Italian Wine: Driving the Prosecco Road

Francesco Galifi/Bisol Winery

Bubbly—Italian style! Departures reports on the best of sparkling wine country.

Just an hour’s drive north of Venice is one of the world’s most unique and breathtaking wine regions, where small vineyards planted on steep slopes are dedicated almost exclusively to grapes for Italy’s most prized sparkling wine, Prosecco. The roughly 20-mile stretch between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene—the heart of the so-called “Prosecco Road”—is lined with family-run wineries producing the light, crisp bubbly, which is not only a classic aperitif served in every restaurant and bar in Venice but has also enjoyed a recent explosion of popularity in the United States, thanks in part to its recession-friendly prices.

The area is a lovely side trip from Venice, and it’s worth spending a couple of days exploring its winding, spaghetti-thin roads, sampling the area’s cuisine and tasting its wines while staying at one of the vineyard properties that offer haute agriturismo experiences in renovated villas and farmhouses.

The big news here came just over a year ago, when the tongue-twisting Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region was awarded a prestigious Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). In addition to imposing strict controls, particularly on grape yields, the designation gives the region the exclusive right to label its wines Prosecco Superiore.

Arguably the most sought-after Proseccos are made just outside Valdobbiadene, on a hill of almost mystical renown called Cartizze. It’s a tiny area with dozens of growers working the 262 acres that rival Montalcino as some of the most expensive farmland in Italy. The wines produced here are the grands crus of Prosecco, inexplicably dry and sweet, crisp and aromatic—like the Bisol Cartizze I sampled with esteemed vintner Antonio Bisol and his grandson, Matteo, in the winery’s cellar tasting room, La Cantina (31040 Santo Stefano di Valdobbiadene; “The important thing with Prosecco is to keep its simplicity, its freshness, its aromatics and the idea that it’s easy to drink,” says Matteo, whose family has been in the region since the 1500s.

Another centuries-old presence here is Bortolomiol, now run by the daughters of Giuliano Bortolomiol, an innovator who helped establish Prosecco as a premium sparkling wine after World War II. Today they make award-winning wines visitors can sample in a stylish, art gallery–like tasting room, La Filanda (7 Via della Filandetta, Valdobbiadene;

After a day of tastings, the garden terrace at Relais Dolce Vista in Santo Stefano is a perfect spot to relax, with incomparable views of Cartizze, plus five light-filled rooms, some with fireplaces ($ rooms, from $130; 4 Via Masarè; 39-0423/90-0408; Alternatively, the Locanda Sandi inn, set among owner Giancarlo Moretti Polegato’s vineyards near Valdobbiadene, is rustic-chic, with wood floors, exposed beams and a first-rate restaurant ($ rooms, from $100; 1 Via Tessere, Loc. Zecchei; 39-0423/97-6239;

One meal not to miss in Prosecco country is dinner at Ristorante Da Gigetto in Miane. The menu at Luigi Bortolini’s famed spot draws heavily on Veneto staples like radicchio, asparagus, morel mushrooms and wild game. Take a tour of Bortolini’s cavernous wine cellar, which is an attraction in itself (dinner, $50; 5 Via A. De Gasperi; 39-043/896-0020;

While many of the best Prosecco producers and agriturismi are clustered around Valdobbiadene, Alice Relais nelle Vigne is a gem of a property in Vittorio Veneto, just north of Conegliano. The converted 19th-century farmhouse mixes modern comforts and old-fashioned charm (rooms, from $130; 94 Via Giardino, Loc. Carpesica; 39-043/856-1173; Husband-and-wife owners Umberto Cosmo and Cinzia Canzian are also rival Prosecco makers—he’s behind the crisp, bright Bellenda, she the elegant, bone-dry Vigne di Alice. “We’re very competitive,” Cinzia says. But it’s a loving rivalry. Every evening, both Alice and Bellenda wines are served to guests as the sun sets over the vineyards in this irresistible spot.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.


Prosecco Primer

Prosecco is just Italian Champagne, right?

No. Prosecco is produced using a different process. Unlike Champagne, which undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle, Prosecco is fermented completely in large tanks using the faster Charmat method. This helps create the fruity aromas that characterize Prosecco, which is best drunk young, ideally within two years of bottling.

What grapes are used to make Prosecco?

Last year the Prosecco grape was officially renamed Glera, its ancient name. Only winemakers in the Prosecco Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), consisting of nine provinces in northeastern Italy, can call their wines Prosecco. The very best stuff comes from the even smaller and stricter Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita (DOCG) of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, which has the exclusive right to label its wines Prosecco Superiore.

How does one choose between Prosecco’s different classifications of effervescence and sweetness?

First, always buy Prosecco labeled spumante, not the lower quality “semi-sparkling” frizzante, which undergoes only a partial second fermentation. Next, be sure to understand how sweetness works. In seemingly backward logic, “dry” is actually Prosecco with the highest sugar content—about 20 to 35 grams per liter. “Extra dry” clocks in around 12 to 20 grams of sugar, while “brut” is the driest, at six to 12 grams. In Italy, especially during aperitivo hour and in cocktails, extra dry is the most popular, but many Prosecco producers express a preference for brut.

Three Bottles to Look For

Le Colture Fagher Brut: Frothy and more full-bodied than many Proseccos, with bright lemon and green-apple notes and a hint of breadiness. $16.

Bisol “Crede” Brut: In addition to the classic Prosecco apple and pear aromas, there are hints of tangerine and honeysuckle and a clean, crisp finish. $22.

Bortolomiol Cartizze: With 27 grams of sugar per liter, one might expect this to be cloying, but it displays the Cartizze minerality and elegance that comes with a subtle sweetness. Perfect with dessert. $30.