THE WAY FOR PROSECCO IS THE WAY UP
Prosecco as many of us know, is this lovely and lively Italian bubbly that fulfils every level of desire, basic or a posh! It’s the go-to drink be it with colleagues after work, exhausted parents on a Friday night, a casual meet-up with friends .…or practically an anytime drink that does not need a reason to be explained or justified. I am sure we all agree that Prosecco is what made fizz an everyday drink to relish. In a world fraught with stresses and strains, Prosecco makes it easy to celebrate successes- be it big or small. One may even say, very thankful that we have prosecco, a reason to celebrate! Else we would be left with those rare formal celebratory occasions or an occasional invite to a funky uptown party to sip Champagne with the rich and famous. But lets see, where and how this began?
Location, Climate and Topography
Located in the North East of Italy, further up inland from Venice in the region of Veneto, Prosecco DOCG covers the rolling hills from Conegliano (east) to Valdobiaddene (west). Once part of the sea bed, the lands rose up with the dynamic tectonic movements of the plates underneath, from which the Dolomites were born and it is in a section of these hills that the Prosecco DOCG vineyards are spread out. The soils are heavy clay and limestone interspersed with sea fossils with high levels of sodium from the sea. While the eastern part (Conegliano) has younger clay soils of sedimentary origin (aged about 25 million years) which rise up to altitudes of 200-450 feet, the western parts (Valdobbiadenne) are formed of older soils, dated 150 million years, with the soil structure more of glacial moraine, sandstone with some clay. In terms of climate, Conegliano also is warmer than Valdobbiaddene as the latter is higher and more exposed to Alpine winds from the west. Hence harvest in Conegliano happens atleast 4 weeks before Valdobbiaddene, which have some highly steep aspects that make them suitable only for hand harvesting.
How is Prosecco made?
Made out of Glera grapes, the region took its name from the grapes that were originally called Prosecco. In 2009, the grape name was changed to Glera so as to adopt and register Prosecco as a region (grapes cannot be registered as a region) as a protected geographical appellation. Conegliano Valdobbiadene, also called Prosecco Superiore DOCG was established in 2009. Although Glera is the main grape in Prosecco, it is legally possible to add international grapes such as Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and indigenous grapes like Verdiso and Bianchetta up to a maximum of 15%. Verdiso is credited for adding aromatic green fruit intensity while Bianchetta is better known for its acidity. The significant feature that makes it different from Champagne is that in most cases, the second fermentation takes place in tank ie Charmat method (as opposed to a bottle). Originally invented by Frederico Martinotti in 1895, the autoclaves or pressurized tanks were later designed by Eugène Charmat in 1910 and hence called as Charmat method. This feature made it is what helped mass production of prosecco to take off as fermentation did not need to be restricted to manually laborious individual bottles (one of the reasons why Champagnes are expensive). However, there are variations in this production which are now coming into highlight, as Prosecco DOCG undergoes evolution in the current times as explained below.
Does Prosecco have a Vintage Variation?
Yes…to a certain extent. While the climate is continental and alpine, summers are usually warm with a high diurnal range of temperature variation. The region gets a fair share of rains in Spring until May. The growing season in between (June to August) is fairly dry while the harvest season of September to October is prone to rains, thanks to the Mediterranean influence. Vintage variation can occur during times, when rain falls in spring and then the region remains dry during the harvest (such as in 2016 which proved to be a good year) while 2017 witnessed a very dry spring but heavy rains during September right around harvest, that did end up with disruption of the ripening pattern. This could affect the quality of grapes causing dilution and as such minor inconsistency amongst vintages.
Where does Prosecco stand today and what is the future like?
Since the beginning of 2010, Prosecco has been witnessing a boom with astronomical levels of sales in the UK. Year on year its growth was phenomenal. Nearly quarter of the bottles produced in the Prosecco region have been reported to be sold in the UK over the years from then. UHY Hacker reports that Sparkling Wine growth grew by 79% between 2012 and 2017. The increase was primarily attributed to rising quantities of affordable and affable Prosecco which was seen as a big threat to the erstwhile high and unreachable prices commanded by Champagne. The UK trade rejoiced and partook in this easy appeal of Prosecco because of the easy, floral and fruity drinking style of Prosecco and its versatility with food pairing.
