Anyone fortunate enough to find themselves among the prosecco vineyards that weave their way between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in the Veneto region of north-east Italy is unlikely to ever forget the glorious experience.
In summer, the patchwork of vineyards clinging to the hills are vibrant green, despite a recent lack of rainfall, and the vines stand unusually tall on their double-arched trellis systems. The hills are dotted with ancient stone houses painted in dusty shades of mustard, peach and cream beneath their terracotta roofs. All in all, a pleasing landscape that implies good wine.
Conegliano–Valdobbiadene is an official grape-growing area recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its landscape that encompasses a number of unique characteristics. It is easy to spot the hogsbacks, the series of steep hills with their stark linear ridges, separated by valleys, and running parallel to each other. As well there are the sweeping ciglione – terraces held in place by grassed land rather than stone – and mosaic patterns interwoven through the landscape by vineyards of various shapes and sizes interspersed with woodland and meadows
While Conegliano–Valdobbiadene may not be at the top of the list of Italian wine regions that spring to mind, it is in fact the country’s largest, with the DOC vineyards on the flatlands producing copious amounts of mainstream prosecco. At the same time the premium land in the hills is home to some of the most expensive vineyard real estate in the world with prime plots in Cartizze, a tiny area of about 108ha in the commune of Valdobbiadene, valued at between 1-2 million euros per precious hectare. It is the unique microclimate and ancient soils of moraines, sandstone and clay that give the grapes, harvested at just 12,000 tonnes per hectare, a special quality.
The highly sought-after premium Prosecco Superiore DOCG sparkling wines come from the Rive – single communes where, predominantly, glera grapes are tended and picked by hand from the steep vineyard rows where it would be difficult to introduce machinery. It’s back-breaking and expensive work demanding 600 hours of manual labour per hectare each year.
This is ‘heroic’ viticulture at its best demanding fortitude and manual dexterity of the families who farm these challenging hills. Perhaps this is the reason the vineyards are small with around 3,000 growers working the 8,176ha patchwork of vines.
here are 43 Rive producing the top -level wines expressing the distinctive terroir of each vineyard and all from yields of no more than 13,000 kilograms of fruit per hectare. The name of the Rive and vintage must be shown on the label and the wines must be released for consumption starting from 1 March of the year following the harvest.
There are also 15 communes (municipal areas) – two of which give their name to the Denomination. Conegliano is the cultural capital while Valdobbiadene is the heart of production.
The vineyards sit at anything between 50m and 500m. This in turn can lead to marked variation between plots, especially as glera is sensitive to temperature with just 20m making a world of difference to the wines.
The vines, usually from 40 to 90 years of age, are grown in ancient soils that are the result of upward movement of sea and lake beds as well as glaciers travelling down from the Dolomites. The glacial morainic soils are fine-textured, while those of marine origin are made up of marls and sandstone. The various combinations of slope, soil and exposure make for diverse microclimates and wines distinctive to their plots.
The prosecco grape was renamed glera in 2009 following the reorganisation of the Prosecco system. At that time the Ministry of Agriculture classified the region as a DOCG and DOC in order to protect its cultural heritage and to stop others jumping on the bandwagon. Glera must make up at least 85% of the blend but can be supplemented with up to 15% of indigenous varieties, including glera lunga, verdiso, perera and bianchetta trevigiana.
Wine is made in four main styles according to sugar levels Extra Brut (0-6 g/l), Brut (0-12 g/l) Extra Dry (12-7 g/l) and Dry styles (17-32 g/l). In 2019, regulations allowed the introduction of an additional style, the Sui Lieveti (on lees) or Col Fondo (with sediment) that are a reflection of the ancient sparkling wines that were made in the hills.
These cloudy artisanal versions are usually made under crown cap by the smaller producers and come in a Brut Nature style made from mature, high-quality fruit with minimal intervention.
Easy-drinking frizzante (semi-sparkling) wines with less aggressive bubbles and the lesser-known tranquillo (still) wines with aromas of apple, pears and almonds are also made in the region, but neither are permitted to include ‘Superiore’ on their labels.
