Alan Tardi - October 2013
Heading to the Veneto to experience this sparkling wine at its origin, Alan Tardi offers his personal perspective on its increasing popularity and pairing with native foods.
Prosecco is one of the success stories of the wine world. It began as a simple white wine made mostly of Glera (formerly known as Prosecco) grapes in the steep hills around Valdobbiadene in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Autumns are quite cool in this hilly area, and fermentation had a tendency to stall, leaving a bit of sugar in the bottled wine. When the temperature rose in the spring, the yeast awoke with an appetite and started in on the remaining sugar, creating gas that, trapped inside the closed bottles, made the wine sparkle. People liked the bubbles, which gave both the wine and their often difficult lives a lift. But they didn’t like that many of the bottles exploded in their cellars, leaving them with much less of the fruit of their labors to enjoy and a big mess to clean up.
In the early part of the 20th century, people at the Enology Schools of Asti and Conegliano (two of Italy’s oldest, founded in 1872 and 1876, respectively) came to the rescue by developing a system of affecting the second fermentation in large pressurized tanks called autoclave rather than in individual bottles. This made the process of making the wine sparkle much easier and also produced a more stable, consistent product that could be made in much larger quantity. The winemakers were happy, and so were the people who drank it.
It was only after the Second World War, however, that the new technology began to be widely adopted by wineries in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene area, fueled in large part by the success the wine was having in the taverns of Venice and the euphoric cries of the populace for more.
From there, the little bubbly really took off, spreading throughout Italy and abroad. Today, there are few places in the wine-drinking world where Prosecco is not known. In fact, it has become something of an icon, a genre unto itself, indicating, for many people, just about any sparkling wine that is not Champagne. This is quite impressive from a marketing standpoint, but it raises a few problematic issues.
One is that Prosecco is not just any sparkling wine but rather a particular wine made from a specific grape variety in a specific place. Another problem is that now there is not only one Prosecco, but two: In 2009, the classic area of Prosecco in the hills around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene was elevated to DOCG status, the highest level of Italian winemaking with the most stringent regulations; at the same time, a brand-new appellation called Prosecco DOC was created, encompassing a much larger territory in mostly flat areas of the Veneto and Friuli. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this new Prosecco—indeed, many producers of Prosecco DOCG also make a DOC. But, because the majority of these vineyards are in flat areas that have been recently planted and can be mechanically harvested, Prosecco DOC is generally a much simpler, less expensive wine than the one made from the handcrafted patchwork of old vines on the steep slopes of the DOCG area.
This duality has created additional confusion and reinforced yet another problem from which Prosecco has long suffered: It has been typecast as a pleasant but banal wine suitable only for a throwaway apéritif or cocktail mixer. But there are many wines from the DOCG area that, while retaining the typical characteristics of the Glera grape, are full of character and personality—even a type of uncomplicated complexity—reflecting the unique terroir and long tradition from which they come. Prosecco can be, and often is, much more than just an easy quaff or bubbly base for a Bellini. And, contrary to popular misperception, many of these Proseccos go extremely well with food.
When exploring how a particular wine matches up with food, it’s often best to start at square one, that is, the area the wine comes from. And that’s precisely what I did. During a recent visit to the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene area, I sampled food at a wide range of dining establishments, from simple trattorie to starred restaurants, to see how different types of Prosecco accompanied different types of food, and this was an eye- (or rather, palate-) opening experience.
One of the first things I discovered is that even within the DOCG category, there are many different types of Prosecco. A “dry” Prosecco can actually be quite sweet, and while it might be fine in a cocktail or with dessert, the sweetness clashes with savory food. An “extra-dry” on the lower end of the sugar scale can make a nice match with spicy hard salami, smoked pork, or sweet-and-sour Asian food. But, when it comes to food, brut is best. Less sugar also better allows the particular nuances of terroir and vintage to come through. (Even the driest brut Prosecco still has the delicate wildflower aroma with green apple, white peach, or melon flavors characteristic of the Glera grape.)
