There’s a quiet revolution going on in Prosecco. Apparently, there's no reason for change. Although Italy’s largest wine region produces more wine than the whole of Hungary, it can still hardly keep up with the world’s thirst.
It’s unbelievable that over the course of just a decade, the number of bottles sold has grown by a 1,000 per cent. However, some producers are not enjoying the ride on the runaway train, those who desire more than just financial success. These seekers and experimenters are the revolutionaries of quality.
During the last 20 years of plenty, the children of the former grape growers have become trained, open-minded and world-travelled winemakers. They know exactly what they’re doing in the cellar and why, and how they can achieve the style of wine that they’re seeking to make. Driven by curiosity, they’re trying out the old methods again, and they’re incorporating the usable elements into modern practices.
Some of them are attempting to boost the beauty within the given parameters, to refine the style, while others are pursuing the future outside of the current framework. The former are adopting a terroir-centric view and applying it to the wine region: they’re deriving the quality from the grapes, making drier wines that respect and maintain the uniqueness of the outstanding places of growth and the differences between vintages. The other group draws from the toolbar of the natural wine movement, which in many aspects means a return to the ancient methods: spontaneous fermentation, minimal sulphur, the revival of Col Fondo – the local equivalent of méthode ancestrale.
“I told the landlady that I wanted the best that could be procured in Treviso for supper, particularly in terms of wine. ‘If you do not object to the expense, sir, put your trust in me, and I will undertake to please you. I will give you some Gatta wine.’ (…) We had a delicious supper. I had to teach Christine how to eat oysters and truffles, which she saw then for the first time. Gatta wine is like Champagne, it causes merriment without intoxicating, but it cannot be kept for more than one year. We went to bed before midnight.”
The above lines are from the memoirs of Casanova, who gives an account of his days spent in a brothel in Treviso at some point in 1746. This ‘Gatta’ wine had strikingly similar virtues to today’s Prosecco: good quality, a delicious taste, sparkling but not long lived. Practically speaking, the latter point is the disadvantage of today’s tank method, as opposed to bottle fermentation. And it’s also one of the things that Prosecco’s most inspirational winemakers are hoping to cure.
Of course, the ‘proto-Prosecco’ was not fermented in tanks during Casanova’s day, but in the most traditional of methods, which is called méthode ancestrale according to the terminology. The ancestor of all traditional method sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux, is still made the following way: the fermentation stops in the autumn when the weather turns cooler; the not yet complete wine is bottled in spring and fermentation starts again due to the rising temperatures, which results in the formation of pressure and bubbles. The lees that are formed during the secondary fermentation remain at the bottom of the bottle.
What we regard as Prosecco today can be credited to the 1895 innovation of Federico Martinotti, who came up with the idea that large, closed tanks should be used for the secondary fermentation, instead of bottles. Also, that sugar and yeast should be added to the base wine to kick-start the process.
This method mainly works with the more aromatic varieties: it enhances the aromas, keeps the lightness and freshness, but it doesn’t add much to the structure. The advantage of this technology is that a more pronounced in character, easy-to-recognise, defined quality product can be produced. The disadvantage is homogenisation. Twenty years ago, almost all Proseccos were made the same way – it would have been impossible to identify the wineries or places of growth at a blind tasting.
However, tastes and expectations change: wine is becoming less of a basic grocery product or a common beverage – it’s getting to be an increasingly specialist product that delivers and evokes emotion and thought. A modern consumer expects complexity, sophistication and quality. The elite of wineries working in Prosecco are trying to meet these higher cultural expectations and break out of the circle of three-minute wonders.
„Col fondo” literally means ‘with the bottom’, which refers to the sediment, even more precisely the lees. Col Fondo is basically a méthode ancestrale (ancestral method) sparkling wine, that is the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle without the addition of sugar and there is no disgorging, so the lees remain at the bottom of the bottle. This is the same process that is followed with the currently very fashionable pét-nat’. The bottles are sold with the original crown cap or with a simple cork with a spring-bow. They are usually bone dry, unfiltered, cloudy at the time of pouring, with a softer mousse, more pronounced yeasty aromas and essentially sour flavours. Their character and ideology is closer to the world of natural wine or Lambic beer than the usual image of Prosecco.
Careful advancers and pioneers
Even if we don’t count the large producers of the DOC plain, the winemakers of the DOCG core – Asolo and Conegliano Valdobbiadene – are sufficient enough to show a confusing amount of traits. However, there are four trends that lead what is a seemingly chaotic medley, at first glance.
The first is the rollback of sweetness. Defying common sense, the ‘dry’ in Prosecco means the sweetest category and even ‘extra dry’, regarded as the golden mean, has 12-17 g/l sugar. The emphasis is being placed more and more onto the ‘brut’ category (6-12 g/l), and even more, today, we can find ‘brut nature’, which is the ‘zero dosage’ category with 0-3 g/l sugar, in the assortment in every winery that takes itself seriously.
The second is the respecting of the terroir, discovering the places of growth with excellent qualities. This endeavour goes hand in hand with the first one, as working in a drier style is an important precondition for accentuating an individual vineyard’s characteristics. Sugar beautifies but also blocks. In Conegliano Valdobbiadene, Rive wine (the word means vineyard in local dialect) can be made in 43 different locations. The Rive regulations also specify a lower yield, the grapes have to be harvested by hand and indicating the vintage is compulsory.
The third trend is aspiring to sustainability. For this, the two most important conditions are given: alarming examples of primarily soil erosion and the disintegration of natural balance on the one hand; and the solid financial background that makes planning in the long run possible, on the other. During the last 10 years, many estates have spectacularly switched to organic, biodynamic or biodiversity-focused cultivation. The change of approach is shown by the fact that since 2013, the use of chemicals containing folpet, mancozeb and dithianon has been banned in the whole region of Prosecco and since this January, the use of glyphosate has also been stopped in Conegliano Valdobbiadene.
The fourth is the experiments carried out with bottle fermentation. The metodo classico, which is the same as the method for making Champagne, is also used in Italy as well – especially in nearby Franciacorta. But aspiring winemakers also make bottle-fermented wine in Prosecco which they are especially proud of. However, the reception is mixed: there are consumers who approach them with Champagne expectations, and at these times they are found to be too slight, others miss Prosecco’s aromatic and playful sides from them. The other road is Col Fondo – see the description in the box – that has a tradition in the wine region and it gives more structured wines with more ageing potential. However, its gaining popularity is probably obstructed by the fact that its style differs too much from the usual and favoured Prosecco picture.