Prosecco, what, that cheap supermarket mainstay of every vodka and coke drinker’s Friday night? Has he gone mad? Well, actually, no! A long time ago I used to drink Prosecco from time to time. It actually provided a nice contrast in style to the many bottle-fermented (which in those days we used to call “Champagne method”) sparkling wines, the ones we now know as Crémants, which were produced all over France.
Back in those days, the cheap supermarket fizz of choice was Cava from Spain, especially the black bottle of Freixenet Cordon Negro. These days you’ll pay £8.50 for that particular Cava in Tesco, but a bottle of Prosecco can be had for £6.25, and I’m sure that something will be available for under £5 when the Christmas offers kick in.
Prosecco used to be a grape variety, but they renamed it Glera in order to head off those who would wish to make “Prosecco” in other parts of the world. Prosecco is a lucrative business. But Prosecco is also a wine region. As DOC it can come from any of nine provinces in Northeastern Italy, but as a “Superiore DOCG” it can only come from the hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (north of Treviso) and from Asolo, both in the region of Veneto.
Those hills are especially steep and stunningly beautiful. I’ve never visited, but I can recall quite well how it was photographs of these vine-clad green hills which were a catalyst for my early interest in the wine, before it shot to infamy. The particular bottle I sought out, and subsequently drank many times, was Bisol’s Cartizze (although Carlo, see below, will I hope be pleased to note that I also drank Canevel’s “Vino Spumante Aromatico La Vie” several times around the turn of the Millennium)…along, I will readily admit, with the odd Bellini cocktail, for which Prosecco was famous.
Although Prosecco is tank fermented, by the Charmat method (known regionally as the Martinotti method), often looked down upon by those who ferment in bottle, Cartizze was one of what turn out to be several special crus (effectively large single vineyards) where grapes ripen slowly on complex soils. This Bisol wine, with its almond and pear fragrance, acidity balanced with softness, and around 25g/litre of sugar back then, ensuring it was off-dry, made it stand out against any of its more acidic competitors (Bisol Crede was, and remains, by way of contrast, a rare Prosecco Brut, at 10 g/l sugar).
It was with wines like that in mind that I headed off yesterday to meet Dottore Carlo Caramel (current family head of Canevel) and Andrea Dal Cin (Technical Director and Director of Winemaking for Masi). The 2016 purchase of a 60% stake in Canevel, a great family firm in Prosecco, by the famous quality Veneto producer Masi Agricola, created a stir in the industry.
Masi has its roots in the finest wines of Valpolicella, and more recently is famous for projects in Tuscany and in Tupungato, Argentina, but it also has a green agenda which involves sustainable viticulture, with the removal of synthetic herbicides and pesticides and, over time, decreased use of sulphur in winemaking, along with all sorts of other interesting experiments…more on this later on.
The Doctor (Carlo) and Andrea
Canevel was founded in 1979 by Carlo’s grandfather, and from the beginning he wanted to establish a fully integrated production chain. Unusually for the region, when Mario Caramel didn’t own the vines in question, he worked with selected growers to oversee their work in the vineyard, and dictated when to pick. This gave Canevel a level of control over the grapes unlike almost any other producer in Valdobbiadene.
Another unusual step taken by the company was to put the year of production, or vintage, on the label to “inform the consumer”, a rare thing in a region of year-round fabrication for the cheaper wines. Canevel now owns 15 hectares of vines on an estate of 26 hectares (around 25% of its own requirements), and along with the grapes from its fifty chosen partner farmers, now produces 850,000 bottles each year.
With an emphasis on the quality wines of the Valdobbiadene district, Canevel purchased the cru of Faè in 1994, and in the following year they built a new production centre at San Biagio, since updated, in the heart of Valdobbiadene, just a few hundred metres from Cartizze. The whole ethos of Canevel has always been to concentrate on the premium end of Prosecco, and the new joint venture with Masi aims to develop that ethos in a number of different ways. These include single vineyard wines, zero-dosage Prosecco, and organics. Of course, the dream is also to re-inforce the preception of Prosecco, perhaps re-establish it in some markets, as a high quality terroir wine in the eyes of more discerning consumers.
Before moving to the DOCG wines it is worth mentioning that Canevel produces a Prosecco DOC Extra Dry. This soft, refreshing, wine is in some ways astonishing. It tastes not remotely like the Prosecco one usually finds at this level, although it is fair to point out that it would retail at around £11, twice the price of your usual supermarket fare…interestingly when Mario founded the company his wines were always around twice the price of the average bottle on the market.
