(Re-)Discovering Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene

Text and photos by John Szabo MS
with additional notes by Treve Ring

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

Prosecco may very well be the most successful wine story in all of Italy, and surely one of the most successful sparkling wine stories in the world. What’s the secret? For one, at its most basic, prosecco is inexpensive, easy to understand, and even easier to drink. It’s light-bodied (c. 11%-11.5% alcohol on average), engagingly fragrant (fresh pear and green apple are signature aromatics), more gently effervescent than traditional method sparkling wines, and just sweet enough to appeal widely, without tripping over into genuine sweetness.

The name is easy to say, and at once brings a grape, place and wine style to mind without unnecessary complications. And at under $20 / bottle in general, and with many cuvees under $15, it fills an important niche in both the on and off-trade: everybody needs an affordable bubbly to pour by the glass, or to sip with friends or serve at parties when champagne is not in the budget. It would be unthinkable to spend a day in Venice without stopping in for a glass of prosecco as you wander along the canals.

So it’s no wonder that sales have increased year on year for as long as I can remember, nearly tripling in just the last half-decade. In 2010, about 130m bottles were sold, by 2015, sales had jumped to c. 306m bottles and the retail value was 515 million Euros. 44 percent of that was for the export market, led by Germany, Switzerland, UK, USA, Austria and Canada.

The Region: Starts with the Soils

The surface simplicity of the prosecco world belies a much more complex and intriguing reality. For many, basic Prosecco DOC, produced in industrial quantities from the flat lands north of Venice, will remain the daily bread and butter. But for those ready to take the next step into the more artisanal world of prosecco, one that’s rapidly expanding thanks to a growing cadre of ambitious producers bankrolled by the region’s sales juggernaut, there’s plenty to explore.

Giuseppe - Welcome to Prosecco

Giuseppe – Welcome to Prosecco

You’ll want to start in the historic heart of the production zone, a hilly area nestled between the towns of Conegliano in the east and Valdobbiadene in the west, a little more than an hour due north of Venice. The the two towns are approximately 40km away from each other, the terroir is markedly different. Conegliano in the east is a mix of clay-rich glacial, alluvial and morainic soils, yielding richer, fruity and structured wines. In the west, in Valdobbiadene, the soils are ancient seabeds veined with moraine and sandstone, resulting in finessed, finer, floral-scented wines. The landscape gets progressively more hilly and steep heading east to west in the zone, and by the time you’ve reached Valdobbiadene, slopes can be downright precipitous. Vineyard work hours also rise precipitously, from some 120 hours/hectare/year in the plains to over 800 hours in the steepest parcels.

This is where the finest wines have always originated, and in fact where prosecco the sparkling wine was born, thanks to Antonio Carpenè Malvolti over a century ago. Malvolti also founded Italy’s first school of oenology in the town of Conegliano in 1876, which contributed in no small measure to the rise in wine quality in the region, and throughout the peninsula.

Antonio Carpenè Malvolti, Oenology school, Conegliano

Antonio Carpenè Malvolti, Oenology school, Conegliano

The Prosecco Pyramid : Climbing Higher in Quality

There are five quality levels of Prosecco. Prosecco DOC and Prosecco DOC Treviso (556 and 95 municipalities, respectively) make up the largest group, at the base of the pyramid. Atop of that rests the Colli Asolani DOCG Prosecco Superiore, a thin layer with 17 municipalities from the hilly area of northern central Veneto. From there, you move into the heartland of production, which in other parts of Italy would have been called the “Classico” zone, but in prosecco’s case could not be because of the possible confusion with metodo classico, or traditional method sparkling wines, which prosecco is mostly not. Officially recognized in 2009 as the Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, this covers about 6800 hectares across 15 municipalities. Here, free-draining hillsides and cooler temperatures result in higher natural acids and greater aromatic development, compared to grapes grown on the plains. But there’s more to it than that; vine age is also older on average, and there’s much greater genetic diversity – more variations on glera, the principal grape (re-baptized in 2009 from prosecco) – from centuries of massale selection, and about 10% of vineyards are planted to other local authorized grapes, like verdiso, bianchetta, perera and glera lunga, which each add their unique twist to blends. Plantings on the plains are generally much more recent and composed of a small handful of glera clones, so the same degree of complexity and balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

