The Sparkle in Italy's Eye
I visit the prosecco region as its makers scramble to protect the name.
“And prosecco?” Letterman asked Paris. “What does that mean?”
“It’s Italian,” she said. “It’s like Italian champagne.”
“Italian champagne. In a can? Champagne in a can?” asked Dave.
“It’s sexy,” Paris said. “It looks great when you’re holding it.”
“Sexy?” Dave chortled. “Champagne in a can is sexy. Heh heh heh. A quart of Bud in a paper bag is sexy, too.” He then proceeded to shake the can of prosecco to see if it would explode. “Oh, you’re right. That is sexy.”
“It tastes amazing,” Paris said. “It really does.”
And thus a vast portion of the American public was introduced to the charms of prosecco. At least that’s how horrified Italian winemakers in the Veneto region, prosecco’s traditional home, feared. “Vulgar” is what they called it, and they immediately went on the offensive.
What seemed to rankle the Italians most is not that canned prosecco was mocked by Letterman, or that Paris appeared in silly ads wearing nothing but gold paint, but rather that the product was made by a company in Austria, hoping to cash in on the worldwide phenomenon of Italian sparkling wine. This — after so-called “prosecco” has already been produced by companies in places as far flung as Australia and Brazil — was the last straw. Prosecco, after all, is as Italian as it gets; millions in Italy drink a glass of it, almost daily, during aperitivo hour, when barmen keep open bottles at the ready.
|Paris' prosecco: Not hot to Italians.
In March, Italian agricultural minister Luca Zaia called the prosecco proliferation “agropiracy” that threatened “the future of Prosecco” and “hurts the perception of the Made in Italy brand.” His solution? As usual, to create and enforce an expanded D.O.C. (or Controlled Denomination of Origin), which will replace the current one that’s existed for 40 years. And then to designate an even stricter DOCG (or Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin) specifically for Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, a collection of towns a half-hour north of Venice where 60 percent of the world’s prosecco is made. One problem for an official Prosecco DOC or DOCG, is that — unlike most wine DOCs, such as Barolo or Rioja or Burgundy — prosecco is a grape varietal and not a geographical term. And the grape could theoretically be grown anywhere. But no matter. As of this summer, only the Italians will be able to call it prosecco.
The response is nothing new. In the recent past, Italians have very publicly tried to police everything from fake prosciutto di Parma to inauthentic Italian restaurants abroad to the proper way to make pizza. And it’s not just Italy. The French likely also cringed when Paris and Dave talked about prosecco as “Italian champagne.” When it comes to sparkling wine, French trade groups spend a lot of money and effort to make damn well sure we all know that “champagne” only refers to a sparkling wine that produced in the Champagne region of northern France. In fact, nearly every wine region covets DOC protection, and at this point, there are literally hundreds of DOCs in Europe (316 in Italy alone). Things have become so out of hand and cumbersome that the EU has finally said enough is enough, and intends to simplify and streamline the whole DOC process as of August 1. Which means Conegliano-Valdobbiadene has slipped in its DOCG application just under the wire.
Despite all the fuss, prosecco — at least on the surface — doesn’t appear to be facing much of a problem. Italy produces over 150 million bottles of the stuff, and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene exported more than 17 million bottles in 2008. Lots of people in the U.S. have discovered and fallen in love with prosecco, particularly before dinner on a hot afternoon. And since most prosecco sells in the $10 to $15 range, the price is usually right. Unlike champagne, prosecco uses a so-called Charmat method, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle. This makes prosecco significantly less expensive to produce.
Because it’s inexpensive and enjoyed in a casual, by-the-glass atmosphere, prosecco is almost always referred to by serious wine critics as “relaxed” or “breezy” or “perfect for summer drinking.” Writes the New York Times’ critic Eric Asimov: “You cannot brood over a prosecco.” Translation: Serious wine people do not take this wine too seriously.
