Asolo - Prosecco that Knows its Place
posted 4th May 2023
The dark days are here, and we all need some sparkle in our lives. Sparkling wine that is!
There is no doubt that Prosecco is the go-to wine for wine lovers seeking fun, fresh and fruity fizz. It is a wine that can be enjoyed without breaking into eulogies and without breaking the bank. Prosecco is produced in north-eastern Italy in 5 provinces in Veneto, and 4 provinces in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I should state at this point that Australia is currently fighting hard to retain the use of the 'Prosecco' name for local sparkling wines made from the variety that they still call Prosecco, but which is now known in Europe and elsewhere as Glera. Most wine drinkers know that Champagne may only be produced in the Champagne region in northern France, but fewer understand that Prosecco may only be produced in the delimited Prosecco region of north-eastern Italy. Of course, historically the Australians never worried about marketing 'lookalike' wines produced domestically, such as Australian Chablis. One of the most successful brands was Houghton White Burgundy which was created in 1937 in the Swan Valley near Perth by the legendary Jack Mann. In fact, that wine had little resemblance to Burgundy being made from a blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, Verdelho and Riesling, Semillon and Muscadelle.
But first let's go back to Prosecco and then I'll home in on to Asolo Prosecco.........
The Giusti Winery at Nervesa della Battaglia
The success of Prosecco in recent years has been nothing short of astounding. In 2021 over 620 million bottles were sold, including 71.5 million of the rosé category, which was only introduced in 2020. This figure is nearly double the figure of the amount of Champagne sold in 2021 (322 million bottles). Of course, much of this Prosecco is inexpensive 'everyday' fizz that prides itself on being approachable and uncomplicated. Needless to say, the production area is large: there are now over 28,000 hectares - the area has increased by 3,500 hectares in the last couple of years. Nearly 80% of the production is exported with the USA and UK being by far the most important markets. In fact, if we exclude the strong Italian market, the United Kingdom drinks as much Prosecco as all the EU states combined! And Prosecco is the European Union's top sparkling wine export.
The official quality designation of most Prosecco is 'DOC'. However, in the beautiful heart of the region, superior and distinctive Proseccos are produced in small and strictly delimited areas. These wines are entitled to the top quality 'DOCG' quality category. I have written before about Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG, which is produced in 15 communes between the delightful towns of Valdobbiadene in the west, and Conegliano in the east. To the west and south-west of this district, across the River Piave lie the beautiful vineyards of Asolo - see Location Here is the magical home of Asolo Prosecco DOCG.
Asolo Prosecco is one of the most distinctive and high quality of Italian sparkling wines. Its success is a culmination of numerous factors: the unique place, hills, slopes, soils, climate and microclimates, vines, know-how, and above all: passion. And it is the right wine, in the right place, at the right time. I should point out at this point, that the area also produces still wines. These are sold under several DOCs and IGTs, including Asolo Montello DOC and Asolo DOC. There is also a DOCG: Montello Rosso DOCG. These wines are worthy of their own article, at another time.
I, together with some other wine writers, was fortunate to spend some time in Asolo and its vineyards shortly after last year's harvest, and I recently attended an in depth seminar with updates. These were sponsored by Studio Cru who represent the Consorzio Asolo Prosecco. The stay was centred on the delightful small town of Asolo.
The town was founded in Roman times - they called it Acelum. In the 14th Century the district became part of the Republic of Venice, and many of the beautiful buildings that delight the eye today are from this period. It is also from this time that the hills of the district became renowned for producing outstanding wines - these were taxed a high rate on account of their quality!
The central Piazza Garibaldi is a great place to enjoy a glass or two of Asolo Prosecco and perhaps some canapes. Overlooking the town is the 10th century Castle. Queen Cornaro, who was the last queen of Cyprus lived here from 1489. When Cyprus was taken over by Venice, she was exiled to Asolo, which was granted to her by the Republic. Here she created a court of artists, poets and philosophers.
Asolo is known as the City of 100 Horizons. There is a 360-degree panorama from Villa Contarini Degli Armeni, which sits above the town. On my visit I could clearly see Venice and its lagoon, some 35 miles away.
This delightful town has a wonderful, relaxed feel. However, it takes its environmental initiatives very seriously. In November 2017 the mayor Mauro Migliorini, was awarded at the 'International Slowness Awards' - a forum that identifies the best 'slow' local policies, to protect the environment and biodiversity.
In 2020 Asolo applied to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Italy already has 58 such sites out of a global total of 1,154. Personally, I question the desirability for association with this blatantly political organisation, although I accept that the granting of the status would give an added boost to tourism. In fact, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene production area across the river was awarded such status in 2019, and perhaps a cynical person might wonder if Asolo suffers a little jealousy?