Entering Valdobbiadene-3763

Entering Valdobbiadene

Digging a little deeper, and climbing higher in the quality pyramid, are an additional 43 single vineyards or crus. These single vineyard Rive (the Venetian dialect for “steep slopes”), have been identified within the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore zone, and often found on the choicest part of the best hillsides. Rive proseccos, by law, are made from lower yields and hand harvested grapes, and must be vintage dated. Some are shared between producers, others are monopoles.

At the top of the pyramid, one large, south-facing hillside area, historically recognized as producing the very top proseccos, has its own appellation: Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG. Prosecco from the 107 ha Cartizze hill is the most expensive in the appellation, often three or four times more than a producer’s regular cuvée. Producers can label their wines Superiore di Cartizze, without the word “prosecco”, to futher emphasize the special site. In addition, Cartizze must only be vinified within the Valdobbiadene municipality.

Sunset over Cartizze Hill-3783

Sunset over Cartizze Hill

The most vexing thing about Cartizze, however, is that the cru has been historically made in a ‘dry’ version, which is of course to say quite sweet, with up to 32 grams of residual sugar, a tradition that most producers still seem content to follow. In the past, Cartizze was surely the one zone where grapes would ripen sufficiently and consistently enough to produce a rich, off-dry style wine, a distinctive trait. But today, with sugar ubiquitous, anyone can make sweet prosecco. And adding sugar has the effect of homogenizing, if not fully eliminating, any nuance that comes from place. Admittedly I have found few Cartizzes I’d been willing to pay for – if you want sweet, you may as well by a straight Prosecco DOC ‘Dry’ for a fraction of the price. The sweeter the wine, the less regionally distinctive it tends to be.

The Future : Dryer, Site-Specific Wines

Compared to the gloried Cartizze, Rive proseccos, on the other hand, come much more frequently in brut versions (maximum 12 grams of sugar). For me, this category represents the future for Prosecco, especially if the goal is to trade consumers up to more distinctive wines at higher prices. That’s not to say that cru proseccos are uniformly better, however. There’s much to be said about the advantage of blending from multiple vineyards to create a better-balanced, complete wine. But the Rive category at least moves prosecco out of the simple commodity market and into a space where meaningful discussion about regional variations in terroir can take place.

One heartening trend overall is the move towards more truly dry styles. Over the last 20 years the Brut category has grown dramatically, representing about 40% of total production; dry versions now represent less than 10%, while the in-between Extra-dry category (with 12-17 grams of sugar) accounts for about half of all production.

Vineyards, Valddobbiadene-3759

Vineyards, Valdobbiadene

Col Fondo prosecco is another ancient style that is regaining popularity. “Col Fondo is the oldest version of prosecco”, Maurizio Favrel of Malibràn tells me. “It’s the type that existed before the charmat method became popular, born surely from a mistake”. Favrel claims to be the first producer to revive the style commercially, which was essentially an ancestral method sparkling wine made by bottling still-fermenting must. “It was the wine we had at home. It would be a pity to lose this tradition”, Favrel continues.

Today the process is not left to chance. Favrel makes his from a dry, still base wine, bottled with sugar and yeast as for traditional method sparkling, but the wine is not disgorged or filtered so remains cloudy, like bottled-fermented ale. Malibràn’s is bone dry and with under three bars or pressure, less than classic prosecco, and only about half the effervescence of traditional method bubbly. About half a dozen producers are making Col Fondo style prosecco today, though the category is sure to grow.

