Prosecco—that affordable (okay, cheap) stand-in for Champagne—is a victim of its success. Brands like LaMarca, with its too-cute single-serve minis in search of a straw and a party, have helped brand the bubbly from northeast Italy as whimsical and low cost. Add to those approachable prices the fact that Prosecco is made in the Charmat method (where the second fermentation takes place under pressure in a tank instead of in the bottle, like Champagne), and almost no one takes it seriously.
But bottles from a small region within the region, about 30 miles north of Venice, deserve more respect. The region, Conegliano Valdobbiadene, has earned Italy’s stamp of highest quality—DOCG, as opposed to the more ubiquitous DOC—as well as recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Prosecco Superiore produced here offers intensity and complexity of flavors not to be found in more familiar bottles.
Enrico Valleferro, export manager for Adriano Adami, describes the distinction succinctly: The DOCG is hilly, the DOC flat and the number of hours per year that each hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) is worked is 400 to 700 vs. 120 to 150. “The DOCG has micro areas (Rive) that are unique and unrepeatable,” says Valleferro. “Elevation, exposition, soil, temperature swings can vary dramatically from Riva to Riva, mile after mile.” The Grand Cru of the region is Cartizze, where vineyards drape slopes so precipitous that even hand work seems life-risking.
Prosecco Superiore belies two perceptions—first, that tank fermentation (also called Metodo Martinotti or Italiano) is a subpar shortcut to bubbles. But for Prosecco, it’s an advantage: Avoiding contact with yeast in the bottle preserves the natural delicacy of the fruit and florals in the Glera grape most widely grown here. And second, that Prosecco is too sweet. It’s true that there’s a sweet tradition here (especially in Cartizze), but the trend is drier and when a sweeter style is chosen, it’s matched to the flavors and balanced with the acidity in the wines. The sweetness scale (confusing the world over) is your guide: Extra Brut (0 to 6 grams of residual sugar per liter), Brut (6 to 12), Extra Dry (12 to 17) and Dry (yep, the sweetest, 17 to 32).
There’s one more perception Prosecco Superiore defies—that interesting sparkling wine has to be expensive. Winemakers have utilized low yields and hand farming to coax nuance and complexity out of their great growing sites, creating delicious wines that are also screaming deals.