Less than an hour’s drive north of Venice, in the shadow of the Alps is a rural patch of the Veneto that still refers to its water-bound capital as the Serenissima Republic. Here in the hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, a castle crowns every crest, and old wars are never forgotten. Beneath those ancient fortresses, vines furrow the steep landscape: this is a DOCG, Italy’s top wine designation, as well as a Unesco World Heritage site, for its so-called hogback hills. The wine is world-famous and sells prodigiously, but like the beautiful, historic location, this popularity is a mixed blessing. Everybody knows Prosecco, but many are unaware of the enormous difference between the ‘Superiore’ sloped vineyards and the thousands of hectares of vines on the flats below.
Why is top-tier Prosecco – or to give it its full title, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG – not more widely appreciated? A tongue-twisting name probably doesn’t help. Thereafter, some of it may be ignorance, its image tainted by the gallons of basic Prosecco DOC churned out for mass-market consumption. Some of it may be snobbery about making bubbles via the Charmat method, where carbonation occurs in the tank. Certainly this is simpler than Champagne’s bottle fermentation. Primo Franco of winery Nino Franco laughs as he says, ‘But we are on the 46th parallel; Champagne is on the 50th. Up there, the grapes are never ripe!’
This overlooks many factors, not least climate change, though that was easy to ignore on my visit, when the clouds clustered above the hogbacks and snow gleamed on the mountaintops. It is the start of spring and glorious when the sun finally comes blazing out. Umberto Cosmo of Bellenda is less enchanted: ‘A later harvest is better for us,’ he says. Those distant mountains, now visible, mean there’s no danger of frost, so extra ripening time for his Glera grapes has no downside. But I am feeling a little hard done by. ‘Last week we were in T-shirts,’ Oriana Balliana, who conducts winery driving tours, tells me. I am less tough than these hill-loving vines; I want the T-shirt, too.
Umberto leads me towards his winery, making a strange ka-ka-ka noise. With a soft thumping, a pack of sheep appears. They are perfect for clearing the ivy in the vineyard, apparently. Cosmo’s family were farmers who sold their grapes, but he hated 1980s industrial agriculture, so he started making his own wine. His range runs the gamut from traditional Prosecco Superiore to second fermentation in bottle, including Col Fondo, where the lees are never filtered out. I love Col Fondo, which is just lightly funky and a little unusual, not qualities commonly associated with Prosecco. Cosmo’s many experiments are partly a canny attempt to appeal to several markets and partly evidence of the adaptability that I saw everywhere here. You don’t spend hundreds of years on the fringe of empires without learning when to roll over and when to put up your fists.
The DOCG stretches between the towns of Conegliano, to the east, and Valdobbiadene, to the west, and is bounded to the south by the Piave river. During World War I, the river was the front line, and brutal battles were fought along it. But allegiances were complicated. This was Austria-Hungary then, and the Italians were among those dropping the bombs that destroyed magnificent medieval castles such as San Salvatore, owned by the ancient Collalto family. The Collaltos make Prosecco Superiore and offer an enjoyable tour in an open-topped army-issue jeep. The views as you sip your wine are spectacular, and the place, only partially restored, is beautiful but sad – built for war and destroyed by it, a millennium of glories later.
In Valdobbiadene, Primo Franco points out two single vineyards, 500m apart, and talks about soil differences and the expression of the terroir. Beside us stands a sumptuous five-bedroom villa with pool that he and his wife Annalisa rent out. The previous owner, a countess, left everything intact. There are frescoes in the bathroom, rare books in the winter living room and a vintage Biedermeier desk I badly want to take home. It is impossibly quiet; vines are always my favourite neighbours. As we leave, Primo gestures to a collection of slender brass tubes: cannon shells from World War I, now used as decoration. Valdobbiadene was fiercely bombed, and his grandfather built the Nino Franco winery in 1919 after its predecessor was destroyed.
Vines furrow the steep landscape; a castle crowns every hilltop
Down a street off Valdobbiadene’s large main square, Bortolomiol, founded by Giuliano, is run by his widow Ottavia and their four daughters, one of whom, Elvira, is the first ever female president of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore consorzio. The winery was once a silk-spinning factory; now, instead of exploiting women, it is owned by them. The Bortolomiols sell 2.5 million bottles a year and are building a collection of vineyard sculptures by young female artists. One recent addition is an inventively moulded metal table, in the shape of an exuberant vine, that accommodated guests when only outdoor interactions were permitted – a memento of Covid that seems fitting in a region so full of remembrances.
