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Prosecco Today…and a Special Prosecco
By Ed McCarthy
Dec 4, 2012
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The first time that I can remember drinking Prosecco was in Tuscany, over 25 years ago.  It was a warm summer afternoon, and we had lunch at an elegant restaurant.  First we were escorted to the restaurant’s terrace, and amidst the chirping birds, without our asking, we were served a chilled Prosecco.  Needless to say--being introduced to Prosecco under these idyllic circumstances--I fell in love with it. 

I remember vividly my first trip to the Prosecco region: It was two weeks after 9/11/2001, and not many people were flying.  Prosecco was just catching on in the U.S.  What struck me about the region was its cool climate; it was nestled in the foothills of the Alps, and the vineyards were protected from extreme weather.

At that time, only a few Italian restaurants in the U.S. served Prosecco, and it was a non-presence in retail shops.  Who could have predicted Prosecco’s enormous commercial success that has taken place in the last decade? 

But with the sudden fame came a price.  Prosecco is now being produced in huge quantities in Italy.  Grapes are being grown in a large area in northeastern Veneto province--with many of the vineyards not in the best, original region of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (towns in Veneto’s northeast corner, in the hills north of the town of Treviso, not far from Venice).

It reminds me of what has happened to Pinot Grigio being imported into this country (and to Soave a few decades before).  Yes, good Pinot Grigio still exists, but you have to seek it out.  Most of the wine being sold as Pinot Grigio today is bland, slightly sweet, and insipid.  The same fate happened to Soave, but happily, Soave has gone through a successful renaissance.

Today, almost everyone who drinks wine in the U.S. knows about Prosecco.  It is hugely popular, and competes with the equally popular Spanish sparkling wine, Cava, in stores and in restaurants.  Both bubbly wines are doing very well versus Champagne, and it’s easy to imagine the reason: Even the least expensive Champagnes are three times the price of Cava and Prosecco.  And Prosecco has one important advantage over Cava: just about every Italian restaurant in the country now has Prosecco available, and there are a lot more Italian restaurants than Spanish restaurants in the U.S.

The original Prosecco zone is located in a very hilly, pre-Alps area. Outside of this district, the land becomes more flat.  Because of the proliferation of Prosecco outside of the original zone, producers have taken steps to protect their wine.  Starting in 2009, only the 160 producers whose wines are made from vineyards within 15 communes in the Conegliano/Valdobbiadene zone may use the Prosecco DOCG appellation on the labels (front or back label) of their wines.  Either Prosecco Valdobbiadene DOCG, Conegliano DOCG, or Conegliano/ Valdobbiadene DOCG may be used.

In the nine provinces in Veneto outside of the delimited DOCG zone, wineries making Prosecco that was previously labeled IGT Veneto now can use the Prosecco DOC appellation.  In the neighboring region of Friuli, producers can use Prosecco DOC, Friuli, on their labels for their wines.  Outside of these areas, no other wineries can use the word “prosecco” as it is a legally protected name.  In fact, the grape variety previously known as “prosecco” has had its name changed to “Glera.”  In other words, “Prosecco” is the geographical area and “Glera” is now the name of the grape variety.

The term “Prosecco” was being used on wine labels in California, and in several countries besides Italy around the world.  Now, no Prosecco-style wine--in Italy or elsewhere outside of the DOCG or DOC Prosecco districts, may be called Prosecco.

Of the DOCG or DOC Proseccos, I generally prefer the Valdobbiadene DOCG Proseccos; this is the appellation you see the most in the Prosecco DOCG wines being imported into the U.S.

Prosecco first achieved fame as the main ingredient in the Bellini cocktail. The Bellini, made from Prosecco and white peach juice, was invented by a bartender in the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice.  It was a favorite drink of Ernest Hemingway and his crowd during the “Golden ‘20’s.”  Prosecco was being made as a somewhat sweet, rather undistinguished wine until the late 1960s, when local producers raised its quality standards, both in the vineyards and in the winemaking.

