Vineyards & Wine

Prosecco: Why Top Sommeliers are Rethinking this Italian Staple

Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene is resulting in something of a sparkling revolution—and top collectors are taking note

Advanced sommelier Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou, the wine director and co-owner of Michelin-recognized Allora restaurant in Sacramento, California, has some straightforward advice for anyone who loves bubbly: “Let whatever you think you know about Prosecco disappear.”

Instead, she advises leaning into the offerings from Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene. These sparkling wines from a small, vertiginous slice of the larger Prosecco appellation in Northeast Italy are transforming the perception of the drink with their high-quality, endlessly complex bottlings.

A landscape photo of steep hills criss-crossed with wines in the Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene appellation
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2019, the Veneto wine region is often described as one of Italy’s most beautiful areas. Its location between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea makes it an excellent spot for creating high-quality sparkling wine.

The timing couldn’t be better. According to NielsenIQ, consumers today have a nearly insatiable appetite for sparkling wines. The category has been the fastest-growing wine segment among American drinkers, growing by more than 13 percent in 2021, even as traditional wine consumption has decreased.

“This is a quality wine region—producing some of the most important sparkling wines today,” Mandalou says. “Not only are the views incredible, but the wines are everything you want in a Prosecco: high acid, fresh, floral, and incredibly clean.”

Like most sparkling wines, Prosecco has a range of sweetness, but always has this rush of freshness and acidity—Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou

High Terroir

Nestled between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites, Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene lies on a series of steep hillsides roughly 40 miles (65 km) from Venice. Thanks to unique geological activity millions of years ago—when the African continent and Alpine glaciers moved simultaneously—the area is defined by small, east-west valleys that create microclimates ideal for fine wine production. Known affectionately as “hogbacks” for their shape, the entire area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Prosecco grapes are carried down steep hills in buckets via a system of pulleys
Heroic harvest: The vertiginous landscape of the region means that vines are planted both parallel and vertically to the craggy hills—ruling out the help of machinery and ensuring that the Prosecco vineyards are completely tended to by hand.

Beneath the verdant hillsides, soil types vary widely, from glacial deposits to iron-rich clays, and even include pockets of limestone prized by vintners. Each soil type boasts a particular water storage capacity, which in turn alters the flavor and aromatic compounds produced by each vine. This fantastic diversity translates to the glass, which is why Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene wines showcase a wide range of flavors and aromatic nuances.

Add to this the warming influence of the Adriatic, and the Dolomites’ cooling mountain breezes, and you have the perfect conditions for the native Glera grape variety behind all Prosecco wines. After harvest, the grapes undergo a secondary fermentation process known as the Charmat method, where wines develop their effervescence in a large tank rather than in single bottles like Champagne and Franciacorta.

A Class of Their Own

The resulting bubblies range from dry to sweet, with an abundance of fresh fruit, floral, and herb aromas, as opposed to the yeasty, bakery-esque aromas of Champagne. “Simply put, they are not the same. Champagne and Prosecco Superiore have totally different personalities,” says Iris Rowlee, a sommelier and an ambassador for Conegliano Valdobbiadene wines.

“If you’re trying to compare Prosecco Superiore to Champagne as the same style category, you’re not going to have much success. Champagne would be hard pressed to come across as the fruity, fresh, expressive face that is Prosecco Superiore.”

A bottle of Casa Coste Piane Prosecco on white wood background
An outstanding example of Prosecco Superiore, Casa Coste Piane boasts a salty-savory complexity, as well as the soft blossom, green apple, white peach, and citrus pith you’d expect from a sparkling wine. Image: Courtesy Casa Coste Piane

Rowlee recommends drinkers approach these wines as unique bottlings designed for particular occasions on the table. Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene is nothing short of stunning in the glass, and presents collectors with a sophisticated yet friendly alternative to standard bubblies.

“I love [these wines] because the bubbles are more defined, and the complexity of the nose will have more minerality, really showing what the soils here can give,” says Luigi Beltrami, the wine director of both Bottega in Napa Valley and Coqueta in San Francisco.

Changing Ways

Today, Prosecco sub-zones like Congegliano Valdobbiadene and Asolo are taking a decidedly terroir-centric approach to their wines, thanks in part to improved agricultural and winemaking technology. The new methods being practiced by quality producers—such as Adami, Ca’dei Zago, Casa Costa Piane, and Bele Casel in neighboring Prosecco Asolo—involve focusing on smaller vineyard parcels, which are vinified and bottled separately.

The resulting Proseccos highlight how Conegliano Valdobbiadene and Asolo, and the communes within these regions, can produce one-of-a-kind wines when cared for thoughtfully. As such, vintners are encouraged to label their bubblies with specific villages and quality indicators, such as the vintage, making it easy for sommeliers and casual drinkers to distinguish high-quality bottles on shelves and wine lists.

A close up of a DOCG seal on an Italian bottle of sparkling wine
Proseccos labeled with DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) guarantee the highest quality standard for Italian wine, as well as specifying the production area and methods for each bottling.

“Look for the DOCG on the label,” says Beltrami, who recommends that curious drinkers begin exploring Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene by trying bottles from well-established producers.

Rowlee agrees, noting that the DOCG indication on the label is a sign of superior quality in Prosecco wines. “Always go for the DOGC, what you get for just a little bit more is beyond worth it! Also look for Rive wines, which designate that the bottling comes from a specific, highly regarded vineyard site.”

Wines from Prosecco Congegliano Valdobbiadene have complexity on the nose and more minerality, really showing what the soils here can give—Luigi Beltrami

Luckily for drinkers everywhere, enhanced shipping technology and globalization have allowed small, star producers—like those crafting vineyard and village-designated bottlings— to get their wares into the hands of sommeliers and wine buyers, growing global appreciation for the region’s fine wines.

“There are more options on the market today, more boutique wineries focusing on biodynamic, organic, and sustainable farming,” says Mandalou of the Prosecco bottlings changing the region’s reputation. “And true Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene speaks for itself by the purity of fruit and texture.”

Three Aperol Spritz cocktails garnished with orange and served in large wine glasses
Prosecco is also enjoying a resurgence in cocktails such as Aperol Spritz—an Italian summertime favorite. “But,” says Mandalou, “true Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene speaks for itself by the purity of fruit and texture.” Image: Getty Images

A Perfect Pairing

On the table, that fresh fruit purity and featherweight body makes these sparkling wines ideal with complex dishes and highly seasoned fare that can often be a challenge to match. “You can start with some crumbed calamari, or anything fried and seafood-based,” says Beltrami, who adds that Prosecco is a traditional favorite with aperitifs of all kinds, as well as traditional Italian pastries. “Since Prosecco is often slightly sweet, it can handle spicy food as well and really makes a great pairing with hot dishes.”

Mandalou agrees, adding that Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene is uniquely suited to pair with challenging vegetarian dishes. “Like most sparkling wines, it has a range of sweetness, but always has this rush of freshness and acidity. An extra dry version with white asparagus is magic.”

In a world where sparkling wine can, and does, come from every winemaking region on earth, these hills have an incredible bounty to offer—from happy hour through to dessert. And, thanks to their changing reputation, you may soon find they not only accompany every part of your meal, but occupy a special spot in your cellar, too.

Banner image: Getty Images