The birthplace of Prosecco is about more than just Prosecco

The Bortolomiol sisters of Bortolomiol estate

 

Regarded as lifestyle bubbles, Prosecco Superiore is actually a terroir-driven sparkling wine whose aromatic identity stems in part from several minor grape varieties. Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta trevigiana are amongst them. Not only do they contribute to preserving biodiversity and bringing back the past, they are also proving to be an important marketing tool.

 

Prosecco is arguably the most popular sparkling wine in the world right now. Fragrant bubbles, great drinkability and a price point within everyone’s reach, are Prosecco’s main trademarks – and its main enemies. Its popularity and glamorous lifestyle image have transformed it into an international brand, therefore partially contributing to undermining its identity as an agricultural product from a specific region in Italy. But Prosecco Superiore has another story to tell consumers, as regards favour profile and sustainability, its historic legacy and biodiversity.

 

Different vineyards

Walking around Conegliano Valdobbiadene in the 1940s would have provided the traveller with a very different perspective than today. Back then, wine production was not yet the most distinguishing component, even though it was already an important source of income and feature of the landscape which would eventually preserve the area from the intense industrialization of the 1980s that transformed Veneto and Friuli’s flatlands into an expanse of warehouses. Back then, the vineyards too were different. They all consisted of three to four sorts of grapes planted next to each other. This system guaranteed the farmer that, whatever the climatic conditions of the year, at least one of the varieties would bear fruit, thus allowing the family to survive. Wine was still a food then and not yet a commodity and this situation was common all over Italy. Later on, viticulture would become a business and production logics changed. Varieties less resistant to pests that needed more work hours were gradually abandoned, in favour of those offering greater productivity. It was the victory of Glera over Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta trevigiana and of the Glera Tonda biotype –commonly referred to as Glera – over Glera Lunga.

 

Sisters Antonella and Ersiliana Bronca of Sorelle Bronca

 

Back to the beginning

“Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta trevigiana had already been relegated to a blending role by the 1960s,” recalls Umberto Marchiori of Marchiori Wines. For the past ten years, the Marchiori family has been carrying out a special project on these abandoned grapes, ultimately creating five different white wines using only one of the above-mentioned varieties at a time. “Our aim is to allow people to understand how each native grape contributes to the distinctive flavour of Prosecco Superiore” explains Umberto Marchiori. “Whereas the two Glera biotypes are important for structure, the other three enrich the aromatic profile”. Marchiori is not the only winery that has undergone research in this direction. More and more producers belonging to both Docg appellations – Conegliano Valdobbiadene and Asolo – are promoting old varieties. Some blend them in their Prosecco Superiore, recreating an old-style product, others prefer to use them for specific projects.

 

An old-style Prosecco

At Andreola winery, they use 5% each of Bianchetta and Perera for Dirupo Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Brut along with Glera. “Our choice is based on two reasons. The first is related to viticulture, the second involves aromatic complexity” explains export manager Cristian Maddalena. “We found these two varieties in our old vineyards and decided to use them too, as they would have done in the past. As for the organoleptic profile, we use Bianchetta trevigiana because it adds floral aromas and Perera for its high acidity” he explains. Perera also provides aromas of pear, whose name it is related to. “But not at first, only after a while” points out Andrea Baccini, owner of Duca di Dolle, who has been bottling a 100% Perera since 2016 and is now working on production of a historical Cuvée from Glera, Bianchetta trevigiana and Perera. The threesome, according to Gabriella Vettoretti of la Tordera, highlights the ties with the region, offering a further terroir-driven aromatic feature. “This is why we use them for our Cartizze Dry, which exudes aromas of ripe apple and pear thanks to the percentage of Bianchetta and Perera it contains”. “The great acidity and fragrance provided by the two varieties is clearly perceived by expert consumers who then ask for more information”, says Elisa Piazza, winemaker and daughter of Ersiliana who runs Sorelle Bronca winery with her sister Antonella. “Generally speaking, there is a lot of curiosity towards these rarities”.

 

A trip down memory lane

It is not easy to work with these varieties, though. Bortolomiol too has approached Perera and is trying to understand how the grape behaves during fermentation. Unfortunately, decades of lack of familiarity have resulted in lack of knowledge. “We are all learning step by step”, says Andrea Baccini. “For example, I was expecting Perera to exude aromas of pear from the beginning but when the wine is young Perera flavours are herbaceous (sage, rosemary). It is only after one year that it smells like pear”. Producers working with these varieties also have to face the problem of clonal diversity. For this reason, the Consorzio di Tutela del Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Docg together with the Regione Veneto have carried out research under the title “Biodivigna”, aimed at safeguarding both old varieties and old clones of Glera and at the same time selecting the best clones. Zardetto winery took part in the project, said Filippo Zardetto. At the estate they have decided to keep Glera separate from other native grapes, believing that the variety shows greater sense of place when it is fermented separately. Therefore, Zardetto Prosecco Superiore is made from 100% Glera since the focus is on terroir-driven differences whereas Zardetto Porta Monticano combines Glera and other local grapes, in order to offer consumers a sip of long-forgotten aromas.

 

Matteo Forner of Pat del Colmel with and his parents Lino and Gabriella

 

Recantina and Rabiosa: the biodiversity gems of the Asolo Prosecco appellation

The will to preserve biodiversity is also shared by the Consorzio Vini Asolo Montello, the other Prosecco Superiore Docg appellation located on the right bank of the river Piave. Here, viticultural legacy is represented by white grapes along with red Recantina. “The homeland of Bianchetta can be identified as the area between Monfumo and Feltre” explains Luca Ferraro of Bele Casel winery. Monfumo with its steep slopes totally unsuitable for mechanized vine growing, has actually acted as a treasure trove for a large number of varieties. In their old vineyards in Monfumo, Luca Ferraro and his family have found Marzemina Bianca and Boschera vines and just a stone’s throw away, Matteo Forner of Pat del Colmel has discovered white Rabiosa, a variety first mentioned in the 18th century, believed to have disappeared and possibly related to Durella with whom it shared high acidity. Many producers in the area use old varieties, either as blending grapes for Prosecco Superiore – as at the Loredan Gasparini estate where Lorenzo Palla adds some Bianchetta and Verdiso – or for specific projects, like Federica Andrighetto of Le Terre with her Bianco Loquace from 100% Bianchetta. “Bianchetta is not easy to handle due to its compact clusters and high productivity” she says. “The Bianco Loquace project took off two years ago. In the beginning only old people were able to recognize it, but now it is also appreciated by younger consumers in search of lost flavours and stories of yesteryear”.

 

Verdiso and Manzoni Bianco

Communication is fundamental for promoting such varieties. “Buyers believe our area is devoted only to sparkling wines, to Prosecco. So on a general basis, they dismiss our still wines produced with native grapes, choosing instead Custoza, Lugana and Soave. It is therefore necessary to spend time explaining” says Ernesto Balbinot, founder of Le Manzane. He started working with Verdiso, another local variety, back in 1983, at the beginning of his career. For him producing Verdiso means safeguarding tradition and preserving something that would otherwise disappear. “Unfortunately, the market for Verdiso is limited to the Belluno and Treviso provinces but lately we have seen an increased level of attention” claims Nicoletta Piovesan, export manager at Collalto where they produce one still version of Verdiso and four different types of Incrocio Manzoni, a variety created in around 1920 by Professor Manzoni at the nearby “Cerletti” Wine Institute in Conegliano. Colvendrà offers inquisitive consumers the chance to taste both a sparkling Verdiso Extra Dry and a still bottling, along with a still Incrocio Manzoni and sweet bubbles from the same variety.

 

Biodiversity as a marketing tool

“Bianchetta trevigiana, Perera and Verdiso play an important marketing role in avoiding stylistic and organoleptic standardization of Prosecco,” stresses Umberto Marchiori. Communication might be difficult but it pays dividends. A study carried out in 2012 for the Biodivigna project on a sample of 600 people all over Italy revealed that use of local varieties can attract consumers, encouraging them to buy the Conegliano Valdobbiadene appellation instead of other Proseccos. Interviewees were asked to choose a number of hypothetical Proseccos whose profiles were based on five parameters: use of local biotypes, traceability, safeguarding the historical environment, area of production (Docg versus Doc) and price. The first factor, use of native biotypes, was shown to have a greater impact than the others, especially when consumers came from Northeast Italy. This could also prove true for foreign consumers at a time when wine lovers crave for lesser-known wines, native varieties and grapes telling a story in the glass, along with a nice fragrant tipple.

 

By Irene Graziotto - Photo credit: Courtesy of the wineries