Italy, I’ve missed you.
It’s been five years since I’ve stepped foot on Italian shores, and what a pleasure it is to be here for a week of Prosecco, organised by the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Consorzio (the regional wine body).
It’s important I put the full name, too, because the difference between plain ‘Prosecco DOC’ and ‘Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG’ is like Laughing Cow cheese vs. an 18mo Comté.
That’s a good comparison, actually (nice one jetlagged Andrew), because Comté is in Laughing Cow too, just like Prosecco DOC and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG wines use the same key grape (whether you want to call it Glera or Prosecco. More on that later)…
How the two appellations are managed, however, is a big deal/weird rivalry, and an unspoken reason why a pack of Aussie wine writers and somms are on a press/industry trip here in the first place.
You can sense the challenge, as Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco producers disdainfully call the Prosecco DOC ‘wines from the plains’ with a sweep of the arm in a general Treviso direction (the phrase often uttered as said producers sit among their typically beautiful green hillside vineyards). Yet they can’t hide from the fact that their premium DOCG wines are effectively capped at 100 million bottles, while the broader DOC produces an astonishing 700 million bottles a year.
There’s the rub. Everyone knows Prosecco. Few understand just how deep is the chasm of quality between the basic and premium wines.
But hey, that’s why it’s a pleasure to be here. To see how that challenge is being addressed. Indeed, it’s been eight years since I first set foot in Valdobbiadene and discovered that the beautiful Prosecco from the gobsmacking rive are the most pure sparkling wines on the planet. I’m intrigued to see what’s changed in this world of unappreciated spumante magic, especially after the deep dive Tyson delivered last year (FWIW Tyson is here on the trip).
Of course, these wines aren’t unappreciated locally, with the Venetians latching on to the greatness of fine Prosecco from the foot of the Dolomites centuries ago. Italy remains the biggest market for the DOCG wines, so the ‘sell’ is really an international challenge.
Speaking of locals, what’s fascinating here is a reminder of what they really drink – and it’s not what you might expect.
Besides an ocean of spritz, what’s in glasses is apparently frizzante, with the col fondo styles of traditional, bottle-fermented sparkling (rather than the modern, tank-fermented Prosecco signature) the true local drink of choice.
Forget pet nat; this is the real Prosecco.
One of my favourite wines so far on this trip was indeed a col fondo, crafted by the affable and very generous Martino Tormena of Mongarda.
The Mongarda Glera Col Fondo Colli Trevigiani 2022 is a wonderful example of the old and the new. Col fondo is effectively metodo ancestrale/pet nat, which here translates to a wild fermented base wine crafted from Glera/Prosecco grown on steep slopes, with the second ferment happening in bottle. No disgorgement = bottling with full lees, and the second ferment is kickstarted with must that was kept aside during the first ferment with zero dosage.
Importantly, Martino’s col fondo is spotlessly clean, and we’re taking frizzante here, so not one of those horrible froth monster pet nats. Think distinctive, perfumed, tight Prosecco, yet with layers of leesy brioche over the top of the vital juice. It is a lively wine but with complexity – custard powder meets green apples, the bone dry and very fresh palate a counterpoint.
Martino helpfully served this with a handmade local sopressa (above) and a soft, creamy, fresh cow’s milk cheese.
Damn, it was delicious.
That’s a wine and food combo that made me feel like I could be a Venetian merchant luncheoning, not some peasant Australian itching to ask questions about the rampant regional protectionism around the use of Prosecco as a grape variety (which is a discussion in itself).
Incidentally, Martino is among a cadre of good producers who make a still wine from Prosecco grapes too, tapping into the hyper-local demand for not still wines that are typically bracing, ultra-neutral beverages that Valdobbiadene residents drink like water.
The one example (artfully called ‘Tranquillo’) we’ve had so far was made by the excellent L’Antica Quercia from their meticulously farmed, certified organic vineyard not far from Conegliano.
Our visit to L’Antica Quercia, however, was profoundly sad, as this pioneering property will struggle to pick a grape from their 25ha this harvest.
It’s all about the grandine (hail).
This year has been marked by some of the most devastating hail in the region’s history, with two days of frozen ice madness hitting the vineyards with random, climate-change-fuelled ferocity.
The vignerons here are used to hail, to the point where hail nets are a not uncommon sight in many exposed blocks. Yet the degree this year is unheard of. The damage is typically variable too, varying from almost nothing in some blocks – particularly in the Valdobbiadene end of the region – right through to total devastation in a slab of vineyards not farm from Conegliano itself.
You can see the hail destruction as you drive along, with vineyards laden with green grapes and the odd dried berry, compared to rows of brown, shrivelled nothingness as the ice rips bunches (and leaves and even canes) to shreds.
The brown is especially contrasting among the ultra green rows of the biodynamically farmed L’Antica Quercia vineyards.
Indeed, Claudio Francavilla thinks he is down 90% this year, with the second day of the hailstorms delivering a small and persistent ice flurry that cut through greenery like a scythe.
Man, it’s depressing to see the devastation.
Anyway, Claudio is upbeat, realising that he will just need to stretch out supplies of his excellent extended-lees-aged Prosecco in the years to come.
More broadly, this 2023 harvest will still be a strong one, with yields across Valdobbiadene Conegliano Prosecco only down by about 10-20% and fruit quality otherwise great (which I know as I’ve eaten a lot of grapes from vineyards all over the appellation).
Later this week, I want to talk more about individual wines, as there are so many beautiful Prosecco here that I need to make a full list to cover it.
For now, it’s time to kick on into the day, as we’re walking the legendary Cartizze hill today, and man, it looks steep…
(I have travelled to Italy as a guest of the Valdobbiadene Conegliano Prosecco Consorzio. They didn’t force me to write any nice words, however, although the food has been sublime).