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Prosecco: Aiming high

Italy’s best-known sparkling wine has risen to be the party fizz of choice, but producers are striving ever harder to unlock the terroir differences that can make the top-quality DOCG wines stand apart from the rest. Michaela Morris reports on the latest developments, and recommends 10 top examples…

Walking in the vineyards of Conegliano Valdobbiabene, it’s difficult not to succumb to vertigo. You have to catch your breath frequently as much for the steep incline as for the staggeringly beautiful landscape.

Michaela Morris’ top 10 picks from Prosecco at its best

‘There is a natural limit between the DOCG and DOC,’ says young talent Martino Tormena, at the helm of his family’s Mongarda estate. ‘When there is fog, it stops at that road.’ From high up in Col San Martino, to the northwest of Treviso, he is pointing to the SP32 below, which separates the hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore from the plains of the larger Prosecco area beyond.

‘My first objective is to give value to the territory of Conegliano Valdobbiadene to differentiate it from Prosecco DOC,’ continues Tormena. Both denominations make sparkling wine from the Glera grape. In situ, the difference between the two is rather obvious, as well as why the former normally commands a higher price. These precipitous slopes are cultivated largely by hand and require up to 800 hours of work per hectare each year versus 150 hours on the plains.

Positioned between the Alps and the Adriatic sea, Conegliano Valdobbiadene is made up of a series of hills extending from east to west. The vineyards are principally south-facing and rise from 50m to 500m above sea level. The combination of altitude and exposure helps Glera retain fresh acidity while achieving sufficient ripeness. Along with sunshine, rain is equally abundant, which suits drought-intolerant Glera just fine. Though thin-skinned and sensitive to mildew, it benefits from alpine and marine breezes. ‘The vegetation as well as the grape bunches remain well-ventilated and dry, while the slopes ensure optimal water drainage,’ explains Cinzia Sommariva of Sommariva.

The area is an ancient sea and lake bed with assorted geological origins. In the west, towards the town of Valdobbiadene, the hills resemble peaks of violently whipped egg whites and the vines seem to sit on top of one another. Here the soil contains pockets of glacial deposits from the Dolomites with conglomerates of rock and sand. The wines are typically graceful, sometimes vertical and predominantly floral. In the east, around Conegliano, the slopes are more undulating like gentle waves. The soil is less rocky and characterised by clay and limestone. Along with the slightly warmer climate, this gives more richly fruited, weightier Prosecco Superiore. But these are broad generalisations.

‘Each micro-zone has diverse characteristics which influence the aromas, flavours, structure and even salinity of the wine,’ declares Il Colle’s Fabio Ceschin.

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Sites vs slopes

Herein lies the strength of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. To truly differentiate between brand Prosecco and Prosecco Superiore DOCG, the region’s top players are striving to highlight their varied terroir in the glass, to make the best Prosecco.

When the area was elevated to DOCG in 2009, it included the introduction of 43 Rive (‘steep slopes’ in local dialect). However, rather than single vineyards, the Rive are sub-zones based on administrative boundaries of the communes and hamlets which give each its name. The category has provided a broadening of many estates’ ranges. BiancaVigna now offers two separate Rive bottlings. ‘In Soligo, the rocky terrain and calcareous soil produce a marked minerality,’ says owner Elena Moschetta. It contrasts with the Rive of Ogliano, which is rich in clay, resulting in a more structured wine.

Despite extensive geological and climatic studies, the Rive have yet to exhibit a definitive identity for each. This may be more apparent in time. However, they extend over large areas and are not necessarily uniform throughout. As such, Mongarda does not produce Rive wines. ‘We have more than one vineyard in the Rive of Col San Martino but they don’t have the same characteristics,’ Tormena explains. Instead, he uses the different sites to craft a Zero Dosage and an Extra Dry. The former hails from a warm, south-facing vineyard giving a round, full wine with little need for residual sugar. The Extra Dry comes from a cooler, east-facing plot and is left with 12g/L sugar to give balance. ‘Putting them together in a single Rive wine would be foolish,’ he declares.

Others are honing in on terroir through single-vineyard bottlings. The region’s first was Adami’s Giardino Vineyard, which the estate produced as long ago as 1933. However, the trend for separate ‘cru’ or parcel bottlings is more recent. The Nino Franco estate released its first San Floriano Vineyard in 2003. When the Rive were subsequently introduced, owner Primo Franco changed the name to Vigneto della Riva di San Floriano to indicate that it is not just from the broader Rive of San Floriano, but a specific vineyard within it. ‘It’s important not to confuse single vineyards with the Rive,’ stresses Franco.

Seeking self-expression

Site-specific wines are on the rise, and in some cases producers eschew the Rive altogether. ‘We prefer to specify the cru rather than the Rive because it is an estate identity,’ asserts Antonella Bronca, one of two sisters who co-own Sorelle Bronca. Their Particella 68 and Particella 232 are within the Rives of Colbertaldo and Farrò respectively, though these aren’t featured on the labels. In its debut release, Particella 232 comes from just 1.5ha of 40- to 60-year-old-vines on morainic clay. ‘The significant diurnal temperature difference preserves aromas and freshness, so we bottle it as a Brut Nature,’ says Bronca.

