A virtual visit to Prosecco country in North East Italy
I've long held that wine really only makes sense in context. In Europe, at least, wines are more than merely a beverage; they are part of a centuries-old cultural heritage that includes geography and geology, of course, but also climate, agriculture, gastronomy, geopolitics and national - or regional - character.
To understand Prosecco, then, we need to take a deeper dive into the region and focus on the less-homogenous areas that provide all the nuance and subtle differences.
Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG
First of all, the what? where? and when?
Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are two towns in Prosecco country, located between Venice on the Adriatic and the Dolomites.
Conegliano is the cultural capital and was awarded UNESCO status in 2019; Valdobbiadene is the production centre.
Winemaking here dates back to Roman times, but for our purposes, it starts in 1876 with the founding of Italy’s first School of Viticulture and Oenology.
The area is hilly, green and varied with winemaking on a small scale; average holdings are just 2.5 hectares of mostly Glera vines. Other permitted varieties can make up to 15% of a blend and include Verdiso (an ancient variety providing acidity and longevity) as well as Chardonnay, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc.
Conegliano Valdobbiadene sits at the top of the quality pyramid for Prosecco; it achieved DOC status in 1969 and was elevated to DOCG in 2009 and is itself further sub-divided into Cartizze and 43 rive.
Three factors distinguish the area of Conegliano Valdobbiadene:
- the territory; the high-altitude "hogback" hills of the region make for nuanced differences between plots
- its history of making sparkling wines
- the human factor and Italian methods of viticulture and viniculture
The production method of Prosecco retains freshness and preserves the varietal characteristics of the grapes, resulting in a floral and fruited wine.
Fermentation usually takes around 30 days (with 60 - 90 days' lees aging) using the Martinotti method of in-tank fermentation brought to this region from north west Italy where it was used to make Moscato d'Asti.
Where in-bottle fermentation gives more structure and complexity, tank fermentation retains primary aromas, freshness and grape characteristics.
The hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene lie in distinctive East-West hogback rows between the sea and the alpine foothills; they are steep and south-facing at an altitude of between 50m and 500m with vines retained for as long as possible before replacement - at least 20 years and sometimes up to 50 or 70.
All these factors lead to better grapes - the high rainfall and good drainage suit Glera, the southern aspect provides exposure to the sun and breezes provide dryness and prevent pests. Steep slopes mean hand-harvesting and, with so much greenness, cows provide much of the organic fertilisation.
The landscape here is made up of a patchwork in a highly fragmented and interconnected configuration characterized by numerous small vineyard plots, interspersed with wooded areas and unproductive elements, making up an effective ecological network.
Geology: soil types, Cartizze and the Rive
There are five different soil types in Conegliano Valdobbiadene:
- morenic in the east, giving roundness and persistence with more ripe fruits and spices
- feletti to the south, an ancient clay that gives ripe fruits and richness
- conglomerate, making up 60% - 70% of the hills giving fruity florality, intensity and citrus
- glacial, originally from the Dolomites, giving elegance and florality
- marly soils around Valdobbiadene; clay soils with no stones that retain moisture with steep slopes for drainage giving soft, delicate wines with fruity, floral and balsamic aromas
Of all areas, the tiny "Golden Pentagon" of Cartizze is the most famous and prestigious; it produces low volumes from old vines with high quality. A narrower temperature range over the growing season makes for more even ripening with highly aromatic wines of ripe pear, stone fruit and florality.
A new designation are the 43 "rive" (ree-vay). If Cartizze is the Grand Cru at the very apex, then the rive are the next-level Cru vineyards; the oldest areas with the highest quality, low production and historic traditions.
The UNESCO protection of the area recognised three factors:
- morphology; the East-West orientation of the hogback hills with southern slopes exposed to the sun for viticulture and the north-facing slopes given over to woodland
- ciglioni; these are terraces held up not by stone walls but grassy soils
- patchworks; small vineyard vineyard plots are intertwined with woodlands and meadows to create a varied and harmonious local eco-environment
Wine is fundamentally a mere sub-set of local gastronomy; to understand the wine, you need to start with the gastronomy. To understand the gastronomy, you need to understand the agriculture and local character.
A region of ancient woods and green valleys with mediaeval castles and fortresses, Conegliano Valdobbiadene has a tradition of fresh, simple foods with zero-miles markets and cichetti, simple mouthfuls of food to be consumed with the local wine in the same way as tapas or pintxos.
There is no olive oil production here and the climate is too damp for air-drying ham, so lardo (pork fat) is used for cooking and slices of garlic preserve the local salamis.
Rivers flowing down from the mountains provide trout and eels, with (unsalted) sun-dried cod landed on the coast near Venice; the hills provide game such as venison, duck and goose as well as mushrooms.
Vegetables are aromatic - chicory, endive asparagus and radicchio di Treviso - herbs are used widely and polenta or potatoes are the staple as well as rice for risotto.
The styles of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG are based on levels of residual sugar, i.e. sweetness. Traditional styles are:
- Dry, which can have a distinctly sweet 32g/l residual sugar
- Extra Dry, the most popular style which still goes up to a sweetish 17 g/l
- Brut, for between 6 g/l and 12g/l
Two more recently introduced styles are:
- Extra Brut for properly dry wines of between 0g/l and 6g/l; these require full ripeness of fruit to remain balanced and when done well are more contemporary and refreshingly food friendly.
- Sui Lieviti, a méthode ancestrale technique where the wine is left to continue fermenting in bottle, resulting in a fully dry style with plenty of lees flavour - and also a sediment.