The Asolo Prosecco vineyards are entirely in the province of Treviso, at the foot of Monte Grappa, on the hills west of the Piave, close to the Dolomites. The hill of Montello is in the east, and Monfumo to the north.of the town.. Here, during the Renaissance, Venetian nobles built their summer palaces, started farming the land and created vineyards.
There are approximately 2,000 hectares of vineyards designated for Asolo Prosecco DOCG. The production is some 25 million bottles or so - a figure that has almost doubled in the last four years. Back in 2013, sales were less than 2 million bottles! The rise of Prosecco in general, and Asolo in particular is perhaps the greatest success story in the entire 8,000 years of the history of wine! However, Asolo still accounts for less than 5% of all Prosecco production.
The vineyards are situated in the hills and foothills. The beauty of these steep slopes is beyond compare. To my mind the most stunning vineyards in the world are in Constantia and Stellenbosch in South Africa, Germany's Mosel Valley, and the Prosecco vineyards of Valdobbiadene/Cartizze and Asolo. Sorry France!
The well-drained soils are perfect for ripening the Glera variety. The vines send their roots deep, picking up minerals; I'm not going to delve into the minerality controversy in this article! However, on these hills the land inclination means that the many vineyard tasks must be done by hand. Labour costs are up to 10 times as much as on the flat land. Harvesting is always manual.
The land was formed with the debris from melting glaciers, and large boulders abound. One key difference between Asolo and the vineyards across the river is the soils: here they are morainic whilst in Conegliano Valdobbiadene the pebbles and rocks have been largely broken down into sand. To me there can be no doubt that these particular soils help create the distinctive Asolo Prosecco style: racy, salty, and savory. However, the impact of soils upon the wine in the glass remains a hugely controversial topic - for an opposing view see the book by Mark Matthews: Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing.
Vines on the hillsides are at a density of 3,000 - 3,500 vines per hectare, and generally the Cappuccina (double-arch) cane training system is used. On the lower slopes and the plains, the Sylvoz system may be utilised. This comprises a high cordon attached to a wire, with several canes flowing from this, which are tied to the bottom wire. The helps counter the higher vine vigour due to the more fertile soils. Vine density here is normally 2,200 - 2,800 vines per hectare, and more mechanisation is possible. The guyot training system is also used in some vineyards.
The main grape for Asolo Prosecco is Glera, which was until 2010 known simply as the Prosecco variety. In Asolo, Glera is grown mainly on the hills. It must make up at least 85% of the blend, and many of the top quality wines are made from 100% of the variety. It is an indigenous Treviso variety, with the first references dating back to 1754. Today there are nineteen different clones of the variety registered in the National Register of Grape Varieties. These may be divided into 2 basic groups: Glera Tondo (Round Glera) which has 14 clones and Glera Lungo (Long Glera), which has 5 clones. Confusingly, Glera Tondo and Glera Lungo are often referred to as being separate varieties or as sub-varieties. Glera Lungo has looser bunches and is perhaps less sensitive to cryptogamic diseases and Botrytis.
One of the important aroma compound groups found in Glera grapes is that of benzenoids, which give notes of flowers, spices, vanilla and balm. Citrus aromas come from the terpene aroma compound group. These are primary aromas, which are unchanged in the fermentation process. However, along with certain norisoprenoids they are key to the aromatic profile of the wines.
Other varieties may be used to a maximum of 15% of the Asolo Prosecco blend. These include: Bianchetta Trevigiana, Verdiso, and Perera. These are also historic varieties. These vines are grown on both the hills and plains and each has its merits. For example, Verdiso is noted for its fresh acidity and minerality, together with a little bitterness.
Asolo Prosecco in the Glass
Asolo Prosecco is balanced, with a delicate body and a marked freshness. It is perhaps a little leaner than wines from the other Prosecco DOCGs. The nose is elegant, always with the illusion of sweetness, even for the Brut and Extra Brut styles - see below. The wines have aromas of lemon and other citrus fruits, ripe apple and white flowers. There are intense aromas and flavours of white peach, together with pear and apple. The palate shows apricot, honey and often a touch of nuttiness. Salinity, freshness and minerality are hallmarks of Asolo with a great length of finish endorsing the quality.
