Rising bubbles

Marianna Hunt meets the Venetian winemakers reviving artisan bubbly in the heart of proseccoland


When rumours were sparked about a Prosecco shortage in 2015, newspaper headlines hailed it an “international crisis”. 

It later turned out these rumours were false and being spread by a Prosecco producer who hoped they would hike prices. But the incident did go to show the incredible extent to which this northern Italian bubbly has taken hold among drinkers—often at the expense of other sparkling wines from the area. 

“Ten years ago you could read the name Prosecco on about 70 million bottles per year. Now we’re pushing towards 700 million bottles,” says Flavio Grassi of AccademiaVino, an Italian wine school. “The popularity has made it almost a synonym for sparkling wine.” 

However more recently wine experts have been making the case for an increased focus on the lesser-known sparkling wines of northern Italy—the nation’s home of fizz. 

These alternative bubblies have been popping up right in Prosecco’s own backyard: in the region of Veneto (one of two wine areas where Prosecco is made). They are typically being made by small-scale artisan producers who are shunning commerciality for low-tech methods. 

Among this set, the wine that has made the most ground in developing an international reputation is the grande dame Durello DOC. For the Dal Maso family—who’ve been making wine in Veneto for more than 100 years—it’s the Durella grape (and not Glera —Prosecco’s key ingredient) that’s the secret to their highly-acclaimed sparkling wines. 

“Durello made in the traditional method is a completely different product from Prosecco. It’s more like a great Champagne and can be combined with many dishes and occasions. Prosecco is a simpler wine that is limited to an aperitif,” Nicola Dal Maso says. 

Dal Maso Vini

The Dal Masos make their Durello sparkling in the traditional method (like Champagne—with a second fermentation in the bottle) and also in the Charmat (or Italian) method, with a second fermentation in a pressurised vat, like Prosecco. 

The first comes out a honeyed gold colour with scents of wisteria, peach and hints of baked focaccia. The second—a lighter straw yellow bursting with fresh flowers and citrus. 

The winery produces just 45,000 bottles of Durello sparkling a year—a drop in the ocean compared with the quantities made by commercial Prosecco houses. However that number has been steadily increasing in recent times by about 20% a year, Nicola adds.  

They also make a few thousand bottles of Gambellara Classico DOCG sparkling wine each year—which has an intense, sweet flavour like biting into a dried apricot. 

One of the oldest wines produced in Italy, the Gambellara Classico is made from Garganega—a white grape considered native to the hills where the Dal Maso winery is found. The family harvests the grapes by hand to ensure they’re only selecting the best bunches.

Garganega is a much more aromatic grape than Glera—producing mineraly, at times nutty wines (a far cry from the fairy lightness of Prosecco), which are gaining in appreciation with drinkers. Among these are the Tamellini Metodo Classico Millesimato Extra Brut, which leaves a fizz of honey biscuit in your mouth, and the Canoso Spumante Mossa Brut—dry on the palate with a lingering nibble of almonds. 

“Other sparkling wines from Veneto worth paying attention to are those made from Tai Rosso and Chardonnay grapes”, says Nicola. 

Low-impact farming that works with the terroir is key to many of these vintners’ approach. “We are members of the Lessini Durello di Soave Consortium, the only one in Italy to be certified by Biodiversity Friends—a very strict certification that carries out annual checks on the impact you’re having on the soil, water and air,” he adds. The aim of the certification is to make farmers safeguard the environmental integrity of their terroir. 

So what makes the region of Veneto such fertile ground for sparkling wine? According to Anjali Douglas of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a charity, it’s the high, hilly landscape that makes the difference. “These areas see cooler temperatures, particularly during the night, which helps to retain all important acidity in grapes destined for fizz. Lower temperatures also ensure grapes ripen slowly, allowing more time for intense and complex aromas to develop,” she says. 

Silvia Franco of winery Nino Franco disagrees—putting greater weight on the expertise of local vintners. “Our appellation has produced sparkling wines for decades. There is a lot of experience among producers,” she adds. 

Nino Franco

Nino Franco is considered to be one of the top Prosecco houses of the day, but even this winery also produces another type of sparkling: a rosé made with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 

With scents of cut flowers and red fruits, the family recommends pairing it with classic Italian dishes such as cold cuts and cheese or vitello tonnato (sliced veal in a creamy tuna sauce). 

But should drinkers write off Prosecco completely in favour of these smaller production bubblies? 

Grassi concedes that in some cases the popularity of Prosecco has diminished its quality. However, he adds: “There is some acceptable Prosecco out there but there are also truly outstanding wines.”

Silvia insists that those who pay attention to good quality Proseccos—not the cheap ones—will be rewarded with great taste at fair prices. What’s more, the low-impact, artisan methods of other sparkling wine makers are percolating through to Prosecco—helping to bring it back to its roots. 

For example, Bresolin BIO, a Veneto vineyard, now makes an organic, Vegan fizz from 100% Glera grapes that harks back to the most ancient methods of making Prosecco. Like in days of old, it is fermented in the bottle for a year rather than undergoing a second fermentation in a tank as modern commercial Proseccos do.

The result? An aromatic, hazy wine that coats the mouth deliciously. Before cracking open the bottle, make sure to turn it upside down to muddle the yeasts again—releasing all the flavours to their fullest. 

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