Zardetto – when Prosecco takes itself seriously

Prosecco is one of the favourite punch bags in higher wine circles. It’s often compared to Champagne and then comes the bad mouthing: it’s cheap, not serious, fruity and shallow. This is despite the fact that nothing supports the comparison to Champagne beyond the bubbles. In fact, those who favour Prosecco – and there are a couple of hundred million of those – would probably grimace if they found a bone-dry, brioche-flavoured Champagne in their glass, instead of their fun and fruity bubbly. Still, there are a lot of people in Prosecco who look forward to a time when the fashion of fun and fruity will pass and the road to that is through wines that express the place of growth. 

We like it precisely for its diversity: last year when we visited our favourite Prosecco wineries, we even met up with Filippo Zardetto in his family winery and we thought we could make room for a couple more great bottles on our shelves. 

 

Prosecco fever
The popularity of Prosecco took off after the economic crisis of 2008. It seems a logical explanation that at the time when being economical became a virtue again, a cheaper alternative to Champagne came in handy. Based on this, certain one-time Champagne consumers became the new fans of Prosecco. The only fault in the explanation is that the cheaper alternative to Champagne is rather Cava, or staying within France – Crémant. Prosecco is made via different technology and the outcome also differs greatly.

It’s more likely that the outbreak of Prosecco fever is due to the lucky constellation of several factors that include the worldwide popularity of Italian gastronomy and attitude to life. In 1984, when among the first ones, Zardetto’s chief winemaker Fabio Zardetto tried to sell Prosecco in the United States, he had to catch them with a lasso. “I had to run after them with a glass in my hand trying to persuade them at least to taste it.” Today, it’s the consumers who run after the glass. 

 

The numbers are truly stunning
In 2006, 50 million bottles were put onto the market, while in 2016 the number was 500 million. As usually happens at the scent of money, the parasites of the brand also appeared: there’s Prosecco-flavoured lip balm, chocolate, tea, jam and even Prosecco-scented bath salts and candles. Prosecco was taken up by the whirlwind of success but not everybody is happy about where it was put down.

 

 

Taking back Prosecco
The curse of too much popularity is that everybody wants a slice of the success, something which rarely helps the quality. In 2006, an Austrian entrepreneur came up with the idea and merchandised a golden-boxed alcoholic soft-drink beverage called Rich Prosecco, which was advertised via the gold-sprayed naked Paris Hilton. That was possibly the last straw, or as the Hungarian saying goes ‘the last drop in the glass’. The Italian wine community realised that Prosecco needed to be protected before its image was completely ruined.

In 2009, they introduced a new protected designation of origin system and at the same time renamed the Prosecco variety as Glera, in order to avoid other regions having chance to own the name. Within the borders of Prosecco, they work on two different areas, which also means two distinct quality levels. The Prosecco DOC zone is more or less flat, which makes machine cultivation possible. Here the yields are higher, the wines are easy to understand, milder, fruitier and cheaper. The altogether 6,000-hectare Prosecco Superiore zone – with Asolo and Conegliano Valdobbiadene enjoying the DOCG status – lies closer to the Alps. In these hillier ‘premier cru’ districts, the weather is characterised by extreme swings and the soil is extremely diverse. The wines made here are dry, complex, sophisticated, serious and more expensive.

 

The Rive System
Some of the producers of Prosecco DOCG, which constitutes the historical core of Prosecco, started out on the road that was suggested by higher wine circles: towards respecting the qualities of the place of growth. Jumping on the opportunity that the DOCG regulations make it possible to indicate the differences in the places of growth, the winemakers working on the Prosecco Superiore area introduced a kind of cru system: within the districts of 15 villages, they assigned 43 different locations where they allow the indication of vineyard names to appear on the labels. In the case of Rive wines – the word means vineyard in the local dialect – the regulation prescribes lower yields, the grapes have to be harvested manually and vintage has to be indicated as well.

 

 

The Prosecco aristocracy
The history of the Zardetto family has been spinning around wine for more than a century. Their place of birth – Conegliano – which is located north of Venice, doesn’t belong to the better-known Italian places, yet it’s a capital from the point of view of oenology. On one hand, modern science and grape growing was connected with here first though the foundation of the Accademia della Vite e del Vino, that is the Academy of Viticulture and Vininculture, in 1867. Today, the academy is the most important institution for researching sparkling wine making technologies in Italy. On the other hand, the best places of growth of Prosecco are all in the vicinity of Conegliano.

It’s almost exactly 100 years ago when, in the First World War, Italian troops had to withdraw from Caporetto and in the chaos, Beppi Zardetto lost his horse and his wagon stacked with wine barrels. Since then, the relationship between the Zardettos and wine has been a smoother ride, and members of the family have been present at all the important stages in Prosecco’s contemporary history. The maternal great-grandmother of the winery’s present CEO, Fabio Zardetto, was the founder and first director of Real Stazione Sperimentale and worked as a close colleague of the legendary Giovanni Dalmasso. His great-grandfather was also an acknowledged wine producer. His grandfather worked as a researcher of Stazione Sperimentale and his father, Pino Zardetto, who got a degree in oenology in 1952, founded the family winery in 1969 after 17 years of professional experience. Fabio Zardetto got his degree at the Conegliano University of Oenology, and wrote his thesis about traditional method sparkling wines. He studied chemistry for three years at the University of Venice before joining his father in the family business.

Parallel to this, he served as the director of the Consorzio Prosecco di Conegliano for a 13-year term that started in 1982. He took over managing Zardetto Spumante in 1998. It was under his direction that the winery was modernised and that it achieved international success. They started producing solely Prosecco in 2002, the same year the state-of-art winery was finished.

 

 

“If four people open a bottle of Prosecco and it doesn’t run out within five minutes, there is something wrong with that bottle”

Modern technology still primarily serves the conveying of the old traditional values of the region. No one knows Conegliano’s Valdobbiadene vineyards and small producers more accurately than Fabio Zardetto and based on this encyclopaedic knowledge, he decided to open up the possibilities that lie in the diversity of the region’s terroirs. Fabio has been aware of the traps of Prosecco’s success for a long time and as for himself, he did his best in trying to divert the region’s wines from the direction dictated by the taste of the masses.

Ever since the beginning, he was one of the engines in setting up the protected designation of origin system of 2009 and the switch to a terroir-centred approach. Today, in the family winery, alongside the five Prosecco Superiore DOCGs, they also bottle three single-vineyard wines. Beside showing the characters of different locations, Fabio Zardetto’s other great commitment is to the saving of the endangered biodiversity of the ancient Prosecco/Glera variety due to clone selection. Collaborating with the University of Oenology, they managed to identify 300 different clones on the oldest plantations in the region. Based on this, he set up mixed plantations in three vineyards – of course with precise knowledge of the clones – so that he could study the genetic diversity of the variety and the clones’ environmental needs.

In a conversation, Fabio Zardetto summed up the philosophy of the winery as follows: “At Zardetto elegance has always been the primary aim. We favour elegant, dry wines and not the more powerful, aromatic, sweeter style. We would like to express the qualities of the terroir and the given vintage. We work with one single variety, though we make several single-vineyard wines and showing their different characters is also part of our pursuit of elegance. One can often hear that people like powerful and structured wines, yet it’s always the fresh ones that run out first. There’s a saying in Conegliano according to which if four people open a bottle of Prosecco and it doesn’t run out within five minutes, there is something wrong with that bottle.”