I believe this perception — more so than Paris Hilton or prosecco from Brazil — is the rub for the people who make prosecco. If your wine is dismissed as “friendly” or “fun”…well, you’re probably not going to be able to charge a whole lot of money for it.
I happened to be in northern Italy on assignment a few weeks ago, and my visit coincided with a big prosecco event called Vino in Villa — a celebration of both the old DOC’s 40th anniversary and the new designations soon to come. Vino in Villa took place over three days inside the amazing hilltop Castello di San Salvatore, in Susegana, a town smack in the middle of what will be the new Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG. About 80 local producers offered tastings inside the castle’s various ballrooms.
“You are in the historical heart of prosecco,” said Giancarlo Vettorello, director of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene’s prosecco consortium, upon meeting me in the castle’s courtyard on the Sunday I arrived. Vettorello and I were to do an interview. It was a very hot May day and the sun was extremely bright; we decided to sit under a tent, in the shade. But first it was suggested I fill my glass of prosecco. Which I did. And so, between sips, I tried to jot down notes without being seduced by the beautiful people milling around admiring the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene landscape, which is so extraordinary that the region is working to become the first viticultural area recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was pretty darn sexy, to be honest, and hard to concentrate.
Vettorello and I discussed the importance of getting Conegliano-Valdobbiadene’s DOCG squared away before the EU’s new DOC rules take effect in August. It was very important, he said.
In between more sips of fizzy, soft prosecco, I followed up by asking how much a negative effect things like canned prosecco and Paris Hilton had on his consortium’s membership. How important was it really? Vettorello shrugged. “It happens to every wine that has a certain success,” he said. “How do you police this?” He shrugged again. “It is impossible.” He really didn’t seem all that worried. Who could be concerned about such things on such a lovely afternoon? I finished my prosecco and then the interview, and then went back into the ballrooms to taste some more.
Inside, I saw Zardetto and Mionetto, two brands that sell well in the U.S., and bypassed them for others I hadn’t tasted before. The producers were separated micro areas within the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (indeed, Italians can infinitely divide gastro-geography).
In Sala Quattro (the micro region of Vittorio Veneto) I enjoyed the brut prosecco of producers Bellenda and Le Vigne di Alice. Prosecco can be dry, extra dry, or brut — with brut the driest. Extra dry is what’s most prevalent, and good extra dry has a crisp, sweet tartness with pear and apple notes. Sometimes, though, after a couple glasses, extra dry prosecco can become a little too cloying for me. But the bruts of Bellenda and Le Vigne di Alice had significantly less residual sugar, about half as much as some, and I loved the minerality of these sparkling wines.
Only three or four tastes into the day, and I was already happily surprised at the variety of prosecco, much more complex than we usually find in the States. “You can find prosecco anywhere, but you don’t know always what you’re drinking,” said Massimo Grava, who was pouring at the Bellenda table.
I was soon whisked off to lunch by the family who owned the castle, some royalty who also owned both Borgoluce and Collalto wineries. Lunch was served among the vines of their nearby agriturismo. There was an aperitivi, prosecco of course, served along with some delicious hams. And then lunch was served.
“The countess would like to sit next to you,” whispered the Borgoluce public relations person. Well, let it be said that I am not one to disappoint a countess. The countess, Maria Trinidad di Collalto was of course an extremely attractive and charming woman of an indeterminate age. She seemed slightly older than I, and yet looked a decade younger. We were joined at the table by a couple of junior writers from a large American wine magazine, and some of the countess’ friends from Bologna. The table next to us was full of journalists from Korea, the next one with journalists from Eastern Europe. One man dining with us — described to me as “the most famous sommelier in Italy” — was the host of a popular Italian wine program on television. After one glass of prosecco, we moved on to red wine with lunch.
“This is a very exciting time for prosecco, a revolution, a big adventure,” said the countess.
One of the American wine journalists pressed the countess, politely. “Don’t you think we have to re-educate the public?” he said.
“But people love prosecco,” the countess said. “I love prosecco.”
