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.

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Prosecco, lies, and videotape: the real story behind the new wave Prosecco

Above: Until the 1970s, before pressurized “autoclave” tanks were introduced into the appellation, most Prosecco was double-fermented in bottle “on its lees.” The resulting wine was gently sparkling, cloudy, and still had the “fondo” (sediment) in the bottom of the bottle. Even when I lived and worked in the Veneto in the 1990s, it was a lot easier to find Prosecco “col fondo” (with sediment) than it is today. The traditional glass for Prosecco is the one pictured above.

Alan Tardi is one of the great wine writers and restaurant professionals of our generation. I had the chance to meet him a few times when I lived and worked in New York and I’ve greatly appreciated and admired his work (especially this wonderful 2006 article on Asprinio).

But he gets it wrong in today’s New York Times article on Prosecco and its (relatively new) DOCG, “Prosecco Growers Act to Guard Its Pedigree.”

Maybe it was not Alan but his editor at the Dining section who hand-crafted the title (a “pedigree” for Prosecco?). But it was certainly Alan who wrote the oxymoron “sophisticated prosecco.”

The Italian wine writers scratched their head incredulously when then-agriculture minister and native of Treviso where Prosecco is made, Luca Zaia, effortlessly pushed through legislation creating the Prosecco DOCG.

Does a humble wine like Prosecco — and by its very nature, Prosecco should be a humble wine — deserve to be elevated to the status of wines like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino? asked pundits like Italy’s top wine blogger, Franco Ziliani.

Yes, it’s true, as Alan notes, that the new DOCG (which went into effect in April 2010) gives the wines raised in Conegliano and Valdobbiadene a bureaucratic distinction that sets it apart from Prosecco grown in Friuli, Piedmont (yes, Piedmont), and Australia. But this DOCG was just one of many that were created before Common Market Organization reforms went into in 2009, shifting the power to create new designations from Rome to Brussels. It’s one of the many examples of political spoils that Zaia lavished on his hometown before his boss Berlusconi was forced out by the international community.

And yes, it’s true that the biggest names in commercial Prosecco — Adami and Ruggeri are among those that Alan tasted for the piece — are making “heirloom” vintage-dated and vineyard-designated wines, as well as low-sulfur and even lees-fermented wines.

But these products are the result of attempts by the Prosecco industrial complex to appeal to the hipster sommelier crowd.

In fact, excellent col fondo Prosecco has been produced for many years now by an ever expanding group of small growers (see this post on our col fondo tasting last year). This is the bona fide new wave of Prosecco.

Costadilà is one of those wines and has been available in the U.S. for a few years how. And Coste Piane, which has also been available here for many years, has been making and marketing true Prosecco for as long as anyone can remember. More recently, col fondo producer Bele Casel has shipped its wines to North American shores.

Above: The village of Rolle (not Passo Rolle, the mountain pass, btw) lies at the epicenter of the Prosecco appellation. Nearly equidistant from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Most locals would argue that Conegliano is where Prosecco was born as an appellation, even though Valdobbiadene has eclipsed its sister village.

And on a technical note, in Italian and Veneto dialect (including the dialect of Treviso), rive is the plural of riva, which does indeed denote hillside or slope (analogous to costa in Prosecco parlance). The rive system doesn’t denote a single growing site, as Alan implies: it denotes a series of slopes set apart for their topographical designation.

While I’m not a fan of Ruggeri, there’s nothing wrong with a glass of any of Adami’s wines. But they don’t represent real Prosecco. They are an expression of the consumerist hegemony that has choked my beloved trevigiano since the 1990s when Prosecco became a brand in the U.S.

I know I’m splitting hairs here and I remain Alan’s loyal admirer.

His oversights are harmless in the big (commercial) scheme of things and not nearly as bad as those in a Times piece this week in which Eric Pfanner ingenuously believes that a Paris wine shop owner is affected by Robert Parker’s “downgrade” of a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

    I have no intention of second-guessing Mr. Parker, who has been tasting, and championing, the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for decades. But the change in his score for the 1998 Beaucastel highlights the challenges of encapsulating something as complex, subtle and capricious as a fine wine in a single number.

The moment of truth has arrived: it’s high time that we begin questioning the wisdom of Robert Parker’s rating system! It’s enough to make you think that the editors at the Times Dining section only recently discovered bread and butter…

O, Eric the Red, where art thou? O, Solomon among wine writers!

Ligurian wine and pasta aglio olio peperoncino, perfect summer supper

It’s pure coincidence that we happened to open a bottle of Bisson Ü Pastine last night with some penne aglio, olio, e peperoncino for a light supper — one of the most simple things and one of my most favorite dishes to prepare. This afternoon, Facebook friend Evan R sent me a link to Alan Tardi’s article on the Bisson winery, its owner Piero Lugano and his underwater-aged sparkling wines, which appeared today in The New York Times. (The article is great, btw.)

I always crave wines from Liguria during the summer. From the light-colored, nearly rosé Rossese to bright Pigato and Vermentino, the wines tend to be light and low in alcohol, fresh and spicey- and fish-friendly.

Frankly, before last night, I’d never had a wine made from 100% Bianchetta grapes from Liguria. In fact, Bianchetta is more famously grown in the Veneto and South Tyrol, where it is used to make an easy-drinking, food-friendly light white wine.

The Bisson was delicious, more unctuous than any other Bianchetta I’ve ever had, very salty and with nice white stone fruit. I was worried that the 2009 would be a little tired but it wasn’t. The acidity was kicking and happy (like little Baby P inside Mamma P’s belly!) and I saved a glass to taste tonight at dinner.

Of course, my philological curiosity got the better of me this morning, and so I did a little research on the name of this wine, ü pastine.

Regrettably, the importer’s website reports that the name is “local dialect indicating a very special product.”

And equally lamentable, a major U.S. retailer reports “‘U Pastine’ in the Ligurian dialect means, essentially ‘a gift that is specially crafted by someone for someone in particular in order to be an extra special present.'”

With all due respect, where do these people get this information? Beats me.

In fact, ü pastine is a Ligurian dialectal term that denotes the [a] field reserved for grape-growing. Used also in Tuscany and even as far south as Latium, pastine or pastene comes from the Latin pastinum, denoting a kind of two-pronged dibble, for preparing the ground and for setting plants with. In Ligurian dialect, pastinare means to till. In other words, ü pastine denotes the parcel of land chosen for grape growing because of its ideal conditions for raising wine.

I’m glad that we cleared this up!

And I plan to add pastene and pastine to my Italian winery and vineyard designation project, which I will revisit this fall.

Alfonso is coming over for dinner tonight and I’m not sure what we’re opening to pair with Tracie P’s pasta con i porri e la pancetta but I’m sure it will be good! Stay tuned… and thanks for reading!