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Prosecco Superiore DOCG: How to Think and What to Drink
By Michael Franz
Jun 26, 2018
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In this follow-up to my column from last month, I want to get straight to the key points:  First, buying almost any bottle of Prosecco Superiore DOCG is much, much smarter than buying almost any bottle of Prosecco DOC.  Second, this is because the significant trade-up in quality comes at a smaller price difference than any comparable quality increment in the entire world of wine.  Third, even within the premium category of Prosecco Superiore DOCG, the trade-up from entry level wines to the “best of the best” costs very little.  Fourth, the reason behind points 1 through 3 is that very few consumers around the world know how easy it is to “beat the game,” or how stupid it is to simply ask a retailer or restaurant server to just, “Give me a Prosecco.”

That’s about as stark an opening paragraph as I’ve published during more than two decades of wine writing, and though there’s nothing in it that I’d hedge, I should offer a few explanations and caveats.

For one, there are some good Prosecco DOC wines made, and not all Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines are better…or even particularly good.  However, savvy Prosecco purchasing is all about playing the percentages, and the average at the DOCG level is clearly higher.

Additionally, the fact that the price difference between DOC and DOCG is so slim is not all good, regardless of the fact that well informed consumers can take advantage of it.  Production costs in the delimited DOCG zone are much higher, due to the steeply sloped terrain, which requires that most vineyard work be done by hand, whereas viticulture in the relatively flat DOC territory can be mechanized easily.  The average annual labor required in the DOCG region is about 400% higher, and though I’ve heard different statistics cited, all of them hover around this credible-seeming number.  Producers in the DOCG region deserve to get higher prices for their wines than they’re getting now (though this is partially their own fault…as we shall see).

Finally, though it really is “stupid” to simply ask for “Prosecco” when buying in retail shops or restaurants, because one could do better for very little additional cost, consumers who fail to distinguish between DOC and DOCG don’t hold a monopoly on stupidity.  I know I’m not making friends by throwing that word around, but it really is astonishing to me that the association of producers tending vines on those steep slopes haven’t figured out a way to designate their wines more simply. 

So, on one hand, it is a bad idea to just ask for a “Prosecco.”  But on the other hand, it is an even worse idea to call one’s (much better) wine something like:  “Bortolotti Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Rive di Col S. Martino "Castel de Donà" Brut 2016.

There are some understandable reasons why that terrific wine is designated as it is, and I address some of them in my review of it below.  But seriously, when producers in a wine region make the Germans seem concise, their sales problems start looking self-inflicted.

To be clear, I'm not merely being snotty about the cumbersome terminology with which vintners in Valdobbiadene and Conegliano have saddled themselves.  The fact is that the problem goes to the very heart of their failure to command the respect--and prices--that their wines deserve.

And here's why:  The only way to persuade large numbers of consumers to trade up to Superiore is to get them to try the wines, and the best way to do that is securing by-the-glass placements in restaurants.  In the battle for slots on by-the-glass cards, DOG wines are slaughtering their more deserving DOCG counterparts in the USA, even in a city like my Washington, D.C., which is full of prosperous and adventuresome customers.

Most restaurants in the city are pouring a Prosecco by the glass, but almost none are pouring two.  If you were the Beverage Director in one of these restaurants, do you want to put even a relatively simple DOCG wine on your card when the entry would read, Sommariva, Conegliano – Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut NV?

That's how the entry would read at a minimum, without any reference to the broader region (Veneto) or the country of origin (Italy).  This is a mess that producers in the Superiore region made for themselves when tacking the names of their municipalities onto the name of their wines, and they can't reasonably expect to get restaurateurs to solve the problem for them.  The predicament has existed for nine years now, and my conversations with producers in May demonstrated that they're clearly aware of the problem, but have no viable plan for dealing with it.

Do I have a plan?  Well, as a lover of the wines who hates how undervalued they remain, I've at least got an idea.  The Italians were forced to turn "Prosecco" into a geographical designation when the Australians and Brazilians started releasing wines with that name, as grape names can't be protected.  That produced a windfall for those growing "Glera" on the flatlands, and what vintners on the hillsides got out of the deal was "Superiore" and "DOCG."  So, why not leave it at that?  How about going with just, "Prosecco Superiore DOCG"?  The Tuscans sell a gazillion bottles of "Chianti Classico," which seems to work just fine.  And whereas "Classico" can sound like "old," Superiore" can't be mistaken for anything but, "Superior."

Yes, I understand that residents of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are proud of their municipalities.  But still, no matter how much I loved my grandmother, if her name had been Annamaria-Magdelena Franz, I damn sure wouldn't have passed that name along to my daughter.

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For background on how the whole DOCG vs. DOC mess arose in the first place, please have a look at my most recent column.  To get to that…or to access the column archives of any of our Wine Review Online columnists, simply click on the writer’s photo or name on the WRO “Home” page beneath the Blog space.

Shifting to tastier matters, you’ll find recommendations below for some of the very best Prosecco Superiore Spumante wines.  The category order runs from drier to sweeter, but note that off-dry or slightly sweet Prosecco Superiore can be every bit as good as the Bruts.  Within categories, top scoring wines appear first, with alphabetical ordering used for wines earning the same score.  I hope to publish more reviews as the summer progresses, as opportunities for serious tasting were limited in my May trip to the region.  But for now, here are some killer wines to get you started:

BRUT:

Villa Sandi, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze “Vigna La Rivetta” Brut 2016 ($40, Folio):  Cartizze is actually a separate DOCG from the other wines made in the region, widely described locally as the area’s “Grand Cru.”  Very steep, with a southerly orientation, it is a conspicuously promising vineyard site even to the naked eye, and has been prized for generations due to its ability to produce very ripe fruit that was almost always finished quite sweet.  This unusual Brut rendition was the most delicious wine I tasted on my 2018 visit to the region, though that is hardly a surprise, as this wine has been supremely delicious every year for at least the past eight vintages.  It simply has more depth and sheer flavor impact than almost any wine made in the region, yet still manages to seem supremely graceful, with essentially perfect proportionality to the fruit, minerality, acidity, and texture of effervescence.  Although finished truly Brut dry, the wine still seems very generous, and the balance is so good that one could sip this tirelessly for hours (after handing over one’s car keys).  For many wine consumers, shelling out $40 for a bottle of Prosecco might seem like madness--and that’s almost certainly true even for lovers of Prosecco.  I’m content to let them continue thinking that--aside from readers of this review--as there’s simply not enough of this rare and sensational wine to go around, and everyone who tastes it is sure to want more.  My score might be a point low…it is definitely not too high.  And by the way, though the 2016 is the current release in the USA, I tasted the 2017 in Italy, and it is at least as good.  94

Bortolotti, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Rive di Col S. Martino "Castel de Donà" Brut 2016 ($24, Skurnik Wines):  This Rive bottling from Bortolotti is more assertive and dramatic than the house’s Rive di. S. Stefano "Montagnole" which succeeds more on subtlety than strength.  They are roughly equal in quality, though I had to give the nod to this wine simply because it is more likely to jar tasters into recognition of just how good high-end Prosecco can be.  Very expressive in aromas, with deep flavors showing a lot of grip and extract in addition to abundant fruit, this is a complete and utterly convincing wine.  With this praise stated, we should address why the producer would tack on the proprietary name of “Castel de Donà” onto all the other mind-numbing terminology involved in the wine’s designation.  The answer is that wines in the “Rive” category are sourced from entire villages rather than single vineyards, and because many other owners have holdings in the 15 villages entitled to bottle wines of this sort, some sort of verbiage is needed to distinguish them from one another.  It seems impossible that anybody could make German vintners seem concise and straightforward, but producers in the Conegliano - Valdobbiadene area have indeed achieved this dubious distinction.  93

Adami, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Rive di Farra di Soligo “Col Credas” Brut 2017 ($22, imported by Dalla Terra):  This exceptional wine is very close to as good as Brut Prosecco can be.   For starters, it is truly bone dry at just 2 to 4 grams per liter of residual sugar, yet it neither comes off as austere nor finishes with any bitterness, as often happens when Glera is finished with essentially no sugar.  Additionally, it shows the light floral aromas appropriate to the grape variety but doesn’t produce the phenomenon that professional tasters call “disagreement,” when a dry finish clashes with aromas that promise more sweetness than the wine delivers.  Thanks to fine bubbles, restrained fruit, and acidity that provides a fresh edge without turning sharp, one’s comprehensive sense of this is that the wine is brilliantly balanced and harmonious, which is a very impressive achievement in a wine made in this style.  92

Bortolotti, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Rive di S. Stefano "Montagnole" Brut 2016 ($24, Skurnik Wines):  Bottlings of Prosecco Superiore DOCG labeled with a “Rive” designation must be sourced entirely from a single village or hamlet within the Conegliano – Valdobbiadene production region, and must be vintage-dated.  The category is less than a decade old, and though the eligible villages are located in the generally highest-regarded subzone of the region, these are still not single-site wines from a “cru,” and they are very disparate in style.  Aside from the variations introduced by location and production technique, the wines may be finished at levels of sweetness ascending from Brut Nature to Brut to Extra Dry to, finally, Dry, which is -- of course -- the sweetest of all.  If you haven’t lapsed into a coma, but remain interested in this wine, its one saving grace is that it is absolutely delicious.  It is unusually intricate on the nose and broader and deeper in flavor than most Brut Proseccos at the exalted DOCG level, yet is fairly light in weight and admirably stylish and restrained, with terrific balance between fruit, acidity and effervescence.  92

La Marca, Conegliano – Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG “Luminore” Brut NV ($30, La Marca USA / Gallo):  This is a new, high-end release from La Marca created to commemorate this house’s 50th anniversary.  I tasted it in the USA rather than in the region, which is likely to its disadvantage (traveling certainly doesn’t help wines of this type), but found it to be excellent nevertheless.  Its particular excellence isn’t quite what one might expect:  It isn’t richer than other high-end bottlings of Prosecco Superiore, nor is it especially dry or sweet or mineral in character.  Rather, purity is the key to the wine’s success, and though it doesn’t seem that “purity” could be an attribute that is “striking” to a taster, that’s exactly how it hit me.  To some degree, this hit wasn’t a “sucker punch,” it the sense that the wine shows its unusualness, and I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a Prosecco that was so perfectly “water white” (despite having tasted thousands of glasses of the stuff).  The floral aromas are quite subtle, with faint blossom scents and very delicate fruit notes that echo on the palate, with flavors of barely ripe apricot and fully ripe apple.  Be forewarned that this is an extremely restrained wine, and if dynamics rather than purity are what you seek in a $30 wine, this may not be for you.  But I found it to be convincingly delicious, as did the two tasters with whom I shared my press sample bottle.  92

Sommariva, Conegliano – Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut NV ($15, Kermit Lynch):  This high-quality wine is a steal for $15, which is what the importer sells the wine for in his retail shop, and the prevailing price around the USA, with a couple of retailers selling for a dollar or two less.  One mark of quality is that the effervescence is quite fine in texture.  Another is that this is a truly dry Brut wine at just 8 – 9 grams per liter of residual sugar, managing to seem neither sweet nor austere.  The fruit is admirably restrained, showing notes that recall apples more than riper peaches or stone fruits.  Very solid, very clean, very well made…and again, a bargain.  91

Adami, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG “Bosco di Gica” Brut NV ($18):  Certainly among the best DOCG Bruts (8 – 10 grams per liter of sugar) sold in the USA that isn’t a “Rive” bottling from a single village, this offers excellent quality at a very reasonable price.  It can’t match the substance or breadth on the palate of Adami’s “Col Credas,” but the acid balance is every bit as precise, and the mousse is actually a little finer in texture.  This is high-class Prosecco that still offers a lot of fun, both because it is so easy to sip but also because it is so easy to pay for with a clean conscience.  90

Bortolotti, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut NV ($21, Skurnik Wines):  Prosecco DOCG from the hills -- often very steep hills -- around the town of Valdobbiadene should not be confused with the mostly machine-made stuff bearing DOC designation.  However, it is easy to understand why confusion rules, in light of all the obscure and forgettable verbiage I’ve already needed to employ just to designate this wine and distinguish it from the ocean of fun but frivolous stuff that gets poured when somebody asks for “a Prosecco.”  To be clear about this particular wine, at least, it is subtly charming aromatically, with faintly floral scents and just a whiff of fruitiness.  The flavors are similarly restrained, with suggestions of peaches and apricots, but not particularly ripe ones, as there’s a refreshing zing of acidity running straight into the clean, defined finish.  90

Perlage, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut “Canah” NV ($17):  This is a very well made Brut with admirable generosity for a truly dry wine.  It shows nice floral notes (many people in the region use “acacia blossom” as a descriptor, but having never smelled an acacia blossom, I’m merely passing this along without endorsement), with just a hint of bitterness in the finish.  The wine is both organic and vegan.  One last aside:  This winery also makes a Glera-based Spumante Extra Brut from the adjacent appellation of Asolo (also known as Colli Asolani), and though this production zone remains quite obscure in the USA, that wine outperformed this one.  I can’t find evidence of it being imported here, but I’ll be watching for it on my travels.  90


EXTRA DRY:

Bortolotti, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Rive di Rolle "Piai Alto" Extra Dry 2016 ($24, Skurnik Wines):  Most good Extra Dry Proseccos at the upper DOCG level leave me pleased by how alluring and fun they seem, rather than impressed by them as wines.  This stands as an exception.  A truly impressive wine, it shows much more dimension and intricacy of bouquet than Bortolotti’s standard Extra Dry, and likewise it seems to derive a higher proportion of its flavor from fruit than sugar.  The effervescence is finer in grain, yet every bit as abundant, and in overall terms, this Rive bottling actually comes across as being more “generous” in overall terms than the Bruts, yet no less serious on that account.  A standout at this sweetness level.  92

Sommariva, Conegliano – Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Rive di San Michele Extra Dry 2017 ($20, Kermit Lynch):  Sommariva’s American importer, Kermit Lynch, doesn’t bring this wine in to the USA at the moment, so prepare yourself for a search that could prove frustrating--though wonderfully rewarding if successful.  I’m just guessing at the price, and if I’m off, I’m probably off on the high side…though the wine is certainly worth $25 or more.  It seems amazingly fresh and clean for a Prosecco with 14 grams per liter of residual sugar, showing lots of fruit but very little overtly sugary flavor.  The finish is very long and exceptionally symmetrical, with stone fruit and baked apple flavors tailing off in perfect sync with fresh acidity.  Especially impressive is the fact that the wine actually improves as it warms in the glass, which is often true of Bruts but less frequently so with Extra Dry Proseccos.  Bloody good wine.  Kermit, come on, Man!  92

Villa Sandi, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG NV ($20, Folio):  This is simply terrific Extra Dry Prosecco Superiore, and many experienced tasters would actually need a look at the back label to figure out whether it is a Brut or Extra Dry, as every sensory impression of sweetness strikes one as fruity rather than sugary.  That’s a rare achievement in this category, and when adding to this the fact that the wine’s effervescence is both abundant but very fine-grained and delicate, there’s no avoiding the conclusion that this is an exemplary wine and an object lesson in the potential seriousness of the Extra Dry category of Prosecco Superiore.  92

Adami, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG “Dei Casel” Extra Dry NV ($18):  Although Adami's Brut Prosecco Superiore wines are undeniably excellent, this bottling seems a bit more luxurious by comparison...despite being less expensive.  The scents of fresh blossoms are very expressive and the flavors are open and generous, with a wonderfully foamy, "fluffy" texture to the finish.  My descriptors here could mislead you into thinking that this wine might be a bit like a too-soft mattress or a car with overly cushy suspension, so let me head off that misunderstanding immediately:  There's plenty of energetic acidity here, giving the wine excellent definition and "cut" for a relatively sweet sparkler, and the resulting balance between juiciness and fresh edginess is the key to its delicious success.  91

Bortolotti, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry NV ($16, Skurnik Wines):  Just to “clarify” things, Extra Dry Proseccos are less dry than Brut ones, so expect some fruity sweetness if you crack into this one, which you certainly should.  The grape from which this is made (called Glera since 2009, when “Prosecco” was turned into a geographical indicator rather than a variety name) is notably floral in character, and sparkling wines made from it often seem most “naturally” styled when finished with some sweetness.  This is true not only with regard to the interplay of aromas and flavors, but also in textural terms.  I don’t know quite how to explain this, but I’ve experienced it empirically hundreds of times, so let’s try this:  Extra Dry Proseccos seem notably “fluffier” in effervescence when finished with 15 or more grams per liter of residual sugar.  I’m tempted to liken them to vinous cotton candy, and though that simile works well as a textural image, it could mislead a reader into thinking that the wines are overtly sugary, when their flavors actually come off as ripely fruity.  This is a quite good rendition of the breed, well suited to stand-alone sipping before or after a meal, but particularly successful with spicy or smoky charcuterie.  89

Perlage, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry “Quorum” NV ($17):  This wine comes off as quite sweet, even for a Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry, but it is undeniably delicious regardless of that fact.  The fruit recalls ripe golden apples, and though that’s far from my favorite apple variety, the flavor is entirely pleasing in this wine.  Fluffy and juicy fun (if not overly serious-seeming), it is awfully hard to imagine any open-minded taster failing to enjoy this wine.  89


DRY (meaning, sweet…don’t blame me):

Sommariva, Conegliano – Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Dry NV ($20, Kermit Lynch):  This sweet-ish wine (25 GPL of residual sugar) from Sommariva has also been passed on by Kermit Lynch, the USA importer, and in this case, there’s more justification because it isn’t so easy to recommend how to use it.  This isn’t to say that the wine isn’t delicious (it certainly is), but rather that it is a little too sweet to work as an aperitif (except with quite spicy salami) but isn’t sweet enough to work well with deserts (except maybe shortbread, as opposed to the “cakes” recommended by the producer).  With this reservation noted, it is still true that sensitivity to sweetness is highly subjective among tasters, as are food-pairing preferences, and as for the wine…it is beautifully balanced and full of juicy, peachy flavor.  90

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Questions?  Comments?  Name ideas for these delicious wines?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com