You Think You Know Prosecco? Wait Until You Meet Sui Lieviti

Prosecco is about to give the world’s pét-nats a serious run for their money. Yes, you read that right: Prosecco. The prim and proper, cheerful and clean bubbly you know and love just showed up to the party with a sleeve tattoo, a couple of piercings, some holes in its jeans, and a whole new attitude.

In the United States, Prosecco is all but ubiquitous. For a certain age segment, it has simply become shorthand for any sparkling wine. Whereas my generation used to say “Champagne” whenever we were talking about bubbles, for Millennials it’s Prosecco.

Prosecco’s cheery consistency is entirely responsible for this fact. People generally know what they’re going to get when they buy a bottle of Prosecco: lightly fruity and floral, faintly sweet bubbles that are a good value.

And if you want something a little higher in quality, but not that much more expensive, you buy Prosecco Superiore DOCG. The wines that bear this designation are a bit more refined and a bit more chiseled, and can be considered the epitome of the form—a form that has improved in quality and gotten less sweet over time—but is still unmistakably Prosecco.

But as of 2019, there’s a new Prosecco Superiore DOCG in town and it is, we might say, bringing the funk. Interestingly, while this may be a new designation for Prosecco wines, it actually represents the formal recognition of the original style of Prosecco, one that has been made for hundreds of years.

Cloudy, chunky, and a little bit wild, ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to sui lieviti. Or, more formally: Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Sui Lieviti DOCG Brut Nature. It’s a mouthful in every sense of the word. A surprising, dynamic, interesting, flavorful, fun, and most importantly, delicious mouthful.

And while it resembles a pet-nat in both form and flavor, Sui Lieviti is most definitely not a pet-nat. Which turns out to be a very good thing.

A Prosecco Primer

For those of you unfamiliar with how Prosecco is made, here’s the short version.

Glera (the name of the grape variety used in Prosecco) grapes are harvested and pressed. That juice is then fermented in steel tanks to make a dry white wine. Sugar is added to that wine, and then yeast, and then the wine is usually put into a sealed tank called an autoclave where a second fermentation happens as the yeast consumes the newly added sugar.

Because that tank is sealed and pressurized, there’s nowhere for the carbon dioxide created by the yeast metabolism to go, so this second fermentation creates the bubbles in the wine. Once the wine reaches the desired level of pressure, the wine is stabilized, filtered to remove the yeasts and sediments, and bottled.

This second fermentation in the tank is known as the Charmat Method, though the Italians like to call it the Martinotti Method since it was invented by an Italian of that name before it was popularized by a Frenchman with the last name Charmat.

Notably, this method of making sparkling wine differs from the traditional method practiced in Champagne and many places around the world where the second fermentation takes place in individual bottles, rather than in a large tank. When wine is made that way, each individual bottle must be disgorged, which is the process of removing the dead yeasts from each bottle. After disgorging, winemakers often add a bit of additional sugar, or dosage, to balance out the wine. Some Prosecco Superiore producers do use this classical method, but it remains pretty uncommon.

So What, Exactly, is Sui Lieviti?

A Sui Lieviti Prosecco is made exactly the same way as a normal Prosecco to start with. But then the second fermentation takes place in individual bottles rather than in an autoclave.

But…. the wine is never disgorged.

So what you get is a sparkling wine that still has a fine sediment of spent yeast cells in it, also known as lees. Sui lieviti means the same thing as the French sur lie, or “on the lees.”

Because the wine is never disgorged, this means that the yeasts usually keep working until they have used up all the sugar that is added to the base wine before it is put in the bottle.

Effectively (and by official regulation and labeling requirements), all sui lieviti Prosecco wines are brut nature, corresponding to less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar remaining in the bottle, and usually around 11% to 11.5% alcohol.

One Bottle, Two Wines

While I was traipsing around the Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG region recently on a press trip, producers and restaurant staff would usually ask me how I wanted to taste my sui lieviti: “clear” or “cloudy?” If I chose clear, the bottle would be opened and the wine poured gently, resulting in a relatively normal-looking glass of Prosecco. If I chose cloudy, the person serving the wine would gently invert the bottle a few times to throw the lees into suspension before opening the bottle, and I’d get a cloudy, fizzy glass of wine that bore very little resemblance to the first.

