Prosecco At its Finest: Highlights From My Recent Trip

The Rive di Combai

In early May, at the invitation of the Consorzio di Tutela Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG I returned to the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region of Italy for the first time in more than 17 years. My previous visit was to attend a wedding, and while we did a little bit of wine tasting at the time, I was more focused on connecting with friends than diving deep into the wine. But my impressions of the wines from that trip, as well as many subsequent tastings of Prosecco Superiore since are fairly clear.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed watching the evolution of Prosecco Superiore over the last 15 years. It has gotten drier, more refined, and more expressive. When I first visited, not many producers were making extra brut or brut nature versions of their wines. Most were focused on the extra dry versions of Prosecco, which can contain between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per liter. These days, nearly everyone has extra brut versions of their wines (with less than 6 grams of sugar per liter) and many make a brut nature with less than three grams of sugar.

A number of other things have changed in the region over the past 15 years, most notably the declaration of the wine region as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the region’s decision to make a total ban on the use of glyphosate in any of its vineyards (the first region in Europe to do so).

The Prosecco DOCG region has also spent a lot of time digging deep, so to speak, into its terroirs, and has identified 43 of its steepest, highest-quality, most historical vineyard production areas and codified them into named Rive that can be thought of as the region’s equivalent to Burgundy’s climats.

Needless to say, there was a lot of new stuff for me to explore on my recent trip, and a chance to get to know the region with more depth and intimacy.

What You Need to Know About Prosecco Superiore DOCG

Not all Prosecco is created equal. Sparkling wine made from the Glera grape in a massive swath of northern Italy stretching from just west of the cities of Vicenza and Padua across most of the Veneto and all of Friuli gets bottled as Prosecco DOC.

The Prosecco DOC region in light and dark green with the two DOCG regions in yellow and brown.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Prosecco DOC wine from the wider area. Producers there have even started to make a Rosé version of it that is pretty fun. But a tastier, higher-quality version of Prosecco exists, and that is the wine made in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG region, a much smaller area with stricter controls on how the wine is made, and a striking, definitive terroir and climate.

There are actually two of these DOCG regions, a tiny one surrounding the commune of Asolo, and the other, more well-known one—an area of 15 different communes stretched between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, which is where I recently spent a week.

The Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG region consists of slightly more than 9000 hectares or 23,600 acres of vineyards, split among more than 3400 growers, most of which farm only a tiny slice of a hillside vineyard near their homes.

These vineyards sit just in front of what the Italians call the “pre-alps.” The DOCG region occupies the very first folds of hills that come up off the Venetian plains before the Dolomites rise steeply to snowcapped peaks, which can easily be seen from various vineyards on a clear day.

Cool air flows downwards from these mountain peaks, along with precipitation, creating something of a goldilocks growing region with mild temperatures, generous rainfall, and well-drained, stony hillsides, many of which conveniently face towards the sunnier south.

The soils of the region are all sedimentary in origin, but include 5 distinctly different types, ranging from cobbly conglomerates to iron-rich marls to gravelly morainic soils left behind by glacial outwash.

Most people don’t know that the Prosecco DOCG vineyards are among the most visually spectacular, difficult, and even dangerous vineyards to farm in the world. It can be tough to reconcile this fact with cheerful bubbles that only come with a $18 price tag, but quite often someone dies each year doing vineyard work on the precipitously steep slopes that mark the region.

Here’s what they look like (click for larger views):

These slopes, marked in many places by by grassy unwalled terraces known as ciglioni, necessitate an incredible amount of intensive work by hand—what the locals like to refer to as “heroic” viticulture. Whereas a flat vineyard will require about 150 hours of labor per hectare, per year, the hillside vineyards of Prosecco require more than 600 hours per hectare.

The folded hills, pushed and pulled by tectonic forces and carved by the action of ancient glaciers before being covered with their patchwork quilt of terraced vineyards, were the basis for the region’s UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Many vineyards in the region train their vines in a distinctive classic double cane method, known locally as doppio capovolto, an approach that helps manage the vigor of the Glera grape variety, which has a tendency to produce a lot of fruit if given the opportunity.

While Glera is the region’s primary grape variety and most wines are made solely with this grape, legally 15% of the wine can be made with the other four permitted grape varieties in the region: Verdiso, Perera, Bianchetta Trevigiana, and Glera Lunga. Of these, Verdiso and Bianchetta seem to be the only two that most people bother with these days, as Perera seems quite finicky and very susceptible to mildew and rot, while Glera Lunga isn’t thought to have much character.

Within the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG region, there are two additional wine designations that are important to know. The first is the aforementioned concept of a rive. A rive is a contiguous vineyard area across a hillside or series of hillsides representing one of the steepest, most historical areas of production for Prosecco Superiore DOCG.

While there have been 43 of these rive established, that doesn’t mean you’ll see all 43 of these names on bottles. Only about 15 rive have yet to make it onto the names of commercial Prosecco bottlings. This has to do both with the newness of the concept (established in 2009), as well as the realities of how the region is farmed.

