The Italian sparkling wine Prosecco has become especially popular in recent years. It has overtaken its more famous (and expensive) cousin Champagne to become a must-have at any special occasion. Yet this wine is no newcomer, with origins stretching back to ancient Rome.
The wine is named after the village of Prosecco, which is today a suburb of Trieste in northeastern Italy. The name is actually Slovenian, from prozek, meaning ‘path through the woods’.
Prosecco grapes (today known as Glera grapes) were grown in Ancient Rome, and the wine was already celebrated. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder says that Julia Augusta (wife of the emperor Augustus) ‘gave the credit for her 86 years of life to the wine of Pucino’. Pucino was the original name for the village of Prosecco.
Prosecco was originally a still wine. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, when Antonio Carpenè first subjected the wine to a second fermentation, that it became associated with bubbles. Today it comes in three levels of perlage: the most bubbly, spumante, the less bubbly frizzante, and the entirely still tranquillo.
A Prosecco cocktail is born
One of the most famous cocktails, the Bellini, was born sometime between 1934 and 1948 at Harry’s Bar in Venice. The bar’s owner, Giuseppe Cipriani, had the idea to push fresh white peaches through a sieve, and then top off the purée with crisp, bright Prosecco. Cipriani named it a Bellini because of a peach-coloured robe worn by a saint in a painting by Bellini.
An Italian specialty
Since 2009, Prosecco is both a DOC and DOCG, in the regions of Veneto and Friuli. The DOCG is much smaller than the DOC, comprising only 15 communes of vineyards. Here, between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, the vines grow on limestone-rich hillsides, which are so steep that everything has to be done by hand.
Glera is still the main grape used. However, under EU rules it can also be made with up to 15% of other grapes like Perera, Bianchetta, Verdiso, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.
Unlike Champagne, which goes through its secondary fermentation in the bottle, most Prosecco goes through its secondary fermentation in big steel tanks. Generally this means less contact with the lees, though a winemaker might introduce intentional contact to give the wine a certain flavour profile. The ‘cleaner’ tank method allows the aromatics of the grapes to shine through in the finished product.
Prosecco today: an affordable luxury
Because the tank method of secondary fermentation is so efficient, in comparison to the méthode champenoise, Prosecco is less expensive to make, and thus less expensive to buy, than Champagne.
The more affordable price has led to Prosecco toppling its once more-famous cousin from the position of favourite sparkling wine. In 2013 the Italian wine sold 307 million bottles to Champagne’s 304. The affordability of quality Prosecco means that good sparkling wine is no longer a rare treat but an everyday luxury.