After pressing and settling, vinification of the sparkling wines takes place using natural indigenous yeasts added to the grape must fermented in stainless steel tanks at around 15-18 degrees for 15-20 days. The wine then undergoes natural re-fermentation to make the sparkling in pressurised containers (autoclaves) with the results based on time spent in the tank, with four weeks the maximum.
There are worthwhile wineries to be visited thorughout the region, some by appointment only, while the larger operations are usually open Monday to Saturday. GT WINE visited a just a few of those renowned for the quality of their prosecco wines.
Housed in a charming building with wooden beamed ceilings and generous arched doorways, Mongarda is located in the village of Col San Martino at the foot of the Superiore Hills. Bruno and Marinella Tormena committed to becoming full-time winemakers in 1978 and the Mongarda vineyard, from where the winery takes its name, was the first from which they produced their own wine.
Their son Martino now runs the show where grapes are hand-picked and fermented in concrete or steel tanks using natural yeast. “Operationally, we’re organic,” he explains. “For me it is the only way, but organic certification is too expensive.” A sentiment shared by many of the winemakers in the region. He tends 12ha of vineyards in the hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, divided into six parcels at varying altitudes from 200m to 350m. The well-exposed slopes need little intervention, with wines allowed to express the individual sites. Tasting are by appointment only. (mongarda.it)
Wine to Try
2021 Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut
Made from glera and indigenous varieties vinified with wild yeast. Fresh, salty and savoury with hints of wild florals and ripe fruit.
2021 Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry
With 11g of residual sugar, this is the sweetest of the wines, but with good acidity, balance and finish.
2020 Glera Colli Trevigiani IGT Col Fondo
Under crown seal and served from magnum this is how the wines were traditionally made.Bottled during the March crescent moon, the wine is at first fresh then becomes funky reflecting no disgorgement and zero dosage. More frizzante than sparkling.
2018 Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Zero Dosage
A nutty, saline, textured wine matured on fine lees for 24 months.
*Australian Distributor: Fesq (may not have all the wines)
Named for the 400-year-old oak on the property, L’Antica Quercia (‘ancient oak’) was founded in the late-1960s on a hill blessed with traditional vineyards spanning a single 25ha plot. The terrain is peppered with pomegranate and olive trees, and even a small lake, where the herons depicted on some of the wine labels come to rest. Situated between Venice and the Dolomites, the vineyards are cooled by mountain winds during the summer months.
Custodian of this family vineyard, Claudio Francavilla is a firm believer that biodiversity is the key to making the best prosecco. His operation is entirely organic, with the first certified wine produced in 2010. “It took years to make our vineyards strong,” he explains. “There were low yields at first, but using natural elements, including a green manure made from flowers such as vetch, wild pea and clover, as well as rapeseed, cut and buried when fully grown to nourish the soil. The soil is always our focus.” His goal is for the winery to eventually become fully biodynamic.
The wines are made from L’Antica Quercia’s own grapes from 12 different plots and 12 different yeasts – all kept separate and slow-fermented.
There is a high percentage of limestone, glacial rocks and stones in the vineyards at the bottom of the hill, making delicious wines with high salinity.
The winery welcomes visitors for tours, tastings combined with food from local producers, picnics or even tastings for two at their converted wine barrel cabin at the edge of the vines. It’s here we tried their 2015 and 2016 Sū Alto Indigeno Colfondo Native sparkling wines, frizzante in style and demonstrating the wines can age beautifully. (anticaquercia.it)
Wine to Try
2021 Arió Conegliano Prosecco Superiore DOCG Spumante Extra Dry
Eight months on lees gives it palate weight and the savouriness makes it a great food wine. With creamy, fine bubbles, this is an easy- drinking style containing higher sugar (15g/l) beautifully balanced by the acidity.
