Broccoli, Batali’s Law & Deconstructing Italian Wine at Vino 2015

Last week I wrote about Batali’s Law and how it applies to Italian wine in general and to Vino 2015, the recent Italian wine event in New York, in particular. Batali’s Law, for those of you who had too much Opus One and were napping along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, holds that there is no such thing as “Italian food,” there are only the diverse regional cuisines of Italy. Complicated things are best understood in complicated ways.

The application of Batali’s Law to wine is straightforward. We talk about “Italian wine” all the time, but what is it? Show me a bottle of wine that defines Italy. No, Italy is too big and diverse from a wine (or food) standpoint to be summed up so simply. There is no such think as Italian wine, only the diverse regional wines of Italy.

The seminars at Vino 2015 explored this theme very effectively. Two in particular stand out in my mind.

Italian Sparklers: Zraly Flips Out

One of the highlights (for me) of Vino 2015 was the opportunity to see Kevin Zraly, author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course 30th Anniversary Edition. in action. (You can read my enthusiastic review of the book here.) Zraly was invited to moderate a panel discussion on the topic of “Italy Outsparkles the Competition — from Prosecco to Franciacorta and Beyond!”

The only problem (according to Kevin) was that the organizers never bothered to invite anyone else to speak at the session! I don’t think it was an oversight, either. I think they wanted Kevin Zraly to work his magic unfettered, which he did magnificently. He “flipped” the seminar, as we say in academics, making the audience the panel. And thus a room full of wine industry and media professionals were led by Zraly to make their own examination of Batali’s Law applied to Italian sparkling wines. What fun. Bravo Kevin!

We began, as you might expect, with Prosecco, which is so very popular these days. We only tasted one Prosecco, the Tre Venti 2013 vintage from Zardetto, but we could have drilled much deeper — I have written about the huge variety of distinctive wines that exist under the Prosecco umbrella. Then we moved from white to pink (the Belcanto Cuvee Rosé Brut from Bellussi) to deep dark red (the remarkable sparkling Vernaccia Nera by Alberto Quacquarini, made with 60 percent dried grapes according to my  notes).

Franciacorta was next (Bellavista 2008 Brut) and an unexpected wine from Alba in the Piedmont, a 100% Chardonnary Rocche dei Manzoni di Valentino Brut Riserva 2001.  And we finished up on a sweet note with the Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Aqui.

It was quite a tour of sparkling styles and regions and since there were just six wines I think we really didn’t scratch the surface. So many more wines and styles, so much more diversity.

 Drilling Down into the World of Sicilian Wine

The second seminar could not have been more different from the first and yet it served to further reinforce the Batali’s Law theme. Bill Nesto MW (author with Frances Di Savio of The World of Sicilian Wine — see my review here) led the discussion of “Sicily from Myth to Reality — A Unique World of Wine Tradition, Variety, Terroir.”

The focus was clear: drilling down into one region rather than highlighting the diversity among regions of a particular style and Nesto was the perfect guide for Sicily. His quick survey captured key elements of the geography, geology, history, economics, vineyards, wines and wine people. Bravo Bill!

But Batali’s Law appeared again in a difference context because if Italian wine is the wine of its regions, then Sicilian wine presents the same multi-local diversity.  What exactly is Sicilian wine? Nesto deftly showed us that it is many things not just one, in terms of grapes, styles and winemaking approaches. Some of the wines were links with history and others distinctive variations on an international style.

It was a study in contrasts, especially between the Portelli Riesco Cerasuolo di Vittorio DOCG 2012, made of equal parts of Nero D’Avola and Frappato, and the Quignone Petit Verdot IGT 2011. My favorite of these wines was probably the Pietracava di Comenico Ortoleva “Maanar” Nero d’Avola Terre Siciliane IGT 2013.

A Fractal Image of Italian Wine?

I’m starting to think that Italian wine is really a fractal phenomenon. Fractal? That’s an image that retains its complicated properties at every possible scale.

