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Prosecco Superiore is Superior to Prosecco

Posted: Wednesday, 13 May 2015 11:44

Prosecco Superiore is Superior to Prosecco

May 13: There has been a global Prosecco boom during the last decade and it overtook Champagne in terms of volume last year, increasing the gap even wider in 2014 with a record sales of 380 million bottles whereas Champagne managed to sell under 315 million bottles only. But there are two categories of Prosecco, the Superiore DOCG being generally considered more complex and superior bubbly to the ubiquitous DOC, writes Subhash Arora who revisited the region last week to study the difference

Click For Large ViewWhen I visited the famous Prosecco producing region near Venice in North-East Italy in 2007, there was a single appellation of Prosecco DOC, stretching between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene and given the legal status by the government in 1969. The bubbly made from ‘Prosecco’ grape (actual name was Glera a minimum 85% of which is used) has been recorded in the history for around 250 years ago.  Merely 60 million bottles of Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOC Prosecco were sold then.  Of course, there was a marked territory around the DOC region that produced Prosecco IGT, usually considered inferior as the higher yielding grapes from the flat land were used to make the wine.

With the rising global popularity of Prosecco and the frequent use of its name by other regions and countries like USA and Australia, successful  efforts were made to upgrade the area which encompassed about 6500 hA of vineyard in the hilly terrains of this classic area and it was elevated to DOCG, exactly 40 years later in 2009. Another 106 acres had been marked earlier as Superiore di Cartizze, a very special wine making hilly area.

Click For Large ViewAt the same time the area that covers 9 provinces in the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia that made IGT wines until then, was declared the DOC zone. It is this area, mostly in the flat lands where the explosion of Prosecco with high yield grapes took place that has given huge additional supplies to the market. With the increasing amount of flat land available at cheap prices (there are murmurs about some producers buying huge tracts of land in this zone before 2009 at much lower  prices, speculating on the elevation to the DOC status) and higher yields allowed at 18 tons/hA- the classic DOCG zone is allowed only 13.5 tons-the most coveted Superiore di Cartizze even less at 12 tons/hA) brought in an unprecedented supply to the market, still unable to meet the demand.

Prosecco in numbers

The production of 76 million bottles in the docg area in 2014 was hugely outnumbered by over 300 million bottles (4 times that of docg wines) but the total production of around 380 million bottles from the two appellations is considered as ‘Prosecco ‘ for the outside world-and it is this figure that beat the Champagne figure of about 314 million bottles by a wider margin. Since docg zone has little scope to expand due to non-availability of the land, the growth in DOC production is helping to meet the unprecedented demand of the bubbly which is made by Charmat method where the second fermentation is done in the pressurised tanks called autoclaves using at least 85% Glera grapes and the balance by other indigenous varieties, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.

Click For Large ViewProsecco is sometimes unfairly compared with Champagne in terms of effervescence, aromas and flavours. It is known to be a relatively simple, fruity wine with finesse and freshness where the bubbles can be aggressive at times. But this is also where the DOCG and DOC variants differ. The DOCG wines (Conegliano Valdobbiadene and Asolo in the province of Treviso in the designated area) not only have a lower yield, their soils have different character due to the glaciers and sea formation millions of years ago (some producers take you back 145 million years ago to explain the different terrains in different parts of the zone).

No one doubts that the hills of Cartizze, a sub-zone of Valdobbiadene, a patch of 106-107 hA has such a special soil and microclimate that the wines were given the Superiore di Cartizze status and were generally known for their superior quality even when the area had DOC status. The 106 hA land is owned by about 140 producers and commands a price of 1-1.5 million Euros/ hA even though most would admit that it makes no commercial sense to buy at this price; prestige does have its value. The docg classification has also introduced ‘Rive’ - for wines from one of the 43 designated sites in the same municipality or vineyard, having high slopes. These labels are applicable for wines indicating the year of harvest and are particularly important for the producers.

The hilly terrain of the zone makes the tending of vines an extremely difficult and expensive task. Some of the vineyards are so steep that it is not easy merely to walk down. Every treatment and harvesting has to be done by hand unlike the DOC zone where the flat land makes mechanised harvest possible. The cost of production is higher enough to justify the extra costs.

The DOCG vineyards are located in hills, often very steep, and usually in tiny patches that are hand-worked by small farmers tending their family vineyards from generations. Many of these vines are quite old –as old as 100 years and include a handful of indigenous varieties besides Glera. The terroir of these zone- steep hills, excellent exposition to the sun, good drainage, different soil composition, numerous distinct sub-zones and a history of long local traditions, all contribute to the special character of the wines made in the DOCG area.

All Proseccos are not equal

Click For Large ViewUnfortunately the market does not quite take cognisance of the difference in quality and the price sensitive markets like even the USA and UK where Prosecco has made a big dent into the sparkling wine market into consideration. It is not possible to meet the huge demand of quantities required  by big producers (like Gallo) and importers-private branding makes it easier for the big buyers to focus on price and the availability in the DOC regions. Therefore, the production and sale of DOC Prosecco is on a steep rise.

What causes further confusion for the customer and sales for the winemakers is the fact that producers in the DOCG zone are allowed to buy grapes from the DOC zone and vinify in their wineries and market as DOC wines (DOCG wines must be vinified within the same municipality zone). Although it is reasonable to assume that such DOCG producers with a passion for wine and history of their land would make a better quality DOC wine as compared with a big DOC producer churning out millions of bottles of industrial Prosecco, they are not able to compete on prices.

Adding to the confusion are the co-operatives that have a distinct tax advantage in Italy, giving them a clear edge over the smaller quality conscious producers, making the competition even fierce. The result is a proliferation of low-ended Proseccos in various markets including the US, UK and more particularly India where Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG or Click For Large ViewSuperiore di Cartizze are unheard of, even though some of the DOCG producers are present.  Carpené Malvolti, Zardetto, Mionetto, San Simone, Foss Marai, Valdo, Bisol are a few examples-and some of them I visited to understand the difference, conceded that the Indian market is very price sensitive and only DOC wines are possible to be exported. It is ironical that though Prosecco has become a must in the list of every importer’s portfolio with about 20 labels being available, not one DOCG is visible in the market or in a restaurant list.

One hopes that with increase in awareness of the importers, restaurateurs and above all the consumers with fine tastes, there will be more appreciation of Prosecco DOCG and at least the consumers can make a more informed choice.

In the meantime, when you see a bottle of Prosecco being popped anywhere, look out from the corner of your eyes if it is a Prosecco DOCG denoting higher complexity and more complexity or Prosecco DOC made in flat land. It might be useful to know that the bubbly made in the traditional area of Treviso is also allowed to be labelled as DOC Treviso and would be a better choice than just a generic, ‘industrial’ Prosecco DOC, perhaps made in a big factory in Veneto or Friuli or a big co-operative in the DOC zone with grapes grown in the flat land or a valley, with high yields, younger vines in bigger vineyards added to the landscape recently to meet the rising demand, giving a much simpler wine.

Making the best of Prosecco

Whatever you choose, you should know that Brut style is driest and has a residual sugar of 0-12 gms/liter whereas Extra Dry is sweeter with 12-17 gms. Generally, one of the styles is imported by every Prosecco importer in India. The ‘Dry’ style with a sugar content of 17-32 gms sugar/liter is not popular in India. However, whatever your sweet  preference  is :

Think Prosecco DOCG. Drink Prosecco DOCG!!

Subhash Arora

Video Unplugged - The Beautiful Cartizze Hills

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