The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene area is generously speckled with osterie and trattorie serving simple, traditional food in casual settings. One of them is a cozy little place called Trattoria Stella, right in the middle of Conegliano, under the porticoes just off the central piazza. Here, as in many such places, there’s no menu; you are simply told what’s available when the waiter comes to the table. At an impromptu lunch upon my arrival, following an appetizer of savory crespelle (crêpes) filled with besciamela and porcini mushrooms, I sampled one of the classic regional dishes of the area, faraona con la salsa peverada (braised guinea hen with giblet sauce). The meat was fork-tender but full of concentrated, winey flavor; the chunky sauce of diced offal contributed a sweet gaminess; and creamy white polenta provided a perfect platform. Though the homey food was full-flavored and the day was warm and sunny, any possible heaviness was perfectly undercut by a fresh simple Prosecco Frizzante DOCG from Il Colle. But what I really wanted to drink with this dish was the Valdobbiadene DOCG Sottoriva Prosecco Frizzante Sur Lie from Malibràn, which has a pleasantly yeasty aroma with hints of clotted cream, white mushrooms, and dried flower petals, as well as a lemon yogurt palate, short prickly mousse, and slight bitter aftertaste.
Sur lie Prosecco undergoes its second fermentation right in the bottle, much as it did in the early days before autoclaves, only now the glass is thicker and people know how to better control the second fermentation to avoid exploding bottles. These Proseccos are usually frizzante rather than spumante, with a slight cloudiness from the fondo (sediment) left in the bottle. This gives them a pleasantly rustic edge that provides a perfect complement to regional specialties like meat and poultry cooked allo spiedo (spit-roasted) over an open fire or baccalà mantecato (creamed salt cod). Once looked down upon as old-fashioned and primitive, col fondo (with sediment) now seems to be coming back into vogue, and that’s a good thing.
Over in Follina, near Valdobbiadene, Osteria dei Mazzeri vacillates between being a simple, rustic osteria and a more serious, sophisticated ristorante. Behind a low profile exterior is a simple but casually elegant restaurant operated by two brothers: Mauro Mazzera, in the dining room, is graciously effusive and passionate about wine, especially wines of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, while Vito Mazzera, in the kitchen, is brusque, preferring to let his food do the talking. And it does. The cooking combines rusticity with finesse, and dishes change a bit according to the season and ingredients available. I started with an appetizer of raw salt-cured beef topped with wild mushrooms and ended with platters of braised rabbit and rooster (I couldn’t decide which to have, so Mauro brought both). In between was a delectable dish of veal-filled ravioli tossed with a sauce of duck and Prosecco, then topped with shaved summer truffles. The flavors were full and decisive, but the pasta was so delicate it practically melted, bringing everything together into a savory whole.
While Mauro proffered a number of excellent Proseccos, the one I liked best with this dish was the Cuvée del Fondatore of Merotto. The silky texture and fine bubbles matched the glossy pasta nicely; a slight yeastiness complemented the earthiness of the truffles, and the subtle but persistent character of this Prosecco from a parcel in the Rive di Col San Martino stood up to Vito’s full flavors. This wine is made using a special technique whereby the first and second fermentations happen consecutively in the same autoclave, after which the wine spends an extended period on its fine lees.
From here I made a decisive departure from osterie to ristorante, though the four I visited were very different. Le Corte, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Relais & Châteaux Hotel Villa Abbazia also located in Follina, was definitely the most luxurious, but the dish that most caught my attention here was the simplest: a brown-paper cone filled with tiny, perfectly fried seafood, including fingernail-size crabs, calamari, head-on shrimp, and whole fish. A perfectly simple, perfectly delicious dish made even better paired with the elegant, perfectly balanced Prosecco S.C. 1931 from Bellenda, which combines tart acidity with a solid core of baked green apple, a hint of toasted hazelnuts, and a chalky saline finish. Despite being vintage 2010 (over the hill for most Proseccos), this one was still fresh and youthful, which may have something to do with how it is made. To begin, part of the initial fermentation takes place in stainless steel and part in wood, adding extra complexity. The second fermentation, using the classic method, takes place in the bottle and matures on the lees for 18 months before disgorgement with zero dosage, resulting in a refreshing two grams of sugar per liter. Many Prosecco producers are starting to experiment with the classic method for making Prosecco, and the results are often quite impressive.