As with all Proseccos, Asolo is marketed in several styles, according to the sweetness. By far the most popular style is Extra Dry although the wines are far from dry having between 12and 17 grammes per litre (g/l) of sugar. The Dry style has between 17 and 32 g/l - these wines can be good with desserts. Tiramisu is a regional specialty and a Dry Asolo with Tiramisu, raspberries and chopped pistachios can feel the height of opulence! Of growing importance is the Brut style, which can have up to 12 g/l sugar. The driest wines are labeled Extra Brut - although these can have up to 6 g/l of sugar, in practice they are usually bone dry. There is a move to producing more Brut and Extra Brut. Whilst these wines are sought after by connoisseurs, I think it is important to remember that a big part pf Proseccos attraction is its accessibility and fun!
A Selection of Producers
A visit to the Giusti Winery at the Abbazia Estate at Nervesa della Botaglia is an unforgettable experience. The five-storey winery building is built down into the ground, so as to have minimum impact upon the surrounding landscape, but underneath its vine covered roof lies a powerhouse of wine production, together with offices, shop and wine tasting areas. In fact, the site comprises over 43,000 square feet! The winery, with its curved lines which are so natural but oh so sexy, is built entirely of Italian materials. It is overlooked from the solace of the remains of the Benedictine Abbey of Sant'Eustachio, which have been stabilised and restored, made possible by a €2 million donation from Sig. Giusti.
Ermenegildo (Gildo) Giusti returned to his homeland having made his fortune in Canada, where he had moved to find work as a welder, when he was just 18 years old. He soon started his own construction company, and his business over the years has seen some exhilarating highs and very painful lows. Thankfully the highs more than prevailed. "Nobody deserves to make as much money as I did," he says with the beaming confidence only portrayed by those who have achieved great success.
In fact, he is from local grower stock, and felt it important to invest in vine growing in the area, to give back, and to make a name for producing the very finest wines. "I'm very proud to be a farmer's son," he notes. "My parents taught me to be honest, work hard and do the best every day of my life."
The Giusti family now has 10 estates, all situated in Montello and along the Destra Piave plain, all in Nervesa della Battaglia. They now own 125 hectares of immaculate vineyards, having started with just 2 hectares. The total investment is now over €100 million.
"My vineyards are my home and that is why I treat every row as if it were a garden," Gildo expounds. That his passion for nature, conservation and the local district is real is beyond any doubt. But his winemaking team is as important as the land and vineyards workers. The consultant oenologist is Graziana Grassini, whose other clients include Tenuta San Guido and its legendary Sassicaia.
Giusti's range of 8 sparkling wines is led by 6 Proseccos, 4 of which are Asolos. I tasted all of these and every one is outstanding. If I had to pick a 'top wine' it would perhaps be the Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Brut by Graziana Grassini. A persistent. fine, creamy mousse delights the eye. The nose shows both stone and cirtus fruits, all lifted by the perfume of spring flowers and hedgerow blossom. This most elegant wine has a palate of fleshy apples, pears and white peaches. It is fresh, lively and there is just a hint of autolysis. The finish is very long, with a hint of bitter almonds. There is classic Asolo minerality, and salinity. And the wine is delightfully dry - less than 1 g/l residual sugar!
The grapes for this wine are grown at the Tenuta Aria Valentina, in the hilly area of Montello. The south facing vines are exposed to sunlight all day and in the evening, but they are cooled by fresh breezes brought by the River Piave. The vineyard was planted in 2008 with 100% Glera at a density of 3,600 plants per hectare. The cappuccina (double-arch) cane training system is used. In the winery there is a bunch selection followed by soft pressing under inert gas. The must undergoes a cold débourbage prior to the first fermentation. Following this the wine spends 2 months on the lees before the second tank fermentation. It then spends another 6 months on the lees, before filtering and bottling.
There are some very distinctive reds in the Giusti range, including Augusto from the local and still underrated Recantina variety and Umberto I, a 'Bordeaux Blend' that spends two years in barriques of French oak. Perhaps the king of the Giusti reds is a stunning Amarone della Valpolicella. Oh, bring on the cheese please!
For more information see: Giusti Website
The wines of Villa Sandi have long been favorites of mine. The Villa Sandi 'La Rivetta' Cartizze from the stunning 108 hectare vineyard is a treasure that to me outshines a 5 carat diamond. My late, great friend, wine educator Richard Bost, considered their Cartizze to be the pinnacle of all sparkling wines!
My first visit to Villa Sandi was at harvest time in 2018, in the company of the gregarious and hugely knowledgeable Neil Philips, who is the UK Ambassador for Prosecco DOC. Amongst Neil's other claims to fame is that he is The Wine Tipster which miraculously combines two of Neil's three loves: wine and horse racing. I should mention at this point that Neils first love is, of course, his wife Louise!
