Prosecco – Venice's vineyard
Prosecco – Venice's vineyard
Prosecco – even the name sounds good. When a waiter in a restaurant, or a host at the festive table utters the word prosecco in a questioning tone, everyone nods with a broad smile. Of course, Italian is a language in which almost everything sounds good, but somehow freshness, effervescence, sunshine and the Italian way of life are all encoded in the sound and rhythm of prosecco. However, it’s a name of Slovenian origin, and if we dig deeper, it turns out that this is not the only surprise about prosecco.
Everyone knows prosecco, the tank-method sparkling wine. However, only a few people among the biggest wine fans have visited Prosecco – even if Conegliano, one of the centres of the wine region, is only half an hour's drive from Venice airport. This is the region where the stormy waves of the Alps are tamed and broken up on their way to the coastal plain. The steep, south-facing hillsides are almost completely covered by carefully tended vineyards, and where they are not, there are dark green strips of forest. In the valleys, a network of canals channels the water of the mountain streams and the Renaissance villas where the rich Venetian merchants used to go on holiday were also built here. The wine region between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene was historically the vineyard and holiday resort area of Venice. Some of the palaces designed by Palladio are now home to wineries, and it goes without saying that in such an environment the concept of the ‘cellar visit’ is a completely different experience.
Made from Prosecco in Prosecco and it sparkles. What is it?
This suspiciously easy quiz question could have been meaningfully asked until 2009. The explanation of why it lost its meaning incorporates the modern history of the wine region in a nutshell. There are two of Prosecco. One is by the Dolomites – half mountain, half hillside, with steep slopes, cool nights, windy, sunny weather. It has a history and it earned its reputation. It is known today as Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. The other is merely an administrative extension of this place, a large strip of land that was traditionally agricultural land. This is Prosecco DOC.
The mountains look postcard-perfect, but they’re difficult to cultivate: the terraces that are cut into the steep vineyards are inaccessible by machines, so 800 working hours go into one hectare every year. On the other hand, the maintenance of the vineyards stretching lazily across the plains can come out as low as 150 hours. DOC can also be a pleasant surprise, but it’s worth noting that DOCG is a surer guarantee of quality.
Saving the brand
Although the predecessor of prosecco had already appeared in Casanova's memoirs and the technology of tank fermentation was patented in 1896, the prosecco we know today burst into international common knowledge only around the millennium. As usually happens, as soon as the ball started rolling, everybody tried to grab a piece of the cake. One of the most spectacular cases of brand infringement was a canned soft drink called Rich Prosecco, launched in 2006, which was made in Austria and was advertised with Paris Hilton, naked except for the gold-coloured mica powder. In 2009, the struggle between the virtuous winegrowers and the owners of increasingly wealthy estates, for the protected designation of origin was finally successful: the historic wine region received DOCG status, the Prosecco variety was renamed as Glera, and with this the possibility of seeing the name of prosecco on the labels of wines made in other wine regions ended. It should briefly be added that, while suppressing the greed of others, they allowed their own to flourish by significantly expanding the borders of the wine region (today, out of every 100 bottles of prosecco, only 13 come from the DOCG area).
When we said there were two Proseccos, we weren't quite telling the truth. There is in fact a third one: a village inhabited by Slovenians in the vicinity of Trieste. As surprising as it may seem, prosecco is a word of Slavic origin, prosec meaning forest path in the local Slovenian dialect. The historical Prosecco, today's DOCG district, is at least an hour and a half away by car from Prosecco, the village, so it’s almost certain that the name spread from the village to the grapes, and then from the grapes to the wine region. With the addition of DOC in 2009, it can also be said that Prosecco is also in Prosecco.
Today, Prosecco is a vibrant, financially-stable, self-confident wine region. It is bravely marching in the direction of drier categories, single vineyard classification and selection, and last but not least, enthusiastic experimentation. Some of the experiments are aimed at reviving and modernizing the distant past. A good example of this are the two wines of Gregoletto, freshly selected for our assortment, which, thanks to their being kept on the lees, evoke the world of the now fashionable Pét-Nat and Ancestral Method. In Prosecco, this technology was called ‘Col Fondo’ – meaning ‘with the bottom’ – but they decided it didn't sound good enough and renamed it ‘Sui lievitire’ (practically the Italian equivalent of sur lie). The new category – Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Sui Lieviti DOCG Brut Nature – brings the somewhat wild, distinctive and exciting flavour profile of Pét-Nats without the disadvantages: fermentation has already stopped, it does not burst out of the bottle like a fountain when it is opened and you don’t have to worry about disturbing aromas.
Prosecco goes green – a glyphosate-free zone
Many of us feel that by the 21st century we have badly exploited our planet and that the processes that can still be reversed must be done so immediately. One of our historical sins is the decimation of agricultural land through intensive agricultural cultivation, monoculture and the excessive use of chemicals. The wine industry also has plenty to repent for, but it can be proud that the number of those who are doing everything to make the vineyard they cultivate part of nature is growing rapidly.
The Viticultural Protocol adopted in 2011, which aimed to achieve sustainable cultivation, reached an important milestone in 2019: the use of one of the most harmful herbicides, glyphosate, was banned. Thus, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG is thus today the largest contiguous area in Europe where this chemical is not used. The SQNPI certification program was launched in the same year, with the commitment that by 2029, the use of chemicals will be reduced to the minimum required on all estates in the wine region.
