When your love of prosecco bubbles over, hit the road.
When your family visits Venice for the third spring in a row, as mine recently did, you know you’re more than a little keen for the place. Or, as a pal put it less delicately before our trip, “You guys are Venice freaks.” Fair enough. But even for hard-core fans of Italy’s floating city, I found myself, midway through our latest visit, craving fresh adventure. Okay, I also wanted a break from this season’s epidemic of selfie sticks, apparently superglued to the hands of every other tourist in town. We had been talking for years about experiencing where and how one of our favorite wines is made. So this March we finally took a day trip just north of Venice, to the “Prosecco Road,” a nearly 20-mile stretch of steep-sloped vineyards dedicated almost exclusively to making Italy’s most prized bubbly.
By evening, I had a new geographic crush.
Early that morning, my wife, Gail, 12-year-old son, Ewan, and mother-in-law, Jane, caught a short ride on a vaporetto— water bus — to Venice’s train station. Less than an hour later, we arrived in the town of Conegliano. With Valdobbiadene to the west, they bookend the famed wineproducing region.
I typically invent excuses to drive in Italy. But for such a quick trip, I worried we might spend more time at the car-rental shop than on the road. So we sprang for the services of driver and guide Oriana Balliana, a boisterous and charming lady with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of local lore and wines alike.
With a train to catch back to Venice that evening, we settled on a manageable itinerary that included visits to a larger and smaller prosecco producer, along with lunch and a chance to check out a few other local attractions.
First stop was Carpene Malvolti. Only a few minutes’ drive from the train station, it’s among the region’s older and larger prosecco producers. Like most, it’s family-owned. During a tour of the facility and tasting, Carpene Malvolti Global Sales and Marketing Director Domenico Scimone hit the high points of what makes prosecco, well, prosecco.
First, the grapes. To be called prosecco, it’s gotta be made mostly with indigenous Glera grapes, formerly also known as prosecco. Unlike champagne, which gets its fizz from a second fermentation in the bottle, prosecco’s sparkle typically happens in larger fermenting tanks before bottling. The better stuff, prosecco superiore, is made in Conegliano Valdobbiadene, as the region’s called, but the best bubbly comes from Le Cartizze, a postage-stamp-size parcel of land at the region’s heart that’s so hilly its vines can be tended only by hand. Or, as I later realize, on hands and knees.
Unlike sparklers such as champagne, prosecco is best drunk young. “Prosecco was born as a wine meant to be fresh,” Scimone said. “If you age it, you lose what makes it prosecco.” Prosecco also tends to be lower in alcohol. “It’s very easy to drink more than one glass,” he said with a laugh. Which helps explain why prosecco is so popular around the world, and at our house. Indeed, I’ve always thought of prosecco as champagne’s younger, more carefree Italian cousin. And with excellent proseccos rarely topping $20 a bottle, it’s a lot lighter on your wallet.
In Carpene Malvolti’s grottolike tasting room, we sampled several proseccos. We started with extra dry, which, despite its name, is a tad sweeter than the bone-dry brut we taste later. All were characteristically fresh, lively wines. I’d settled on a brut as my favorite until Scimone poured their Cartizze. More complex, lightly perfumed but still fresh, the Cartizze was my new fave. “You can only understand the difference when you drink” the Cartizze, he said. By the time we’d made a brief detour into their grappas — grape-based brandies — we were game to see a few local sights.
Heading west toward Valdobbiadene, the hills became steeper. Skeletal vines, a dozen or so days away from budding, clung to about every available patch of the area’s precious dirt. From hill crests, we could see snow-capped Dolomites in the distance. We stopped to admire jigsaw-piece remnants of frescoes at the thousand-year-old church San Pietro di Feletto and gawked at the idyllic Molinetto della Croda water mill in the municipality of Refrontolo.
Only our hunger pulled us away. The area is home to dozens of excellent restaurants, some no bigger than a few tables. But I had a hard time imagining one more ideal than where Oriana took us. Perched atop a hill overlooking rolling vine-covered landscapes, Trattoria Alla Cima (cima means summit) has a menu that’s sort of a who’s-who of local dishes and ingredients. As hooked as I amon Venetian seafood, I eagerly tucked into more terrestrial fare, including sliced beefsteak grilled over a fire. My son Ewan made quick work of a radicchio risotto with pancetta and smoky scamorza cheese. Gail, Jane and I would have been happy to spend the afternoon enjoying the view and another bottle of house-made prosecco, but Oriana promised us our next stop would be a real treat.
A short drive northeast brought us to the village of Santo Stefano, ground zero for the region’s most celebrated proseccos. We stopped at Garbara, a Lilliputian prosecco producer on about four acres of coveted Cartizze hills. At a table overlooking vineyards owned by his family for five generations, proprietor Mirco Grotto shared stories and his proseccos. A pair of small caves at the bottom of the thousand-foottall hill opposite ours was believed to have been used to hide munitions during World War II, Mirco said.
The setting and company may have skewed our judgment, but Garbara’s proseccos were our clear favorites that day. Mirco also broke out some rarer bottles, including a prosecco made with the champagne method that was lovely and (I swear) faintly smoky. Because Garbara’s wines aren’t available in the United States, Mirco told us we’d have to visit again. “You have to come back in May,” Oriana said. “Everything is so green. It’s incredible.” Agreed.
Above, Santo Stefano vineyards in the town of Valdobbiadene. Italy’s famous sparkling wine is made in a region of picturesque rolling hills about an hour north of Venice. At left, performing the remuage, a type of rotation, on bottles in the cellars of CarpeneMalvolti in Conegliano.