Indeed it is the Memory Garden that moves me most. The School of Oenology, part of the University of Padua, is one of Europe’s oldest, and within its peculiar confines lies a museum housing the relics of Luigi Manzoni’s research into vine genetics. (At the marvellous Da Gigetto restaurant the night before, I had tried my first Incrocio Manzoni Bianco and liked it so much that I was pleased to meet its inventor – or at least his microscopes and specimens.) But the garden out front is not a scientific endeavour. Each tree represents a student or teacher lost in the Great War – a beautiful way to honour people who had intended to devote their lives to the land.
Bortolomiol was not quite, it turned out, my last stop in Valdobbiadene, even though we were late for lunch. I had caught the scent of Col Fondo. Christian Zago has a tiny winery, complete with two cows (‘the manure is very important’), up a hill just outside town. He has no visitor facilities and doesn’t answer his phone, but I persuade Oriana to drive up anyway. The view would have been worthwhile even if he hadn’t been home. As it happens, he is, and he amiably opens a couple of his superb wines, all sold out. I love a large, well-designed winery as much as anybody, and really, in northern Italy, surrounded by relics of the Renaissance, grandeur is part of the territory. (Just 15 minutes south across the Piave is the breathtaking Villa di Maser, designed by Palladio and decorated with paintings by Veronese, while the family that has made millions out of La Gioiosa Prosecco has a higher-end winery, Villa Sandi, and offers tours of its vast 17th-century namesake.) Nonetheless, it’s always immensely cheering to meet a young obsessive who makes wine in a shed and wants to tell me all about his cow manure. Like a vineyard humming with insects, it’s a sign of life.
We arrive at Locanda La Candola, on a hilltop above Soligo, ten minutes after the kitchen has technically closed, but – viva l’Italia! – they are still happy to serve squid-ink pasta in a copper saucepan and tiny soft-shelled crabs with white local pearl polenta and to open a citrusy, bone-dry 2018 Prosecco Superiore from Sorelle Bronca. Everything is fresh, delicious and copious. Nobody eats badly in Italy, but some of my meals here were extraordinary. This is the region of tiramisù, of Soligo mascarpone so fresh that it’s made in the morning and you must eat it by nightfall. Of buffalo mozzarella – and even of the buffalo themselves, tenderly cooked in Osteria Borgoluce and accompanied by vegetables, singing with flavour, from the thousand hectares that have been in the Collalto family for more than a millennium. The building was 18th century, Ninni Collalto tells me, gesturing around the bright, airy room, until it, like San Salvatore, which her older sister owns, was bombed.
Rive is the classification for the most valued and difficultto- work vineyards (not to be confused with Cartizze, the southfacing hillside considered to have the best terroir and conditions overall), and we drink Rive di Collalto, fresh and elegant, while Ninni tells me about the property. (There is accommodation, and walking trails reserved for guests.)
It was the Collalto counts who sold Maurizio Favrel’s grandfather the 14ha that now constitute Malibran, and while it couldn’t be more different – chickens pecking among the vines, a winery where you could barely swing one of the family’s many dogs – the dedication to the land is the same. ‘The more you do in the vineyards, the less you must do in the cellar,’ says Silvia Puppetti, the voluble export manager. I first tried Malibran at the excellent London wine bar Passione Vino, and they were the wines that gave me an inkling of what Prosecco Superiore could be. They even age well, although Prosecco is popularly supposed not to. The aromatic, lightly funky 2016 Sottoriva is simply gorgeous.
‘And now,’ announces Oriana, ‘we will drink a bottle of Col Fondo on a hilltop.’ We pull into an even tinier winery, Riva Granda, where Silvia Spadetto makes terrific wines and her own salumi, then motor up a steep hillside – soon followed by Silvia’s son on a moped, when Oriana turns out to have grabbed the wrong bottle. Spadetto is planning a tasting room up there this year, but this is already a place not to miss, so tranquil that she sometimes finds strangers reading among the cherry trees.
Peace and war: this region is pulled between the two – from the tiny church in Soligo, whose unusual 14th-century frescoes were rediscovered when bombs fell nearby, to the Sala dei Battuti in Conegliano’s cathedral, with its carved wooden ceiling and 16th-century frescoes, restored after Napoleon turned the place into a prison. Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat, reads a sign on the clocktower above: ‘Every hour wounds, and the last kills.’ Yet the silent symmetry of the cloisters at Follina Abbey seems like the precursor to eternal rest, while the vineyards offer a quiet reminder that the hours provide nourishment as well.
