FD: Wine Column April 29, 2009

Making sure the Prosecco you buy is the real deal

There’s quite a bit going on the land of Prosecco, that mostly rural part of northeast Italy’s Veneto region that stretches from the relatively soft hills of Conegliano on the east to the precipitous Alpine foothills of Valdobbiadene (val-doe-be-odd-enay) on the west.

First, a brief Prosecco lesson. Prosecco is the name of the bubbly, straw-colored and low-alcohol (around 11 percent) sparkling wine with a bit of minerality, hints of lemon and flavors of pears and apples.

But Prosecco also is the name of a grape, a confusing coincidence in a land where many wines are named for the area in which they are produced, such as the Sangiovese-based wines of Chianti and Montepulciano.

Because of Prosecco’s easy drinkability, low price (around $10 can get a topnotch Prosecco) and its goes-with-almost-any-food compatibility, the wine is enormously popular. So popular, it’s made virtually anywhere the Prosecco grape will grow.

On top of that, the name “Prosecco” has not been protected from impostors the way the names “Bourdeaux” or “Burgundy” or “Tokai” have been protected.

So you’ve had to carefully source the Prosecco you’re buying. It might be swill from Brazil, or it might be the excellent handiwork of the winemakers in the Italian Prosecco DOC area of Conegliano and Valdobiaddene.

All that is about to change.

Starting sometime this summer, the Prosecco DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the second of three highly regulated quality controls) area of Conegliano-Valdobiaddene will change to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), a much stricter control of how and where the wine is made.

The areas where non-DOC Prosecco now is made will become either DOC or IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica), a distinction Prosecco makers are hoping non-Italian wine drinkers can make when selecting a “real” Prosecco.

And in an effort to make sure consumers will be able to differentiate between Prosecco the wine and Prosecco the grape, it’s been proposed that the grape’s name be changed to glera (glare-ahh).

Winemakers generally support the changes. It will make it harder — illegal, actually — for winemakers other than those in the DOCG region from Conegliano to Valdobiaddene to make and sell something labelled Prosecco.

And they also hope the change will project the Prosecco name into the same class as that of Champagne, which legally can only be made in France (with a very few grandfathered exceptions).

“You won’t be able to cheat,” said Santé Toffoli at his family’s hilly winery near tiny Refrontolo, nearly in the middle of the Prosecco heartland. “It’s better to be strict, and we want people to follow the rules” governing the production of Prosecco.

Umberto Cosmo, owner of Bellenda Azienda Agricole in Carpesica, said the new rules will be good for the future of Prosecco, but most reputable winemakers already are following the stricter DOCG regulations.

“Going to a DOGC will make Prosecco better, but most of us do it, anyway,” said Cosmo, whose wines regularly win recognition on the international scene. “We want to protect the future, to be able to show the world there is a difference in Prosecco DOCG.”

Even though about 50 million bottles of DOC Prosecco are produced each year, it’s nearly impossible to find one of the lesser-known labels in Colorado.

Mostly, what you will find in stores is Mionetto or Zardetto, two of Italy’s largest sparkling wine producers and certainly producers of very good Prosecco.

So good, in fact, Dorothy Gaiter and Jon Brecher of the Wall Street Journal wine column “Tastings” recently tapped the Mionetto Brut ($9.99) as the best of their review.

And while noting that not all 50 of the wines they sampled were great, they did say that, generally speaking, the Prosecco available today exhibits riper tastes, “more focused and a little tarter.”

“They are generally less sweet and they have more obvious hints of minerals,” wrote Brecher and Gaiter. “But they retain their very friendly, soft, apple-pear taste.”

Proseccos are perfect summer wines, good for aperitifs and cocktails and also suitable for drinking with almost any meal.

Soon, you’ll have more guarantee that the Prosecco you buy will be the real stuff.

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