Prosecco is so consistently billed as an inexpensive alternative to Champagne that it’s selling like Miller High Life. Its current 220 million bottle production is expected to double within two years and grow to five times that size by 2035. The U.S. has quadrupled its consumption of the sparkler in the past decade.
|SIX WAYS TO SPARKLE
Adami Bosco di Gica Prosecco NV. Tastings of Charlottesville. $16.95
But Prosecco’s promotion as a poor man’s Champagne means that its own charms are often overlooked. This simple bubbly that tastes of apple, pear, apricot, lemon curd, and hazelnuts is designed for everyday pleasure and, just like the Italians who make it, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
That’s not to say that there aren’t varying levels of quality, but they require a bit of explanation. Prosecco comes from the northwestern regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia and was named for the late-ripening grape that makes it. After a shimmying of label laws in 2009, the grape’s become known by its historical name, glera. These recent laws also mandate that only Prosecco produced in the nine provinces around Treviso (the flat plain along the Piave River in the Veneto) falls under the Prosecco Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). Anything produced elsewhere falls under Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) and must use the term Glera rather than Prosecco. They’re all perfectly drinkable, and with an under-$15 price tag, aren’t too rich to mix with peach purée (as in the Bellini) or even with pomegranate juice for a fun holiday sparkler.
Wines that come from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, two towns in the foothills above Treviso, were upgraded to the highest government-regulated status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or DOCG), and they are decidedly richer and more complex. The towns have a rivalry, so labels will commonly specify one town or the other. Oversimplified, Prosecco from Conegliano is softer and creamier than the drier, crisper wine of Valdobbiadene.
The “grand cru” of Prosecco is a small 260-acre area called Cartizze. There, 140 growers occupy a 1,000′ slope of a large hill in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region producing the most aromatic and full-bodied Prosecco. Because of its limited production (at 2 million euros an acre, Cartizze rivals Montalcino in Tuscany as Italy’s most expensive vineyard land), this Prosecco fetches just over $30 a bottle, which, relative to Champagne, is peanuts.
But Prosecco isn’t Italy’s answer to Champagne. That would be the Chardonnay-based Franciacorta made in the Lombardy region. Even though a lot of producers are making brut (see Winespeak 101) Prosecco, most Italians agree that it’s best with a hint of sweetness—just enough to make it flirtatious, but not so much to make it crass.
Prosecco’s fermentation method also differs from Champagne’s. Prosecco usually gets its bubbles through the Charmat process, in which the wine goes through its secondary fermentation in pressurized tanks rather than in individual bottles, as it’s done in the méthode champenoise. The difference is as practical as it is technical. Prosecco is rarely vintage-dated, so wineries are able to process wine continuously through the year, rather than only once a year. Charmat also eliminates the time-consuming technique of riddling, or the process of consolidating the lees for removal by turning the bottles every two days for eight to 10 weeks. And, Prosecco’s shorter tank fermentation preserves the grape’s fresh fruitiness. Opt for the spumante (the fully-sparkling version) over the frizzante (semi-sparkling version). Frizzantes only undergo a partial secondary fermentation and may leave you wanting more fizz.
Some traditional Prosecco producers are returning to the “col fondo” fermentation that was the standard before the 1970s when the autoclave tanks were invented. Just as in the méthode champenoise, the lees (yeasts and sediment remaining from primary fermentation) are left in each individual bottle until secondary fermentation is complete. These wines show quite a lot more character with a salty and crunchy quality that isn’t at all unappealing.
Whether simple or serious, Prosecco is all about the aperitivo hour, or if you are in Venice, the ombretta (pick-me-up). Have a glass with salty ribbons of prosciutto, chunks of parmigiano, and herbed focaccia, and you won’t even wish it were Champagne.
Brut (n.): The French word which describes the amount of sugar per liter of sparkling wine (usually six to 12 grams) as opposed to extra dry (12-17 g/L) or dry (17-32 g/L).