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Rethinking Prosecco...Yet Again
By Michael Franz
Jun 12, 2007
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Prosecco is among the world's easiest wines to enjoy.  Yet, despite that fact (and partly because of it), Prosecco is not the world's easiest wine to understand or regard properly.  I confess that I have misunderstood it, and not just once, but twice.  I want to help you avoid my mistakes, so bear with me and read on.

My problems with understanding Prosecco correctly stem from two divergent facts about wine in general.  In one sense, wine is an extremely complex and difficult subject, and is best approached in a systematic, even scholarly frame of mind.  In another sense, though, wine is not a "subject" at all, and the whole point is simply that it tastes good and is fun.  Sometimes--and with some wines in particular--the scholarly approach leads us astray and leaves us looking ridiculous, like humorless people who kill jokes by seeking or offering explanations for them.

My first mistake with Prosecco was of this sort.  I took the stuff too seriously.

Prosecco, in one sense (sorry, but you'll see that I need this two-track approach), is the epitome of the just-for-fun type of wine that you won't "get" if you approach it too analytically.  I say this as someone trained as a scholar (in a field other than wine) who occasionally veers off track by being too analytical, which is exactly what I did when I was introduced to Prosecco at a wine trade fair called Vinitaly in Verona about a decade ago.

I liked it from my first taste, and by sheer force of habit launched a research project:  I resolved to taste every Prosecco at Vinitaly; track down all of the types and subtypes; develop a flow chart for the Prosecco-making process; learn all of the connections between production zones and particular flavor profiles, and so forth.

I was in the middle of interviewing my ninth Prosecco producer when, in response to some misdirected question about atmospheric pressure or residual sugar levels, he gently nudged me back on track by saying, "To understand Prosecco, you need to get into an Italian attitude."

I wasn't exactly sure what this meant, but I took his implication to be that I was barking up the wrong tree.  This was confirmed when he continued by asserting that Prosecco "can be enjoyed beginning at 8:00 a.m. and drunk throughout the day, then poured as an accompaniment to dinner, and finally enjoyed in its sweeter style with dessert."

Without endorsing this usage pattern, I'd say he was right.  I had approached Prosecco in the wrong way by pursuing a technical angle, because Prosecco is much less about atmospheric pressure or residual sugar levels than about consequences-be-damned hedonism.

You only need a few facts to get a good start appreciating Prosecco:  It is a fruity, frothy sparkler, usually made in the area around Treviso north and west of Venice.  Good bottles are fresh and floral and full of juicy, foamy fun.  Proseccos are not as complex as bottles of Champagne, but they don't care.  Good bottles of Prosecco are extremely uncomfortable at seminars, but fit right in afterward around the swimming pool.  Prosecco thinks polo is stupid but loves to shoot pool and stay out too late.  You get the idea.

Prosecco is unserious right from the start, at least in one important sense.  The Prosecco grape itself is closer to playfully floral varieties like Muscat and Malvasia than to relatively reserved grapes like Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc.  Prosecco producers don't take the grape seriously by making it in the revered Méthode Champenoise but rather by the frequently ridiculed "Charmat" or "Bulk" process.

Ridicule of this process may be frequent and widespread but it is misinformed.  The Charmat method for producing effervescence from a second fermentation performed in pressurized tanks is in no way inherently inferior to the Méthode Champenoise process, which is performed in individual bottles.  But perhaps we are now lapsing back into a scholarly mode and going astray.  So, let's just say this:  The Charmat method preserves fruit and freshness and makes perfect sense for Prosecco, which, if it could, would make rude gestures at Champagne and its precious method.

Prosecco producers almost never indicate vintage dates on the bottles.  They could easily do so, since they almost never blend wines from more than one harvest, but this would be a nuisance for them in commercial terms, so they just don't bother.  They keep the still wines from the first fermentation sealed in tanks, and then perform the second fermentation in batches periodically throughout the ensuing year.

By producing and releasing the wines in batches, producers can continually replenish the market with fresher stocks than they would have if they performed the whole second fermentation in one fell swoop at the outset.  Again, this method makes perfect sense for Prosecco, and the batch method is also cheaper and less troublesome, so the wines can be priced more attractively.

Consistency suffers a little from the batch process, and some producers admit that the batches made in February and March are a bit fresher than the ones made in, say, September, before the new harvest.  Batch dates could be indicated on bottles as easily as vintage dates, but this too would be a commercial nuisance, so most producers don't bother doing this, either.

Many bottles do offer indications of effervescence levels, with Spumante indicating more and Frizzante indicating less fizziness.  However, in practice, a fresh, new batch of Frizzante can be as bubbly as an older, tired batch of Spumante.  Similarly, many bottles indicate sweetness levels with the international designations "Brut" (drier) or "Extra Dry" (sweeter), but in practice these indications can also be misleading.  The terms are legally tied to differing levels of residual sugar, but a bottle of "Extra Dry" made from grapes with higher acidity can taste less sweet than many a "Brut," and a "Brut" fermented to a drier level but made with really ripe grapes can taste sweeter than many "Extra Dry" wines.

Finally, there are geographical indicators that are supposed to correlate with quality, starting with generic, IGT "Prosecco" and ascending to the favored DOC zone of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, and ultimately to the sub-zone of Cartizze and the flagship bottlings of "Superiore di Cartizze."  But yet again, a fresh bottle of generic Prosecco may occasionally be better than an old bottle of indifferently made Cartizze, so the analytical approach to Prosecco can again prove frustrating.

If you share my analytical bent, and find it frustrating that you can't get started correctly with Prosecco without altering your mode, then I'd tell you what that winemaker at Vinitaly told me:  "Get into an Italian attitude."  Translated, that means:  Just taste the stuff and find out whether you like it.

I'm pretty sure that you will like it.  If you don't like it immediately, you must be suffering from one of two problems:  Either you are a Stuffed Shirt (in which case I may not be able to help you), or you may be approaching the wine with preconceptions, probably because you've got Champagne in mind.

I can help you with this latter problem, but you've got to cooperate:  Drop your preconception that "yeasty and toasty" is better than "vivid and fresh."  Forget the notion that "reserved and austere" is preferable to "playful and flamboyant."  Get over the idea that secondary notes derived from ageing are better than primary notes stemming from fruit.  And, please, dump the premise that "dry" equates with "sophisticated and good," whereas "sweet" means "sophomoric and bad."

Then do this:  Get some friends together and pool your funds for a Prosecco Party.  Buy some different bottles, being sure to get some Bruts, some Extra Drys and a Cartizze, and get wines from some different producers and price points.  Chill those babies down, pop the corks, and let everybody taste around to find their own preferences.

Some tasters will likely prefer the drier, more reserved wines that bear a closer resemblance to Champagne, whereas others will go for wines with a fruitier, more floral profile.  And that's fine:  We'd miss the basic point of Prosecco if we were overly rigid when evaluating it or overly regimented when drinking it.

This is the hard-won lesson of my first extended encounter with Prosecco.  Although it opened me up to Prosecco's delightful charms, it also exposed me to a second mistake:  Forgetting that charming wines are charming in differing degrees for specific reasons, and that these intricacies must be studied seriously to appreciate the wines fully.

After discovering in the mid-1990s that I'd missed the boat on Prosecco by being too serious about it, I learned to settle down and simply slurp the stuff without studying it.  Ignorance is bliss, as they say, though a Ph.D. like me is always the last to learn that lesson.

And yet, after a decade of blissfully slurping Prosecco inattentively, my scholarly inclination started to reassert itself in response to differences I discerned in the Proseccos I was tasting.  Some had much more expressive bouquets than others.  Some showed significantly better acidity, whereas others displayed a relative lack of structure.  Some offered notable mineral tinges in addition to the floral, fruity dimension.  And effervescence differed from bottle to bottle not only in quantity, but also in character and quality.

These nuances led to a recognition:  I could only get a good start with Prosecco at the outset by settling down, but could only appreciate it fully now by gearing up.  Blissful ignorance might be fun, but it couldn't constitute full appreciation.  All Proseccos are fun, but some go beyond fun into the realm of true excellence, and this excellence demands deeper understanding.

So I launched another research project.  My first one at Vinitaly had been a hindrance to basic understanding, but a second was required for full appreciation.  Having noticed that bottles bearing the DOC designation from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene district were consistently better than generic IGT Proseccos, I traveled to the district for four days of intensive tastings and conversations with producers last month.

I'll report my detailed findings here on WRO in my July column.  For the moment, though, I'm happy to report that I went to the right place, as I tasted many delicious, distinctive wines that attained heights well above the quality you'll find in most IGT bottlings.  It turns out that height is in fact an issue for the Proseccos we taste here, as the quality of the DOC wines is directly related to the higher altitude of the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene district when compared to the broader region as a whole. 

Altitude translates into cooler temperatures and greater diurnal swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures in the district's vineyards, which, in turn, translates into more expressive bouquets, brighter acidities, and more exciting interplay between fruit and structure.

I'll pursue this in greater detail next month, but for now, beware that generic IGT wines are two or three times more numerous in the USA than bottlings bearing the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC, so you should start paying closer attention to label details.  After discovering that I could only get started with Prosecco by ignoring these details, I've now discovered that they merit scrutiny after all....

Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com