Think of a stalk of romanesco broccoli, for example (see the image below). Imagine its shape. Now cut off a broccoli flower and look closely. Same characteristic  shape. Now take a piece of that and you will see the broccoli  design once again.

Italy is incredible diverse among the regions and, like my fractal broccoli, equally diverse within each region. Or at least that’s what I hope because that makes my terroirist soul happy. It’s that diversity that makes wine in general and Italian wine in particular really special.

If and when wine loses this characteristic (and it may have happened in some places), it becomes commodified, like industrial beer, and vulnerable to competition both from within the wine world and from more interesting products (craft beer? craft cider? innovative cocktails?) outside it, too. Cheers to Vino 2015 for celebrating Italy’s wines and reminding us of what makes them great.

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I am a big fan of DeLong’s wine maps, especially the wine map of Italy shown above.

Batali’s Law, the U.S. Wine Market & Vino 2015 Italian Wine Week

batali3Sue and I had a wonderful time at Vino 2015, the Italian Wine Week celebration in New York City. Besides speaking on the opening panel I was asked to write the Foreword for the conference program. The organizers have posted my essay on their blog. I will paste the first few paragraphs below. You can read the whole essay on the Vino 2015 website by clicking on this link. And here is a link to a story that emphasizes how my ideas about Brand Italy relate to Stevie Kim’s work at Vinitaly International. Enjoy!

BATALI’S LAW AND VINO 2015 ITALIAN WINE WEEK

Vino 2105: Perspectives on the Italian Wine Renaissance in the U.S. Market

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Wine Economist readers who fall into the “trade and media” category should set their map-app coordinates for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City during the first week in February because that’s where Vino 2015 will happen. This celebration of the wines of Italy is being billed as the “grandest Italian wine event ever held outside of Italy!” Do I have your attention now?

Vino Italiano Renaissance

Italy is the number one source of imported wines in the U.S. market and sales are on the rise. I would call it an Italian Wine Renaissance except that many would counter that Italian wines have no need to be reborn in the U.S. — they have long been popular here. Still there is something to the Renaissance metaphor, starting with Prosecco, which I wrote about in 2014, and continuing up and down the boot-shaped peninsula.

Prosecco’s popularity has invigorated the whole sparkling wine category in the U.S. and is part of a growing interest in Italy beyond the usual suspects. There is much more to Italian wine than the famous names and best-selling styles and varieties, as important as they are, and Vino 2015 is coming to New York to tell that story.

I’ll be there to speak at about Italian wines in a rapidly changing U.S. market. Here’s the description of my session. Click on this link to see the entire agenda.

Trends in the World’s Largest Wine Market : US’s Growing Global Relevance

In 2013, the United States  became the world largest wine market, in terms of absolute consumption. Despite economic headwinds, the market grew again in 2014, and is expected to add to these gains in 2015. What segments of the U.S. market are doing especially well—even outperforming? What opportunities lie ahead for Italian wines in the U.S.? This is the ideal discussion with which to kick off Vino 2015.

Moderator:

  • Anthony Dias Blue, Editor-in-Chief, The Tasting Panel & The Sommelier Journal

Panelists:

  • Jon Fredrikson – Gomberg Fredrikson and Associates

  • Cristina Mariani-May –  Co-CEO, Banfi Vintners

  • Angelina Mondavi – Partner & Winemaker, Dark Matter Wines

  • Mike Veseth – Wine Economist and University of Puget Sound

Piazza Conversations

I was asked to write the Foreword to the printed program, which gave me an excuse to think about how the many parts of the event come together and what the trade and media attendees might take away from it all. There’s a lot to consider!

Start with the Grand Tasting “Italian Wine Exchange,” featuring over 200 Italian wineries. This, as the name suggests, is a traditional arena for tasting the wine, making contacts, doing deals, renewing relationships, seeing and being seen.