Prosecco today is produced either as fully sparkling (called spumante) or as lightly sparkling (frizzante).  A small amount of still (non-sparkling) Prosecco is also made, but I do not recommend it; Prosecco definitely tastes better with bubbles.  Some Prosecco Spumante is produced similar to Champagne (metodo classico), with the second fermentation taking place in the bottle, and is usually the better and more expensive Prosecco.  Most Proseccos use the Charmat method (with the fermentation taking place in large, stainless steel tanks).

Prosecco can be Brut (the driest, up to 12 grams per liter of residual sugar added), Extra Dry, or Dry.  I much prefer the Brut to the sweeter Proseccos.  It can also be made as “Extra Brut” (drier than Brut), which is quite dry.

You are usually safe sticking to the popular names of Prosecco, such as Mionetto, Adami, Astoria, Zardetto, Zonin, and Bisol--I find Bisol Proseccos particularly fine--but one Prosecco brand for me that is particularly special is Nino Franco.

Nino Franco, one of the older Prosecco wineries, was founded in 1919 by Antonio Franco, grandfather of the current owner.  It is located in the central part of the town of Valdobbiadene, a town large enough to have five hotels. Antonio’s son, Nino Franco, established the winery as one of the prime Prosecco producers.  When Nino Franco’s son, Primo Franco, took over in 1982, quality rose to new heights. Primo Franco, an urbane man and great conversationalist, has traveled the world, visiting wine regions.  He developed a special affinity for Champagne, an unusual passion for typically provincial Italian wine producers.

Primo Franco’s quest for quality in his Prosecco is demonstrated by his basic (he’d hate my using that word) non-vintage Prosecco, “Rustico” Valdobbiadene DOCG, which retails in the $12 to $15 range.  One hundred percent Glera, it is lively, clean, and fresh, with both lemony and apple notes, definitely one of the best Proseccos in this price category.  It would be difficult to find a better sparkling wine under $15 than Rustico.  Serve it cold, with antipasti, vegetables, or seafood.  It is best in its first three years, like most Proseccos.  

Definitely a step up in Nino Franco’s portfolio is its Primo Franco Valdobbiadene DOCG, also 100 percent Glera, but from vineyards higher in the hillsides around the town.  The current 2011 Primo Franco is very aromatic, rich, and concentrated.  It can easily complement a hearty pasta and mushrooms entrée or salmon.  About $22/$23.

Producer Primo Franco always wanted to have a rosé sparkling wine in his portfolio.  But Prosecco by law must be white.  That detail did not stop Franco.  A few years ago, he began purchasing Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes from a vintner friend, and Franco has produced a surprisingly delightful, medium pink-colored sparkling brut called Faive.  Made from 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc, the current 2010 Faive Brut retails for about $20.  Franco’s Faive is his one sparkling wine that can complement poultry dishes, such as chicken with mushrooms, or meaty fish such as salmon.

The premium Prosecco of Nino Franco is its single-vineyard wine, Grave di Stecca, made from very old vines in a walled vineyard outside of the town of Valdobbiadene.  It is 100 percent Glera, Valdobbiadene DOCG.  With Grave di Stecca, Nino Franco reaches the quality level of a fine Champagne, and yet at a reasonable $38 to $40 retail price for the currently available 2009 vintage.  Yes, expensive for a Prosecco, but not for a quality sparkling wine such as Grave di Stecca.  This wine would be excellent with the wonderful Italian dish, vitello di tonnato.  Only 1500 cases produced.  As with all Proseccos, serve it cold, about 45°F.

Good Prosecco is an excellent value in sparkling wines.  Just check the label carefully to make sure that you are getting the best Prosecco from Valdobbiadene or Conegliano.  Many good Proseccos are available in the $10 to $15 range, with most of the others $20 or less.  With Champagne starting at $40, Prosecco is the perfect wine to bring to parties…which might well make it the wine of the moment.