Prosecco: Sparkling Summer Sipping

Prosecco, Italy’s unique and stellar contribution to the world of sparkling wine, must have been invented for summertime.  Although the Italians drink it year round as an aperitif (consuming over two-thirds of the region’s 3 million case annual production), summer is the perfect discovery time for those unfamiliar with the joys of this light and “friendly” wine.  The Italians refer to Prosecco as a “welcome” wine, a glass the host hands to guests upon arrival.

Not a Substitute for Champagne

Except for the bubbles, Prosecco has no similarity to Champagne.  It’s as different from Champagne as Sauvignon Blanc is from Chardonnay.  Champagne is yeasty and serious.  Prosecco is fresh, fruity and flippant.  Champagne, especially vintage Champagne, is meant to age.  Prosecco should be consumed as young as possible.  Prosecco is rarely vintage-dated and when it is, the specific year carries no special significance.  Brut Champagne (the driest) outshines Extra-Dry Champagne (Extra Dry, paradoxically, is sweeter than Brut despite its name).  The opposite is true for Prosecco.  Even Prosecco labeled Brut has a touch more sweetness than Brut Champagne.  In addition to being a great aperitif, Prosecco is a wonderful “celebratory” drink and an excellent choice for spicy Asian food.

The Charmat Method Makes a Difference

The method of secondary fermentation explains, in part, why Prosecco is different from Champagne.  In Champagne the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, where the wine stays in contact with the dead yeast for more than a year.  The prolonged yeast contact contributes to the richness and baked bread quality in Champagne.  Prosecco DOC or plain Prosecco (the production process is the same) uses the Charmat method, named after a Frenchman who invented it.  (Antonio Carpenè, Jr, whose family firm, Carpenè Malvolti, is one of the region’s best, introduced this method-also called the ‘bulk’ process-for Prosecco in 1934).  With this method, the secondary fermentation takes place under pressure in large stainless steel vats and the wine stays in contact with the yeast only briefly.  The resulting wine retains a delicate, fresh, floral character.

The amount of residual sugar left after the secondary fermentation determines whether the wine is Brut, the driestdesignation, or Extra-Dry.  My preference, as well as that of most of the producers with whom I spoke, is for the Extra-Dry style of Prosecco, because they are slightly rounder and more aromatic.  Bracing acidity keeps them fresh and, like good Riesling, prevents the wine from being cloying.

Prosecco: A Grape and a Wine

There is a superficial simplicity to Prosecco since it is the name of both the grape and the wine.  But as with most Italian wines, matters rapidly get more complicated.  The most critical distinction-no surprise here-is where the grapes grow.  Franco Adami, President of the Consortium of Prosecco Producers (Consorzio per la Tutela del Vino Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene), describes the grape’s ‘natural habitat’ as the series of hills in between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the Veneto, just North of Venice.  The hills are key because the elevation-900 to 1300 feet-of the vineyards results in excellent day-night temperature differences that enhance the engaging floral character of the grapes and hence, the wine.

The south facing location of vineyards assures good ripening while the hillsides provide good drainage, preventing the grapes from becoming waterlogged and keeping crop yields low.  In 1969, the Italian government recognized this distinctive geographic area by awarding it DOC status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata).  The resulting wine, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, is one of the most unwieldy ones to pronounce and is frequently abbreviated as Prosecco DOC, to distinguish it from Prosecco made from grapes grown outside of this prized zone.  (Prosecco grapes also grow extensively throughout the remainder of the Veneto and serve as the raw material for other, less interesting, wines labeled Prosecco).  The labels of wines from the DOC area always indicate Prosecco DOC di Conegliano, di Valdobbiadene, or both.

A Special Prosecco: Superiore di Cartizze

The following recommendations are the result of a tasting held in New York City in June at which 26 producers showed over 70 wines.  While I had favorites, I was pleasantly surprised at the high consistency of the wines.  Prosecco DOC is such an engaging wine, you would have been happy at this tasting simply by selecting a bottle randomly.  If your local wine shop doesn’t have any of the ones recommended below, follow the shop’s suggestions in your buying decision.

In addition to the consistency of the wines from the region, the tasting confirmed what all the producers acknowledged: a small sub zone stands out.  Or as Bruno Zaratin, Export Manager for Santa Margherita described it, “a silly little hill.”  More than just a single hill within the DOC Prosecco zone, the best wines come from a small-250 acre-area called Cartizze and are labeled Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze.  Cartizze, as they are known, have an extra layer of complexity and finesse without losing any of the light, fragrant element for which Prosecco DOC is known.

The Wines

Adami, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) “Vigneto Giardino” 2005 ($24, Uve Enterprises, Inc): Round, but not sweet, this Prosecco from a single vineyard, acknowledged since the 1930s to be well situated, is classy and layered.  91

Bellenda, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) “Miraval” Extra Dry NV ($16, John Given Wines Inc): This friendly and frothy Prosecco is filled with nuances of ripe peaches supported by racy acidity.  89

Bisol Desiderio, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) Superiore di Cartizze NV ($35, Vias Imports): A delicious wine.  The imprint of ripe white peaches is buttressed by a citric tang.  90

Canella, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) Extra Dry NV ($19, Empson USA): Nicolletta Canella recommends drinking Prosecco from a big glass rather than a flute because ‘the glass holds more.’  And you want as much of her wine as possible.  Certainly one of the top wines of the region, Canella’s Prosecco is lovely and suave with an extra dose of complexity.  Its sweetness is balanced perfectly by the lively acidity.  91

Carpenè Malvolti, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) Extra Dry NV ($15, Angelici Wine Ltd): With a Riesling-like balance of sweetness and zesty acidity, this Prosecco is hard to resist. 88

Maschio, Prosecco DOC di Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) “Maschio dei Cavalieri” Brut NV ($19, Banfi Vintners):  Slightly drier than an Extra Dry, this outstanding Brut retains an engaging floral character mixed with an edginess that is very ‘welcoming.’  90

Mionetto, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (Veneto, Italy) Extra Dry NV ($19, Mionetto USA, Inc):  Clean and refreshing, this features a touch of sweetness complemented by tangy acidity that makes this Prosecco perfect as an aperitif or with spicy food.  88

Santa Margherita, Prosecco DOC di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene(Veneto, Italy) Brut NV ($18, Paterno Imports): Santa Margherita has fashioned a Prosecco than is drier than most without losing the quintessential aromatic fruity character of the wine.  88

July 4, 2006