So, if you’ve relegated prosecco exclusively to the fun and frivolous category until now, it’s time to explore what the historic region has to offer. Quality, availability, and stylistic diversity have never been better. Start your exploration by tracking down some of the bottles below.

Strada del Prosecco-3747

Strada del Prosecco

Buyers’ Guide to Prosecco

These wines may not currently be available in your province, but if you have a chance to taste them, we recommend you do.

2013 Ruggeri Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut Vecchie Viti

Ruggeri’s superb Vecchie Viti (“Old Vines”) is harvested from individual old vines (mixed in with younger plantings), selected from 12 growers in 12 different parcels, some 2500 individual vines in all. This may sound like excessive labour, but the results are clearly worth it – this wine ranks in the very top echelon in the region year after year. The 2013 offers terrific aromatics, really just starting to emerge, while the palate is dry but rich, full, substantial. I love the mouth filling density and the range of white-fleshed fruit flavours, ginger spice, fresh green herbs. Excellent length. Lovely wine all in all. 5000 bottles made annually. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 94

Villa Sandi Cartizze Brut Vigna la Rivetta Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Brut

Although aromatic intensity is relatively modest, Villa Sandi’s Cartizze, a rare brut from this celebrated hillside (most are made in a dry style, which is to say, sweeter), is all about texture and mouthfeel. It’s a clearly ripe and generous wine, barely off-dry, at the upper end of brut, very vinous and complex, and with very good length. I’d put this clearly in a superior quality category, less for titillating aromatics, but rather for its genuine complexity and depth. I’d love to see more Cartizze wines take this drier, more site-driven approach. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 93

2009 Bisol Relio Metodo Classico Extra Brut VSQ

This is a fairly rare traditional method glera, aged three years on lees, yet shockingly fresh, with little obvious autolysis. The palate is delicate, silky, seamless, very surprising – this is amazingly complete and lively. The florality of glera has been only partially sacrificed, while white-fleshed fruit still dominates. Very good length. I love the salty-sapidity – the most mineral glera I’ve come across. 12% alcohol, 4 grams dosage. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 93

2013 La Farra Brut millesimato Rive di Farra di Soligo Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore

Crafted in a gently oxidative-floral, style, this is a big, more concentrated, powerful version of prosecco overall, firm and well balanced, very dry, with terrific intensity and length. A top example. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 92

Vineyards, morning, Conegliano-3742

Vineyards, morning, Conegliano

2014 Adami Vigneto Giardino Rive di Colbertaldo Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

From the Rive di Colbertaldo, a south east facing, hilly site 220-300m in altitude comes this generous, dry (20 g/l RS) fizz. The sweetness is deftly handled by a racy backbone of acidity, bringing a nimble briskness to the palate. Generous cushion of asian pear, light yellow apple, macedonia (fruit salad) finishes entirely asciutto – grippy, drying and fresh. A beauty. Treve Ring – 92

2014 Ruggeri Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut Giustino B. Extra Dry

The Giustino B. bottling is assembled in March following the vintage, a selection of the top vineyard lots, including some old vine lots. The 2014 is still tightly wound on the nose, but the palate is rich, off-dry as advertised, peachy and pear-flavoured, with very good length, an excellent wine all in all, which, along with Ruggeri’s Vecchie Viti, can be counted among the region’s best. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 92

2014 Valdo Brut Cuvèe del Fondatore millesimato Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore

This fairly deeply coloured prosecco offers intriguing riesling-like florality, with peach-apricot, pear, and pineapple aromatics, while the palate is vinous and fleshy, with higher intensity and density than the mean, with more generous alcohol. This is clearly a more concentrated and serious example, though oxidation is starting to creep in, so enjoy now or over the near-term. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 91

Col Vetoraz Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Dry

Here’s a textbook example of Cartizze made in the traditional ‘dry’ style (which means of course that it’s off-dry), though with better balance than the mean, built more on acids than sweetness alone. It shows as a lovely, particularly elegant wine, with beguiling aromatics, all fresh white-fleshed fruit and white blossom florality. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 91

Panaroma from Cartizze Hill-3789

Panaroma from Cartizze Hill

2013 Malibràn Cinque Grammi Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut

Malibràn’s Cinque Grammi (“Five Grams”, referring to the low sugar, virtually dry style), is crafted in a powerful, ripe, full bodied style within the prosecco category, focused less on aromatics, and more on fruit ripeness and concentration, and palate richness and extraction. It comes across as a slightly more rustic wine than the mean from Valdobbiadene, but highly characterful, a strong personality, and one that certainly appreciate. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 91

Adami Col Credas Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Rive Farra di Soligo

Serious Prosecco. Think single vineyard, steep sloped, ‘cru’ Prosecco, sustainably farmed old vines from 300-350 metres rooted in poor, dry clay soils. The Adami family have been farming these soils for three generations, more than 90 years of experience in the terroir of Valdobbiadene {say it with me: val-dough-bee-add-den-nay}. The dedication shows in dry, characterful wines like this one. Brut (only 4 g/l residual sugar, with tight green apple, light almond, faint white acacia, bitter citrus pith and stone. The nimble palate rips along with driving acidity, leaving just a bit of textured mineral stoniness in its fresh wake. Tasted December 2015 – Treve Ring – 91

2014 Bisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Dry

Bisol’s bottling of Cartizze is on the drier side of ‘Dry’  (23 grams of sugar), lighter on the aromatics, but well-endowed with flavour intensity on the palate. Acids are quite high, balancing the sugar, and brought further into equilibrium by the relatively rich and full body. Good to very good length. A fine prosecco all in all, though at a considerable premium price. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 90

Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut

A flagrantly aromatic, very floral, almost muscat-like expression of prosecco here from the Bronca sisters, full of orange peel and orange blossom aromatics, alongside more classic fresh, white fleshed fruit, pear and apple. The palate offers a vaguely sweet impression thanks mostly to ripe, concentrated fruit, in a widely appealing style. All in all this is lovely and fullish prosecco with genuine character and style, and very good length. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 90

2014 Malibràn Sottoriva Col Fondo Per Tradizione Vino Frizzante Colli Trevigiani IGT

Col Fondo is the prosecco designation for what’s essentially an ancestral method sparkling wine, bottled before the primary fermentation has finished. Spent yeast cells remain in the bottle, and the pressure is slightly lower than standard charmat method prosecco. Malibràn produces their version from pure glera grown in their vineyards all within the DOCG zone, though because it’s bottle under crown cap, it looses appellation status. The 2014 is very lightly cloudy, crisp, dry, appley, bone dry in fact, very pure and pleasant to drink. Although the complexity is ultimately modest, I love the purity on offer – this is delicious stuff. It’s a wine for the table, served alongside something like boudin blanc or fatty sausage.  Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 90

2014 Masottina Extra Dry Rive di Ogliano millesimato Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore

The touch of sugar here in Masottina’s Extra-Dry single vineyard prosecco really lifts the aromatics; this is highly fragrant, reminiscent of off-dry riesling, one of the most fragrant in its class. Although it’s not terribly complex overall, it appeals above the average with its gentle and easy drinking manner. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 89

Vineyards, Conegliano-3743

Vineyards, Conegliano

Sommariva Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut

Sommariva could be called a” grower prosecco”, with sufficient estate vineyards around the town of Conegliano to supply all of their grape needs. This a classic Brut Superiore, bottled one month ago, composed of mostly 2014 vintage, with a touch of 2015 blended in to refresh. Grapes from a mix of old and young vines are given a short maceration before fermentation with selected yeast, and the wine is bottled with 10 grams residual sugar. The result is a rather dry, fleshy, flavourful, classically pear flavoured bubbly. Concentration and density are above the mean, as is the length. Textbook prosecco. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 89

