, where chef David Bisetto has returned to his native Veneto after gaining two Michelin stars in France to do clever things with the lagoon’s unique produce, brilliantly paired with wines by Peru-born head sommelier German Zavaleta Aguirre.
The next day we take the vaporetto to Mazzorbo island, where prominent Valdobbiadene Prosecco producer Bisol has restored an abandoned vineyard and created the ‘wine resort’ of Venissa: a six-bedroom retreat set among the vines away from the bustle of Venice, complete with traditional trattoria and smart Michelin one-starred restaurant, that shows off not just its range of fizz, but the region as a whole.
Prosecco’s time has come – in the glass, at least. Now the region needs to get more people to visit and see what all the fuss is about.
How to get there
There are daily flights from most major airports to Venice’s Marco Polo, as well as regular trains to Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia.