An Introduction to Prosecco

A fast-growing category that is capturing the American palate, Prosecco is more than just an approachable sparkling quaffer.

Prosecco sales grew 32% in 2016 over the previous year, helping elevate sparkling wine consumption 11% overall. A third of those who purchased Prosecco were buying a sparkling wine for the first time. Additionally, it was one of three top sellers for on-premise accounts, along with Sauvignon Blanc and, unsurprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon. Outpacing Champagne sales growth by 25%, Prosecco is becoming a regular drink for millennials for more occasions than just brunch mimosas. If you run a beverage program, these are important trends to consider!

Italy’s Beloved Bubbly History

While most of us wine geeks probably think Franciacorta is Italy’s go-to sparkling wine, Prosecco is the wine that actually fits this description. This is partially due to production levels. In 2016, there were over three million hectoliters of Prosecco produced, compared to 122,100 hectoliters of Franciacorta. Further, while records show Franciacorta producing wine as far back as the 1500s, the category didn’t gain momentum until recently, with help especially from Guido Berlucchi in the 1960s. Prosecco production can be traced back to the 12th century as a still wine and to the early 1800s as a purposefully sparkling wine. The style wasn’t firmly established, however, until fermentation science was explained in the 1850s by Louis Pasteur and, shortly thereafter, the autoclave was developed. Vine growing and winemaking have historically been the primary agriculture economy in the Veneto, and this continues today. It is not uncommon for family wineries to be run by the fourth, fifth, or sixth generation. Also important to Prosecco is Italy’s first enology school, established in 1876 within the urban center of Conegliano. This school continues to educate future viticulturalists and winemakers, taking students as young as 14.

The Martinotti Sparkle

The characteristic sparkle of today’s Prosecco is the result of advances in science. The initial design of the autoclave was developed by the French chemist Edme-Jules Maumené in 1852, utilizing wooden tanks where wine was drawn off and bottled in a pressurized state. The system, called Afroforo, was too unreliable and inefficient to be viable for commercial production. Decades later, in 1895, an Italian named Federico Martinotti further refined Maumené’s design, still employing wooden tanks but making it more adapted to commercial use. Much to every Italian’s chagrin, Martinotti’s design was perfected and patented by another Frenchman using newly available stainless steel in 1907. This last iteration still provides the basic blueprint for production tanks today. Nonetheless, the process is referred to as the Martinotti method in Prosecco, though outside of Italy it is known as the Charmat method, after the final inventor, Eugène Charmat.

The Martinotti method mimics the traditional method with two fermentations but simplifies it by using a much larger vessel for the second round of fermentation. Wine undergoes primary fermentation in stainless steel and then is blended and put into the autoclave with 20 grams per liter of sugar and fresh yeast to ferment again, until it reaches five bars of pressure. The process has several advantages:

  •    Labor costs are greatly reduced by managing one large vessel versus many small bottles.
  •    Riddling and disgorging are unnecessary, as the wine can be filtered under pressure.
  •    The process accentuates fruit, the typical hallmark of Prosecco, rather than autolytic character.

While 95% of all Prosecco is produced this way, there are some producers making traditional method wines, as well as tranquilo styles. Tranquilo wines are simply a still version of Prosecco using the same grapes as the sparkling rendition. They tend to be fresh, aromatic, and fun, and they rarely if ever see oak or extended élevage. While the traditional method styles of Prosecco show promise, much more experimentation is necessary for this to become a proven category. In some cases, the potential for aging is clear and the wines take well to autolytic effects, but other wines come off as faded and overdone. Bellenda in Carpesica, just north of Conegliano, is one of a few producers devoting more research and production to traditional method Prosecco.

Other key Prosecco style and production terms include these:

  •    Superiore: These wines must be spumante (minimum 3.5 bars) and can only be made in brut, extra dry, and dry styles.
  •    Rifermentazione in bottiglia: For these wines, the second fermentation happens in the bottle, in contrast to using the Charmat method.
  •    Col Fondo: A version of the above style in which yeast remains in the bottle. This is an old-school style only occasionally seen today.


The heart of Prosecco, in the DOCG of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, is largely a continental climate with minor influences from the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Italian Alps to the west. Conegliano, with its easterly position, tends to be warmer and is moderated by the sea, while Valdobbiadene is more alpine continental and is generally cooler, with a greater diurnal shift. The DOC of Prosecco is too large to categorize into one climate type.

The Grapes of Prosecco

Prosecco, also known as Glera, must comprise a minimum of 85% of the blend in the same-named wine. Varieties that may be used for the remaining 15% include Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, and the indigenous trio of Perera, Verdiso, and Bianchetta Trevigiana. Additionally, Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, the usual suspects of sparkling wine grapes, can make an appearance.

The name Glera was adopted to avoid confusion with the town of Prosecco and the DOC region of Prosecco. Glera is an indigenous variety that produces massive clusters of thin-skinned grapes that are laden with terpenes, which give Prosecco its characteristic aromatic nose. There are three major clones of Glera planted: Tondo, Lungo, and Nostrano. Tondo translates to “round” and is the most common of the three, accounting for over 90% of all plantings. It was initially isolated by Count Marco Giulio Balbi Valier in 1868 and bore his name for many years as Prosecco Balbi. The berries are round and form loose clusters that deal well with humidity. Lungo means “long” and refers to the elongated berry shape of this grape. Lungo is naturally lower yielding than Tondo and possesses an inherent spiciness in the must that adds complexity to the blends. Nostrano is rarely seen these days, as it is extremely difficult to grow due to its tight bunches. Additionally, Nostrano does not take as well to sparkling wine production because its acidity tends to drop out quickly during ripening. Nostrano is more often utilized in Vin Santo production to the south, in the region of Tuscany.