I quickly realized that I generally preferred cloudy.

It’s quite remarkable what a difference the lees make in the experience of the wine. Without the lees in suspension, the wines tend to be precise, fruity, and crisp, and to be honest, a lot like a normal Extra Brut Prosecco Superiore. But with those lees in suspension, the wine’s texture changes completely, filling the mouth, and often new flavors accompany the typical apple and white flowers. The lees sometimes bring a little yeasty funk, a little bread-like sweetness, and sometimes some very different flavors of herbs or more unusual fruits.

Sui Lieviti Beats Pet-Nat Every Time

Pét-nat wines, short for pétillant natural, currently represent one of the hottest wine categories in the American market right now, at least in wine-centric areas like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. These wines, which some affectionately refer to as “farmer fizz” thanks to being basically the first primitive form of sparkling wine ever made, are made by taking grape must that has just begun fermenting and putting it in a bottle. The fermentation finishes in the sealed bottle yielding a cloudy, sediment-filled fizzy wine with often a lower alcohol level.

Propelled by interest in natural wine (many of whose makers have come to embrace the form), pét-nats vary wildly in style, from clean and refined to rustic and even animal in nature. I’ve had some lovely examples, and I’ve had some pretty nasty ones, too.

This variability makes me slightly wary of the category, especially when it comes to spending my own money. Also, I’ve learned through (much alarming) experience that the relatively primitive winemaking behind them means they are “an adventure” to open. Specifically, they must always be opened over a sink, as many of them don’t exactly explode, but often foam over aggressively for a minute or two. This not only makes for quite a mess but annoyingly sometimes results in the loss of 30% to 50% of the wine from the bottle.

In short, pét-nats are a total crapshoot, with only about 25% of them being worth the time and attention they seem to get, at least in this writer’s opinion.

Which is why I say Prosecco Superiore Sui Lieviti kicks pét-nat butt.

Sui lieviti represents everything I think people like about pét-nats—the cloudy, slightly wild, faintly sweet, decidedly unvarnished flavor profile—but without the downsides of still-fermenting, explosive messy openings, and frequently odd flavors and aromas.

And that’s all before we talk about price. There aren’t a lot of sui lieviti wines being brought into the US at the moment (I predict that will change in the next year) but those that are imported rarely exceed $25 a bottle at retail. These aren’t profound wines, to be sure, nor are they made for laying down and aging in any way, but they’re tasty and a lot of fun to drink.

Go for the Good Stuff: Buy DOCG

It’s worth clarifying that Prosecco is not Prosecco is not Prosecco. Which is to say, there exists a vast area of northern Italy, spanning from Lake Garda in the West to the Slovenian border in the East, where someone can make a wine from Glera and call it Prosecco (DOC). The amount of inexpensive bubbly wine produced in this area would blow your mind. It’s starting to get pretty close to a billion bottles a year.

The Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG region, on the other hand, is a much smaller area in the foothills of the pre-alps, characterized by dizzyingly steep vineyards that are overwhelmingly worked by hand at much higher levels of quality and lower levels of production than the wider DOC region (DOCG makes a mere 13% of all Prosecco). Interestingly this wine-growing region was recently the first and only region in Europe to ban the use of glyphosate by all growers completely.

The Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG region’s topography, soils, microclimates, focus on sustainability, and heritage of wine growing means that the wines carrying the DOCG designation are generally much higher quality than those with the mere DOC.

An example of the stunning vineyards of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG area in a subzone known as the Rive Soligo.

This guidance extends to sui lieviti wines as well. There are sui lieviti wines made in the DOC area, but they’re not going to come from the best sites, nor will they approach the level of quality you’ll find in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG versions.

The Ambiguity of Frizzante and Col Fondo

Before it was new, this style of prosecco was old. Very old.

And before it was codified in wine law as sui lieviti, this style of Prosecco was known far and wide as col fondo.