Owned by the Moretti Polegato family, Villa Sandi now has 5 estates, 4 in Veneto and 1 in Friuli-Venezie Giulia There are some 200 hectares of vineyards. The home of the sparkling wine production is at the Crocetto del Montello estate, Here is the Palladian villa, built in 1622, and underground there are vast cellars reminiscent of those to be found in Reims and Epernay.
The company maintains its own bee colonies. It is very committed to biodiversity in its vineyards, and has received the Biodiversity Friend' award from the World Biodiversity Association. The award is not a 'one-off'. .To confirm the required standards are constantly met, the Association undertakes tests each year that include the taking of soil samples and measuring water and quality, There is also a 'Gym in the Vineyard' in front of Villa , which is available to the local community.
I have already mentioned the flagship Cartizze, and Villa Sandi have several other Valdobbiadene Proseccos, together with some exciting Asolos. Indeed, they produce Proseccos of every DOC and DOCG! It is pertinent to note how the success of Prosecco generally has led to the expansion of the vineyards - until 10 years ago 90% of all Prosecco was produced in the Treviso district. The Villa Sandi "Il Fresco" Prosecco DOC Treviso Brut, has 16 times won the award from German magazine Weinwirtschaft for "Prosecco of the Year " .
The Villa Sandi Asolo Prosecco Superiore Brut is a richer style than many Asolos, and with 8g/l of sugar, the tropical fruit is really lifted on the palate. Yet the freshness makes the wine oh so moreish! The Nero Asolo Prosecco Extra Brut has 5 g/l of sugar, and is racy yet exuberant, with a delightful almond finish..
As well as Proseccos, there is a large range of Metodo Classico sparkling wines sold under Opere Trevigiane and Opere Serenissima labels. Of the red wines, I tasted a delicious 2017 Còrpore Colli Asolani DOC. This 100% Merlot wine, is made from grapes grown adjacent to the Palladian Villa. The deep ruby wine shows rich blackberry fruit. a gentle spiciness and ripe, supple tannins. There are appealing balsamic notes - the wine has a relatively high volatile acidity, which is typical of the region.
For more information see: Villa Sandi Website
So, from two excellent, large producers in the Montello area, it is now time to visit an exciting small estate in Monfumo. Brother and sister team Luca and Paola Ferraro now run the delightful Bele Casel estate. They speak with great pride of the roles and hard work of their father and grandparents. Indeed, the importance of family is one of the things that has really touched me in my recent forays into north-eastern Italian wine regions.
There are just 12 hectares of hillside vines, spread over four vineyards, all farmed organically. As well as at Monfumo they have vineyards in Cornuda and Maser, a few kilometres to the east. The soils change from vineyard to vineyard, but all have a high organic content. At Monfumo they are largely caranto, clay with limestone - the French call these prized soils argilo calcaire. The vines are trained in the cappuccina system.
Luca reminds me that each hectare of flat land might require 300 hours of labour, but on the hills some 1,200 hours, or even more, are needed. Once again, I reflect on the incredible value these wines with altitude and attitude represent.
The estate is a proud member of FIVI, the Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers and Luca is on its board of directors.
For more information see Bele Casel Webisite
Col Fondo is a very distinctive style of Prosecco which undergoes a second fermentation in bottle, in the manner of Champagne and other 'Traditional Method' sparkling wines. The wine matures on the lees of the dead yeast cells, and accordingly picks up autolytic characteristics, including 'proving bread-dough' and brioche flavours, However, the wines do not undergo the process of remuage and dégorgement to remove the yeast cells. When the bottle is opened, it is possible to decant the wine with care, leaving most of the sediment behind, and then fill the glasses. However, the more popular method of service is to mix the sediment with the wine, giving the illusion that it is still undergoing fermentation.
Col Fondos may be regarded as both pet-nat and so-called natural wines. Paola says that they are made with minimum intervention and no added sulfur dioxide. The journey from the moment of bottling may be unpredictable. The flavours can be really funky and highly complex. There are other 'pet nat' (Luca would not use that term) wines made in a similar manner, but to my mind the style reaches its zenith here in Asolo.
The Bele Casel ColFòndos (note the subtle name change) take the category to another level. These really are handmade wines, illuminating the concept that less is more. The grapes are from the Monfumo vineyard. They are soft pressed using a pneumatic press, the juice settled, followed by a cold fermentation to dryness in tank . The wine is bottled with fresh yeast and must from the same vineyard to induce the second fermentation. No bentonite is used in the liqueur de tirage. I tasted the Bele Casel ColFòndo. Agricolo Colli Trevigiani which bears the 'humble' IGT quality category, as with all Col Fondos.. It is made from a blend of Glera, Bianchetta Trevigiana and Perera varieties - this creamy wine shows some etsery characteristics and fresh-baked biscuit notes. A real surprise was the simply outstanding 2011 vintage of the ColFòndo. This wine has now been on its yeast lees for over ten years, but is unbelievably fresh - a classic example of the scavenging role of the yeast cells.
Between the town of Asolo and the village of Maser, in the Monfumo area, lie the organic olive groves and vineyards of Besolin. The two brothers began replanting land that had previously been vineyards in Asolo, in 2012. Their grandparents had been growers in Valdobbiadene, and as children they had helped in the vineyards. For their own project they decided to take the risk and go across the River Piave to the new Asolo DOCG - perhaps a classic example of young people wishing to put their own identity on a project. They went down the road of being organic from the beginning of the project - a wise move in my opinion as conversion can turn into a nightmare.
! asked about set-up costs in the vineyard - these are approximately €30,000 to €40,000 per hectare. Incidentally, the current cost to producers who buy in Glera grapes is in the region of €1.30 to €1.40 per kilo for grapes destined for basic Prosecco DOC, and a little more for Asolo. A kilo of grapes or just over are needed for a bottle.
Each of the Bresolin Asolo DOCG Proseccos is named after a member of the family: the delcious Extra Brut is named Benny, in honour of the brothers' father. There is also an excellent Bio Col Fondo which is called DiFondo. The official quality classification is Colli Trevigiani IGT. All of these wines are made from 100% Glera.
Four red wines are also produced, including a flagship Montello Rosso Superiore DOCG, made with Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, and aged in barriques.
For ore information see Bresolin Website
The Dal Bello range includes varietal wines under the Asolo Montello DOC: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are six Asolo Proseccos, including a Frizzante Rocca d'Asolo.
Now I admit to being a big fan of Asolo Frizzantes. The mousse is very gentle - the pressure is 2.5 bars (37 pounds per square inch) or so. The unique bottles are not as heavy as those for wines at the full pressure of 5 atmospheres (75 pounds per square inch) or even more. They are sealed with a simple cork held in place with string, rather than a Champagne cork and cage. The wines delight with flavours of apple and pineapple, and are as great served with a meal, particularly fish courses, as they are as an aperitif. And above all they seem to evoke a memory of wine as it used to be.
All the company's Asolo Proseccos are made from 100% Glera. Dal Bello Asolo Prosecco Millesmiato DOCG is made in the Brut, Extra Dry and Dry styles. The vineyard for these wines is named Asolo 14 Settembre 2009, which was the date of the first grape harvest here. This vineyard stands next to Villa Contarini Degli Armeni. The villa was built by the Venetian Surian family in 1558, and the wonderful Biblical frescos by Lattanzio Gambara from Brescia, which decorate the southern facade, date from that time.
The vineyard is at a height of of 600 or so feet, looking down on the town of Asolo from the west. It is planted with original Asolo clones. The winery is situated a few kilometres to the west of the villa, at Fonte.
Dal Bello was founded in the 1950s, by Vittorio Dal Bello, the father of the present owners, brothers Mario and Antonio. In 2019 Dal Bello received certification of VIVA - the Sustainability in Italian Viticulture programme" of the Italian Ministry for the Environment and Protection of the Territory and Sea. Some parcels of vines are biodynamic and some others organic - there is adelicious Asolo Prosecco DOCG Extra Brut Biologico "CELEBER BIO" from high vineyards in the Asolo hills.
For more information see: Dal Bello Website
The Food Delights of the Region
The area is also famous for other gastronomic delights including Montello Potatoes, Monfumo Apples, Cherries from the Asolo Hills, Borlotto Nano Beans of Levada and Montello Honey. The cherries are a delight - so fragrant and stimulating on the palate. Chestnuts also abound and, perhaps surprisingly in these high hills of Veneto, olives and olive oil are important. There are over 20,000 olive trees in the high groves, and the Extra Virgin Olive Oil is second to none.
Angelo Peretti, is a fount of all knowledge of Veneto history, wines, and olives (to name but a few of his areas of expertise). He tells me that historically olive oil was very important for burning to light buildings, particularly churches. It burns largely smoke-free, helping maintain an acceptable environment for worship!
There are many great restaurants in Asolo town, the surrounding countryside, and just 12 miles away, across the River Piave, in Valdobbiadenne. Here is located country inn style Locanda Sandi, a restaurant with six rooms, owned by Villa Sandi and part of their Valdobbiadene Estate. Perhaps there is no better location for a food and wine matching experience!
I wish to thank Beatrice Bianchi and all at Studio Cru, Angelo Peretti, the President of Consorzio Asolo Prosecco - Ugo Zamperoni, and the owners and staff of the wineries visited for their kind hospitality.