However, recent reports of UHY tracker noted a different trend. Between 2017 and 2018, the growth of sparkling wine was a minuscule 5% with Prosecco, in particular, reported to have been overstocked in supermarkets, possibly due to a mix of factors such as falling pound prices, Brexit uncertainly and influx of quality English sparkling wines. After all these years of Prosecco charm, has the novelty of Prosecco waned? The mass market appeal which made Prosecco popular and savvy looks like the very reason that is tarnishing its image, with supermarkets selling Prosecco DOC at a discounted rate of a mere £5/bottle, driving down, not just price but also its appeal. On the one hand, while the increased demand initially meant an opportunity to plant more vineyards and produce more to fill the demand, the DOC land is now is working at nearly full capacity covering a whopping 23,000ha of vineyards. Planting any more carries a significant risk of erosion because of the sensitive geology and topography on which its laid out. “There has been a collective lack of curiosity to find anything other than Prosecco DOC because we have been so price focussed all this time. Hence the ubiquity of Prosecco DOC. And then there is also the misogynistic attitude now attached to Prosecco, as ‘women’s drink’ that really doesn’t help with its image” notes Sarah Abbott. So…has Prosecco really lost the battle to Champagne or English Fizz?
To find out more, I went to attend Master of Wine, Sarah Abbott’s masterclass with her research and findings on Prosecco. Sarah has been working with Prosecco Superiore producers over the last couple of years and the masterclass highlighted a whole new class and style of Prosecco and the innovative works of the younger generation Prosecco Superiore producers from this region, who are another league of their own. It was revealed to us that these high quality, site-specific producers are never tempted to export anywhere due to the high demand within their own country! Nearly all of their produce is allocated to top class Italian restaurants or quality wine bars, premium outlets and cellars with the balance being scooped up by neighbouring Swiss and German wine aficionados. This is the world of “Prosecco Superiore” producing some of the most stunning Proseccos from the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the highest level of restrictive identification to quality appellation), that have the potential for raising the bar for Prosecco. Prosecco Superiore comprises of the following delimited geographical zones (in ascending order of exclusivity):
1) Conegliano Valdobbiaddene DOCG (15 municipalities cover 7,700 ha)
2) Conegliano Valdobbiadene Rive DOCG (43 Rive cover 300 ha)
3) Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG, the smallest and the most precious Grand Crus of Prosecco (107 ha with roughly 50 producers)
In total these DOCGs cover roughly 8000+ ha with some 3000 producers. With Germany, America and Britain taking up three quarters of the production of DOC, well…it is time now trade up and explore the premium offerings of Prosecco Superiore! The new campaign set off by Sarah Abbott (with others Masters of Wine such as Alex Hunt also involved) is intended explore these options with an aim to revive the quality appeal to the region. With higher disposable incomes and in a mature market where people are prepared to pay for quality and class, there is a huge potential for Prosecco to make its way up the quality ladder and demonstrate its delicacy, expressive terroir originated flavours and age-worthy complexities.
“The future of Prosecco lies in Premiumisation” explains Sarah Abbott, “and that is the road to remain competitive”. The latest edition of creativity displayed by Prosecco Superiore produced by younger generation artisanal producers has been an eye-opener. Here are some of the ways that Prosecco seeks to differentiate itself.
Producers of Superiore are adding finer winemaking nuances such as ageing on lees during second fermentation to add texture and succulence. Garbara Prosecco Superiore is Cartizze’s Single Vinyard Prosecco Superiore and the wine maker Mirco Grotto aims at precision in his wines and to do this, he leaves his wine after second fermentation for upto four months on the lees, finishing it off with zero dosage. Important to note is that it is bottled with no residual sugar at all! “This is a finely chiselled wine” Sarah explains “a fine attempt to display terroir personality and minerality in the wines.” Garbara is available to buy from Prosit wines.