2014 Astoria Brut Casa Vittorino Rive di Refrontolo millesimato Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore

Astoria’s single vineyard bottling is done in a lightly oxidative and floral style, with gentle spring blossoms and pear/apple fruit mixing with more exotic tangerine-mandarin notes. The palate fullish and balanced-fresh, indeed nicely crisp and essentially dry. Gently effervescent drives the finish, of very good length. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 89

Tenuta degli Ultimi Brut Biancariva Rive di Collalto Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore

Ultimi’s Biancariva offers relatively subtle aromatics on a dry, attractively svelte and tight frame. I like the tighter and more upright style, firm and coiled, with lots of tension but also elegance. Authentic. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 89

Vettori Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut

A classically light, oxidative-floral-lemon peel scented prosecco, like a refreshing gin & tonic, while the palate is dry, pleasantly lean and tight, balanced, crisp and lively. Solid substance and length. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 89

Costadilá Prosecco Col Fundo

This will change your perception of Prosecco. “Col fundo” signifies ancestral method, and is a style that a number of independent, adventuresome producers are exploring in Prosecco. Costadilá has made this wine naturally – no added sulphites or sugar, and with one fermentation in bottle (as it was in past times). Dry, crisp and exacting, with ample oxidative notes, apple cider, delicate stone, dried grasses, white peach blossom and delicate shortbread notes. Very light frizzante bubbles (3.5 bars of pressure) to gently lift the 11 percent alcohol. The bottle is not disgorged and has fine sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The winemaker recommends decanting, but I prefer to gently tilt the bottle back and forth to mix the sedimentary lees throughout. The result is a cloudy pour, but one with texture and interest. Tasted February 2016 – Treve Ring – 88

Desiderio Bisol-3768

Desiderio Bisol

Bisol Desiderio Jeio Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

The Bisol family has been farming the famed hill of Cartizze since the 16th century. This, their lower entry tier of wines, is named for Desiderio Bisol, the current winemaker. Glera makes up the majority of this cuvée, accompanied by verdiso, pinot bianco and chardonnay. Crisp and bright, with the 9 g/l RS gobbled up by crunchy acidity. An appealingly dry riff of peach fuzz lingers on the finish. Treve Ring – 88

2014 Canella Prosecco Superiore di Conegliano Valdobiadene

Crisp apple, light stone and apple open this fresh prosecco, and carry on to the bright palate along with tight lemon blossoms, peach and pear. Subtle hint of bitter melon before a kiss of sweetness on the finish. Lovely for brunch or with prosciutto wrapped melon. Treve Ring – 88

Nino Franco Rustico Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

Nino Franco was founded in 1919 and is one of the oldest wineries in Valdobbiadene, and the winery is now overseen by the forth Franco generation. Fresh and juicy, with golden apple, white peach, tight pear and subtle hay. Lime pith acidity cuts the residual sugar handily, leaving the finish crisp and dry. Treve Ring – 88

Ruggeri Santa Stefano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Dry DOCG
Fresh peach, pear and pink grapefruit blossoms fill the mouth of this ‘Dry’ prosecco from the high-altitude sub-zone of Santo Stefano. The bracing acidity handles it very well, leaving an impression of mandarin orange. From one of the steeper and higher sub-zones in Valdobbiadene, most of the Santo Stefano fruit goes to the Ruggeri. The residual sugar in this prosecco ranges from 17 to 32g/l making it more of a patio sipper preferably with panettone or even fruit but you could pair it up with some spicy Asian rolls. Tasted February 2016 – Treve Ring – 88

2013 Ruggeri Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Giustino B

Ringed with crisp, pithy pink grapefruit acidity and tight minerality, this extra dry prosecco is sourced from the hilltop ridges bordering the Dolomites. Refined and bright, with green apple and orchard pear, this carries the 16 g/l RS very well, leaving only pithy citrus in its wake. Pair with salads or sashimi. Tasted February 2016 – Treve Ring – 88