The wine is typically pale straw in colour and is noticeably more frothy than many sparkling wines. But the bead is fine, it is aromatic and fresh, with 11% abv and just short of 13 grams/litre of residual sugars (the allowed range for Extra Dry is now 12 to 17 grams). A versatile wine, very pleasant. It doesn’t take much to realise that this is a well made wine from a quality producer, despite its apparently lowly appellation.
The next wine we tasted together was Canevel’s Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry. This is the wine which from the very beginnings of the company topped the range. This is also emphatically a wine of the hills, hills with an average height of 300 metres, steep conical slopes to which the vines cling precipitously. The soils here are formed of conglomorates and shallow sandstone, which are especially free draining.
The wine is made by an initial fermentation in stainless steel at a controlled 15 Degrees Celsius, with refermentation taking place in November, similarly cooled over 15 days. This wine exhibits very fresh apple on the nose (rather than pear), with prominent floral, blossom, notes. Coming in at 11.2% abv with 16 g/l of sugars, this has a gourmande quality to it, a wine ideally suited for fish and seafood (and, we discovered, English cheeses). Less dry, but still dry (surprisingly), mineral and balanced.
It is marketed in the embossed bottle of the Confraternita of Valdobbiadene, which is only authorised for used by producers whose production is at least 51% or more of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene.
My special interest was aroused by the third wine I tasted, Spumante Dosaggio Zero Vigneto Del Faè. This is a Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG from a single vineyard at 220 metres above sea level, near Refrontolo. High density planting is on clay, sandstone and marls. The wine is dry, of course (there is no dosage but a natural 3 g/l of sugar remains in the wine), and there’s plenty of dry extract.
The retention of proteins in the wine (always an aim at Canevel) helps to create a lovely mouthfeel, and one-and-a-half months on fine lees rich in aminos (released into the wine by daily stirring) enhances the profile and structure. So this comes across as finely crafted and an excellent example of a classic wine style.
The bouquet here is very fragrant, more apple blossom and a little hint of very fresh apple. The acidity is slightly enhanced, or rather one’s perception of it (total acidity is around 5 g/l), although Prosecco’s characteristic lower acidity does help make it even more food friendly. The finish is long and dry. It is a remarkably versatile wine in my opinion, one made (again) for food, and I wouldn’t restrict this to fish. I think it would go well with rabbit, and other game.
Bottling of this cuvée is with minimal sulphur, which brings me onto a topic close to both Masi’s, and Canevel’s, hearts – the Masi Green Project. The idea is to work progressively towards a green and sustainable operation at all levels. Working organically in the vineyards, no herbicides nor pesticides are sprayed. They are instead using plankton preparations, pine oil, and grapefruit oil as fungicides to great effect.
There are also long-running experiments isolating native yeasts for potential future fermentation. Using small 45-litre stainless steel tanks, they isolated 128 strains from their vineyards, over a six year period, with so far one of those strains appearing more promising than any others. In Prosecco production it isn’t really possible to leave fermentations to chance, so using completely random wild yeasts is not really an option, but using selected strains instead of commercial yeasts is the way forward.
The most tangible product of this green project in Valdobbiadene is called Campofalco. It’s a second single site Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG cuvée, and a Brut wine, which was released at Vinitaly in April this year. Campofalco is the product of the Monfalcon vineyard which, surrounded by woodland, is the perfect subject for totally organic production (no chance of another farmer’s sprays drifting over the Canevel vines). Whilst all of Canevel’s other wines tasted above are made from 100% Glera, Campofalco has 10% Verdiso added. That’s another nice touch, using one of the varieties which (along with Bianchetta, Trevigiana, Perera, Glera Lunga and others) used to cover the hills around Treviso in the days before Glera gained dominance.
Campofalco isn’t (as yet) available in the UK, so I was unable to taste it, but it does represent a major step for Canevel in further establishing the environmental credentials which have so far been lacking in much of the region, at least at the level of the main players (we know about the Col Fondo wines of those smaller artisan producers with “natural wine” leanings) . They are also more than well on their way to shining a light, through these quality-focused wines, on the soul of Prosecco, and it is something very different to what many UK consumers have seen Prosecco become. Something altogether finer.
The three Canevel wines tasted yesterday are distributed in the UK (exclusively through restaurants, it appears) via Berkmann Wine Cellars.
For more information on Canevel, visit their own web site here.