Wounds can heal, if the will is there to tend them. BiancaVigna winery is a model of sustainability, reusing water, recycling glass and certified for its insulation. Clay in the soil gives their Rive di Ogliano a ripe apricot flavour; Rive di Soligo is elegantly tangerine. With her Col Fondo, this one with the official designation, sui lieviti, Elena Moschetta conducts an experiment, shaking the yeast in the base of the bottle after she’s poured my glass, then pouring me another, which is richer, fuller – like the difference between bread and toast.
Or perhaps it is akin to the difference between experience – human years on the lees – and youth. This region is very old, but it has a vibrancy, a modern freshness that seems only right, given the style of the wines. I was glad to shake hands with Graziano Merotto, who founded his winery in 1972: I am full of respect for men like him, determined and hard-working, with an idea of what their wine could be long before fashion caught on.
Yet I had spent the previous hour in Merotto’s glass-walled winery, with a view of vines climbing up to a flamboyantly pretty tiered church, talking to his wife and their vivacious young export manager, Sonya Zanolla. For me, those women are that winery, and Zanolla’s energy is as good a match for fizz as any amount of fresh fish. Mistaking lightness of spirit for lack of substance is as easy with people as it is with wine, but after several days in the region I came to admire the locals’ ability to absorb contradictions just as their wines absorb carbon dioxide – in both cases, producing something delightful as a result.
Conegliano-Valdobbiadene wineries to visit
- Borgoluce, Susegana: Tastings from €17 per adult
- Merotto, Col San Martino: Tastings from €12 per adult
- Nino Franco, Valdobbiadene: Tastings from €30 per adult
- Bortolomiol, Valdobbiadene: Tastings from €12 per adult
- Malibran, Susegana: Tastings from €25 per adult
- Bellenda, Carpesica: Tastings from €15 per adult
- Villa Sandi, Crocetta del Montello: Tastings from €15 per adult
- Riva Granda, Col San Martino: Tastings from €15 per adult
- BiancaVigna, Conegliano: Tastings from €15
Restaurants to know in the Prosecco hills
- Da Gigetto, Miane: Superb cooking and an exceptional wine list in a century-old building; be sure to have your aperitivo in the multiroomed cellar, with its displays of old wines and whiskies.
- Locanda La Candola, Soligo: In a large hilltop restaurant with original fireplace and fabulous views, Alberto Cristante serves superb fresh seafood on unusual tableware. Rooms, too.
- Salís Ristorante Enoteca, Valdobiaddene: The dedication of owner and chef Chiara Barisan is obvious in every detail of this fine restaurant with beautiful views over Cartizze, the DOCG’s top terroir – and a wine list to match.
- Osteria Borgoluce, Susegana: Former accommodation for Collalto family tenants, transformed into an osteria that makes fine use of the estate’s own produce. And with 1,000ha, there is plenty to choose from.
- Seda a Colonìa, Vittorio Veneto: I visited before the spa was open, but with Alessandro Favrin in the kitchen it was still worth the trip. The meat and pasta were excellent, as was the inventively presented ‘vineyard’ of petits fours.
- Locanda Sandi, Valdobbiadene: In a former stable block, meat is grilled over wood in a giant fireplace lined with white stone from the Piave river. There are also six visitor bedrooms upstairs.
Activities and accommodation in Conegliano and Valdobbiadene
- Ori Prosecco Driver: Tours from €200 for four hours, not including tasting. Oriana Balliana is a native of the area and knows absolutely everyone. She specialises in tours of the smaller, lesser-known wineries, but she is flexible, so if, like me, you want to poke your nose into a few churches, she knows where all the keys are kept.
- Hotel Villa Soligo, Soligo: Rooms from €142; breakfast from €18. Modern decor and thick wooden beams in this elegant hotel in the middle of the DOCG, with a sauna, steam room and treatments available downstairs.
- Villa Barberina, Valdobbiadene: Rooms from €185, including breakfast. Primo and Annalisa Franco have turned a contessa’s villa next to one of their vineyards into an extraordinary B&B, with modern conveniences (including pool) but otherwise unchanged. Rent a room or take over the entire villa – they can provide butler and housekeeping.
- Alice Relais nelle Vigne, Carpesica: Rooms from €125, including breakfast. Eight simple rooms on the hilltop Bellenda property, next to their home and a small church. The decor is lightly Wonderland themed – watches in the White Rabbit’s room, hats in the Mad Hatter’s – the baked goods are homemade, the views spectacular and Alice’s room has a Jacuzzi bath.