Trade tastings like this always remind me of when we lived in Bologna and would hang out at the Piazza Maggiore just a few steps from our apartment. Everyone came to the Piazza, or so it seemed, and you never knew what new opportunity would present itself through a mixture of purposeful design and simple fortune.

An ambitious series of seminars explores several broad themes. Wine business and economics comes first — the characteristics and dynamics of the U.S. market for Italian wine with its shifting demographics, and the state of the wine industry in Italy. The second theme examines the Italian South — Puglia, Sicily, Calabria and Campania. Italy is too big and diverse in terms of wine to focus on everything, so shining a spotlight on the South — as big and diverse as it is by itself — is a great strategy.

Other seminars take a compare and contrast approach to Italian sparkling wines and to rosés from different regions.  A final set of programs looks beyond wine to food (of course!), music and culture,  global climate change, Italian craft beers and more. As I explain in my Foreword, I think the formal program parts tie together very well. Lots to share, learn and discuss.

And of course that’s what is going to happen in the hallways, lunches, bars, cafes and so forth when everyone gathers to socialize, do a little business and talk about Italian wine. Just like the Piazza Maggiore!

Creative Tension

Years ago I wrote an essay about the economy of Renaissance Italy that was titled “The Creative Economy” and one element of creativity is tension. I will be interested to see how the many tensions in the wine market are addressed at Vino 2015. What kinds of tension? Some of the typical ones, I suppose. Old and new. Modern and traditional. Local and global. North and South (because this is Italy and regional identities are always important).

Add to the list particular tensions in the dynamic U.S. market. The strategies that have been successful for Italian wines in the past may not be the best plans for the future as new demographic groups become the focus of attention and as new parts of the country are targeted for growth. Add new competitors to the mix — new wine regions, new craft beers, spirits and cider rivals — and the situation becomes more complicated.

This tension between stability and change that was at the heart of the Creative Economy 500 years ago is central to the wine market today. I’m interested to see what my creative  Italian friends will do with it! Italian wine Renaissance? You be the judge. Ciao, everyone. See you in New York.

Valpolicella Revisited: What’s the Story?

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So, what’s the story? That’s a question that Sue and I frequently ask each other after a tasting or winery visit. We’ve learned a lot, tasted interesting wines, met fascinating people. But what’s the takeaway message?

Sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward choice but to be honest I think we live for the complicated narratives– the experiences that really make us sit down and think. What is the story!? Our recent visit to the Valpolicella region was like that. We didn’t find a story — we found a lot of them and the other members of our merry media band — Mauro Fermariello, Michelangelo Tagliente, Michelle Williams and Mads Jordansen — who shared the same experience with us, found many different stories, too, and different ways of telling them.

(Click on the names above to see our colleagues’ work. Mauro Fermariello’s video, which I have embedded above, is a particularly striking account of our journey.)

We’ve already told several of the stories we found in earlier columns and  I’m using this final post to fill in some gaps and sum up. What are the stories? Here are three of them chosen to say something about the winery business models we encountered.

The San Rustico Story

Let me start with San Rustico, a winery with a long history that it wears proudly and gracefully. As you can see in Mauro’s video, the tasting room is decorated with artifacts that give a sense of the past. Touring the cellar we were struck by the wooden grape drying racks, key to Amarone production, that spoke to us of time and tradition. Great atmosphere.

A visit to the winery is a warm and friendly experience here — very personal. Sort of like tasting wine with a family friend in a farmhouse kitchen. And while the wines honor tradition they do not seem especially  trapped in it. Wines are made in two ranges and Amarone in particular in several styles.

One wine we tasted for example was made to appeal to new world export markets, a bit sweeter and with more new oak  (60 percent of the winery’s 170,000 bottle annual product is sold outside of Italy). The premium Gaso Amarone, on the other hand, is made in the traditional style. It was delicious — our favorite glass in the line up.

The two brothers who are responsible for San Rustico (one works in the vineyard and the other in the cellar) have purposefully focused on their traditional production base, limiting output while looking outside the region for sales.

Sartori di Verona

History is also a strong theme at  Sartori di Verona, but the business strategy is much different. Andrea Sartori is the fourth generation of the Sartori family to lead the winery and he has taken it in a different direction from San Rustico. Actually (and this fits into the theme of this column), Sartori’s strategy involves moving in several directions at once.

Go big or go home is one part of the story. Seeking the resources needed to expand production, Sartori entered into an agreement with the Cantina Colognol cooperative in 2000 that gave it secure access to 6200 acres of vineyards in the Valpolicella and Soave regions. This base allowed a three-fold expansion of production necessary to fill an increasingly export-oriented pipeline. About 80 percent of production is exported today. The well-regarded Banfi firm imports Sartori into the U.S. market.

At about the same time that the volume push began a super-quality brand was also established. Sartori partnered with consulting winemaker Franco Bernabel, who began to work with both vineyards and cellar practices, raising quality and drawing out the characteristics of the different vineyard terroirs. Four years later, in 2006, the I Saltari line of super-premium wines was launched. Sartori has also expanded its reach beyond the Veneto, establishing relationships with Cerulli Spinozzi in Abruzzo and Feudo Sartanna in Sicily. There’s also a partnership with Mont’Albano, a pioneering organic estate in Friuli.

Sartori reminds me a bit of the Mondavi strategy of years past. Mondavi moved upmarket with Opus One and also mass market with the Woodbridge wines. The story did not end happily for everyone, as Mondavi went public to raise expansion capital and eventually lost control of the business (wine giant Constellation is the current owner).  The stories differ here: there’s no indication that the Sartori strategy will have anything other than a happy conclusion.

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The Cesari Story

One of our favotie stops was at Cesari. We loved the wine, the people and the story.  The fact that we like the wines is perhaps not an accident. The U.S. is a prime export market for this winery and it is not impossible that the style was evolved over the  years with American tastes in mind — rounder, fuller wines, but still striking the authentic classic notes.

The Americans in our group were all familiar with the Cesari brand so I was a little surprised when someone told me that it is not as well-known within Italy. The strong export focus makes it different even among wineries (like those above) who sell more than half their production abroad.

Cesari was founded in 1936, during a particularly turbulent period for wine in Italy and Europe. Many private firms failed and cooperatives went bankrupt. Some of the wineries that emerged (or simply survived it) were led by supremely talented entrepreneurs. This sprit in part drove Cesari to push dramatically into global export markets in the 1970s and guides them today to produce the distinctive wines that are needed to attract discerning customers.

I’ve embedded a Cesari video above to give you a sense of the winery and its vision and also to show you how effective they are in telling their own story. Story-telling is almost as important as wine-making when it comes to the business of wine today. Fascinating that the global market’s demands appear here, don’t you think. And I agree with the narrator — all kidding aside, the wines really are good.

Eight Million Stories?

Years ago there was a U.S. television series about life in New York City called “Naked City” that closed each week with the line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City — this has been one of them.” (Scroll down to see a video clip.) There may not be eight million stories in Valpolicella but there are sure a lot of them. Some, like the three above, about different business models and different historical evolutions. Others, like my earlier posts, are about wine tourism, weather problems and  the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a luxury brand for the region in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are very personal stories too, like two of my favorite wineries (Zyme and Secondo Marco) that exist today more or less because of family issues that caused a younger generation to start out in a different direction. Reminds me a bit of the story of Robert Mondavi and  the family disagreements that led to the founding of his eponymous Napa Valley winery.

Lots of stories and not enough time or space to tell them all. Maybe that’s what makes a wine region really great. I realize that wine marketers are attracted to the idea of a silver bullet story — a signature grape variety, an iconic brand or rock star winemaker — that can make a region’s reputation in a single stroke. There are good examples for each of these strategies, but I have my doubts about this as a general theory. Maybe real strength comes from diversity and not from a monolithic approach?

I’m glad there are millions of stories to tell and not just one because that means a world of different and distinctive wines … and job security for story-tellers like me! Thanks to everyone who made our Valpolicella visit so rewarding.

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella tour. See if you can identify each one of them in Mauro’s video. At the end of the list I have embedded a bit of the old “Naked City” television show for those of you too young to have seen the original. Cheers!

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, Fumani

San Rustico, Valgatara

Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella

Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese

Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

Bisol’s Venissa: A Golden Wine of Venice

venissaLots of images come to mind when you think of Venice — the art, the architecture, and canals and gondolas. Vineyards? Not so much. Can’t imagine vineyards in Venice, although historians tell us that they were there — some even in the San Marco quarter — in earlier days when the city was less crowded and more concerned with self-sufficiency.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there are still vines and wines in Venice today? Not on the cluster of islands that we think of as the city of Venice proper, but out in the busy lagoon? The photo above shows the island of Burano (the island of lace-makers to distinguish it from Murano, the island of glass-makers) and just below it, connected by a short bridge, is the island of Mazzorbo and the one hectare vineyard of Venissa.

Golden Grape

Dorona di Venezia is a grape of the Venetian lagoon. — its natural resistance to fungal diseases is a plus in this humid place.  Known since the 15th century, it is a natural cross of Garganega and Bermestia Bianca (according to my copy of Wine Grapes) that is popular as a table grape  because of its big sweet golden (D’oro) grapes.

You can find Dorona here and there in the Veneto (easy to mistake it for Garganega, the grape most associated with Soave) but until recently not so much in Venice and its lagoon islands, the challenges of maritime grape-growing being what they are. But Gianluca Bisol, of the famous Prosecco house, discovered a few vines on the island of Sant’Erasmo and used them to establish a Dorona vineyard on the old ScarpaVolo estate property on nearby Mazzorbo.

Golden Wine

Golden grape, golden wine. The wine really is golden due in part to fermentation on the grape skins to give it special character. The bottles of hand-crafted glass display rich decorations of hand-beaten gold foil (thus honoring two traditional Venetian crafts). The name Venissa and a number are carefully hand-etched on each bottle.

What does it taste like? The note in Wine Grapes talks of minerality and dried peach and apricot.  Only two vintages have been released so far — 2010 and 2011 — and Ian D’Agata writes in his excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy that he prefers the freshness of the 2011. Winemakers Desiderio Bisol and  Roberto Cipresso apparently pulled back from some of the extreme cellar practices after the first vintage, yielding a fresher wine, although not something that you would ever mistake for Soave!

We loved the color of the wine and were surprised by its delicate aromas. I found a certain saltiness very appealing, although maybe that was the power of suggestion since we were tasting the wine with Matteo Bisol looking out at the vineyard and the lagoon just beyond. If there really is a salty character, the wine comes by it naturally. Salt water floods the vineyards during periodic tidal surges and a good deal of effort goes into drainage. I preferred the more intense 2010, but maybe that’s to be expected of the author of  a book called Extreme Wine.

Venissa has just released a red wine, Rosso Venissa, its handcrafted bottle suitably adorned by copper, not gold. It’s a blend of Merlot and Carmenere from 40-year old vines located on an island near Torcello.  Sworn to secrecy, we tasted this wine prior to its official release and noted its richness, intensity and, well, salty personality.

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 Golden Opportunity

Not everyone would have seized the opportunity that those few stray Dorona vines presented, but Gianluca and now Matteo Bisol have done so and it is interesting to see the extremes that have resulted. The vineyard is a bit rustic, for example. Not the vines but the landscape, surrounded by stone walls, cut by drainage ditches and featuring a large rambling  garden where local senior citizens grow vegetables that they sell to the Venissa restaurant.

The restaurant and inn are as luxurious as the wine and present a strong contrast to the natural element that is appropriate for Venice. We dined at the restaurant and our waiter made the point that what came out of the kitchen (he pointed to the busy glass-walled show kitchen to our left) first came from the island and the lagoon to our right. This locavore idea appeared in each plate we were served, perhaps most of all in a soup of sea-snail (garusoli) and sea fennel in what tasted like the rich reduced essence  of the lagoon itself. Another extreme experience.

