Philip Day discusses Prosecco DOC and DOCG Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia
This detailed article about Prosecco DOC and DOCG Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia includes discussion on the history, viticulture and recommendations.
Barely a week goes past this summer without coming across newspaper reports citing the increase in demand for and sales of Prosecco or articles in popular lifestyle magazines reporting how the UK consumers have made the Italian fizzy wine ‘Bang on trend’.
Many critics of Prosecco find many varieties ‘all fizz and little substance’, which certainly may have been true twenty years ago but is such a criticism still justified?
Let’s look at a few facts:
A recent (2017) study by Kantar Worldpanel found the trend in British consumption was a move towards drinking better quality wine.
Indeed, the trend among the ‘millennial generation’ was fuelling a tendency to drink less but spend more, which was a key factor behind the statistics.
Kantar Worldpanel’s strategic insight director, Simon Horner reported: “Prosecco drinkers were akin to the coffee generation — it’s about getting together with friends, it’s about Instagram, taking pictures of drinks and food.”
Around 150 million bottles of Prosecco are produced each year. Italy consumes approximately 35%, while the other 65% is exported. Other than Italy, the top three markets for Prosecco in rank order are the UK, USA and Germany.
Vinexpo CEO, Guillaume Deglise, referring to the key markets for the Italian sparkling by 2020, stated that Italy would remain the leading market for Prosecco but went on to add that “the UK will play a very important role in the growth of this category”.
Indeed, while forecasts for sales of Prosecco sales are expected to reach 12.7m cases in Italy by 2020, up some 14%, the UK market is expected to grow by more than 17% to achieve sales of 8.3m cases in the next five years, making it double the size of sales in the US, the third largest market for Prosecco, which is predicted to increase its sales by 19% to consume almost 4.2m cases in 2020.
Speaking specifically about the UK, Deglise further commented that the growth in Prosecco sales was coming at the expense of the cheapest end of the Champagne market and sales in Rosé.
How then did Prosecco succeed in becoming the ‘go to’ tipple in the UK consumers’ psyche?
Twenty years ago Prosecco was an exceedingly undemanding wine. Virtually all the winemakers employed the ‘Charmat method’, where secondary fermentation takes place in a large closed pressure tank, a much cheaper and less time-consuming method of sparkling wine production than the ‘Traditional Method’ where this second fermentation takes place in the bottle. In practice, the winemakers produced the very same wine using the very same technique. So much so that it was not possible to distinguish one glass from a range of 20 others made by different winemakers.
Prosecco was Prosecco and that was that.
The only advantage of this was that such standardisation made the product recognisable, giving it a precise flavour and thus an identity.
Winemakers became quite rich on the back of a product that was of a relatively good quality. It was cheap, identifiable and fulfilled a need.
Then a number of innovators decided that the wine could be so much more and set about reinvigorating their industry, rousing it from the state of stupefaction it was languishing in.
The production area of Prosecco DOC is located in north-east Italy, within the territories of five provinces in the Veneto region (Treviso, Venice, Vicenza, Padua and Belluno) which extend from the Dolomites to the Adriatic Sea and four provinces in the neighbouring region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Gorizia, Pordenone, Trieste and Udine), where Italy borders Austria.
There is some evidence that Prosecco was already being produced as far back as Roman times using the Glera grape which initially grew near the village of Prosecco on the Karst hills above Trieste.
Throughout the 18th century, cultivation of Glera expanded throughout the hills of Veneto and Friuli before its production spread to the neighbouring lower lying areas. This is where the Prosecco that we know today was first produced at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the introduction of new secondary fermentation technologies.
The Martinotti Method, invented by Federico Martinotti at the end of the 1800s, was an early attempt used to obtain sparkling and semi-sparkling wines. In this method, the wines were kept under pressure in large containers known as autoclaves, to permit the natural secondary fermentation of the wine, whilst at the same time allowing the wine to retain their distinctive flowery and fruity notes. Antonio Carpenè, one of the founders of the School of Oenology in Conegliano in 1876, was the first person to employ this method to produce sparkling Prosecco, having all the characteristics we still love today. Prior to this, secondary fermentation in the bottle was used to produce these wines.
Frenchman Eugène Charmat later found a way to further perfect the process, turning Martinotti’s idea into a successful industrial system by using huge capacity stainless steel tanks (autoclaves), coated on the inside with a vitrified glaze resistant to attack by wine and sulphuric acids. Hence the method being more commonly referred to as the ‘Charmat Method’.
Within the much larger Prosecco DOC production area lies the territory of the DOCG Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene e Colli Asolani. This area is much smaller and includes, on one side, the hills stretching between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the province of Treviso, and on the other the area which stretches from the foothills of the Alps to Nervesa della Battaglia, including the slopes of the Asolo and Montello hills.
Today there are some 8159 wine estates, 269 sparkling wine producers and close to 500 million bottles of Prosecco sold (2016 figures).
Added to which, the Controlled Designation of Origin status (DOC) granted to Prosecco in 2009, as well as the DOCG status of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore appellation, ensures the quality of the most famous Italian sparkling wine in the world is guaranteed.
Being a wine with Controlled Designation of Origin status means that it is produced in compliance with very strict rules within a specified geographical area that is historically acclaimed for its Prosecco production.
The particular environmental conditions prevalent in the DOC area give the wines made there their distinctively characteristic qualities.
As may be expected, the terroir of the land in this relatively large wine producing region is very diverse. The soils are predominantly alluvial in origin so its main constituents are varying mixtures of clay and loam with an abundance of minerals and micro elements, making the area the perfect terrain for growing grapes for sparkling and semi-sparkling wines.
Climatic conditions on the whole favour a mild climate. The area is offered protection by the Alps (Dolomites) to the north and is caressed by warm breezes that originate from the Adriatic Sea to the east. These breezes help maintain a mild climate in summer whilst bringing the necessary rainfall which aids proper vine growth. At the end of the summer growth the area is then subject to dramatic differences between day and night time temperatures, which are instrumental in promoting the development of aromatic substances in the ripening grapes.
The terroir of the two DOCG zones where Prosecco Superiore is produced is very different from the main DOC zone, in just about every respect. Situated in the hilly zone of northern Veneto, close to the Alps, the vines are exposed to more extreme climate variations. The slopes on which the grapes are grown undergo dramatic swings in temperature and humidity every day, while with the ground is always well drained. Exposure to sunlight and soil composition vary from parcel to parcel but these conditions seem to suit the grapes grown here. Indeed, wines from the vineyards that encompass the steepest hills in the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene district deliver the most intense, complex styles of Prosecco sparkling wine. For these reasons, even a non-skilled taster will always easily be able to distinguish, in a blind tasting, a Prosecco originating from these higher vineyards.
Because of the strict appellation rules, the grapes used to make Prosecco DOC and DOCG are mainly Glera, a white grape variety, that produces large, long bunches of golden yellow grapes. The Glera grape is distinguished by its aromatics of lemon and green apples, and its subtle flavours of white peaches, freshly picked flowers and notes of yeastiness. The following varieties are traditionally used with Glera to make Prosecco, which are permitted up to a maximum of 15 % of the total in the white wine-making process: Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera lunga, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Nero.
The shoots of the vines are generally trained to grow vertically, having been thinned out to prevent excessive bunches, The leaves are later trimmed and tied back to create a micro-climate that will encourage the formation of aromatics in the grapes.
The grapes are usually harvested during the first weeks of September when the organoleptic qualities (sugars, acidity and aromatic flavours) have reached maturity in the grapes and are perfect for producing sparkling and semi-sparkling Prosecco DOC and DOCG. It is a delicate process because at this stage, it is important to keep the grapes whole and avoid spontaneous fermentations.
Because of the height of the slopes on which the grapes, destined to become Prosecco Superiore DOCG, are grown, the bunches are hand-harvested, whereas a large proportion of harvesting in the larger DOC territories is mechanised.
After harvesting the grapes, the bunches of grapes are de-stalked in preparation for pressing. A soft pressing is then employed to extract only the free-run must.
Selected yeasts are used to begin the white wine-making process, transforming the natural sugars in the grapes into alcohol and CO2. The action of the yeasts (fermentation) lasts for approximately 15-20 days at a maximum temperature of 18°C to preserve the delicate aromas of the original grapes.
Prosecco DOC can be TRANQUILLO (still), FRIZZANTE (semi-sparkling) and SPUMANTE (sparkling) depending on the perlage (size of bubbles).
Prosecco DOC Spumante, is the most famous and popular variety, with a fine, long-lasting perlage. It can be BRUT (when the residual sugar content is less than 12 g/l.); EXTRADRY (when the sugar content varies between 12 and 17 g/l.); DRY (when the sugar content is between 17 and 32 g/l.) or DEMI-SEC (when the sugar content varies between 32 and 50 g/l.).
Prosecco DOC Frizzante has a light, less lingering perlage.
ProseccoDOC Tranquillo is a still wine (with no perlage).
DOCG varieties include:
Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG; Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene Rive DOCG (wines made from only 43 specific communes or vineyards.); Colli Asolani DOCG (wines from a smaller hillside area across the river from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region) and
Valdobbiadene di Cartizze DOCG (a small micro-region of only 265 acres, considered by many to be one of the finest terroirs for Prosecco).
Once initial fermentation is complete, for some wines, the ageing process begins and the wine is racked and filtered to make it clear.
Prosecco Tranquillo is bottled at this stage, while the Frizzante and Spumante varieties continue to undergo the final unique stage in the Prosecco process: natural secondary fermentation.
Secondary fermentation, where the wine gets its famous bubbles, using the Charmat Method, takes place in huge stainless-steel containers called autoclaves which keep the wine under pressure and a mixture of yeast and sugar is added to induce the second fermentation of the base wines.
Towards the end of the secondary fermentation process, which lasts a minimum of 30 days, the temperature is lowered to bring fermentation to a halt, leaving enough residual sugar in the wine to guarantee a balanced and harmonious taste.
After the second fermentation is complete, the wine is fined and filtered to remove the lees and any other sediment. After this step the dosage (the mixture of sugar and wine that defines whether a wine is Brut, Demi-Sec or Sec according to the appellation regulations) is added to the tank and the wine is bottled under pressure to preserve the bubbles in the bottle.
Semi-sparkling wines are also produced where secondary fermentation is allowed to take place in the bottle, creating wines with aromas reminiscent of yeast and bread crusts and furnish the drinker with a smoother, more rounded sensation on the palate.
Prosecco DOC or DOCG are wines that should be enjoyed young, ideally within a year of the vintage. Unlike Champagne, it does not improve with age. Enjoy it for what it is: light, aromatic and perfect for every occasion.
To get the best out of it, Prosecco should be served chilled at around 6-8°C, in a relatively large tulip glass.
Prosecco then, offers two distinctive styles: Prosecco DOC, with its flowery, fruity bouquet and its fresh, light flavour full of vitality and Prosecco DOCG territory wines which are more complex, refined, important, emotional and, inevitably, although not exceedingly so, more expensive.
I am not saying that one is good and one is bad, they are both very good, for a very different use and expectation. Whichever you opt for, Prosecco is the ultimate simple but sophisticated wine reminiscent of the unique Italian lifestyle.
It is difficult to single out one or two brands that are better than the others as there are so many quality brands to choose from but the following may serve as a good starting point:
- Dal Bello Don Gallo Prosecco DOC, (11%ABV)
A dry, voluptuous and classy fizz, a real artisan prosecco, with a lovely balanced weight and some pleasing lemon sherbet tones.
- Trevisiol L. e Figli Italy Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOC, (11.5% ABV)
White coloured with hints of peachy fruit and stony minerality.
- Prosecco La Gioiosa Etamarosa NV DOC Treviso DOC, (11% ABV)
Pale straw yellow in colour, with a fine but persistent mousse, with slightly floral and fruity aromas.
- San Leo Brut NV Glera Italian Prosecco DOC, (11% ABV)
A distinctive fresh fruity flavour and gentler mousse than some other proseccos.
- Prosecco La Marca Treviso Extra Dry NV DOC, (11% ABV)
Pale and elegant, with a subtly perfumed bouquet.
- Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, (11% ABV)
A lovely golden colour and its soft bubbles lend the wine a light and refreshing taste, crisp and dry, with autumn apple and plum fruit flavours and very delicate floral aromas. Lighter in taste than many proseccos.
- Monticella Prosecco Superiore DOCG, (11.5% ABV)
Complex tastes and aromas fed by a softer mousse than others.
- Bele Casel Extra Dry Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Veneto, (11% ABV)
A well-respected artisan Prosecco producermakes for a superb taste experience delivered by a caressing mousse that is not at all aggressive in the mouth.
- (La Marca) Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry NV DOCG,(11% ABV)
Pale straw in colour with a fine mousse and typical fruity flavours with hints of apples and pineapples.
- Valdo Oro Puro Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene NV DOCG, (11% ABV)
This has a delicate off-dry taste with fine bubbles and fresh citrus flavours, with aromas of golden apples and acacia honey.
- Umberto Bortolotti Extra-Dry Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, Veneto, (11% ABV)
Light straw yellow in colour with a nose of floral and citrus notes. The palate is fresh and fragrant with a delicate mousse and a pleasant crisp citrus finish.
- Ombra Di Pantera Prosecco Superiore Brut Millesimato DOCG, (11% ABV)
Launched earlier this year in the UK with the intention to become a dominant luxury prosecco brand. It is dry, fresh and very light in the mouth. Overall it is soft and well-balanced, with good aromatic flavours.
Prosecco sits towards the sweeter end of the spectrum and because of this it’s an ideal match with cured meats and antipasti such as olives, peperoncini, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, various cheeses (such as provolone or soft cheeses) as well as fruit-driven appetizers like prosciutto-wrapped melon and Asian dishes such as Thai noodles and sushi.
Extra dry DOCG Proseccos also compliment sweet pastries and desserts (including ice creams and sorbets) as well as shellfish and harder saltier cheeses like pecorino.
It is also worth noting that a standard glass of Prosecco (11% ABV) has only around 121 Calories!
- Lichine, Alexis (1967).Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. London: Cassell & Company Ltd.
- Johnson H & Robinson J (2013) The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London.
- Johnson H, (2017) Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, 2016, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London
- MacNeil, Karen (2015) The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York.