Beautiful Bubbles from the Hills of Veneto

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Renu Chahil-Graf falls in love with the Prosecco region, recently recognised as a UNESCO Heritage site

The Prosecco countryside knocks you off your feet, but keeps your head steady. The endless, stunning vistas are a feast for the eyes – and a feast for the palate is forthcoming. Spread over hilly terrain above the town of Conegliano, one sees an abundance of vineyards awash with Glera grapes and bathed in sunlight as harvesting season commences.

The Prosecco region having recently been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, all Prosecco winemakers are rightly proud and keen to display what goes into the production of this exceptional bubbly. Guided by Valentina our first stop is at De Riz winery, a small family-owned business functioning over three generations, with vines almost 60 to 70 years old. Thirty-six years old, Luca is as immersed in the production as his grandfather was and is equally hands on, which makes it difficult to catch him between the vines, the tanks and the barrels!

Pamela, a professional sommelier who speaks seven languages including Japanese, walks me though part of the vineyard. As Glera grows profusely, green pruning is done often in the summer months to prevent humidity and to allow the sun to stream in. In the production of Prosecco Superiore, sugar content is carefully monitored during growth, as it is forbidden to add sugar in the early stages. When the perfect balance is reached – 14 to 16 Babo degrees (each degree corresponds to 10g of sugar in one kilogram of must) to reach 9% alcohol content – harvesting commences. Harvesting is done by hand over a period of four to five days, engaging a team of 20 or so locals, across all generations, ranging from students to seniors!

Constant maintenance is important for Prosecco. The soil needs tilling to oxygenate it and remove weeds. A drip irrigation system is used in emergencies. In order to conserve water, the Government decides when this is permitted. Last year it was needed twice, this season not at all. Fermentation is carefully controlled in steel tanks. Bottling is done in early February and presentation of the new vintage in March. The expectation for this year’s harvest is less quantity, but better quality!

Taking a break, we stop off at a hidden waterfall and then at the Abbey in the pretty village of Follina, while I learn about Cerletti, the first school of oenology in Italy founded in 1876, and now a university which trains most of the best winemakers and sommeliers, not only from the Conegliano region where it is based, but from all of Italy.

Next, as we get closer to Valdobbiadene, Piera takes over my tour and we arrive at Nani Rizzi, another family run establishment albeit with a more industrial sized production. I’m lucky enough to grab a photo and a few words with Denis Spagnol, the owner who inherited the vineyard from his father Giovanni. The first harvest has just come in and Denis and his cousin are busy toppling the grapes from large vats into a crusher. They work intensely for seven weeks with seasonal labour from Romania.

I’m now in the trusted hands of daughter Elena (pictured, right) who gives me a high-tech rundown of the vineyard and processes on her iPad for a production of about a million bottles a year. She describes the blue and brown labels of the DOC and DOCG labels, respectively, with the latter being of highest quality. DOCG must use 100% Glera grapes. Of their DOCG, 80% of the Prosecco is sold in Italy and 20% abroad. For the DOC, 80% abroad and 20% in Italy. Each bottle is numbered and dated.

I’m also introduced to Cartizze, greatly valued because of its small production, defined taste and small elegant bubbles. Scents of passion fruit, mango and banana, make it work beautifully with an aperitif, as also with dessert. “A product of passion and hard work,” in Elena’s words. Now all three sisters, Giulia, Sylvia and Elena, encouraged by their father, are gradually getting involved in every aspect of the work.

My favourite was the DOCG Brut Nature made with 100% Glera, using the champenoise method, unfiltered and with very little sulphate. Just 500 of these bottles are produced, so it’s not easy to find in the market.

Given the enthusiasm, rigour and smiles with which Prosecco is produced, and now with the UNESCO flag flying high, watch out Champagne, Prosecco is hot on your heels!

To visit the Prosecco route see www.visitproseccohills.it

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