“But many people think that prosecco is just prosecco,” the journalist said.
The countess smiled and leaned in close in an endearing and conspiratorial way. “I think we Italians, we take ourselves too seriously sometimes,” she said.
After lunch, we took a tour of their farm. The main attraction were the pigs, from which our delicious hams had come. The countess said, with a smile, “We are waiting for them to get big so we can eat them.”
| Enjoying prosecco in the Paris-free
ballroom of an Italian castle.
When I returned to the castle for a second round of tasting, a journalist from Venice guided me to several of her favorite prosecco producers from around the village of Valdobbiandene, in Sala Sette. I enjoyed the bruts from Adami and Bortolomiol and the extra drys from Bisol and Ca’ Salina. But the revelation of the afternoon was a style of prosecco that we rarely get in the U.S. — Cartizze, which is grown on a single 1,000-foot-high hill. Prosecco from this hill is considered the grand cru of the region, and I spent most of afternoon sampling several producers’ Cartizze dry, particularly enjoying ones from Drusian and Ruggeri.
But frankly, after I’d tasted more than a dozen proseccos, my tastebuds were shot. So I decided to wander and explore the castle. At one point, I was on the second floor, and the elevator seemed to be broken. I couldn’t find the staircase, and after about 10 minutes, I started trying random doors. When I tried the third door, it flung open into a room, where to my embarrassed surprise I found the most famous sommelier in Italy amorously lying on a bed with a female journalist from our lunch party.
I finally found a place to take a little nap myself. And then, later, there was a dinner at a famous Veneto restaurant called Da Lino. The journalists from the American wine magazine were there. We were also joined by several producers, as well as Vettorello and the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene’s PR person, a woman named Silvia Baratta. There were journalists from Estonia and Poland, and one that looked a little like Paul Shafer, who wrote for an influential Austrian wine magazine. Dinner began a little awkwardly when the Polish journalist complained that the PR people had taken him out for sushi the night before. “Sushi! In Italy!”
Paris Hilton and her canned prosecco came up before the first course. The Austrian journalist who looked like Paul Shafer insisted that Paris Hilton was good for prosecco. “Look at how many stories were written about this controversy,” he said. “Look at how many more people know the word prosecco now.”
But the producers were worried. The sparkling wine market is tricky in the U.S. and that is clearly where they see the future growth of exports. Champagne is already a household word, and cava — the inexpensive sparkling wine from Catalonia, such as Freixenet — has already saturated the market.
“Do Americans even know that, if they buy cava, if they buy Freixenet, that it comes from Spain?” asked Borgoluce’s Lodovico Giustiniani.
“Yes and no,” said one of the journalists from the American wine magazine. “By now most wine buyers vaguely know that champagne comes from France, cava from Spain, prosecco from Italy.” But he added: “Most don’t get more specific than that.”
“Would Americans be drawn to a bottle with the words Conegliano-Valdobbiadene?” asked Silvia. “Do you think this would be something, would mean quality, to the American consumer?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“No,” said the American wine journalist.
“What if we called it Prosecco Superiore?” asked Silvia. “Like they do in Chianti?”
“Possibly,” I said.
The Austrian journalist who looked like Paul Shafer didn’t like the name Prosecco Superiore at all. “Nonsense!”
“Look,” said the American wine journalist. “You have to understand the psychology of a certain type of American wine consumer. He or she is terrified. Terrified that he or she is going to bring the ‘wrong’ bottle to a party or whatever. On the shelf there are all these foreign names that are impossible to pronounce. If you have two bottles of prosecco, and one says ‘Prosecco’ and the other says ‘Prosecco Superiore’ and that bottle costs a few dollars more, that person will buy the Superiore. It’s driven by a sense of fear.”
I agreed with him at the time. But now I think we were a little harsh. I mean, you have to give us Americans a little credit. We do at least know that sparkling wine should always come in a bottle. • 4 June 2009
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.
Photographs courtesy of Consorzio Tutela Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene.