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Prosecco: Revelry and Research
By Michael Franz
Jul 10, 2007
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As I noted in my WRO column last month, my love affair with Prosecco geared up only after I learned to settle down.  After trying to get a grip on Prosecco by technical and comparative analysis, I received a helpful corrective from a Prosecco producer who warned that "To understand Prosecco, you need to get into an Italian attitude."  In other words, forget about the technical details and drop the comparisons to Champage, and just kick back for some relaxed sipping.

This advice did the trick, and I've been sipping away quite happily ever since.  If you haven't yet fallen in love with this wonderful sparkling wine from the Treviso hills north of Venice, here's what I'd advise:  Drop your seriousness to get off to a good start with Prosecco. 

You don't need to be serious to get in sync with the grape, as the Prosecco variety is closer to playfully floral grapes like Muscat and Malvasia than to reserved ones like Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc.  Moreover, seriousness isn't helpful in understanding Prosecco's production process, which involves the simple Charmat method rather than the intricate, tradition-laden Methode Champenoise

Similarly, you should start by dispensing with the various label designations for effervescence or sweetness levels.  A fresh bottle of frizzante may actually be fizzier than an older bottle of spumante. 

Likewise, the levels of residual sugar permitted in different label designations for Prosecco overlap, so that supposedly drier wines are sometimes actually sweeter than ones in a higher sweetness category.  The categories extend upward in permitted residual sugar from Brut (capped at 15 grams per liter) to Extra Dry (12 to 20 gpl) to Dry (17-35 gpl).  On top of this, some wines have more acidity than others, and since acidity counterbalances sweetness, label designations like "Extra Dry" aren't very precise in either sensory or analytical terms.

Drinking beats thinking when starting off with Prosecco, and along that line, you'll do well to drop some common preconceptions that people tend to bring from Champagne when experimenting with Prosecco:  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."

If you are a Champagne lover (and who isn't?!), you may be hesitant to drop these preconceptions because you are attached to characteristics like toasty and reserved and dry.  Maybe you think that I'm trying to talk you out of something that isn't a preconception at all, but rather a rational conclusion, and maybe you think I'm engaged in special pleading because I'm on a Prosecco kick.  But it ain't so, and I can prove it by disengaging from bubbly entirely to ask a few questions using Riesling as an example:

--is a floral, aromatic variety like Riesling "inferior" to a more reserved variety like Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc?

--is there reason to think that a Riesling that is "yeasty and toasty" is better than one that is "vivid and fresh"?

--would we rather have Riesling that is "reserved and austere" as opposed to "playful and flamboyant"?

--does it make sense to argue that old Riesling is better than fresh, young Riesling, or does it make more sense to say that either can be excellent, if suited to different purposes?

--would we regard the secondary notes of bottle bouquet in old Rieslings as inherently more valuable than the floral notes and open, juicy fruitiness in young Riesling?

--would it makes sense to say that Riesling Trocken is "sophisticated and good," whereas Riesling Auslese is "sophomoric and bad"?

In each instance, I hope you'll agree that the answer should be negative, and that the implication is that it doesn't make sense to judge Prosecco with criteria derived from the properties of Champagne.  The wines are too different for this to be helpful or fair, and the result can actually be downright misleading.

Here are three points that exemplify this premise:

1)  It makes no sense not to consider Prosecco a first-rate wine because it is made from a floral, expressive grape rather than an austere one.  Just as it would be absurd to rank Riesling below Chardonnay on this account, it makes no sense to say that Prosecco is inferior per se on this ground. 

It might indeed make sense in personal terms to think that Champagne is a greater wine than Prosecco because one subjectively ranks complexity over expressive fruitiness.  But that sort of judgment doesn't relegate Prosecco to a secondary stature in any objective sense.

Moreover, even if we were to decide that complexity is somehow objectively "higher" in rank than expressive fruitiness, and that Champagne is the greater of the two wines, this would still not mean that Prosecco cannot also be a great wine in its own terms, for different reasons, and when utilized for different purposes.  And as I'll note below, there's evidence that the Italians (who love Champagne and import lots of it) understand Prosecco in its own terms and use it differently than Champagne.

2)  It makes no sense not to consider Prosecco a first-rate wine because it is made by Charmat rather than Méthode Champenoise.  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

The Méthode Champenoise makes sense in an attempt to make a complex wine from barely ripe, austere fruit, and it is one of the keys to Champagne's greatness.  But that does not make it superior to the Charmat method per se.  This is true according to no less an authority than Richard Geffroy, winemaker for Dom Perignon, who sees them as having different strengths and appropriate usages.  (Parenthetically, once told me that he believes Spain was mistaken in not choosing Charmat for the production of Cava.)

The Charmat method preserves fruit and freshness and makes perfect sense for Prosecco; this method, developed by an Italian (a research enologist in Piedmont in the early 20th Century), is just right for letting Prosecco do what it does best.

It is true that the adoption of Charmat for making Prosecco was first made largely due to lower cost.  But it turned out that the technique was better for the particular wine, and almost everyone sticks with it today despite a great reduction of the cost differential between the two methods due to the developments of gyropalates and mechanical disgorging, which have made the Méthode Champenoise much more affordable.

A final point in Prosecco's favor regarding production method:  Since the Méthode Champenoise is very important to the character of Champagne (with extended ageing on the lees from the second fermentation providing much of the character and complexity of the finished product), one can argue that the Charmat method (which is geared toward producing effervescence while retaining primary fruit character) lends itself to a more straightforward expression of terroir.  In an important sense, Champagne is more a "made" wine, and Prosecco DOC a more "grown" wine, one that shows the particular properties of its place of origin in a more straightforward way.

3)  It makes no sense not to consider Prosecco a first-rate wine because it is generally not vintage dated and is made in batches throughout the year after the grapes are harvested.

Prosecco producers could easily use vintage dating, since they almost never blend wines from more than one harvest, and rarely use more than 15% from another vintage in the interest of batch consistency.

However, this would be largely beside the point, which is not to age the wine but to drink it when it is as fresh and vibrant as possible.  Producers keep the still wines from the first fermentation sealed in tanks, and then perform the second fermentation in batches periodically throughout the ensuing year.

This enables them to 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.

With these points in hand, I'd encourage you to become more familiar with these wines, following one of two approaches.

If you are new to Prosecco, I'd reiterate my advice from last month's column and suggest that you just experiment in a relaxed way with a bunch of different bottlings.  A fun way to do this would be to 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.  Then, whatever type you find yourself initially drawn toward, do some more focused tasting to get a sense of the different renditions of the Brut or Extra Dry style, or of the high-end wines from Cartizze.

If you've got some experience with Prosecco, you are perhaps starting to notice that these wines differ quite interestingly from one another, and I'd recommend that you gear up your thinking as well as your drinking.

After I learned to settle down and just enjoy Prosecco without getting too analytical about it, I spent a decade sipping away with great pleasure, but then started to notice that some bottlings 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.

As a consequence, 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 in May.

Here are my six principal findings:

1)  There's a good reason why Proseccos from DOC Conegliano-Valdobbiadene surpass generic IGT bottlings.  The relation between DOC and IGT bottlings is largely akin to the relation of Chianti Classico to generic Chianti:  Favored territory produces superior wines.  What is superior about the DOC region?  Higher altitude and hillier topography are the keys.  Hilly sites with poorer, quick-draining soils reduce yields and increase depth of flavor.  A cooler climate preserves aroma and acidity.  Additionally, DOC rules are clearly a quality factor.  For example, grapes may only be picked by hand for DOC wines, whereas machine picking is permissible for IGT wines.  Finally, human capital should not be discounted; the district is home to Italy's oldest school of viticulture and enology (dating from 1867 and situated in Conegliano), and the region has an extremely high concentration of trained agronomists and enologists, as well as a general reputation for one of the strongest work ethics of all Italian regions.

2)  These differences can be tasted quite clearly when comparing many DOC to IGT bottlings, and the relation of terroir to aromatic and flavor profile can also be experienced within the DOC district.  As one moves from the Conegliano side toward Valdobbiadene, the altitude rises.  Whereas wines sourced near Conegliano offer bigger body and more richness, wines from Valdobbiadene show higher acidity, more expressive perfume and more overall elegance.  These differences are also reflected in the going rates for vineyard land:  Sites around Conegliano are selling for 280 - 400 thousand euros per hectare; land around Valdobbiadene is running between 500 - 700 thousand euros per hectare; and prices is the cru of Cartizze (near Valdobbiadene) have hit 1.3 million euros per hectare.

3)  The production structure underlying Prosecco DOC is also a significant quality factor.  DOC wines are essentially artesian products due to the remarkable subdivision of vineyard land.  In a district just over 20 miles wide, vineyards are worked by 2,800 growers.  Another 460 small producers grow grapes and also perform first fermentations before selling base wines to wineries.  Currently there are 153 wineries operating in the area, and these are permitted to do it all:  Grow grapes, perform 1st and 2nd fermentations, but grapes or pressed juice or base wines, and bottle and sell finished wine.  The region holds the highest concentration of sparkling wineries in Italy, surpassing Franciacorta or Piedmont.  Lots of sparkling Prosecco is made, and it now outsells Asti Spumante worldwide.  But, importantly, of the 200 million bottles of Prosecco sold worldwide each year, only 50 million are DOC wines.

4)  Prosecco rocks with food.  The fresh profile of these wines works remarkably well with a wide range of foods.  In general terms, almost any type of Prosecco is fantastic with antipasti regardless of sweetness level, including everything from olives to aged cheeses to roasted peppers to tough items like marinated artichokes.  Brut bottlings are fantastic with freshwater fish such as trout.  Extra dry Proseccos are particularly wonderful with sushi and sashimi.  Dry styles (including most bottlings of Cartizze) are wonderful with plain dry pastries or semi-sweet fruit cakes like Panetone.  However, these wines are emphatically not limited to dessert applications, as they can be wonderful with sweet meat crustaceans like lobster; aged cheeses, and even raw oysters.  This last match seemed implausible to me, but I have put it to the test, and it works!

5)  The Italians are well aware that Prosecco rocks with food, and they employ it accordingly.  Although it is natural for Americans to lump Prosecco in with other sparkling wine types, there's conclusive evidence indicating that Italians use it not as a seasonal beverage of celebration, but rather as a wine for year-round consumption--with food.  Shipments from producers in the DOC are tracked by the appellation authority, and records show that levels remain remarkably smooth across the entire year, aside from a modest 20% bump in November prior to the holidays and a 20% dip in August, when offices across Europe are in their traditional lull.

6)  There are in fact good reasons why almost all bottlings of Prosecco from the marvelous sub-district of Cartizze are finished sweet.  Prior to this last trip, I had never understood why Prosecco producers would--on one hand--regard this grape as suited to three sweetness levels but--on the other hand--choose to make almost every bottling from their best vineyard site in just one style.  'Choose' is the correct word here, as there is no regulation by which Cartizze must be bottled in a sweet style, so the overwhelming norm is a voluntary one.  Three reasons seem to offer an explanation:

a)  Grapes grown on the ultra-steep slopes of Cartizze (which looks like Côte Rôtie or the Mosel, with vines trained in the same way: individually, up spiked poles) are particularly aromatic.  These floral aromas can clash with a pleasantly bitter citrus rind note that is inherent in the Prosecco grape and which shows in the finish when wines are finished dry.  This sort of "disagreement" between the "nose" and "palate" of a wine can also be found in certain dry bottlings of Muscat.  Ripe grapes and Prosecco wines finished with residual sugar minimize this bitter note and, in the view of many producers, results in a more coherent and harmonious wine.

b)  Prosecco's calling-card characteristic is its delicate floral aromas, and these are expressed much more vividly when the grapes are ripe and when the wines are finished sweet.  The first of these points is also seen in other grape varieties such as Viognier, which only acquires its telltale honeysuckle scent when the grapes are ripened fully.  The second point can only be verified by tasting lots of wines, which I have now done.  And indeed:  Proseccos finished in the Dry style are not only sweeter, but consistently more floral than those finished at the Brut level.

c)  Tradition:  The DOC area was historically quite poor, and sugar was considered a great luxury.  Hence, since the steep sites in Cartizze could produce very ripe, sweet wines, almost everyone wished to do exactly that.  Moreover, this sub-district had a tendency to produce sparkling wines even before that was an intentional result.  Since grapes from Cartizze held so much sugar, fermentations in the 18th and 19th centuries were often not completed before the cold of winter stopped the work of the wild yeasts.  When warmth returned in spring, fermentations would re-start, producing the seeming double miracle of sweetness with sparkle.  Additionally, Cartizze is so small, at only 106 hectares, that there really isn't enough wine to support a multiplicity of styles.  Finally, most of the 123 growers in Cartizze grow very ripe grapes simply because they can do so thanks to the unique topography of the site.  This is not merely a local peculiarity, as shown by the parallel that the Germans would think you were crazy if you had a site in the Bernkasteller Doktor vineyard that could produce Auslese-level grapes but chose merely to ripen them to the Kabinett level.

One last thing:  Just as I had arrived at this last finding in the midst of my last tasting in Italy, I encountered an anomaly:  A totally delicious Cartizze Brut.  Consequently, my work as a diligent researcher of Prosecco is clearly not at an end, though I'll always remember to conduct my research in an appropriately "Italian attitude."