I’m not a big fan of slogans, but after a recent trip to Conegliano Veneto, home to Prosecco Superiore, I have to admit that the consorzio’s motto describing their growing zone as the place “where Prosecco is superior,” nails it.
Prosecco, the affable sparkler that has taken the world by storm, comes in two family groups: Prosecco DOC—from nine provinces spanning the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions—and Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, which can only be made in the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of the same names. There’s also a more obscure branch of the Superiore DOCG family, Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, produced near the town of Asolo. But the most celebrated Proseccos come from the hillside vineyards of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, the historical production area for Prosecco.
Seeing that all Proseccos are made with a minimum of 85 percent native grape Glera and use the same production methods, the main difference between the two Prosecco categories is where they are grown. While the bulk of Prosecco DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is grown on low-lying plains in an extended area covering 20,000 hectares, Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is grown exclusively on hillside vineyards in a far smaller growing area totaling 6,586 hectares. Although all DOCG wines are more strictly controlled than DOCs per Italian law, in the case of Prosecco, it’s not the G that makes the difference but where the wine is made. Specifically, it’s the area’s wild, steep hills and their fortuitous location.
Lying halfway between the Dolomites and the Adriatic Sea, the sunny slopes have a unique microclimate that benefits grape ripening, while the high altitudes virtually guarantee freshness even in the hottest vintages. Constant breezes help keep the vines healthy and may be one reason why the area boasts an unusual number of old vines. The steepness of the hills also means that everything—from pruning to picking—is principally done by hand. The manual aspect—especially for the harvest–further increases quality, but it also poses challenges.
“It takes between 100–250 man hours of maintenance per hectare in the Prosecco DOC, but you need 300–500 hours in Conegliano. This figure goes up to 600–1,000 hours of maintenance for every hectare in Valdobbiadene, where the hills are steeper. And on the vertiginous slopes of Cartizze, where the difficult conditions make grape growing complex, you’ll need 1,000 hours of maintenance per hectare,” declares Desiderio Bisol, enologist and technical director at Bisol.
Not only is it expensive to work the growing zone’s vineyards, purchasing them would be practically prohibitive.
“Prices in the denomination are among the most expensive in Italy, ranging between 1.5 and 2 million euros per hectare on Cartizze,” declares Giancarlo Vettorello, director of the local consorzio. He adds however that since no one ever sells, prices are more theory than practice.
Cartizze, the legendary cru made up of 106 hectares of steep hillside vineyards in Valdobbiadene, is an almost magical word in the growing area. Grapes here reach the ultimate ripeness, and the area is considered the top for Prosecco production. Cartizze is traditionally made Dry (which in confusing sparkling wine-speak actually means it’s sweet), but a few wineries make delicious Brut versions that are drier with juicy fruit, like Terre di San Venanzio and Villa Sandi’s Vigna La Rivetta. Bisol also makes a stunning interpretation, Private Cartizze Non Dosato. Refermented in the bottle (most Prosecco today is made by refermenting in steel tanks to achieve bubbles) and with no added dosage, it’s dry, crisp, with ripe fruit and an energizing mineral vein.
While Cartizze crowns the pinnacle of the denomination’s quality pyramid, Prosecco Superiore recently introduced their official “Rive” delimitations; subzones that are named after the town or hamlet where the grapes originate. They highlight the different microclimates and distinct terroirs found throughout the growing zone, like Mionetto’s vibrant Rive di Santo Stefano.
Besides the enviable growing conditions, Conegliano Valdobbiadene boasts an edgy mix of centuries-old quality winemaking (Italy’s first enological institute was founded in Conegliano in 1876 and Prosecco producer Carpenè Malvolti was a pioneer in producing sparkling wines in Italy) with a hip generation of under-30s that are taking the wines to whole new levels. Besides using more sustainable vineyard techniques, some of the younger winemakers are reviving the customary Col Fondo Prosecco that are refermented in the bottle. But rather than disgorging, the wines are left on their lees. This yeasty residue leaves a fine sediment on the bottom (fondo in Italian) that imparts more complexity and flavor. These fantastic wines are currently labeled Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG, without the added term “Superiore,” which is reserved for wines that have more exuberant bubbles. In technical terms, the Superiore Proseccos must have at least 3.5 bars of pressure in the unopened bottle while the Col Fondo, classified as frizzante (fizzy) generally have 2.5 bars. According to producers, the rules will soon be changed to allow traditional bottlings to also vaunt Superiore on the label. Look for those from Cà dei Zago, Perlage and Marchiori.
You can’t talk about Prosecco Superiore without mentioning Nino Franco—one of the area’s top producers. During my recent visit to the winery, Primo Franco and his daughter Silvia opened 15 fantastic Proseccos dating back to 1992, proving the marvelous and surprising evolution of Conegliano Valdobbiadene’s superior Proseccos.