Remember that phrase “farmer fizz?” Well col fondo is basically the northern Italian equivalent of that phrase. Which is to say, for many decades, when locals in the Prosecco region wanted to refer to an un-disgorged, bottle-fermented wine, usually just produced for friends and family, they called it col fondo, which literally means “with stuff on the bottom.”

This cloudy, bottle-fermented form was the original form of sparkling Prosecco before the Martinotti/Charmat method became popular at the beginning of the 20th Century.

While Prosecco has become best known internationally in its clear and bright form, there has long been a local appreciation for both the flavors and the tradition of the col fondo version. Pretty much everyone in the region still uses the phrase conversationally to refer to bottle-fermented wines.

Confusingly, however, you will also still see it on wine labels. Sometimes separately, other times in conjunction with the phrase “sui lieviti” on cloudy bottles of Prosecco.

It turns out that there are a couple of issues with this.

Firstly, col fondo does not appear in any wine law or regulation for the region, so there is no strict technical definition of it in any way. Secondly, and rather bizarrely, it happens to be a trademarked term owned by two companies. Drusian and the large cooperative winery Val d’Oca both registered the term “colfondo” around 2002. If you want to know how it’s possible for two companies to own a trademark, you’ll have to ask the Italian government.

In any case, the existence of this trademark led the Prosecco DOCG consortium to establish and define the sui lieviti wine classification, with the hope that col fondo might go away.

That seems unlikely, in part because the definition of sui lieviti doesn’t encompass the full range of styles that were traditionally made under the moniker of col fondo. You see, wines labeled as col fondo were usually lower-pressure wines (1 to 3 bars of pressure —technically “frizzante”—rather than the standard 3 to 5 bars for “spumante” according to Italian classification) and residual sugar levels weren’t always close enough to zero to call them brut nature. Because sui lieviti must have spumante-level pressure, and must be brut nature, a bunch of col fondo wines were sort of dropped off the back of the bus.

For those producers still interested in making the cloudy, fizzy wines their grandfathers produced, they’re likely to call their wines col fondo, and that term might appear on the bottle somewhere if they’re pugnacious enough to not care about the registered trademark issue. But the official designation they have to put on the label in order to be able to sell their wine is “Vino frizzante,” or more commonly, “Vino frizzante a rifermentazioni in bottiglia” a phrase which means just what it looks like: “fizzy wine re-fermented in the bottle.”

Less aggressive bubbles. Still tasty.

It remains to be seen what will happen to col fondo as both a name and a style. In my opinion, the Prosecco DOCG consortium should come to an agreement with the trademark holders and change the wine law to define the term col fondo as basically a lower pressure sui lieviti. In the meantime however, you’ll have to keep an eye out for both types of cloudy Prosecco from Conegliano Valdobbiadene.

Tasting Notes

Here’s a rundown of the sui lieviti wines that I tasted during my recent visit to Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.

2020 Bianca Vigna Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
Pale cloudy gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of winter melon, white flowers, and citrus pith. In the mouth, lemon cucumber and wet stone have a nice crisp mineral quality, white flowers, winter melon, with a hint of powdery chalkiness and lime zest. This wine is currently only imported under the brand name Giavi by The Wine House and comes wrapped in a UV-blocking orange film. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2020 Fondo Due Valli Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A pale hazy blonde color in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers, Asian pear, and linalool. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers faintly chalky flavors of applesauce and white flowers that have a nice juicy brightness. The sparkles fade quickly to mere prickles on the tongue. Good acidity. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2020 Vitale Girardi “Vitale” Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
Pale hazy gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemon cucumber, white flowers, celery, and green herbs. In the mouth, cucumber, green apple, white flowers, and greengage plum flavors have a slightly chalky texture and a hint of sweet bread to them. Excellent acidity and soft petillance. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2020 Terre di San Venanzio “Fortunato” Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A hazy blonde color with very faint bubbles, this wine smells of applesauce and white flowers, wet chalkboard, and citrus pith. In the mouth, stony flavors of citrus pith, apple, pear, and sourdough have excellent acidity. Clean, bright, and very refreshing. Score: around 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2019 Zinto Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
Cloudy blonde in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of poached pears, apple sauce, white flowers, and sweet rolls. In the mouth, flavors of applesauce, white flowers, and a touch of wet bread are delivered on a soft mousse that tickles the palate. Good acidity. 11% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