2020 Morene Conegliano Prosecco DOCG Tranquillo.
A fresh and elegant, super-niche still prosecco showing pleasing minerality on
NV Matiú Conegliano Prosecco Superiore DOCG Spumante Brut
A small production wine that is best drunk within two years of bottling, the palate is fresh and vibrant with a strong finish and just 6g/l residual sugar.
2020 A Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Sui Lieviti Brut Nature
With a label that honours the herons on the winery’s lake, this is an ancestral method, single vineyard wine, and crisp, elegant and dry with zero dosage.
On a grander scale, Villa Sandi winery, which includes a Palladian style villa dating back to 1622, is the main base for the Moretti Polegato family, who have been involved in wine for three generations. Giancarlo Moretti Polegato heads up a team championing a modern approach to winemaking. While they own five estates, the premium wines are made at La Rivetta in the heart of Cartizze, at the Valdobbiadene DOCG estate and from vineyards in Montello and the Colli Asolani area. They also have extensive DOC holdings.
When the family acquired the villa, they discovered underground tunnels that were used by Italian soldiers during war to secretly make their way to the River Piave. These now connect the more modern winery buildings to the old villa and are used for storage for the winery’s red wines made from merlot and cabernet franc. However, as expected, 65% of production is dedicated to prosecco.
The winery offers a variety of tasting options, as well as guided tours through the barrel cellar, centenary galleries where Classic Method wines are stored. Locanda Sandi, a charming restaurant, overlooks the gardens and is open for lunch and dinner. They even produce a cosmetic line inspired by the by-products of the grape. (villasandi.it/en/)
Wine to Try
2021 La Gioiosa Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG Spumante Extra Dry
Pale straw yellow with a fine bead, the wine is fresh and approachable with apples and white flowers on the sweetish, soft palate.
2021 La Rivetta Cartizze di Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut
A fine bead with aromas of white flowers and an intensely fruity aroma of ripe fruit, Bosc pear, a touch of ginger and lovely salinity finishing fresh and dry.
2021 Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG La Rivetta 120
Pale straw with tints of green, this fragrant wine shows aromas of Granny Smith apple and white flowers that follow through on the fresh palate.
Australian importer: Santé Wines.
For more than 100 years, four generations of the Vettoretti family (pictured, below) have tended vineyards in the rolling hills of Valdobbiadene.
Nonno Pietro, 82, still heads off to work in the vineyards each morning. He’s been doing the same thing since he was 18. His wife, Mirella, grows and tends her substantial kitchen garden at the winery; daughter Gabriella runs the show, while sons Paulo and Renato are in charge of production and the vineyards respectively.
Located in Vidor, La Tordera’s mantra is natural balance, which translates to sustainability in the vineyards as well as from an economic, environmental, and social point of view. In fact, it is the only winery in Veneto to have achieved Casa Clima certification.
Originally from Cartizze, the family named their winery after the high ground on which workers used to hunt thrushes (tordo). They have been making their own wine since 2001 using only their own grapes from premium vineyards positioned
in different areas close to the winery. While they are not organic, La Tordera has received many other classifications and is dedicated to preserving the environment.
The winery offers tastings and accommodation in Casa Oltravel, their elegant B&B surrounded by vineyards in the village of Guia di Valdobbiadene. (latordera.it)
Wine to Try
2021 Serrai Valdobbiadene DOCG Extra Dry
Pears and white flowers on the nose and palate, with a little sweetness (14g/l) balanced by good acidity. Ideal aperitif wine.
2021 Brunei Valdobbiadene DOCG Brut
Aromas of white flowers, apple and pear follow through to the energetic mineral palate.
2021 Tittoni Valdobbiadene DOCG Rive di Vidor Dry
A little spice with ripe apple and white flowers reflected on the intense, complex palate.
2021 Cartizze Valdobbiadene DOCG Superiore di Cartizze
A standout wine with a fine bead. Ripe apple, pear and a touch of almond on the palate, with the bottle bearing a label illustrated with a thrush holding a diamante next to its beak.
Other Key Producers in Prosecco
Spagnol Col del Sasspagnolcoldelsas.com
Judy Sarris was the guest of Consorzio di Tutela Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG.