Not all Proseccos are created equally
On the hillsides of Italy’s Conegliano Valdobbiadene wine region, geography, tradition and craftsmanship come together to create a sublime drinking experience
Prosecco’s a famously versatile and celebratory wine, elegant but relaxed, ready to add sparkle to any occasion.
But its knack for bringing delight to both serious and casual wine drinkers doesn’t mean that the white wine, produced in Italy’s northeast, is a simple drink. There are big differences between Proseccos, not just in taste, but in history, tradition, production methods and sustainability. Conegliano Valdobbiadene, a hilly cluster of 15 municipalities in the province of Treviso, about an hour’s drive from Venice, has set itself apart on all these criteria. No wonder. The region, which produced more than 91 million bottles last year, is known as the birthplace of Prosecco.
“When you’re driving the wine road there, you pass through a landscape that goes from being pastoral to something much more dramatic, with very steep hills covered with grape vines,” says Innocente Nardi, President of Consorzio Tutela del Vino Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco, the organization that represents the area’s vine-growers, winemakers and bottlers. The organization and the region itself are named after the area’s two major towns, Conegliano (KOH-neh-L’EE’AH-noh) and Valdobbiadene (VAHL -dohb-BEE’AH-deh-ne). “In the morning, if you have a bit of a view, you’ll look out and see castles across the valley. It’s what storybooks are made of, but it’s real.”
Though Prosecco has been made in Italy for more than 300 years, in modern times, it’s taken Italy some time to officially recognize what wine lovers and critics have long recognized: that Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco, sometimes shortened to Prosecco Superiore, stands apart from the rest.
Italy introduced the quality classification for wine, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), in the 1960s, regulating elements like the production area, wine colour, permitted grape varieties, styles of wine and production techniques for winemakers seeking the designation. Prosecco DOC, then, comes from wine makers in nine provinces in the Veneto and Friuli–Venezia Giulia regions, and about 80 per cent of Prosecco consumed around the world has the DOC designation. But in 1980, Italy introduced another stricter designation label, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the “guarantee” representing higher standards and a rigorous testing process.
DOCG designation was implemented for Prosecco in 2009, which allowed the producers of Conegliano Valdobbiadene to, at last, be officially recognized for the high quality and authenticity of their wines. Their piece of Veneto is small: a production area of just 8,088 hectares last year. Yields are limited, while vinification must be carried out according to the strict norms of the production regulations, taking place only within the 15 municipalities of the DOCG zone.
Prosecco can vary in sweetness from Brut to Extra Dry to Dry, and may be spumante (sparkling), frizzante (semi-sparkling) or tranquillo (still). Spumante accounts for about 96 per cent of production and represents the best expression of the wine. All Prosecco is made primarily from Glera grapes—DOCG certification requires that 85 per cent of Prosecco grapes must be Glera, which evoke the taste of apples and peaches, and the aroma of white flowers. But there are many factors that affect the wine’s quality and character. The production method used in Conegliano Valdobbiadene is almost exclusively the Italian Method, where the second fermentation, which produces the fizz, takes place in pressurized stainless-steel vats. The technique highlights the aromas that are naturally typical of the Glera grape and produces a sparkle that’s more finessed on the palate than other Proseccos; indeed, some producers refer to it as the “Conegliano Valdobbiadene Method.”
But it’s the geography of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region, and its unique microclimate, that’s the key factor in its special status. While DOC-denominated Proseccos tend to be produced from grapes grown along the valley floor, grapes for DOCG-denominated Prosecco come from the hillsides. As savvy wine drinkers know, this not only affects the terroir—both the altitude and soil quality inform the wine’s character—but often requires grapes to be handpicked, ensuring a more traditional harvest and a greater need for producers to know about and care for the land.
Even within Conegliano Valdobbiadene, there are subregions that any serious oenophile will want to be familiar with. The highest quality wines, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG, comes from a tiny pentagonal plot of land of barely 107 hectares. There are only about 100 growers here, who together release just over a million bottles each year. Wines labelled Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive DOCG come from what are known as “heroic vineyards,” precipitous hillsides, some at angles as sharp as 70 degrees, that require effort, dedication and determination to harvest. In some cases, workers must wear straps to prevent falls.
“Each of the 43 Rive has a special provenance and place in history,” says Nardi. “The grapes are lovingly handpicked, and the wines bottled with the name of the Rive on it represent the true expression of the different terroirs of the appellation.”
History, of course, plays a major part in the distinctiveness of Conegliano Valdobbiadene’s output. Its wine companies are mostly led by about 3,364 families, people who were born and grew up there, and still feel a strong bond with the area. There are few investors there “chasing trends;” most of the land is handed down from generation to generation. The Istituto Cerletti wine-making school, founded in 1876, was Italy’s first and continues to train wine-industry professionals. The town of Conegliano is now the venue for the degree course in Viticultural and Oenological Sciences and Technologies from the University of Padua, and is the home of the Institute for Experimentation in Viticulture, founded in 1923, now known as the Council for Research and Experimentation in Agriculture.
Despite the area’s long history with Prosecco, recognition of unique status has been increasing. In 2008 a project was launched for the hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, based on its unique cultural landscape. Last year its candidacy was approved by the UNESCO Commission for Italy and registered at the Centre for World Heritage Sites in Paris. Final approval is expected soon.
While production is very Old World in the vineyards, it’s very state-of-the-art in the cellars, with computerized temperature control and sophisticated product traceability systems. Producers here have also set out to be leaders in sustainability, both environmentally and with regard to local heritage. Since 2013 a range of commonly used substances used in viticulture have been eliminated from the production process, and starting January 1, 2019, all producers will stop using the common herbicide glyphosate.
The commitment to innovation, as well as tradition, means the region is often cited among the most efficient “industrial districts” in Italy, despite its storybook beauty.