Giusti Asolo Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry

Sourced from vineyards in the hills of Asolo, this pretty prosecco is extra dry, though it’s not overtly noticeable though the pithy pink grapefruit acids. Peach fuzz, red apple, pear blossom and gentle acacia fill the palate, one cushioned by the sugars and streamed by the high acidity, especially when kept nice and chilled. Melon and prosciutto, here you are. Tasted February 2016 – Treve Ring – 88

2014 Foss Marai Prosecco Superiore Guia Millesimato Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

The steep hilled vineyard was first planted in the early 1900s by winemaker Carlo Biasiotto’s grandfather. A garden of white flowers and fine, green apple in this finessed Brut. Brisk pithy pink grapefruit acidity snaps on the finish. A delicate, feminine style. Tasted February 2016 – Treve Ring – 88 


Bisol – Valdobbiadene

Bisol Jeio Prosecco Colmei Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Extra Dry

Jeio is the nickname for Desiderio, the founder of Bisol and the grandfather of the current generation, also Desiderio, to run the family company. This cuvée was first made in 1999. This bottling is all from the 2014 vintage (though labelled as NV), from grapes grown across the DOCG in both Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Stylistically it’s on the more fragrant and floral side of the spectrum, offering light spice, ginger and fresh herbs, while the palate is noticeably off-dry (with 16 grams of residual sugar), which broadens the appeal, but in a more commercial sense. Perfectly serviceable and fairly priced in any case, even if I’d love to see a brut version of it. Tasted December 2015 – John Szabo – 87

Valdo Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Marco Oro

This consistent extra dry Prosecco comes from the heartland of the region, Valdobbiadene DOCG. Candied grapefruit acidity gobbles up the sugar fairly well in this extra dry style (from 12-17 g/l RS), leaving an impression of sugared pear, candy apple, juicy peach, white flowers and candy necklace. Treve Ring – 87

Sorelle Bronca Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore Particella

The 68 on the label refers to the official land registry plot number for the exact part of the hill in Colbertaldo where these grapes are grown, 250-320m high. Glera is splashed with Bianchetta and Perera, here creating a near-dry fizz with light white flowers, lemon peel, tight pear and yellow apple. Some powdered stone texture and bitter pear skin closes out the light palate. Treve Ring – 87

Bottega Gold Prosecco

Even though the distinctively blinged out Bottega Gold doesn’t carry DOCG on the label, it is entirely DOCG quality fruit. A quirk in the appellation laws dictate that the bottle has to be made of clear glass in a limited range of shades. Blingy, to be sure, but it’s what inside that counts. Very concentrated nose, with yellow apple, ripe pear and light toast throughout the creamy, gently frothy palate, and a perfumed floral note that floats the finish. Presents on the upper sweetness level for Brut. Unlike most charmat-produced Prosecco, Bottega Gold Bottega Gold is obtained from Glera grapes, but unlike other standard Proseccos, it is produced to order via just one fermentation in the winery’s specialized pressurized cuve close tanks for forty days. Treve Ring – 87

Terra Serena DOC Prosecco Treviso Frizzante

Ripe pear, pink florals and a fine pink grapefruit pith carry this simple, light (10.5 percent) Prosecco. Hints of almond tuck in on the bright palate, finishing with a brisk peach fuzz bitterness. Chill, use in cocktails or enjoy solo at breakfast/brunch. Tasted August 2016 – Treve Ring – 86

Follador Extra Dry Prosecco

Very perfumed florals, apple blossoms and pear throughout this sweeter prosecco (18 g/l RS). Tight citrus and crunchy pear acidity, finishes bright but with a twist of bitter fruit. Simple, chilled, for breakfast or tea time. Tasted June 2016 – Treve Ring – 86


While in Italy, visit Chianti Classico through Michael Godel’s recent article here.