With vineyard ownership split among so many small growers, it can be difficult to assemble enough acreage within a single rive to make enough wine to justify a single-rive bottling, especially in a region where the smallest commercially viable quantity of wine is usually many times larger than a single barrel or two.

These rive both are, and are not, the equivalent of Burgundy’s climats. On the one hand, just like Burgundian climats they are named, defined plots that have been known by those names for many decades, and sometimes more than a century. They have achieved general consensus amongst the region’s winemakers as the highest quality sites in the region.

However, on the other hand, these plots and their specific borders were not established through careful organoleptic analysis by monks over several centuries, and are therefore partially similar to Burgundy’s lieux-dits, which are simply named sites without necessarily any quality designation.

It is not necessarily possible to identify each of the rive through blind tasting. Though one might argue the same is true of Burgundy. The best blind tasters can reliably distinguish Meursault from Puligny-Montrachet, but have a harder time consistently pegging the difference between Meursault Les Caillerets and Meursault Sous Blagny.

Just as with Burgundy, what is under the surface in Prosecco doesn’t necessarily closely align with the historical boundaries of the rive. In fact, I have been told by the head of the Consorzio that scientists have identified 19 different subzones of the region—combinations of soil types, meso-climate, and chemical signatures of finished wines—that are organoleptically distinct, but this research is still ongoing and has yet to be published.

The other designation important to know is the Cartizze DOCG, a separate DOCG area embedded within the larger Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG region. Cartizze is one particularly steep hillside that, for reasons not entirely clear to geologists, features a much higher calcareous component than the rest of the region. It is arguably the most famous and historically prestigious site for Prosecco wine, spanning 264 acres across the main hillside and a few of its rolling companions. Wines from Cartizze typically cost roughly twice what you’d pay for a good DOCG Prosecco, and have a wonderful minerality and fineness that often accompanies limestone-driven terroirs around the world.

The main hill of Cartizze

How Prosecco is Made

Like most fine sparkling wines, Prosecco is made with two fermentations, the first results in a dry wine (with no residual sugar). New yeast and sugar are then added to this base wine, and their fermentation creates the bubbles. Whereas Champagne and some other sparkling wines generally have this second fermentation take place in individual bottles, Prosecco mostly uses the Charmat method, in which this second fermentation takes place in (generally large) sealed and pressurized tanks called autoclaves.

The locals in Prosecco like to refer to this process by its original name, the Martinotti Method, as it was invented and patented by an Italian of that name before being globally popularized by a Frenchman with the last name Charmat.

The second fermentation that happens in these pressurized tanks is generally done rather quickly, under temperature control, preserving the bright, floral, and fruity flavors of the Glera grape, yielding the friendly and reliably tasty character that has made the wine popular for decades. Once the fermentation has progressed to produce the desired level of pressure (usually 5-6 bars), the wine is filtered, cold-stabilized, and then put into bottles.

This method also has the benefit of being able to make sparkling wine somewhat “on-demand” in relatively flexible amounts (the limitation being the size and number of your autoclaves). So as a result, most producers make a vintage worth of still base wine that they keep in sealed, temperature-controlled tanks, which they then turn into Prosecco in batches throughout the year, bottling as demand necessitates. This allows them to deliver the freshest possible product to market and keeps them from having to store lots of bottles of wine until they’re sold.

Of course, like anywhere in the world where winemakers exercise their creativity, there are exceptions to this rule. Some winemakers make bottle-fermented prosecco, including the un-disgorged version that has recently become an officially sanctioned form of DOCG Prosecco known as sui lieviti (which I wrote about in some depth a number of weeks ago).

The Best Proseccos and How They Taste

The primary word that for me most distinguishes the best Prosecci is refinement. While most decently made Prosecco Superiore wines share a green apple and white floral character, those that are most compelling have a more chiseled aspect. They tend to show more mineral character and lean slightly more savory than your typical bottling.

I will admit to generally preferring Prosecco Superiore on the less-sweet end of the spectrum (Brut, Extra Brut, and Brut Nature). Having said that, you will see a couple of Extra Dry and Dry (remember that confusingly when we’re talking about sparkling wine, Extra Dry is semi-sweet, and Dry is sweeter still) bottles below included in the best of what I tasted on my trip. These sweeter wines managed to still convey a precision and minerality and had enough acidity to balance any sweetness on the palate.

Prosecco Superiore of course is not Champagne and never will be. Even when made in a classic method, with bottle fermentation and longer time on the lees, it doesn’t develop the complexity, mouthwatering salinity, and richness that mark the best Champagnes and sparkling wines around the world. Instead Prosecco delivers wonderfully fresh, crisp, and precise floral and apple flavors that while rarely profound, can be wonderfully refreshing and delicious. On the flip side, Prosecco is never marred by the astringency and angularity that characterizes a lot of inexpensive (and not very pleasurable) Champagne.

