Prosecco is the world’s most popular sparkling wine. Last year 550 million bottles were sold around the world. For publication in the week starting 4 March 2019.
Analysts suggest the wine world is dividing into two main sales streams. One aims to produce lots of inexpensive wine for outlets like supermarkets. The other focuses on high-quality wines that attract premium prices.
The Asolo DOCG region in Italy, one of only two Prosecco DOCGs in the country (the other is Cornegliano and Valdobbiadene) is focusing on the latter stream. DOCG is the Italian classification at the pinnacle of production and stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (controlled and guaranteed designation of origin).
Growth in the Asolo DOCG has been phenomenal. The number of bottles has surged from 1.18 million in 2013 to 12.34 million last year. This column describes some of the best producers in the Asolo DOCG after a visit this past week.
Asolo has many attributes. The quality of the sunshine helps grapes ripen slowly, and the diurnal range – the difference between the maximum temperature in summer when the grapes are ripening, and the minimum temperature overnight – can be up to 20 degrees Celsius. This generates a long ripening process which creates a range of excellent flavours in the grapes.
The region has 10 different soils types, or terroir, another factor for producing a wide range of flavours. Asolo winemakers select specific clones of the Glera grape used to make prosecco to match the soil types to get the best flavours.
The town of Asolo is about a one-hour drive from Venice, itself visible on clear days from the hills of Asolo. The best Glera grapes are grown between 200 and 400 metres. The altitude explains why Asolo is often called the “city of 100 horizons”. It is easy to find remarkable views of beautiful countryside.
Catherine Cornaro became the Queen of Cyprus in the late 15th century. The poet Pietro Bembo, who celebrated Cornaro in verse, created the verb “asolare” to describe a relaxed out-door style of living, and that word has entered Italian language. Stark became famous as one of the first women explorers of the Arab world.
Duse was the originator of what became known as the “method” style of acting made famous by Konstantin Stanislavski. The American actor Lee Strasberg developed this style, which became famous through the work of Marilyn Munro and Marlon Brando.
Stark and Duse are buried in a beautiful cemetery in the hills above Asolo.
Another famous resident of Asolo is the English poet Robert Browning. The street leading to the main square is named Via Browning. Browning loved Asolo so much that he named his last volume of poetry, Asolando, after it. The book appeared the day he died.
Near the end of the nineteenth century Federico Martinotti, a professor at one of Italy’s most prestigious wine school, the Scuola Enologica in the town of Conegliano, invented a way to make sparkling wine that we now call prosecco.
In 1907 a French engineer, Eugène Charmat, patented another way to make prosecco. The world now prefers the term “Charmat method” to describe the way prosecco is made. Professor Martinotti is only remembered in parts of Italy, where his process is called “metodo Italiano” or “metodo Martinotti”.
Prosecco has become a global phenomenon. In 2013 it became the most popular sparkling wine in the world, overtaking sales of champagne. About 307 million bottles were sold in 2013 compared with a mere 5 million in 1972. Global sales have risen every year since 1998.
A regular prosecco cork is shown at right with a Col Fondo cork. The latter wine does not have as much pressure (3 bars or atmospheres) as prosecco (up to 5 bars) and thus has a different design. Fermented grape juice plus sugar and yeast are mixed in stainless steel tanks known as autoclaves, designed to withstand the pressures that build when sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Base wine is obtained by pressing the Glera grape.
The duration of the fermentation influences wine quality: The longer the fermentation the more noticeable the wine’s aroma and the finer the bubbles. The key difference between prosecco and champagne is the secondary fermentation. With champagne it takes place in bottles rather than autoclaves.
Champagne is usually appreciated for its complex secondary aromas while prosecco is more concerned with primary tastes and aromas. In the mouth prosecco tends to be acidic and crisp, with aromas of apple, pear and white peach.
Prosecco DOCG, also known as Superiore, comes in four forms depending on the amount of sugar left after fermentation. Extra Brut is the driest style with 0 to 6 grams of residual sugar per litre (g/L RS). Brut is 6-12 g/L RS. Extra Dry is the most traditional style and has 12-17 g/L while Dry has the highest level of sugar at 17-32 g/L. Asolo is the only appellation allowed to produce Extra Brut prosecco.
Prosecco must contain a minimum of 85 per cent of Glera. Grapes allowed in the blend include Bianchetta, Perera and Glera Lunga, and occasionally Chardonnay.
Gasparini has 60 hectares of vines, half planted to Glera. The estate makes about 450,000 bottles a year including about 200,000 bottles of prosecco. Gasparini plans to convert to organic viticulture and currently uses no herbicides.
My favourite wine was the Cuvee Indigena, made from the oldest Glera vines planted in 1975. It is a result of spontaneous fermentation using natural yeasts, so the amount of sweetness varies each year depending on the degree of fermentation. The word prosecco does not appear on the front label because the owners want people to appreciate the wine before connecting it with prosecco. About 10,000 bottles are made each year.
Their biggest selling prosecco is the non-vintage brut, made using the Charmat method. The wine has mineral and savoury notes encased in a zesty infrastructure.
A feature of the Giusti estate is the Saint Eustachio abbey (left), built more than 1000 years ago, that sits above the main vineyard. The estate has about 75 hectares of vines and makes about 320,000 bottle a year. Grapes are also sold to other producers. Ermenegildo Giusti bought the estate in 2004 after making his fortune in Canada. He seems content to spend his money rebuilding the abbey. “We lose money, but that’s not important. It’s for my grandchildren. “
The Bedin estate was one of the first vineyards in Asolo. The grandfather of the three brothers who currently run Bedin planted 1 hectare of Glera grapes in 1948. The estate has expanded to 80 hectares and produces 2 million bottles a year. Bedin exports to 25 countries, and despite their size remain a family concern who make excellent wines.
Antonio Dal Bello (shown at right), owner and winemaker of the estate named after his family, has a passion for the environment. That passion is reflected in the quality of the wines. The estate has about 40 hectares of organic vines. Many of the wines are named in honour of Queen Catherine Cornaro, including the zingy 2018 Fuedo della Regina.
Next week’s column will consider the red wines from the Asolo region.