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Commercial Art: premium Prosecco?

Is there such a thing as 'premium' Prosecco? And where do you have to look? Richard Baudains answers questions often asked about this Italian fizz.

Prosecco has to be the epitome of a successful, modern commercial wine. It is produced in commercially viable quantities, technical standards are on the whole reliable, prices are consumer friendly and the style has wide appeal – bubbly, fresh, light and undemanding, and neither sweet nor dry. Wines of this type might fail to thrill the palate, but they are irreproachable in their own category.

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Is there more to Prosecco than just reliable commercial quality? Is there such a thing as premium Prosecco, a higher plane on which the wines really grab your attention rather than simply lulling it, and where the personality of individual estates and terroir variations stand out?

Yes, but… There are definitely grounds to be upbeat about Prosecco, but the top end of the quality pyramid is short and pointy. Premium Prosecco is a niche product. In order not to raise false expectations, it is important to define this superiority. It is not a question of greater structure. Prosecco doesn’t compete in the same weight category as classic Chardonnay-Pinot-based sparkling wines aged on their lees. It is suave and accommodating with its 11% abv and gentle fragrance. The quality leap comes instead with the range and purity of aroma and the magic balance between fruit, sugar, acidity and perlage.

How can I be sure to buy a good bottle, rather than a mediocre one?

Let’s start with denomination. Prosecco is produced in various parts of the eastern Veneto. If you’re looking for the crème della crème, you can take the minor Montello and Colli Asolani DOC and anything with an IGT label out of the frame. To narrow the field further disregard ‘Frizzante’ wines of whatever origin, a style with fewer bubbles and lesser ambitions. This leaves spumante from the principle DOC Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, which is a bit of a mouthful, but is definitely the name to look for on the label.

However, even within the senior DOC, careful selection is called for. Production is large and expanding; since the mid-1990s it has jumped from 28 million to 35 million bottles per year. It also consists of a typically Italian array of labels and sub-labels.

Paolo Bisol from Ruggeri has estimated that if you include all the brands, styles and special selections, the 130 producers of Prosecco DOC turn out more than 1,000 different wines between them.

Getting more specific, which are the top producers to look out for?

The best Prosecco producers, in no specific order, are Adami in Vidor and Desidorio Bisol e Figle, Col Vetoraz, Le Colture and the famed Ruggeri – all are around Valdobbiadene.

So what are the factors that make a difference within the DOC?

Most of the top producers are based in the area around the town of Valdobbiadene, where the vines grow at around 250–300 metres above sea level on dizzily steep hillsides, in a cool and slow-ripening microclimate.

Within this area there are a number of recognised cru sites: the village of Santo Stefano has a particularly high reputation (Ruggeri

bottles a special selection) and at the micro level, Adami’s Vigneto Giardino and Bisol’s Vigneti del Fol are classics. The only sub-zone officially recognised by the DOC is that of Cartizze, a high ridge to the south east of Valdobbiadene with sandy, mineral rich soils and particularly marked daytime temperature variations.

Is it important to look for estate wines from an Azienda Agricola as opposed to those from a Casa Vinicola which buys in its fruit?

Not necessarily. There are very few producers who meet the needs of their

cellar entirely from their own vineyards. Bisol is by far the biggest vineyard owner at Valdobbiadene, but it buys in 20% of its grapes. The excellent Ruggeri, which makes about one million bottles a year, doesn’t own as much as a row of vines, but the quality of its wines

certainly doesn’t appear to suffer.

One of the features of the Conegliano-Valbdobbiadene DOC is the fragmentation of vineyard holdings. The 3,900 hectares (ha)

currently under vine are divided among more than 3,000 small growers. There are no big properties. In these circumstances there is no alternative but to buy in grapes.

The top producers guarantee the quality of their supply by monitoring their growers closely, building up long-term relationships and paying the best prices.

So where does the secret lie, in vineyard management or in the wizardry performed in the cellar?

There are factors in the vineyard that make a difference. Recent clonal studies, for instance, have demonstrated the fairly unequivocal superiority of one selection against others – unfortunately the most widely planted is the biggest yielder and least interesting from the point of view of aroma). Yields do not call for great sacrifices and producers resist the idea that smaller crops might benefit quality.

Prosecco, the argument goes, is a vigorous variety and it is counterproductive to prune it too short. Hmmm. (The fact remains, however, that Prosecco yields are lower than those permitted by the Champagne method DOC Trentino).

Whatever the margins might be for improving the quality of the fruit – and accepting the basic principle that you can’t make good wine from poor grapes – there is no denying that the make or break of a quality Prosecco is the handling of the raw materials in the cellar.

The standard procedure of vat re-fermentation are well enough established, but there is generous scope for creative fine tuning and this is where the hand of the gifted producer really comes into play – in the preparation of the base wine, the management of the secondary fermentation and the assembling of the final cuvée.

What are the different drinking styles of Prosecco?

All the major producers make the three styles envisaged by the DOC: brut, dry and extra dry. Brut wines have the least residual sugar, but the fruit and relatively low acidity means they are never bone dry. Dry is, confusingly, the sweetest style. Even more confusingly, extra dry is in between brut and dry in the scale of sugar content. The most traditional style is in the dry-extra dry range.

It is no coincidence that the prestige Cartizze DOC is almost invariably made dry. Brut, on the other hand, is a style created for markets with a prejudice against wines with residual sugar or for drinkers who want to drink Prosecco during a meal. Brut is arguably not the classic interpretation of the variety – often the wines come over intense and tangy, but also a little hard and vegetal, like under-ripe pears – but it is great with hors d’oeuvres.

Extra dry is perhaps the ideal compromise, a style in which the delicate floral-fruit aromas combine best with the perlage and sugars to form a round, balanced mouthful which always has you reaching for the next sip.

Needless to say, if you’re going to go to all the trouble of seeking out a class Prosecco, it would be criminal to waste it on a Bellini, the Prosecco and peach juice cocktail invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice. The ideal way of consuming Prosecco is in the Venetian-style as an any-time-of-the-day drink and convivial aperitif.

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