Massachusetts Beverage Business


Prosecco's Strong Strong Niche


If most wine drinkers who enjoy bubbles today were to describe the pyramid of acceptable quality sparklers it would no doubt start with Champagne at the pinnacle, followed by method traditionelle wines from California, Cava at the base and Prosecco sandwiched somewhere in the middle. Prosecco is a popular everyday choice because its flavors are usually expressive and it fits a comfortable price point, most often under $2O. There are also a number of different styles to fit a diverse range of palates. My view of the seemingly ubiquitous chicly packaged Italian bubbly, however, has always been quite sceptical. Almost invariably I have found there to be a depressing industrial sameness to most Prosecco. Countless people have told me that I just don't get it, that it's a fun casual wine that you don't need to analyze, just chill and enjoy. I like it in theory, but whether sweet or dry, the wines often taste generic to me, with light, cloying melony flavors, not much structure and a diffuse, if vaguely clean finish. More than a wine, Prosecco often strikes me as a drink, one that is suitable primarily for mixing.

Prosecco is actually the name of a grape variety native to the Veneto in northeastern Italy. The wine that's made it famous bares little in common with Champagne, showing none of the yeasty, toasty flavors of a bottle-fermented sparkler. Its aromas and flavors approximate closely to their grape origins: flowery, peachy, often with slightly bitter undertones. The grape, like the wine that it makes, is not dramatic in flavor. Most, though not all, Proseccos on the market are made in a slightly sweet style. Like Asti, they are fermented in pressurized tanks but, in comparison, tend to be quite a bit fuller in body (generally 11 to 11.5% in alcohol) due to the fact that they undergo a second fermentation in tank. While at one time the milder Prosecco frizzante (a less carbonated wine with softer textures) constituted the predominant style, now it appears that the market features far more Prosecco spumante, which is fully sparkling. This version usually tastes drier, regardless of the residual sugar content, because the stronger carbonation somewhat masks whatever sugars are present. Labeling terminology may appear somewhat random, but often you will find the optional designations Brut or Extra Dry (which is traditional and confusingly, just as in Champagne, indicates a wine that tastes a bit sweeter) to guide you as to style. There are also differentiations based upon the fact that some Prosecco is classified DOC, indicating geographic origin in classified production zones within the eastern Veneto, yield restrictions and more stringent production protocols. There are several individual district designations. Valdobbiadene is a mark of quality, tending to produce grapes with more potential structure and acidity because it enjoys a cooler climate and sits atop higher than average elevations within the Prosecco production area. Most wines from this locality are Brut in style. "Prosecco di Conegliano" also carries a higher quality connotation and, in my opinion, the wines generally exceed Valdobbiadene in quality. You will also encounter wines labeled Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, which indicates a blend. Probably the finest quality sub-zone is Cartizze. The vast majority of wines on the market, however, are not DOC-designated at all, but IGT. As a generalization, these tend to be fresher, lighter and more moderately priced. Also less interesting.

A recent blind tasting of several dozen Prosecco's yielded the gems in my tasting notes along with, I am sad to report, the vast majority of wines which were sound but eminently forgettable. Interestingly, beyond the $12 retail price point there was little correlation between quality and price, although one of the most expensive wines did actually turn out to be the best. If you're looking for something merely refreshing that will serve as a fruity aperitif, I would much more highly recommend Moscato d'Asti over the average Prosecco. It has much more purity of fruit, charm and brightness. On the other hand, the wines listed in my tasting notes are all delicious and highly worthy of consideration with appropriate food (cured meats, olives, salads, cheeses) or just by themselves.

This is an estate bottling made by a family that has long roots in the Veneto wine trade, having produced Prosecco from its own vineyards for over a hundred years. They are landholders in the prestigious Cartizze sub-zone of the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOC. These are among the highest elevation vines grown in the region. The Jeio, named after one of the family members, is a special selection of grapes from 16 individual vineyards. It has an appealing melony perfume, with dry, somewhat toasty overtones. Understated and clean, with subtle tart apple-like fruit, this is a nice foil for lighter seafood dishes, particularly those with delicate creamy sauces. The handsome designer bottle and labeling are added pluses. $15

This is an exciting medium bodied Prosecco with a fresh peachy fragrance that leaps from the glass. It is dry-ish on the palate, although there is a faint trace of sugar, along with some of the same appealing delicate toasty notes the wine mentioned above display. Zardetto also originates from grapes grown in the Conegliano zone. There is a nice measure of mineral complexity to the flavors here, with delicate but persistent lemony acidity carrying into the lengthy finish. This would be a handsome complement for a plate of fruit and cheese, but it also is substantial enough to work with a cold antipasto. $15

This winery took top honors, with two of the three cuvees I tasted scoring among the top handful of selections among the multitude on display. A third generation family enterprise, Adriano Adami produces wines exclusively from grapes grown on vineyard sites they own. This particular one represents quite an impressive value. A blend, with some of the grapes sourced from Conegliano and some in the wider Valdobbiadene zone, it is light and fresh, with a delicate fruit profile and lacy mild texture. The flavors are smooth, but quite firm in balancing acidity and the almond-like finish is completely dry. I enjoyed this with a Salad Nicoise. $13

This wine took top honors. Quite rare in that it is the product of a single vineyard (Giardino) that has been part of the Adami estate for almost a hundred years, it is also the product of a single vintage, representing the apex of the family's production. To me the flavors were more developed and intriguing than any of the others, with layers of distinctive apple and toast, but also a silky texture. The mousse of bubbles is a bit softer and more delicate than most of the other wines. Dry and full but not aggressive on the palate, it strikes me as having the potential to develop for a few more years in the bottle. In the meantime I would not hesitate to serve it as a refreshing partner for chewy, assertively flavored dishes like grilled shrimp or crabcakes. This is a classy bottling whose flavor profile now stands as my benchmark for Prosecco. $18

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