Gigetto doesn’t have any stars, but it should. The country-style restaurant is immaculately maintained, the service is friendly but professional, and the food is excellent. Luigi “Gigetto” Bortolini, who inherited the family locanda (inn) in Miane (opened circa 1900) from his grandmother and turned it into a respectable restaurant, is now gradually passing the baton on to his son Marco, who is gently stretching the boundaries anew while maintaining their deep roots in the region.
My first course was tartare di anguria, which looked just like fresh raw tuna (and had the same firm, dense consistency) but tasted like watermelon, a dish as delicate and delicious as it was unusual. And the last course was tiramisù. Though tiramisù, like Prosecco and pizza, has become practically an international cliché, it’s native to this area, and this one, more like a thick creamy coffee than a pudding and perfumed with extra-virgin olive oil, was the best I ever had.
In between was a delectable duck breast, slow-cooked in Glera leaves with crispy duck skin “chips” and a Glera must jus. My Prosecco of choice for this dish is the Superiore di Cartizze Brut by Silvano Follador, one of very few to make a Brut from Prosecco’s historic grand cru. This wine has an understated intensity that can stand up to the richness of the duck without competing with it, crisp acidity (mirroring the crispy duck skin), a fine perlage that counterbalances the density of the meat, and a hint of ripe Cartizze fruit which melds nicely with the grape must sauce.
Dobladino is the polar opposite of Trattoria Stella: it’s located right in the heart of Conegliano’s sister city Valdobbiadene, and it, too, is a small family-run restaurant. But this place is brand-new (it opened in 2012), the ambience is decidedly modern—you might even call it urban minimal—and so is the food. Besides the dining room, there’s a raw bar where market-fresh seafood can be ordered by the piece and chef/owner Cristian Mometti is one of the foremost proponents of vasocottura—cooking in glass jars; in fact, he’s written a book about it.
My favorite dish, maiale Iberico tra tradizione e innovazione, consisted of three different preparations of Iberian pork on a long rectangular plate: cubed pork and Granny Smith apples cooked in a jar with Prosecco, pork Milanese with pear/ginger chutney, and pork alla plancha with potatoes (the meat was first cooked sous-vide, then seared on a griddle and sliced—the result resembling a perfectly cooked brisket). The full nutty flavor of the meat was the common thread in three distinct textural variations with lots of sweet/savory elements circling around them. And Zardetto’s Prosecco Superiore Brut 2012 Tre Venti—named for the three winds, which, says the winemaker, meet at this vineyard in the Rive di Ogliano—had enough body, fruit, acidity, and spice to pull it all together.
My next and last stop was well out of the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene zone, north into the foothills of the Dolomites in the province of Belluno. Getting off the Autostrade, driving along a valley, and then ascending into the hills, I thought my navigation system had gone on the blink when it kept insisting I go up and up, past the small village of Pieve d’Alpago and through pastures of grazing cows with tinkling bells toward some distant hiker’s refuge. But, giving in to the unwavering conviction of TomTom, I eventually arrived at Plois del Pieve d’Alpago and Dolada.
The place was created by the De Prà family in 1923 as a restaurant-inn where people of the surrounding mountain communities could come to celebrate the rituals of life with good food and wine, and those passing through could spend the night. Over three generations, the establishment has evolved into a gastronomic destination offering creative food that remains, however, firmly connected to the regional cuisine of the Veneto, the Alpine environment, and local seasonal ingredients (snails, for example, remain the house specialty). Riccardo de Prà is in the kitchen and his mother, Rossana, oversees the dining room. My first course, raw mountain trout with “perfumes of the forest,” arrived at the table: a polished cross-section of an evergreen tree on which slices of dense, sweet fish marinated in orange juice, olive oil, and horseradish were arranged over tiny foraged greens with edible flowers, herbs, wild mushrooms, and tart wild strawberries scattered over the top. Before I began to eat, the waitress passed by to mist a “forest perfume” made by the chef from a distillation of juniper berries, tree bark, moss, and lichens. While the idea might initially seem a bit contrived, the spray did call to mind the fresh, cool aroma of the forest, dense undergrowth, and a clear babbling brook.
To complete this unusual multisensory experience, I went for an unusual wine, the non-bubbly Prosecco Tranquillo from Gregoletto, which has a lovely pale yellow gauze-like transparency and delicate earthy aromas of flint, hay, leather, and dried lemon peel. Though not a big wine, it’s solid and mouth-filling, with a slight oily quality, low-toned lemon confit acidity, pine resin finish, and the barest hint of petillance, all of which complement this dish quite nicely.