Perera is indigenous to Valdobbiadene and translates literally to “pear,” which refers to the pear-like perfume it lends to the wines. The grape variety nearly went extinct in the 1970s due to flavescence dorée, a bacterial disease spread by leafhoppers, which causes diminished photosynthesis in the foliage. Perera has slowly been revitalized, but there are still only about 30 hectares planted today, most in the famous cru of Cartizze.

Bianchetta Trevigiana is a thick-skinned variety that grows in small bunches. The name means “little white from Treviso” and aside from its inclusion in Prosecco, it is often used for vermouth.

Bianchetta Trevigiana grapes (Photo credit: Chris Tanghe)

The last of the indigenous varieties is Verdiso, which hails from the Colli Euganei to the south near Padova. Like Perera, it was almost wiped out in the 1960s by disease but has made a comeback. Today, there are 81 hectares planted. Verdiso produces wines with elevated floral and citrus tones. Outside of Prosecco production, Verdiso is often utilized in passito wines.


While many DOCGs have questionable value, the differences in quality between DOC and DOCG Prosecco display a stark contrast. The DOCG was established in 2009 and delineates the original DOC, marking the area between the towns of Valdobbiadene in the west and Conegliano in the east. The boundaries were first drawn in the 1930s and later made official with the formation of the DOC in 1969. This is the area producing the highest quality wines due to the advantageous soil types, aspect, and elevation range from the Italian Alps. On the palate, distinct characteristics become clearly apparent as one moves from the west to the east. Vines grown in and around Valdobbiadene, tucked into the foothills of the Dolomites, display a savory identity, full of sweet herbs, higher-toned citrus fruits, and an almost salty finish. These wines are made with grapes grown on the steepest slopes, in generally higher pH soils, and at higher elevations. These vineyards are extremely difficult to work and must be tended by hand. The landscape is not unlike what is often seen in Germany.

One of the steepest and most prized hillsides is the cru Cartizze. Until recently, Cartizze was the most expensive vineyard land in all of Italy, selling for more than a million euros per hectare. Cartizze is now surpassed in land prices only by Barolo and Barbaresco. This limestone hill produces the most focused wines of the region. The wines are traditionally dry (17-32 g/l) or extra dry (12-17 g/l) and served with cured lardo on bread. Historically, this hillside was the first to ripen due to its exposure and ideal luminosity, and therefore it was the most coveted vineyard land in the region. It does have a cooler-than-average temperature when compared with other sites, which helps to maintain acidity. The entire cru is relatively small at 106 planted hectares.

View from the hill of Cartizze, looking west (Photo credit: Chris Tanghe)

Heading east, away from the mountains and toward Conegliano, the landscape changes to rolling hills that are less steep and have generally heavier soils, such as clay and marl. The average temperature also rises, leading to wines with more exotic fruit characteristics and weightier mouthfeel. Acids become more rounded and less angular, and the savory element found in the west becomes a baked fruit compote in the east.

The expanded Prosecco DOC is a massive imprint that covers not only a large part of the Veneto but also Friuli. The land is very flat and fertile, not nearly as steep and magnificent as Conegliano Valdobbiadene, and thus it produces high yielding and simple wines. The challenge lies in educating guests about the difference between Prosecco and Conegliano Valdobbiadene, and why they demand such drastically different prices.

Colli Asolani is another DOCG for Prosecco to the south and west of Valdobbiadene. The region is known more for red wine production than sparkling white wine. This may change in the future, but for now it is a minor contributor to overall Prosecco production and identity.

Rive: A New Category

Rive is a developing concept that needs to be more clearly communicated by the region, but it is an exciting step toward further defining the differences in terroir throughout Conegliano Valdobbiadene. In the local dialect, rive means “hillside vineyard,” but the term does not indicate a single vineyard. Rather, it specifies a frazione or hamlet—a delimited area around a small town within a commune that can encompass multiple vineyards. There are 43 defined Rive based on soil studies by the Conegliano school of enology, but only half of them are currently stated or used by producers. Further challenging the use and recognition of Rive is the fact that not all of the defined Rive are planted to vine (only 226 hectares are currently planted). Also, winemakers often blend fruit from multiple Rive to develop their house style, perhaps taking more opulent fruit from a Rive near Conegliano and complementing it with taut fruit from a Rive near Valdobbiadene. When this sort of practice is employed, the Rive cannot be stated, as labeling laws require all fruit to come from one Rive. The system is still rather new, and as producers become more comfortable with it, we will see more of these in the marketplace. Additional guidelines required for wines labeled Rive include the following:

  •    Fruit must be hand-harvested.
  •    The wine must be vintage dated.
  •    The wine must be spumante (not frizzante).
  •    Grapes must be harvested at a maximum of 13 tons per hectare, as compared to 13.5 allowed in the zone.

Map of Rive (Credit: Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Consorzio)

The Future Is Bright for Prosecco

While the category of Prosecco is generally known by the average American consumer, there is a ripe opportunity for sommeliers to dive deeper into the region and present examples that push forward the commonly recognized, simple profile. With its sparkling style, range of dosage, and versatility for food, Prosecco provides multiple avenues through which we can educate guests on the virtues of an underappreciated category. Prosecco can, and should, be included in the pantheon of serious wine.