Towards a new prosecco

While consumers may know Prosecco as an off-dry, fruity fizz, new styles are emerging. Giles Fallowfield took a look.

View to the Dolomites from the L’Antica Quercia estate
View to the Dolomites from the L’Antica Quercia estate

Prosecco’s success, unlike that of most other wine regions, has been built from the bottom up. There are no ‘iconic’ Prosecco wines – no Krugs, Salons or Comtes de Champagne, as Sarah Abbott MW noted at a recent seminar on trends emerging in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene. .

This largely off-dry, soft, easy style of approachable fizz has in a short space of time achieved extraordinary popularity. But efforts are also being made to offer Prosecco drinkers wines that have more of a sense of place, that reflect a specific terroir. This is near impossible to do in the wider Prosecco Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP), which stretches across nine provinces in Veneto and Fruili in north-eastern Italy. Even in the more specifically delineated appellation of Conegliano Valdobbiadene (ConVal) created in 1969, the area involved, all in the Veneto and within the single province of Treviso, is quite large and not uniform. Upgraded to DOCG status in 2009, it comprises about 8,000ha; to be precise, 7,706.2ha because of the Superiore di Cartizze and Rive areas, 107.8ha and 274ha respectively are excluded.

Special sites

The Superiore di Cartizze sub-zone, which has existed with its own more stringent, specific regulations since 1969, has long shown the possibility of identifying superior growing conditions for vines in ConVal. But there is still a tendency today of mostly making sweeter dry (12gm to 17gm per litre residual sugar) and extra dry (17gm to 32gm/L residual sugar) styles of Cartizze from the steep slopes and ancient soils of the hamlets of San Pietro di Barbozza, Santo Stefano and Saccol. This has stopped or at least obstructed the emergence of a more terroir-driven, Cartizze style of Prosecco. 

The advent of 43 Rive production zones, something akin to Premier Crus in Burgundy, could be the start of something new and exciting. Since Rive production became possible a decade ago, the number of hectares of vineyard so designated has grown from nothing to 274ha. It rose by 9.2%, from 251ha to 274ha, between 2015 and 2017. 

While DOC Prosecco production has mushroomed over the past decade, there has also been a noticeable increase in sales of DOCG styles, particularly in the past three years, albeit from a much smaller base. Interestingly, DOC growth has been export-led, while the majority of DOCG Prosecco, about 58% of production, is sold predominantly in northern Italy. This holds true for Rive wines too. In 2016, only a quarter of the 1.9m bottles designated as Rive were exported, representing less than 1% of all DOCG production. 

Affluent locals – and this is a wealthy part of Italy – are prepared to pay extra for more flavoursome, characterful wines, it seems. In parallel, interest is growing in drier styles of sparkling wine that are more food-friendly, showing a purer fruit character. Less sugar is lowering the calorie count too. 

To make Rive production even more on trend, many of the artisan producers who are involved favour less intervention and more sustainable vineyard and winemaking practices. This means lower sulphur use plus organic or even biodynamic production for these site-specific wines, which should appeal to Prosecco-drinking Millennials.

Admittedly, even for Venetians the Rive concept is a difficult one for consumers to grasp. A September tour of different Rive sites, set up by Abbott and the ConVal Consorzio, sought to address this issue directly by visiting some of the best-known examples and tasting different individual wines produced in specific sites. 

Prosecco country

The tour began by visiting the steep slopes of Superiore di Cartizze, within the commune of Valdobbiadene and just to the south-east of the town, itself located on the western edge of the DOCG area. It has long been acknowledged as the premium site of the DOCG, with some 131 growers owning land here, so parcels are necessarily small, with many vineyard owners having just a few rows of vines. And while it’s probably still the majority who continue to make the sweeter dry and extra dry styles, there’s a definite trend towards drier, even bone-dry wines, says Roberto Merlo, technical director of the ConVal Consorzio.

To emphasise this point, two of the three wines presented are Brut Nature styles of Cartizze from producers Garbara and Silvano Follador respectively, plus a dry style from Tanorè. None of this trio uses the word Prosecco on their labels, preferring Cartizze DOCG or, in the case of the Follador, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze. The two completely dry wines are not at all austere and two of the best examples of the attractive, aromatic, floral, distinctly saline wines presented.    

