Prosecco polemic: Alan Tardi Responds

From the department of “par condicio”…

Last week I received the following message from Alan Tardi, one of the Italocentric wine writers I admire most. He was responding — however serotinely (no paronomasia with his name intended but if ever there were a case for the Latin adage nomina sunt consquentia rerum, this could be it) — to my post Prosecco, lies, and videotape: the real story behind the new wave Prosecco (published January 11, 2012) wherein I cited his New York Times article “Prosecco Growers Act to Guard Its Pedigree,” published that day. I have posted his message in its entirety below and recommend it to you….

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About a month ago I came across your piece about my article in the Times and wrote you a note but I’m afraid you might not have received it (I seem to have been having some trouble with one of my email accounts lately). Here it is:

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article in the New York Times. I believe you posted your blog just after the article was published on January 11th but I didn’t see it until the other day when somebody sent me a copy of it. Otherwise I would have responded sooner.

One of the things I love most about wine is that there is always something to learn and discover, plus it’s always changing. With all this stuff in motion, it’s totally possible for someone to “get something wrong.” However, in this case it didn’t happen.

You are totally right: the title was not mine (they’re usually not); I didn’t choose the term “pedigree” and think I might even have raised a faint objection to it when I saw it in the final pre-publication draft. But when working with an editor [which I feel is a healthy exercise in give-and-take that usually results in a stronger final product] one must choose one’s battles, and there were other more important ones here that I was committed to winning.

“Sophisticated” was my choice. If you take ‘sophisticated Prosecco’ out of context and make it a stand-alone statement, it might indeed seem oxymoronic. But in this instance I was using the word in the discussion of one particular Prosecco to try to describe its distinctive taste; I was not saying or suggesting that Prosecco as a category is (nor indeed should be) sophisticated.

The main topic of my story was to let people know that there are now two different appellations called Prosecco and talk about some of the things producers are doing in the original (DOCG Superiore) area to distinguish their wine from that produced in the new (DOC) appellation. I really don’t know what Zaia might or might not have had to do with the creation of this particular DOCG but the fact is that many, many legislative changes regarding wine took place all across Italy in order (for better or worse) to conform to EU regulations. The new Prosecco DOC appellation was created at exactly the same time the existing Prosecco DOC was changed to DOCG; I don’t know what, if indeed anything, the Minister of Agriculture had to do with that either, other than to pass the proposed changes into law he did with all the others.

As I see it, the DOCG status is not so much a qualitative distinction of intrinsic value per se but rather a guarantee of the provenance and integrity of the wine due to more stringent regulations and controls that come with the ‘G’. In my opinion, making the Prosecco produced in the original area between Conegliano and Valdobbidene a DOCG was not so much an attempt to make it any less “humble” or “elevate it to the status of wines like Barolo or Brunello” (any more than Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba or Roero Arneis or any of the other 70+ DOCGs presume to hold the same status as Barolo or Brunello) but rather to create a valid and important legislative distinction between the original hilly area and the new much more extensive DOC zone in mostly flat areas of the Veneto and Friuli.

While you are certainly entitled to your opinion, I think to say that “vintage-dated and vineyard-designated wines, as well as low-sulfur and even lees-fermented wines…are the result of attempts by the Prosecco industrial complex to appeal to the hipster sommelier crowd” is unfair. I honestly believe that most producers are motivated by the desire to create ever-better wines that express their unique terroir and grape variety (while remaining true to the inherent qualities that made Prosecco so widely appealing in the first place) and that most sommeliers are knowledgeable, confident and committed enough not to be taken in by superficial attempts to court them.

I, like you, am a big fan of Prosecco col fondo or Sur lie as it’s officially called (BTW, Adami is a big fan too and makes one himself). Sur lie is included in the DOCG, along with spumante, frizzante and tranquillo and, as I mentioned in my article, is indeed the way that Prosecco was originally made before the creation and diffusion of the autoclave. It remains a valid and appealing type of Prosecco, and, as more and more producers seem to be producing it commercially, is part of a ‘new trend’ towards a return to or revaluation of the past, all reasons why I made sure to include it (and a description of one example) in the article. But just because the sur lie/col fondo method pre-dated the autoclave doesn’t make it “real prosecco,” any more than a Barolo is not real unless the grapes it’s made with are crushed by foot.

It’s true, as you suggest, that the autoclave was not introduced into the appellation until the 1970s [1969, to be exact], but that’s because that’s when the Prosecco appellation was first created; it was in there from the very beginning because that’s how most Prosecco was (and continues) to be made! It is not true, however, that up until that time most Prosecco was bottle-fermented sur lie.

The autoclave (as a winemaking tool) was created at the enological school in Asti in 1876 and perfected at the enological school in Conegliano around 1915-20. Shortly thereafter it started to be used to make Prosecco, which made fermentation easier and facilitated the production of a marketable quantity of more stable wine (Apparently, sur lie had a tendency to explode!). It was precisely this bubbly wine made in an autoclave that gradually made its way down out of the hills and into the cafes and restaurants of Venice and beyond. Use of the autoclave spread throughout the region in the aftermath of WW II when the prosecco area, like the rest of Italy, started to re-gain its footing and move forward. In was in the 1950s that Prosecco really began to take off. Today, most producers who make sur lie also use autoclaves to make the bulk of their Prosecco. (BTW, while the Asti experiment was adapted by the French under the name “Charmat,” it was really called the “Martinotti method” and then “Carpené method” after the person who developed it at Conegliano. Today it is commonly referred to as the “Italian Method” and many producers are quite attached to it.)

As I mentioned in my article, the Rive system (which was established along with the DOCG) “indicates vintage-dated proseccos made entirely of grapes from a single town or hamlet.” There are currently about 45 registered Rive which are essentially like sub-zones, each of which is thought to have its own distinct characteristics. I did not say or in any way imply that it denotes a single growing site.

Finally, you mention “consumerist hegemony” and “industrial complex”. It’s true that most wineries in the Prosecco area are quite large (a modest family operation typically produces nearly a half-million bottles a year) but that is, to a large extent, an economy of scale: Prosecco is not an expensive wine and in order to make a viable business — and every winery is, on some level, a business — most of them must produce quantity. But it is important to note that most wineries in Prosecco, even very big ones, own very few vineyards: most buy the majority of their grapes from numerous small farmers who continue to work their tiny little plots by hand as they have for generations. At the same time, there are some small artisan-type operations which are struggling to establish themselves. I wrote about one of them in an article in Wine & Spirits last summer: When 30-something Silvano Follador (along with his sister) took back his defunct family winery he decided to make wine only from his own grapes, reduced production from 200,000 bottles to 30,000 and adopted biodynamic practices. He is currently experimenting with classic-method bottle fermentation and makes one of the very few non-sweet Proseccos from the Cartizze sub-zone.

It would be nice if more small, artisan-style producers emerge in the future (perhaps they already have). In the steep hills of Prosecco Superiore there’s room for everyone!

Alan

One thought on “Prosecco polemic: Alan Tardi Responds

  1. Nice to read his comments, thanks for publishing it. But why does the Asolo Docg gets overlooked by most people? There are not 2 prosecco appellations like he writes, but 3.

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