Love It Or Hate It, Prosecco Has Its Traditional Version

All over Italy, you can hear people in wine bars ask for Prosecco. Yet the chances are, they don’t really want Prosecco – what they really want is just a glass of sparkling wine. But Prosecco is so successful that people automatically ask for ‘Prosecco’ when they mean sparkling, the same way that people used to say “give me a glass of Champagne.”

Yet 20 years ago, nobody outside Italy was talking about Prosecco. How did it become a blockbuster?

Well, mainly because it’s an easy wine to love: it’s fresh, romantic and savory, with beguiling aromas of acacia and wildflowers. The first sip reveals a wine that’s well balanced and refreshing.

But while it may be an easy wine to drink, it’s not that easy to understand.

Let’s get started.

What’s a Prosecco?

This isn’t a simple question to answer. Prosecco used to be the name of a grape, and there are still places in the world that use that grape name, like Australia. But both the grape and the wine style come from Italy.

Confused yet? Wait, there’s more.

There are four types of Prosecco:

Each of these DOCG names refer to a different area, each of which has its own size and landscape. This means the wines can be very different, even though they are all Prosecco. Cartizze would be the top of the top, or the Grand Cru, of Conegliano. Conegliano Valdobbiadene is a small zone in the province of Treviso in Veneto, nestling between Venice and the Dolomites, and the heartland of this wine. Since 2019, those hills have also been claimed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cartizze is the top-of-the-top, the best wines of the Conegliano.

So, about the grape

In 2009, Italy changed the name of the grape from Prosecco to Glera, as a way of acknowledging that Prosecco is a specific style of wine, from a specific place that needed to be protected. The grape itself is believed to come originally from Slovenia. Scholars think it was the grape that the Romans called Pucino. Legend has it that it was the favorite wine of Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus.

While Prosecco’s extraordinary international success is relatively recent, the wine has been enjoyed by Italians for centuries. One difference is that Prosecco wasn’t as sweet as it is nowadays, and it simply fizzed, rather than sparkled.

Another is that traditional Prosecco wasn’t as clear and bright in the glass as it is today; in fact, it was opaque and cloudy. In the old days, before modern technology was available, the Prosecco re-fermented in the bottle, and the yeast residue dropped to the bottom of the bottle. The cloudiness didn’t bother anybody, and people in eastern Veneto used to drink the wine at meal times. 

Later, winemaker and chemist Antonio Carpenè was the first to produce a sparkling wine outside France, choosing to use the autochthonous Glera grape from the Marca Trevigiana territory. In the late 19th century, the Italians developed the Charmat-Martinotti method, where the second fermentation takes place in a tank, rather than in the bottle. Yet another breakthrough came when winemakers used the grape variety on the label, in 1924. So Prosecco has always represented forward thinking.

Vignetti di Rolle – Elisabetta Tosi

Col fondo

The traditional version of the wine however never disappeared and, recently, more and more people are interested in it. The old people called this cloud style “col fondo” (“with the bottom”) because of the natural yeast deposit. Now this cloudy wine has become an official category of Prosecco DOC and DOCG, offering drinkers great complexity and interest. To make a Prosecco Col fondo, producers re-ferment Glera (and a few other local varieties, such as Bianchetta and Verdiso) in the bottle, rather than in the tank. Unlike their colleagues in Champagne, they leave the dead yeast (the lees) in the bottle, which results in the sediment and cloudiness. 

The final wine has very fine and delicate bubbles, while the wine is dry and crisp, with the typical varietal characters of apple and pear, plus hints of lychee, white peach, honeysuckle and white mint. For lovers of pétillant naturel (pét-nat), natural-leaning and minimal intervention wines, this frizzante style gives a different take on Prosecco, offering a wine which can accompany the meal all the way through, rather than a simple aperitif wine.

This too is an example of the best of what Veneto has to offer, and now go and have a good glass of Prosecco!

Photo from Shutterstock

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