The reputations of Italy’s two major sparkling wines, Prosecco and Asti, have taken a bit of a battering in the past.
Until the mid-90s, Asti Spumante was an inoffensive Italian wedding favourite, (and outside Italy too, when the budget didn’t run to champagne). Of an alcohol content so low it might’ve got away with being sold in the USA during Prohibition, it became something of a drinks industry joke after being vilified by one top American wine writer as “noxiously sweet”.
Prosecco was the other Italian sparkler with a stellar reputation as a cheap champagne substitute. But its reputation suffered when really, really cheap Prosecco started appearing in cans. Not quite the image an upwardly-mobile wine wants to project…
Even so, at its not inconsiderable best, it was roughly quarter the price of an equivalent bottle of champagne.
But the problem was that away from its heartland production area in the Veneto region of Italy’s north-east, other producers throughout Italy – and the world too, come to that – were coming to realise that here was a bandwagon ripe for jumping onto. And as is so often the case, as production rose, standards fell and the Prosecco brand began to suffer.
Asti – Fizzy. Frothy. Fun!
Asti was the first to rebrand itself. The name ‘Asti Spumante’ was dumped in favour of the snappier ‘Asti’; the production area, centred around the delightful town of Asti in Piedmont, was enlarged and redefined to account for demand; and Asti Spumante’s cloying sweetness was replaced by a much more fruit-driven wine.
The result is a wine that’s still extremely light in alcohol – roughly only 7% on average – but with the emphasis now on the delicious Moscato Bianco grape.
It’s still a sweet wine, but the sweetness now produces huge hits not only of Muscat grape – and for me, mangoes and lychees too – with an undercutting refreshing acidity that prevents the sweetness from becoming overpowering.
Asti’s about as good a dessert wine as you’ll find and in Italy at any rate, the prices are astonishingly low – about €5/bottle.
Yes, you can still – sadly – find the really awful stuff, usually labelled as ‘Vino Spumante’or somesuch. It may be bottled in Italy – but that’s no guarantee it’ll be Italian wine; it won’t be, (actually – legally can’t be), labelled as ‘Asti’ and it won’t carry the DOCG tag given to Italy’s top wines. An accolade that Asti earned in 1993.
On the basis of the Asti I’ve drunk in/around Asti itself – and what I’ve sampled down here in deepest darkest Abruzzo, all of a day’s drive away from Piedmont – I suspect that as with so much Italian wine, it’s the local producers who make the best.
Elsewhere, you tend mainly to see Asti made by the giant conglomerates. And while ‘big’ doesn’t automatically equal ‘bad’ – and some is top-class – it’s not quite as good as the locally-produced real deal.
Prosecco. A classy champagne alternative
In contrast to Asti, Prosecco’s only really started tightening-up its act over the past three or four years.
The best Prosecco comes from an area centred on the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano in the Veneto to the north of Venice.
In fact, most Italian Prosecco – well over half – comes from this particular region. In 2009 it was awarded DOCG status, but first there had to be a little fix to stop all the other Prosecco producers both in Italy and around the world capitalising on this.
And it was quite cleverly done.
Until 2009, Prosecco wine was made from the Prosecco grape. And as the Prosecco grape could be grown pretty well anywhere, Prosecco wine could be made just about anywhere too.
And some of Italy’s biggest producers cashed in on this little anomaly.
After 2009 though, the region centred on Valdobbiadene/Conegliano became legally known as ‘Prosecco’. And the grape variety became known as Glera.
And while Glera could still be grown anywhere, the resulting wine could only be labelled Prosecco if it actually came from the Prosecco region of the Veneto. Capisce ?
To finalise everything, the new ‘Prosecco Region’ was given the same geographically-protected status as enjoyed by other European food and wine like Stilton cheese and Champagne and duly rubber-stamped by the EU.
Which is all a rather lengthy explanation as to why any post-2009 bottle of Prosecco (as most will be, as it’s a ‘drink-young’ wine) will be labelled as such; display its DOCG status; and will probably carry the name of either Valdobbiadene. Or Conegliano. Or both.
Other Prosecco wine from the Veneto – but made outside the boundaries of the new Prosecco region – should be branded something like ‘Veneto IGT’. It might still be good. But it might not.
Anything else will be called whatever the producer feels like calling it. As long as the key word ‘Prosecco’ is avoided. Which won’t have quite the same ring, will it ?
Be on the lookout too for a kind-of ‘Grand Cru’ Prosecco called Cartizze. This is a super-premium wine at a super-premium price from a single vineyard in the Prosecco region.
Allegedly, it delivers everything that ‘ordinary’ DOCG Prosecco delivers – only more-so. However I have to place hand on heart and say I truly can’t tell the difference. Both have what I expect from Prosecco: slightly lemony overtones, with hints of peach and greengage, but to maintain Prosecco Cartizze is massively better than the ‘ordinary’ stuff may possibly be down more to skilful marketing rather than actual taste.
Comparisons with champagne are pretty meaningless too. For all its attributes, the Glera grape can’t be compared to the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay predominantly used in champagne; and the two wines are made differently. Prosecco using what’s known as the (cheaper) Charmat method in which the bubbles are captured in sealed tanks during the fermentation process. Champagne, more labour-intensively, employs secondary fermentation in the bottle to impart the fizz.
Champagne’s a fuller, rounder, richer – and more expensive – wine which also has good ageing potential. Prosecco in contrast is up-front, one-dimensional (in that it offers no great length or finish), much cheaper and best drunk in the first couple of years after bottling.
Unless you’re a Russian oligarch, you’re not going to make Bellini with champers. And if you go to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where this sublime cocktail was invented, they won’t either. But they will use Prosecco.
Thanks to the recent repositioning of the brand, provided you look out for the magic words Valdobbiade and/or Conegliano – (or Cartizze) – on the bottle, you won’t go far wrong. If they’re absent however, don’t risk buying. In Italy, a thoroughly good bottle will be €6-8. Cartizze, double that.
And should you be visiting the Veneto – lucky you! Just think of the fun you’re going to have visiting all those artisan producers and seeing what they have to offer!
By David Brenner
In 2007, after a lengthy career as a television broadcast journalist in the UK – latterly with BBC World – David, his wife Pauline and their three cats moved to Abruzzo , where they now run Villasfor2, providing three holiday rental villas just for couples. And in addition to his passion for discovering and promoting Italian wine, David’s regular AboutAbruzzo blog charts daily life in this little-known region of Italy.