After this forest idyll, the next course brought me back to the world of the trattoria with Riccardo’s rendition of spaghetti alla carbonara. The flavors were those of the classic Roman dish, but the presentation was a bit different. The pasta arrived naked in the bowl, covered with abundant paper-thin slices of crisp house-cured pork belly and a hefty dusting of cracked black pepper; underneath was a barely cooked soft-poached egg and off to the side an airy mountain of grated pecorino. A few twists of the fork brought all the elements together into an intensely delicious whole, made even better perhaps by the spontaneity of their amalgamation.
For this last dish of my journey, I returned to my first wine, the Malibrán Prosecco Col Fondo, which has the same combination of earthiness and elegance, rusticity and finesse, that this food has, and a nice sharp fizz to cut through the richness.
In my short but intense exploration of the Prosecco Superiore area, I ate in a variety of very different restaurants and sampled a wide range of excellent dishes representing an equally wide range of culinary approaches. I also tasted many different Proseccos reflecting different winemaking styles and different ways of expressing the particularities of the Glera grape and this unique terroir. I found that many of these wines were truly exceptional, a far cry from some innocuous little bubbly, and I found that they do, in fact, provide a perfect accompaniment to the food of this area in a way no other wine could. But while they are clearly of the place, they are in no way limited to it: these superior DOCG Proseccos (and there are many, many others besides the ones mentioned) can, I believe, provide an excellent match with foods in many other areas of the world.
But I intend to put this to the test: Before I left, I picked up a bottle of Ruggeri’s Prosecco Vecchie Viti 2012. The wine is made from a selection of Glera, Perera, and Verdisio grapes from 80 to 100 year-old vines and has an enticing aroma of vanilla, faded flower petals, and chalk, an elegant perlage, a hint of golden raisins, and a dry mineral finish that I’m betting will be fantastic with a summer supper of East Coast oysters, sweet corn, and steamed lobster slathered in melted butter once I get stateside.
The ABCs of Prosecco DOCG"Alan Tardi"
In order to carry the DOCG appellation, the wine must be made from at least 85 percent Glera grapes from the delimited area in the hills around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. The wine may contain a maximum of 15 percent of other approved grape varieties from the same area (including the indigenous varieties Verdiso, Perera, and Bianchetta).
There are three sub-classifications related to sweetness. “Dry” indicates a wine with 17 to 32 grams of sugar per liter; “extra-dry” has anywhere from 12 to 17 grams, and “brut” 0 to 12 grams. (Even if a wine has less than 6 grams/liter it is not permissible to use the term “extra-brut” under the DOCG.) Needless to say, there is a fairly wide range in these sub-categories. While a “dry’ is most always quite sweet, a well-balanced dry on the lower end of the scale could seem fairly dry, while a brut on the higher end might come across as rather sweet. A wine from the sub-zone of Cartizze, long considered Prosecco’s grand cru, is labeled “Superiore di Cartizze DOCG,” and most Cartizzes are traditionally made in a dry (that is, fairly sweet) style.
There are also sub-categories related to bubbliness. The most common version is the most sparkling one, spumante, which is made in an autoclave to about 6-atmosphere of pressure. There is also a less bubbly frizzante version and even a still Prosecco, called tranquillo or fermo, which doesn’t have any bubbles at all.
There are several different ways of getting the bubbles into the wine. The most common is the autoclave, but the second fermentation can also take place in the individual bottle using the classic method (with disgorgement) or the traditional practice called sur lie or col fondo, due to the sediment which is left in the bottle.
Besides a basic Prosecco made from a combination of grapes from anywhere within the DOCG zone, it’s possible to make a Prosecco from the grapes of a single specific vineyard. There’s also a system of subzones called rive, which indicates Proseccos made from grapes of one specific town or hamlet. Grapes for rive Proseccos must be hand-harvested and have a lower maximum yield than a non-rive. Finally, while a regular Prosecco may contain wine from several different years, a vintage Prosecco (also referred to as millesimato) is made exclusively from grapes harvested in the year indicated on the label. A Prosecco labeled as a rive must always be a vintage.