Other features that may include ageing the base wine on the lees which Conte Collalto, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore follows as part of its wine making philosophy. What they seek is textural fullness and palate weight to make it a food driven wine. Sarah’s demonstration of pairing with Parma Ham and Shrimp voul-au-vent was a good case in point for illustrating the food and wine matching ability of textured Prosecco Superiore. The wines are imported by Thurman Hunt.
New impending regulations to further create a further subset of Brut wines (at the moment these include wines with residual sugars between 0-12 g/l) are underway with the Italian Agricultural Ministry. The Brut Nature (0-3 g of sugar/l) is one of the labels intended to highlight the extra brut element in the wines in order to cater to wine savants and the health conscious drinkers. Garbara (above) is one such wine producer (mentioned above) that strictly follows the zero dosage rule. Most of these wines have moderate to low alcohol (11-12% abv) and that is also worth keeping in mind, in addition to the low or zero sugar levels.
Equally, there has been a resurgence of older established Traditional styles of Prosecco as seen in the launch of Colfondo Prosecco. Malibran’s Credamora, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Frizante Rifermento is one such outstanding Colfondo styles. Colfondo means “with the bottom” in Italian meaning bottle fermented along with the sediments (or lees). The wine producer has gone back in time to re-create cloudy wines that were once part and parcel of Prosecco traditions and work with natural wine specialist importers such as Passion Vino to stock this in the UK now. The wine is hazy with soft amber hues and shows distinctive baked apple, lemon rind, sourdough character making it a very funky food driven wine. To add to the flair, there is also a unique way of pouring this wine. It needs to be tipped over before opening and shaken well and decanted into a long flute glass before being served to distribute the yeast equally. A supreme display of natural winemaking talent that is making a big come back now!
With heavy-hitting brands such as Masi investing huge sums in the fourth-generation producer, Caneval Prosecco Superiore, that also makes zero dosage wines from single vineyards in Valdobbiadene, the focus and commitment on Premiumisation of Prosecco seems firmly on the ground. Available through Berkmann, these committed investments show the huge potential of building a Grand Marques of Champagne equivalent for the Prosecco abode.
If attracting big brand names for Prosecco does not sound too difficult, then wait till you check out the venture bought out by Directors of Luxxotica Brand and developed esoterically. L’Antica Quercia Prosecco Superiore in Scomigo hills in Conegliano have not just followed the new Superiore trends but have also pioneered in organically certified Prosecco production. They follow the traditional style of Doppino Capovalto styles of training their vines over their single plot of 25 ha to cope with cultivation along the steeper gradients of Conegliano to allow efficient bud maturing and canopy management. Indigenous yeasts are used for fermentation whilst also ageing their base wines for 4-6 months on lees. This surely is a step towards creating not just high quality wines but also sustainable and ethically viable ways of producing Prosecco.
To further add diversity to the styles, the premium offerings also include innovative off-dry and medium dry styles of proseccos (labelled as Extra-Dry or Dry) with higher residual sugar such as in Sommariva Congeliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore (residual sugar 14g/l). A very well-made prosecco with wholesome expression, piercing acidity that balances well with the residual sugars and makes a perfect pairing for crunchy lemon meringue. Sommariva is available through Vinarius
And then there is the Tranquillo Prosecco Superiore (ie Still Proseccos). Who would have thought Proseccos can be still? Well, it is all part of their celebrated tradition that is making a huge comeback. Made in small amounts only for the Prosecco Superiore, they do add the cherry on the cake!
Through these varied expressions, it is clear that while basic Prosecco DOC may be simple, the Superiore is a whole new ball game and one, that the world needs to recognise – A journey into exploring Prosecco Superiore is sure to open your eyes to the fascinating and intriguing face of Quality Prosecco.
Mass produced Prosecco demand may have slowed down in recent times but that is a positive sign that paves way for innovation and quality. The above releases of Prestigious Prosecco Superiore plug the gap in quality to answer the challenge posed by quality sparklers be it from home or from Champagne. The demonstration of diversity and quality of the terroir, dynamism, creativity and forward thinking of the producers and their ability to keep evolving while still retaining and boldly upholding their traditions is definitely worthy of recognition. We wish them good luck!!