Moving slightly further east, the first of four Rive sites involved is Rive di Col San Martino. Its spectacularly steep slopes demonstrate that hand-picking, a legal requirement here, is in any case the only option and that getting the grapes down to the winery on the valley floor presents a serious transport problem. Graziano Merotto’s Cuvée del Fondatore is labelled Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, a Brut Millesimato 2017, while Rive di Col San Martino gets similar billing on the label. The Merotto wine boasts a zippy, fruit refreshing style – again there’s a distinct saline, seashell note on the finish.

Over the course of the afternoon, Merlo leads the group up three more vine-clad, vertiginous Rives slopes heading eastwards – Di Farra di Soligo, Di Rolle and Di Refrontolo. Hillsides jut abruptly from the plain below, with the majestic backdrop of the Dolomites another step up, further to the north. As well as tasting site-specific wines, all made in Brut style, at each Rive there is a comparison of a more Catholic selection of Brut Zero, Brut and Extra Dry DOCG non-Rive Proseccos. 

It would be overstating the case to say any clear Rive style trend is emerging, which is hardly surprising after less than a decade of production. Nor could you realistically make any claim to have identified something particular from the wines of any single Rive site. Those visited were far from uniform, even in terms of slope, soil types and aspect. Widely different approaches to winemaking further muddy the picture. What can be said is that more Brut and Brut Nature wines are being made from the fruit of these special sites and that such drier wines can more easily be made from appropriately chosen specific locations. As more producers decide to make Rive wines, it’s likely that Brut, Extra Brut and Brut Zero styles will be in the majority. 

Widely different approaches to winemaking and a good deal of experimentation mean it’s still too early to identify many best practices. As Abbott says: “There’s a new generation of producers who are working with things like skin maceration, using natural yeasts, extending lees ageing, and employing longer and slower secondary fermentation (sometimes in bottle) in their drive for stony, mineral wines with delicately perfumed aromatics and airy intensity.”   

This new, experimental generation is also producing some more radically different sparkling wines, although these have their roots firmly in the region’s traditional methods. 

Sediment style

Throughout the region there are individual producers making Col Fondo styles, literally “with sediment”. This frizzante, lower pressure, low-sulphite, unfiltered, bottle fermented wine is popular in the hip Italian on-trade where it’s served lightly cloudy without removing the sediment. No doubt influenced by the natural wine movement, many of these artisanal frizzantes are made using natural yeasts and undergo extensive lees ageing; they are necessarily low in sulphur too. 

It didn’t seem a coincidence that some of the best Rive producers were also those making these Col Fondo wines, which are technically difficult. Malibràn’s Credamora Col Fondo 2013 vintage, which is a bottle fermented, unfiltered, Brut Zero style, can be labelled Valdobbiadene DOCG because it is a fully sparkling spumante. When such wines are made at lower pressure and technically frizzante not spumante, as they typically are, they can’t be labelled DOCG. 

As there is certainly a buzz of excitement around this category and good evidence to show that these wines can age in an interesting way, it certainly seems a missed opportunity to not allow such wines to use the DOCG and thus shine a light on the upper echelons of the category. One of the best visits was to L’Antica Quercia, an organic winery based in Scomigo di Conegliano, on the eastern edge of the DOCG just to the north of Conegliano. As well as expressive, balanced Extra Dry (Ariò 2017) and Brut (Matiù 2017) styles both labelled Conegliano Prosecco Superiore DOCG, they also showed Sù Alto 2016 Sui Lieviti Vino Frizzante. As Mara Ghirardi of the winemaking team says: “Bottled under crown cap, so sugars, completely natural with no filtration, no sulphides added, it’s very representative of our production here.”

They have been working since the 2015 vintage on Col Fondo styles with Alberto Coletti, from the Consorzio, and the results are impressive. Perfumed, fragrant with good fruit intensity and some mid-palate texture, it can’t be called superiore nor can Glera or Prosecco be used on the label, but unlike most Prosecco, it’s an age-worthy wine, says Ghiradi. Winemaker Claudio Francavilla says the “DOCG should understand this [Col Fondo style] is part of the history and the heritage of the region and part of its future too”. 

Col Fondo production is not solely the preserve of the small artisan producer; the Bottega family is working on just such a wine, the first bottling of which is due to be released at the end of this year. Sandro Bottega suggests that perhaps the DOCG could create a new category called Ancestrale to embrace this development. “There’s a real future in taking this traditional, historical method of winemaking but applying the best of modern technology to it, to improve the image of Prosecco.”    

The Brut Nature and Col Fondo styles will remain limited as their production is tiny, but perhaps they will in time become the iconic wines that Prosecco lacks.

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