In early December I was pleased to be invited on a fact-finding tour of the Veneto and Venezia wine regions in northeastern Italy. I found some handy, and tasty facts. With New Year’s Eve upon us shortly, let’s examine and re-think Prosecco, the justifiably popular light, dry, crisp sparkling wine that has made such a rapid growth on the American wine market in the last decade.
Fact #1: Prosecco is a real bargain! True, I didn’t have to fly to Italy to discover that, but given the major categories of sparkling wine on the market today, Prosecco offers delicate freshness, green apple and mineral flavors, and since it’s not made in the traditional champagne method, it’s less expensive to produce. You can get drinkable, serviceable, if forgettable Prosecco from $8 to $10 or so. You can always splurge on Champagne at the right time, but Prosecco is a consistent, reliable style sparkler for any occasion. However you can get Prosecco Superiore DOCG for less than $12 (from the 10% heart of the region) , and all except the “Rive” designations for under $20 on the US market.
Fact #2: Prosecco is the backbone of the largest volume wine production region in Italy. Due to its popularity, the Prosecco zone has been expanded and covers nearly five provinces in northeastern Italy, which has become the largest volume production region in that country.
Fact #3: Prosecco undergoes a second fermention in large pressure tanks or autoclaves, in the “Italian” method. The “bottle” of secondary fermentation where extra sugar and yeast are added to create carbon dioxide, is the tank itself. The wine can remain on the lees in the tank until bottled, and is much easier and cheaper to process this way than individual bottle fermentation.
Fact #4: Prosecco is now the name of the region, not the grape. For legal and trademark protection purposes, the region’s producers have saved the name for the region so it can be protected in the courts from imitators as is done by Champagne producers. The grape that makes Prosecco is now known as glera.
Fact #5: Prosecco is not always dry. In the U.S. if you buy a Prosecco labeled “brut”, it will be almost (but not completely) dry. If labled “Extra brut” (pay attention) it will be bone dry. But, if labeled “Extra Dry” or “Dry”, it will actually be semi-dry to semi-sweet (about 1.5% residual sugar or 15 g/L). This neurotic labeling is because Americans request wines that are “dry” but actually prefer to drink sweeter wines. This same labeling system is used by Champagne producers for the American market.
Fact #6: Not all Prosecco is created equal. As is typically the case with wine, you get what you pay for. There’s plenty of fizzy, unmemorable, dry yet quaffable Prosecco on the market today, but if you want to discover what the top drawer of Prosecco is and tastes like, you can do it with the help of your trusty wine merchant. Look for the legal quality grade, on the label which should be “DOCG” instead of just “DOC”. This highest tier of Italian wine quality means the grapes are located in the heart of the zone allowed for Prosecco, and this is also labeled “superiore.” This small zone is only about one tenth the size of the whole region, so the distinction really sets it apart. The legal yield limit is also one third of what is permitted in the broader DOC region and you can taste the difference. Also, there is a legal minimum of 85% glera grapes, although chardonnay and verdiso, bianchetta, perera, and pinot noir are also allowed for the extra 15%.
Fact #7: The Prosecco Pinnacle. The top quality tier for Prosecco, once you’re inside the Superiore zone labeled DOCG, is first, the sub-appellation of Superiore di Cartizze. This is the DOCG cru: a small area of about 240 acres of vineyards, in the steep hills of S. Pietro di Barbozza, Santo Stefano and Saccol, near the town of Valdobbiadene. Then, the top of the pinnacle is the distinction of “Rive”, made exclusively from grapes grown in one of these villages, enhancing the individual characteristics that the terroir gives this wine.
Fact #8: Don’t get hung up on vintage vs. non-vintage labeling with Prosecco. Because the finished wine remains in the autoclave tank, it may be bottled and released in a year after the grapes are harvested. It’s actually better to have the freshest release from the tank, than a bottle that has been filled and on the market for months. The only Proseccos allowed to use a vintage date are those with a Rive designation.
Fact #9: Due to its processing, Prosecco is more like vinho verde than methode champenoise-style sparkling wine, and should not be cellared long after you buy it; it’s meant for early drinking.
Now that we have the basic facts, what about flavor and style? Prosecco Superiore DOCG has aromatics of meadow flowers and chamomile, apple and pear and mineral, with a lively texture and smooth creamy finish. Here are tasting notes of my favorites:
Bourgoluce Superiore DOCG Prosecco Brut: Nose: green apple and mineral. Palate: green and yellow apple, pear, good fresh fruit/acid balance. Fine mousse, long clean fresh finish. Especially in its full texture and long finish, a clear cut above basic Prosecco.
Bourgoluce Superiore DOCG Prosecco Rive di Collalto Extra Dry Single vintage 2013: Fine smooth mousse. Nose: creamy pear w. hints of tropical fruit. Palate: wow! Huge elegance and finesse; creamy and melts on the tongue, huge improvement over their basic extra dry. Although it’s semi-dry (1.7% r.s.) it has pure, fresh clean fruit and just melts easily on the tongue.
Ca’ di Rajo Prosecco Extra Dry DOC Treviso. Although this Prosecco is not from the Superiore zone, it was made from 60-year old vines trained on the ancient “Bellussi” trellis system and is worth seeking out. Tiny vigorous mousse. Nose: much like Saar riesling; smoky, flinty green apple and mineral. On the palate, smooth and with good fruit/yeast balance. Tastes more elegant than most extra dry Proseccos.
Montelvini Superiore Rive Asolo DOCG Prosecco Brut: Nose: delicate, subtle floral note of chamomile, yellow apple and mineral. Palate: full, round, dry but big fresh finish, green apple and mineral finish.
Montelvini Superiore Rive Asolo DOCG Prosecco Extra Dry 2014: Nose: faint chamomile hints. Palate: broad, fruity pear, apple and creamy smooth. Elegant, long finish, drinks drier than you’d expect.
Closer to home, here are a few Virginia sparkling wines I tasted and enjoyed this last year to ring in the New Year with, all made in the champagne bottle-fermented style:
King Family Vineyard Brut (NV): blanc de blancs. Very small mousse. Nose: toasty crisp apple and yeast. Palate: dry but bright and creamy, also round and smooth with fresh lemon cream. 18 months on lees. Stylish. For sale at the winery only while available.
Trump Vineyards blanc de blancs 2008: nose: fresh bread/yeast and green apple with mineral notes. Palate: smoke and earth hints, then ripe green apple and mineral notes, dry, high acid but well-balanced and in a classic style. Will support food well. 36 mos. on the lees. $24.
Afton Mountain Vineyards 2010 Brut (2/3 chardonnay, 1/3 pinot noir) Nose: creamy but with smoky complexity from the pinot noir. Palate: lots of bright red cherry with a bit of smoke. Complex and food-friendly. 18 months on the lees. $30