Single vineyard bottlings do not fall into the denomination’s official quality hierarchy, though the best equal (or exceed) some Rive or even the DOCG’s Cartizze top level. The category also highlights the growing tendency to drier-style wines. While not all follow this trend, those that do argue that less sugar gives greater transparency of terroir.
Leaving residual sugar is a function of tradition, though there is a link with terroir. Glera is bitter if harvested when not ripe. In cooler years or less favourable sites, sugar counters bitterness and tart acidity. However, with climate change, producers point to greater ripeness in Conegliano Valdobbiabene than in the past.

Residual sugars are decreasing across all sweetness categories (Brut, Extra Dry and Dry) – which also corresponds to what the market is demanding. But sugar has another function according to Paolo Bisol, son of Ruggeri founder Giustino. ‘There are some aroma molecules which are enhanced by sugar, so they are easier to smell and more expressive on the palate,’ he states. He is one of more than 100 producers who own a tiny slice of Cartizze. Jutting out confidently like a thrust stage with dizzyingly steep slopes, this exalted 107ha subzone has long been acknowledged for yielding the region’s ripest, most intensely flavoured wines. Despite this, they have traditionally been made Extra Dry (12-17g/L) or Dry (17-32g/L). Bisol defends this style as Cartizze’s true expression, however he also recognises its limited applications, particularly for restaurants. From the 2017 vintage, Ruggeri has released small quantities of a Brut. It still demonstrates the lusciousness and complexity of Cartizze, but with a mouthwatering drier edge.

Fermentation notes

Fundamental to Prosecco Superiore is how it’s made. Bubbles help transport Glera’s delicate fragrances. While there are experimental traditional method bottlings, the tank method is ideal for capturing Glera’s dainty fruitiness, since long bottle ageing on lees can overpower its subtleties. Some producers have adopted the ‘Charmat lungo’ (long) method which involves keeping the wine on lees in tank after the second fermentation, but even they are cautious. ‘After four-and-a-half to five months it develops too many yeasty notes and you lose the character of Prosecco,’ says Moschetta.

The exception is the region’s ‘Col Fondo’. This dry, semi-sparkling wine goes through its second fermentation in bottle and is left with the lees. Cloudy in appearance with an intrinsic bready character, it is generally released after a couple of months for enthusiastic, immediate quaffing. While it is debatable whether the wine’s specific terroir is discernable, ‘it represents the tradition of the territory of Conegliano Valdobbiadene’, says Maurizio Favrel of Malibràn. He holds his Credamora Col Fondo back for a year, allowing the leesiness to integrate and develop into a wondrously creamy citrus character.

Even the choice of yeast for the first fermentation comes up in the discussion of terroir. Like many in the region, La Tordera inoculates with commercial strains. However, these vary according to the specific attributes of each site. One strain might be used to bring out inherent floral nuances while another emphasises tropical characteristics.

‘In an area with greater thermal amplitude, we want to highlight the fruity aspect, because the grapes give very perfumed wines with high acidity,’ explains Paolo Vettoretti at La Tordera.

Others prefer native yeast fermentations. At the Marchiori estate, Umberto Marchiori has researched the subject extensively. ‘Each vineyard has a unique profile in its population of fungi,’ he explains. ‘Its individuality can only be articulated with indigenous yeasts.’ Similarly, Antonella Bronca at Sorelle Bronca allows spontaneous fermentation for parcel selections. ‘We take a greater risk of bacterial spoilage with wild yeast, but if it goes well, it is a more authentic product,’ she argues.

Subtle difference

To give the grape its full name, Glera Tonda is the vehicle which expresses Conegliano Valdobbiadene’s territory. Along with this, up to 15% of other authorised grapes are allowed. These include Chardonnay and the Pinot family. Glera is a rather meek variety though. ‘If you add these international grapes, you can no longer distinguish Glera,’ asserts Tormena. Conversely, a smattering of historical local varieties can be found in old vineyards. Il Colle, Mongarda, Sorelle Bronca and Marchiori are among those who include them in their Prosecco Superiore. Rather than overwhelm Glera, they add subtle and appealing nuances.

‘These grapes are adapted to this specific place and part of its patrimony,’ says Marchiori, who is replanting a handful from a massal selection of old vines. Besides including them in his 5 Varietà Prosecco Superiore, he vinifies small lots separately to display the personality of each. Bianchetta offers structure, body and spice; Perera intense pear; Verdiso freshness, acidity and a gorgeous rosewater twist; and Glera Lunga salinity, citrus and herbal notes. ‘The idea is to have more voices, which is advantageous in terms of flavours, longevity and identity,’ he says.

Terroir is fluid in its definition, and how it is conveyed is equally open to interpretation. While a quality difference between the DOCG and DOC is often apparent, identifying subzones and individual sites within Conegliano Valdobbiadene may be trickier.

However, after a week tasting nothing but Prosecco Superiore, I was still thirsty for another glass. This speaks not just to its tremendous drinkability, but to a delicious and captivating diversity.

Michaela Morris is a widely published wine writer, educator, judge and speaker based in Canada, who works frequently in Italy.

See Michaela Morris’ top 10 picks from Prosecco at its best

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