From the Bortolomiol brothers to the Bortolomiol sisters
Strictly speaking, the history of the vineyard and the Bortolomiol family began in the middle of the 18th century, but if we skip the hoeing, pruning and staking generations, it is actually the story of the parents of the four sisters who currently manage the estate; they had to deal with the tasks of entrepreneurship, toiling, modernization and double-entry bookkeeping.
Giuliano Bortolomiol, born in 1922, was the one who, as a newly graduated winemaker, seeing the abandoned and devastated vineyards as a result of the Second World War, decided to save the wine region from depopulation, and to give the winegrowers professional advice, encouragement and work. To implement the plan, he created the Confraternita Valdobbiadene and to set a personal example, he took over the management of the Cantina Bortolomiol from his father, with his two brothers. For decades, he travelled the wine region – first by bicycle, then by motorcycle, and finally by truck, selling his wines, while also consulting.
From the 1950s, he also shared his own production facilities with those who lacked the technology to make sparkling wines. He enhanced the tank method with countless innovations and was the one who fought for the legitimacy of dry prosecco. In December 2000, he died a happy man: not only did the wine region survive, but it reached the threshold of worldwide success, the name Bortolomiol became known on every continent and today no one questions that prosecco can be dry.
His legacy is carried on by his four daughters and his wife, with continued success and exemplary environmental and social sensitivity. The Parco della Filandetta, which is the core of the estate, was changed to organic cultivation in 2008, trees are being planted to offset CO2 emissions, solar panels are being installed to save energy, and water consumption is reduced by capturing and recycling rainwater. In Benin, West Africa, they support an educational program that teaches women how to start a business, and part of the income from the Bandarossa product line goes to cover the treatment costs of HIV-infected mothers and their children.
We’ve been working with the Bortolomiol family since 2011 – they are the cornerstone of our Prosecco selection, a real big name from the wine region. In addition to the few hectares of their own organically grown grapes, the raw material arrives from 60 growers, from nearly 90 hectares, to the winery in the centre of Valdobbiadene. The most memorable sparkling wine of the tasting was Bandarossa. ‘Bandarossa’, or ‘red ribbon’, is a tribute to the founder, Giuliano Bortolomiol. It was his habit to mark the best Extra Dry batches with a red mark and set them aside for his dearest friends.
The second stop on our journey was Case Paolin, a cosy family winery in the Asolo DOCG region, south of the River Piave. The organic estate's prosecco was a real discovery, when we came across it in 2016, at a local wine bar. We ordered some of it immediately after arriving home, and in the past seven years it has become one of the most important wines in our foreign wine selection – nearly 10 per cent of the estate's annual production is sold by us. Pozzobon is a multi-generational farming family, who in addition to grapes were also engaged in mixed farming and the silk industry. The estate was founded by Emilio Pozzobon in 1970, and from 10 years later the grapes have been grown organically. Since then, the winery has been actively managed by his three sons: Diego, Adelino and Mirco. We regularly drink and thoroughly know the wines of the 16-hectare estate, but we were once again surprised by their pure, rich flavour and deeply fruity character. In addition to Asolo Brut, the house's new Extra Dry prosecco, Campo dei Sass, was a good discovery.
GREGOLETTO – New in the selection.
A small, family winery with a long tradition (established in 1600). Until his death in 2021, manager of the estate Luigi Gregoletto worked on more than 70 vintages. Family members carrying on his legacy continue to do all the work by hand (including bottling).
The estate's most special wine, Il Familiare, takes us back to old times, to family gatherings, to the long tables of local restaurants. It breaks with science and is made exactly the way the “house wine” that was only drunk in the family circle and with friends used to be made in the past. We don't know all the steps either, but it is certain that the bubbles were not born during the secondary fermentation, but from the must's own sugar. The new wine is freshly bottled, before spring arrives. When the constellation is good and the trees bloom the right way, the untreated wines usually round themselves out, take a good turn in the barrels and the residual sugar ferments to the last grams. In this case, it all happens in the bottle, the cap does not move in the meantime, the bubbles, the lees, and the flavours of fermentation remain in the bottle.
This wine is one of the last members of a dying style. A sparkling wine that is completely revolutionary, but at the same time very enjoyable. It is excitingly sour, completely dry, an ideal thirst-quencher. It's like a beer made out of grapes. Pear, grape and yeast aromas appear on the nose. The palate is light, fresh, pure and lively. You could say it's a nod to natural wines, but the chronology isn't right. The Gregolettos believe that it is best not to shake a chilled bottle, and to pour the delicately cloudy wine carefully into a jug. The little juice left at the bottom of the bottle and the thick sauce are the best base for spring risotto.
Seeing the ‘Bronca girls’ is a sure thing every time we’re in the area. The estate of Antonella and Ersiliana is by far one of the smallest in the wine region, and almost exclusively ‘top shelf’ sparkling wines are made in the cellar. They harvest from their own 20 hectares, and they neither buy in nor sell grapes. All fruit comes from high areas, from the hillsides between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. In the early years, only Col Fondo (i.e. bottle-fermented, un-disgorged prosecco) was made at the winery, but since 2002 all attention has been focused on the different characters of the different vineyards. Sorelle Bronca became legendary with the Particella selections, which laid the foundations of the single-vineyard prosecco category, even before the wine region regulations were put in place.