As the supermarkets gear up for their festive Prosecco promotions, pink Prosecco starts flooding into the UK, and even pinker neon bar signs spell out ‘Prosecco time’, it’s hard to believe that just 25 years ago, this Venetian fizz was virtually unknown outside Italy.
Its ubiquity has doubtless been helped by the way its name trips so easily off the tongue – which is more than can be said for its upmarket rendering, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). It is here, though, in the foothills of the Dolomites, an hour or so north of the lagoon, that the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene rise both literally and metaphorically above the plains of the Veneto region where the more basic DOC Prosecco is produced.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised for its ‘cultural landscape’, or the unique interaction between man and the environment, the DOCG undulates across a series of ‘hog’s back’ hills embroidered with a tapestry of vines, all of them tended by hand. This is where it all began. Yet for producers here, the name Prosecco – and its success – is both a blessing and a curse, almost always much less prominent on the label than Conegliano Valdobbiadene, as the DOCG seeks to differentiate itself from its cheaper neighbour, the DOC. What a difference a single letter makes.
Though both regions use the same Glera grape variety and, usually, the identical Charmat method (which the Italians call “Martinotti”), where the secondary fermentation happens in a pressurised tank, the similarities end there. In the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG, yields are lower and there’s a much more specific focus on terroir. Overall production is less than a fifth of that of the DOC.
“Wine lovers sometimes dismiss DOCG as ‘just another Prosecco’. They are very wrong to do so,” says Master Sommelier Matteo Montone, wine director at the London Edition hotel. “It is undoubtedly superior. But equally, it would be a mistake to think Conegliano Valdobbiadene wants to be a Champagne – it is happy to be a Prosecco.”
DOCG Prosecco’s prolixity isn’t confined to the name. Deciphering the verbiage and nuances of a typical label can also require knowledge of the various sub-zones. The name “Rive” denotes the steepest sites, while “Cartizze” – a form of grand cru – is reserved for just over 100 hectares of Valdobbiadene’s most prestigious plots: San Pietro di Barbozza, Santo Stefano and Sacco. There’s also “Sui Lieviti”, more commonly known as “Col Fondo”, a traditional, cloudy style of Prosecco, aged on its lees, that’s enjoying a resurgence.
Such wines are classified according to their sweetness – though the terminology doesn’t do much to help the consumer. “Extra Dry” is in fact fairly sweet, with up to 17 grammes per litre of residual sugar (RS), while “Dry” can go as high as 32 grammes. Traditionally, slightly sweeter styles were favoured, but “Brut”, at up to 12 grammes of RS, has become much more popular in recent years, and an “Extra Brut” classification was added last year, with six grammes or less, in a nod to the current fashion for zero dosage sparkling wines.
Compared with Champagne’s traditional method, the tank process used for Prosecco results in lower pressure, meaning fewer bubbles in bigger beads. DOCG Prosecco is usually “spumante”, meaning there’s a minimum of three bars of pressure in the bottle (though it’s usually closer to five). Semi-sparkling “frizzante” and “tranquillo” still wines are also permitted but cannot be labelled “Superiore”.
“They are such delicate wines, so the differences are also quite subtle,” says Sarah Abbott MW, a leading expert on Prosecco’s top flight. “They have an essential breezy lightness of spirit – they are not setting out to be as moody and serious as Champagne, but there is more than one way for a sparkling wine to be authentic and complex.”
“The superior fruit quality is evident in the DOCG wines,” says Montone, a Prosecco panel member at the IWSC. “The wines really express their terroir, and the best examples we judged this year [see below] were incredibly precise.”
Awarded a high silver for its Cuvée del Fontadore Millesimato 2019, the Merotto family has been farming the precipitous slopes of the Rive di Col San Martino for more than 100 years. Though steeped in history, the wine’s overall style is thoroughly modern, with just under seven grammes of residual sugar rendering it Brut.
At the top end, awarded a prestigious gold medal for its Cartizze Dry Prosecco Superiore, Le Bertole is one of the region’s exemplars, its patchwork of vertiginous vineyards presenting a challenge for those without a head for heights. With its mild microclimate and ancient soils of sandstone and clay, the wines here exude a teasing taste of terroir that’s a million miles from the perfunctory Prosecco found at the other end of the quality scale.