NV Le Rive de Nadal “1.11” Prosecco Conegliano Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Vino Frizzante, Veneto, Italy
A hazy greenish-gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, greengage plum, Asian pear, and a hint of sweet onion. In the mouth, the wine has a faint mousse, with a light tannic grip and a core of green apple skin, greengage plum, lime zest, and wet pavement. Made from 2020 fruit but technically a non-vintage wine. A blend of 70% Glera, 15% Bianchetta Trevigiana, 10% Perera, and 5% Verdiso. Made in one of the steepest vineyards in all of Prosecco. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2017 L’Antica Quercia “Su Alto Indigeno Col Fondo Sui Lieviti” Vino Frizzante,” Italy
Pale blonde in the glass with a slight haze and fine weak bubbles, this wine smells of sweet apples, white flowers, and a hint of banana and dried herbs. In the mouth, mild fizzy flavors of apple, white flowers, and a touch of pear have a faint chalky minerality and an aromatic sweetness even though the wine is dry. 11% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2020 Gregoletto Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A pale cloudy blonde color in the glass with small bubbles, this wine smells of nut skin, honeysuckle, and yogurt. In the mouth, tangy, yogurty flavors of apples and citrus pith have that acidophilus sharpness to them and excellent acidity. Soft mousse. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23. click to buy.

2017 Marchiori “Integrale” Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A hazy light gold in the glass, with very few bubbles evident, this wine smells of wet stone, crushed nuts, and dried apricot. In the mouth, the wine is savory and stony, with a lactic creaminess and notes of citrus pith that linger in the finish. Unusual, but tasty. Made of all 5 heritage grapes from the region: Verdiso, Perera, Bianchetta Travigiana, Glera Lunga, and Glera. Fermented with native yeasts and winemaking “according to the moon” says the label. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

NV Casa Coste Piane “Frizzante Naturalmente” Prosecco Conegliano Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Frizzante, Veneto, Italy
A cloudy pale yellow gold in the glass with soft bubbles, this wine smells of apple, pear, and a hint of hard cheese rind. In the mouth, a light sparkle and soft mousse deliver flavors of wet stone and a touch of citrus. There’s a light tannic grip as flavors of pears, and Asian pear move across the palate. Nice stony finish. Good acid. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2020 Collalto Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A pale cloudy blonde color with tiny bubbles, this wine smells of yeast and warm bread along with apple and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, the wine has a voluminous mousse, filling the mouth with yogurty applesauce flavors, citrus pith, pear, and wet stone flavors. Good acidity. 12% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25.

2020 Drusian Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A cloudy pale greenish gold in the glass with soft bubbles, this wine smells of lemon cucumber, winter melon, and wet stones. In the mouth, celery, winter melon, and unripe pear flavors have an herbal quality to them through the soft foam of the mousse. The herbal notes linger through the finish. Good acidity. Very savory. 11% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.

2020 Adriano Adami “Col Fondo” Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
Pale cloudy gold in the glass with very fine bubbles and little chunks, this wine smells of Asian pears and linalool and a hint of Greek yogurt with honey. In the mouth, a voluminous mousse fills the mouth and delivers flavors of citrus and pureed Asian pear, peach, linalool, and a touch of yogurt. A deep, stony, wet chalkboard minerality resolves into a chalky dryness. Picked riper as a rule. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2019 Sorelle Bronca “Difetto Perfetto” Prosecco Valdobiadene Superiore DOCG Sui Lieviti Brut Nature, Veneto, Italy
A cloudy greenish gold in the glass with relatively faint bubbles, this wine smells of wet dog, sweaty socks, and all the world like a yamahai style Japanese sake. In the mouth, savory flavors of celery and aubergine, and a hint of pear have a salty funk that some of my drinking companions liked, but I did not. I did, however, love the name of this wine, which translates to “perfectly defective” or “the perfect flaw.” 11% alcohol. Score: around 8.