Because of its expression of clean, floral freshness, Prosecco Superiore is generally best drunk quite young and doesn’t usually reward cellaring. Having said that, one of my favorite wines from this past trip was a 6-year-old bottle of extra brut that was still quite delicious.

I continue to be amazed at the extraordinary value that Prosecco Superiore represents in the market, especially given the amount of work required to farm and harvest these incredible vineyards. To get the equivalent of a single-vineyard expression of place, made entirely by hand, in quantities of only a few hundred cases for less than $20 retail in the United States is somewhat astonishing.

The Rive Farra di Soligo, which extends over three layers of rolling hills

Tasting Notes

2021 L’Antica Quercia “Matiú Brut” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive Scomigo, Veneto, Italy
Near colorless in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of apple, wet stones, and lime zest. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers beautifully clean flavors of green apple that have a faint sweetness as lime zest and citrus pith linger through the finish. Excellent balance and acidity. 6 g/l residual sugar. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2020 Adami “Col Credas Extra Brut” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Farra di Soligo, Veneto, Italy
Near colorless in the glass with a hint of green and very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and white flowers with hints of unripe pear. In the mouth, slightly saline flavors of wet stone mix with white flowers, citrus oils, and green apple skin. Wonderfully fine, stony minerality and length. Very refined. 4 g/l residual sugar. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2020 Adami “Vigneto Giardino Dry” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Colbertaldo, Veneto, Italy
Palest greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers and crushed spices. In the mouth, a voluminous mousse delivers flavors of citrus peel, white flowers, spices, faint salinity, and a whisper of sweetness. Wonderful hints of blood oranges linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. 20 g/l residual sugar. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2021 Le Colture “Gerardo Extra Brut” Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di San Stefano, Veneto, Italy
Palest greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers, and greengage plums. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers crisp flavors of green apple, greengage plum, white flowers, crushed shells, and a touch of herbs. One of the highest vineyards in the Valdobbiadene area. Made with a longer fermentation lasting 3 months. Limestone soils, and vines that are around 100 years old. 11.5% alcohol. 5 g/l residual sugar. 6000 bottles made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2016 Bianca Vigna “Brut Nature” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Ogliano, Veneto, Italy
Pale greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of honey and nuts and wet stone. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers incredibly fresh minerality underneath honey roasted nuts and a whisper of baked apple. White flowers and a hint of salinity linger in the finish. Very clean and bright and still very fresh given 6 years of age. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2019 Ca’ dei Zago “Metodo Classico Dossagio Zero” Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG, Veneto, Italy
Light gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet stones and ripe apples. In the mouth, applesauce, yeasty bread, and lemon peel flavors are welded to a wonderful wet stone quality that is very compelling. Excellent acidity and a soft mousse. More savory than many Prosecco wines. Contains 5% Verdiso and 2.5% each of Bianchetta and Perera. Macerates for 2 days on the skins in concrete tanks. The wines are bottled in the spring, and the second fermentation takes place in the bottle with lees contact for 14 months before disgorgement. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.

2020 Bianca Vigna “Extra Brut” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Ogliano, Veneto, Italy
Near colorless in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers and green apple. In the mouth, crisp lime zest and lime leaf float on a soft mousse with wet chalkboard and a very nice clean finish. Excellent acidity. Grows on morainic clay soils. 1.5 g/l residual sugar. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.

2020 Bianca Vigna “Extra Brut” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Soligo, Veneto, Italy
Palest gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus pith, lime zest, and lemon cucumber. In the mouth, a plush mousse delivers flavors of stony crushed shells and wet chalkboard minerality laced with citrus pith and lean stone fruit. Farmed on conglomerate soils with some intrusions of limestone at a precarious 70% slope. 1.5 g/l residual sugar. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.

2020 Bianca Vigna “Extra Dry” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Colalto, Veneto, Italy
Palest gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers and candied green apple. In the mouth, faintly sweet candied apple flavors mix with white flowers and wet stones, all floating on a soft mousse. This is clean and crisp and stony and faintly sweet. Comes from a heavily wooded section of the appellation, and a very stony hill. 17 g/l residual sugar. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.

2020 Carpenè-Malvolti “1868 Brut” Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di San Pietro Barbozza, Veneto, Italy
Palest gold in the glass, with fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet pavement and honeysuckle and a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers wonderfully fine and clean mineral notes with scents of white flowers and Asian pear flavors. Very clean and crisp. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

NV Adami “Dei Casel Extra Dry” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, Veneto, Italy
Near colorless in the glass (faint hint of green) with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of linalool and green apple. In the mouth, white flowers, green apple, wet chalkboard, and bright hints of lime are borne on a soft mousse with lime zest in the finish. Nice mineral undertones. Excellent acidity. 16 g/l residual sugar. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2021 Andreola “26˚1˚ Extra Brut” Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG Rive di Col San Martino, Veneto, Italy
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells slightly of bread dough, white flowers, herbs, and wet pavement. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers flavors of white flowers, winter melon, and a touch of Asian pear all infused with citrus notes. Crisp and bright. 0 g/l residual sugar. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??