Making a Statement

On the ferry ride back to San Marco with the full moon above us, Sue and I talked about Venissa. I was suspicious at the start that it was a platform to promote the Bisol brand, but my hypothesis didn’t hold up. It really seems to be a sincere attempt by the Bisol family to honor the history and traditions of Venice and Venetian wine.P1090289

What makes Venissa so interesting is the ambitious approach. It would be possible to draw attention to Venetian wine culture with a museum exhibition of some sort — many wineries display collections of  winemaking implements, historical documents and wine and vine art. They are always interesting, but it seems to me that they usually lack the lasting impact that I see at Venissa. Why?

One factor is that Venissa is a living exhibition — the actual vineyards are right here in the lagoon, not just dots on an old map and the actual wine is in your glass not a just label on the wall. This obviously creates a more intense sensual experience. And the total project reinforces this by drawing on all the senses through the packaging, the location, the inn and restaurant and so forth.

Matteo told us that there are plans to further extend the experience through a sort of deconstructed hotel project on the neighboring island of Burano. The “hotel” would actually be a collection of rooms scattered around in various of the buildings that line the colorful canals of the little island, giving visitors an opportunity to intimately experience a different side of Venice and of course to enjoy the short stroll over the little bridge to Mazzorbo, then on through the vineyard and to Venissa itself.

Venissa is a wine, a destination and a statement, all made with impressive clarity and commitment. Congratulations to the Bisol family on this achievement.

A Field Guide to Prosecco’s Many Faces

P1090234Prosecco sales here in the U.S. are surging — up 34% in the first half of 2014 according to one report. At 1.27 million cases, the U.S. is now the #3 export market for Prosecco trailing only the UK and Germany.

Quantity is one thing, but quality is often something else entirely. Last week’s column talked about Prosecco’s upmarket move and the premiumization pyramid that lies at the heart of the strategy.  Is premium Prosecco real or just a marketing gimmick?

Mionetto’s Impressive Line-up

We tasted the wines from three producers during our quick business trip to the Veneto and if there is truth in wine, then premium Prosecco is real.

Our first stop was at Mionetto, a large producer that is the U.S. market leader with their popularly priced, crown capped “IL” Prosecco line of wines. “IL” is great fun and has attractive packaging — we like it a lot — but it doesn’t especially strive for upmarket status. But wait, there is more …

We tasted through several Mionetto wines that showed the true potential for premium Prosecco wines. We started with Prosecco made from organic grapes – the idea came from the growers not the marketing department — that was perhaps the most effective presentation of an organic wine that I have seen. This wine should appeal both to enthusiasts seeking something different and to dedicated green wine fans. The wine, the messaging, the packaging — they all come together in a very impressive way.

Opulence and a German Bet

We then moved up the pyramid to a single vineyard “Rive di Santo Stefano” DOCG Prosecco and into the “Luxury” series of wines, then reaching the summit with the Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG. The luxury wines really were opulent both in the glass and to the eye. Very impressive. Will wines like this some day challenge Champagne? No future tense needed — I think they already do so, providing that memorable feeling (isn’t that what Champagne is really all about for most people?) at a more attractive price point. Here is a list of the Mionetto wines we tasted with links to more information about them.

An interesting sidebar to the Mionetto story is that the Italian firm was purchased a few years ago by Henkell, the German sparking wine producer, and everyone worried that the usual layoffs and cost-cutting measures were in store. Instead the new parent company kept all hands on board and hired more workers while investing in plant modernization and expansion. They are betting on the premium future of Prosecco and based on the “cards” we tasted it seems they have a winning hand.

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A Different Prosecco: Sorelle Bronca

Sorelle Bronca is a very different enterprise that illustrates Prosecco’s many dimensions. A small firm run by two sisters, all its wines are organic. Total production is much smaller than Mionetto, but the wines are perhaps equally diverse in the experiences they present the curious wine enthusiast.

We tasted through several excellent organic DOCG Proseccos and some still wines, too, including a white blend featuring the Manzoni Bianco grape and a Colli di Conegliano DOCG Riserva “Ser Bele” red blend of Cabernet Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux grape varieties have long been planted in the Veneto) that received Gambero Rosso’s  top “3 glasses” rating. Red wine from Prosecco-ville? Maybe. Really great red wine?  Apparently yes. I didn’t see that coming.

The “normal” Proseccos we tasted here were delicious as was the Sorelle Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Particella 68  made from grapes from a specific vineyard bloc. But the hit of the tasting was Sorrele Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG “Difetto Perfetto” Sur Lie. Difetto Perfetto? Defective and perfect at the same time? Well, yes. This cloudy wine (see photo) had its secondary fermentation in the bottle not the pressurized tank as is typical for Prosecco. Then it was left on the lees for a period and then not disgourged, so the lees were still there.

Cloudy, a bit like a hefeweizen beer. I think “foggy” is the best word — look at the photo. Unfiltered, but not Difetto in my opinion. The first taste was just the wine, taking care not to disturb the lees at the bottom of the bottle. Good! Then we shook up the bottle and tasted it all together. Wow! Even better, Sue and I agreed.  Champagne-like but still clearly Prosecco without the strong leesy taste you might expect because the sur lie period was so short.  And quite an interesting mouth-feel. A Prosecco to surprise and delight. What fun!P1090311

A Bisol Mosaic at Venissa

We spent the night in Venice and set out the next day to visit Venissa, the ambitious vineyard project of the Bisol family that is located on an island in the Venetian Lagoon (see next week’s column for a full report). The Bisol Prosecco house is behind Venissa and as part of our visit Matteo Bisol arranged for us to taste several of his family’s wines along with dinner at the restaurant.

Usually, Matteo said, he would serve just one Bisol wine as part of a multi-course / multi-wine tasting menu, but he decided to use the opportunity to show us many difference faces of Bisol and Prosecco. It was quite an experience.

We started with the classic Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.  Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

The Dry and the Sweet

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 – Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG -- from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita – dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either. Matteo wanted to show us the variety of Prosecco expressions and he certainly succeeded.

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Final thoughts? The Prosecco mosaic caught me by surprise — Prosecco is not one thing, but many things and hopefully consumers who start with cheerful wines like the Mionetto “IL” bottlings can be persuaded to move up the Prosecco Pyramid to the DOCG and Rive wines and perhaps even summit with Cartizze and beyond to some of the truly unique wines we were fortunate to be able to sample. Thanks to the everyone who hosted us and to the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consortium for arranging the winery visits. Next time: the story of Venissa.

Prosecco Bubbles Upmarket: The Premiumization Pyramid

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Our stay is the Prosecco region of Northern Italy was short but very intense. It left us impressed with the work going on there to refine Prosecco’s image and to raise quality so that Prosecco will be on the lips (both figuratively and literally) of consumers who seek a premium sparkling wine. It is a tale told in three acts.

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Wine (not water) makes history at the Conegliano wine school.

Act 1: The School for Wines

First was a visit to the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano, Conegliano’s famous wine school, which was founded in 1876 . It was then and is now an important center for the scientific study of enology and viticulture. The school’s impact through its graduates and research extends throughout Italy and in fact around the world. To give just one example, Romeo Bragato, who might be said to be the father of winemaking in Australia and New Zealand, trained at Conegliano.

We toured the original school building, visiting the first professional tasting arena, and then moved on to the famous test vineyard, the teaching winery and the ultra-modern labs. We met professors devoted to training the next generation of winemakers and scientists diligently addressing a range of important winemaking issues.

It’s clear that the school is a very strong force in assuring quality in Prosecco (it is here where the DOCG panels meet to verify wine quality) and to see that the bar is raised higher and higher. We brought home a few bottles of the school’s wine including an IGT Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 made from the Manzoni Bianco grape variety developed here and a Conegliano DOCG still Prosecco called Celebre. Can’t wait to try these wines when they’ve had time to settle down from the trip home.

Act 2: The Prosecco Pyramid

Our next stop was lunch at Antica Osteria di Via Brandolini in Solighetto with officials of both the Conegliano school and the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Consorzio.  The main topic of conversation (when we were not distracted by the menu of outstanding local dishes) was the program to establish a hierarchy of Prosecco wines that consumers can understand and that will draw them in and allow them to effectively explore premium possibilities.

The Prosecco production zone is very large, including parts of both the Veneto and Friuli, and the growing conditions and wine qualities vary a good deal. You can get cheap and cheerful Prosecco wines and also sophisticated products. The Consorzio’s plan, which I think it a good one, is to help buyers understand the different quality levels by creating a sort of premiumization pyramid.

DOC Prosecco forms the base of the pyramid — the vast majority of Prosecco wines you will find fall into this category. Next up are the DOCG Prosecco Superiore wines from the Congegliano Valdobbiadene zone — an area stretching basically from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, which includes some spectacular hillside vineyards. The Consorzio has applied for the this area to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look at the video at the top of the page and you will see why.

DOCG wines are not necessarily better than individual DOC wines (just as IGT wines are not necessarily inferior to those with more prestigious designations), but they are held to a higher certified standard. One of the goals of the premiumization push it to help consumers understand the difference between DOC and DOCG (unfamiliar concepts to most Prosecco drinkers in America who think mainly in terms of brands) and to encourage them to look for and to try the DOCG wines.P1090240

The next step is to focus on terroir in the form of certain “grad cru” vineyard areas known as “Rive” in the local dialect. There are 43 designated Rive in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone and the idea is that they are very different from each other in terms of soil, aspect, altitude and the individual wines reflect their distinct terroirs. Terroirst wines, if you will.

At the top of the premium pyramid sits Cartizze DOCG. The 106 hectare Cartizze zone is one of the most valuable vine patches on the planet with valuations in the neighborhood of €1 million per hectare (just under $500,000 an acre)! The Cartizze wines are meant to be the ultimate Prosecco experience — products for consumers with a taste for luxury sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular.

The hierarchy provided here is very useful — starting with the DOC and DOCG concepts and going a couple of steps beyond. Easy concepts for Europeans to understand, but it will take some effort to make them part of the New World consumer’s lingua franca.  And of course it is necessary for the wines themselves to meet the quality expectations.P1090224

Act 3: In Vino Veritas

Which brings us to Act 3 and the wines themselves. We were fortunate to be able to taste three sets of Prosecco wines. Luigi Galletto, Sue and I visited a large producer — Mionetto – and tasted through the top line of wines available in the U.S. market. Then we visited a smaller producer specializing in organic wines — Sorelle Bronca.  Finally, Sue and I were fortunate to sample wines from Bisol at a tasting arranged by Matteo Bisol at his Venissa restaurant.

In vino veritas they say and in this context we might take it to mean that marketing and messaging are one thing, but the wines will tell you the truth. Is there truth in Prosecco’s premiumization push? Come back next week for our report.

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Thanks to everyone who made the Prosecco part of our Veneto giro such a rewarding experience. Special thanks to Professors Luigi Galletto and Vasco Boatto, Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio, Giulia Pussini, the Consorzio’s communications officer, Alessio Del Savio, Managing Director of Mionetto, and Matteo Bisol of Venissa.

The video at the top of the page was produced by the Consorzio and features several people we met during our stay. It tells the story very well and I think you will understand most of the points even if you are not fluent in Italian. I like the scenes in the original school building, including the old tasting room, the vineyard scenes and the explanation of the production process, which features secondard fermentation of the base wines in the pressurized autoclave tanks. The natural images of the Rive and the Cartizze zone give you a strong sense of the beauty of the zone. Enjoy!

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