Friday, June 24, 2016

The Prosecco Project and a Passion for the Sparkling Wines of Italy

One of my favorite parts of blogging is meeting folks virtually around the world and even better if I get to meet them in person.  I came across the "Prosecco Project" run by Maree Church some time back and thought she'd be the perfect person to share her knowledge and recommendations on the sparkling wines not only including prosecco, but those around Italy that she has fallen in love with.

Where are you originally from and what brought you to Italy?
The Prosecco Project for Italian sparkling wine lovers


I grew up outside of Philadelphia, but moved to California as a young adult living in Los Angeles and later near San Francisco. My husband, son, and I lived in a small (by California standards) town called Danville in the east bay for nearly 25 years before my husband and I moved to Italy. Growing up in an Italian American family, I was in love with the thought of Italy from a very young age. In 2000, I finally had the opportunity to make my first trip there, and I knew that my love was not misguided. On the first trip, we sat in Saint Mark's Square drinking Prosecco. I loved Prosecco, and I could not get enough of it. When we returned to California, I introduced everyone I knew to Prosecco, but sadly, back in 2000, it was not so easy to find good Prosecco in California. So, it was my love of Prosecco that sparked the initiation of a wine import business a few years later.

What made you choose Le Marche to settle down in?

My husband and I first visited Le Marche in about 2004 in search of some wines to import. We had met a wine maker at the San Francisco Fancy food show, and scheduled a visit to see his winery and taste his wines. Our first introduction to the region was staying in the beautiful area of Portonovo, south of Ancona, where the mountains meet the sea. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the setting. The next day we drove inland to visit the winery near Cingoli, a hill town nicknamed the balcony of Le Marche. After driving through the rolling hills dotted with olive groves and vineyards, I was sure this was the place that I wanted to call home. Once we started to look for a house, however, it took us 5 years to find the one. After five years of living in Le Marche, I am more convinced than ever that I choose the right area to live. The people are kind, friendly, and always willing to go out of their way to help you. The views are spectacular with the Apennine mountains on one side and the Adriatic on the other and beautiful panoramas of hill towns in between. Of course, I can't forget the wine. I did not really know anything about Verdicchio until my fist trip to Le Marche, and since then it has become one of my favorites. It makes an amazing metodo classico.

Are you currently still involved in the wine industry?

Starting a wine import business grew out of my love for Prosecco and my inability to find the same quality of Prosecco in the US that I drank in Venice. That truly was what drove me to get into the business. My professional background is in a totally different industry, and I continue to do management consulting for US clients even from my home in Italy. When my husband and I moved to Italy, we gave up our American import license. So, my involvement in the wine industry at the moment is mostly as a consumer, and I do like to consume it. While we are back in the states, however, we are hoping to help find importers for the wines of a couple of our friends. And, someday soon, I am hoping to take the sommelier courses and improve my wine knowledge.

What sparked your love of Prosecco?

Ah, Prosecco. I have always loved sparkling wine. It is my passion. When I first tasted Prosecco, of course, the setting was perfect, a Cafe in St.Mark's square. Music playing. A perfect May evening. What was not to like? I think I spent that entire trip searching for the next glass of Prosecco. It did take a couple of years, however, before I actually made the pilgrimage to Valdobbiadene in search of a Prosecco to import. There, through serendipity, we were directed to a small, third generation family winery, Zucchetto. It took a while to go through the label approval process, and our first shipment to the states ended in a disaster and never made it to us. But we persisted and finally, we had Prosecco to sell, and just as importantly, to drink. It was a very big hit with our customers as it has always been made with less sugar than most prosecco. While we cannot import the Zucchetto Prosecco anymore, we still go to visit the family and buy Prosecco to take home to Le Marche. It remains one of my favorites. Unfortunately, there is not a major importer of Zucchetto in the US at the present time.

Any particular favorite prosecco producers?

As I stated earlier, Zucchetto remains one of my favorites. It is still a small, family run winery producing about 60,000 bottles per year of extra dry, brut and cartizze and a still wine. I have come to appreciate the wines of Bisol in my time in Italy and I search them out when I am looking for a Prosecco here in the states. They have a very nice metodo classico from the glera grape, but I have not found it in the US. Ruggieri's Guistino Bisol is also an amazing Prosecco. You may notice that all of these are from Valdobbiadene. I definitely prefer the wines from the original Prosecco area of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano to the newer wines from the Treviso area. There is just a different quality to the wines in my opinion. I will even go so far as to say that in general, I really am partial to wines grown around the village of Fol in the Valdobbiadene area. There is just something in the terroir there that sets these Prosecco's apart.
cartizze prosecco of the valdobbiadene
Cartizze of the Valdobbiadene wine region
Why are the Proseccos in the US not up to par with Italy?

In terms of what Prosecco is available in the US, I do believe that much of it is inferior to what I would find in Italy. I believe a lot of importers and their clients here in the wholesale and retail markets are motivated by price, and generally, the DOC wines are going to be available for a significantly lower price than the DOCG wines. And if you look at the wines in your local liquor store or in the supermarket you will most likely find they are from Treviso. However, that said, I have noticed in my last visit to Valdobbiadene that it is becoming like Napa, with more vines everywhere. Since the demand for Prosecco has grown, producers are planting more in an effort to keep up. One producer told us that the prevalence of the newer vines has changed the nature of the Prosecco and even many wines from Valdobbiadene are not what they once were. As long as the American consumer is happy with the mediocre Prosecco generally available, which in my experience is the case, I don't think there will be any movement to improve the quality of the imports any time in the near future.

Other thoughts on the other sparkling wine of Italy?

Living in Le Marche, I have had the opportunity to taste many wonderful sparkling verdicchios. The grape is being used to make both the charmat method and metodo classico. If I had to choose one sparkling verdicchio as a favorite, it would be the Colonnara Ubaldo Rosi, a wine aged in the bottle for five years. This wine has been declared the third best sparkling wine in Italy and the best south of the Po River. It is amazing! Unfortunately, it is not yet available in the US, but I am optimistic that it will be soon. 
ancient ways to create sparkling wines in Italy
100 year old machine Maree discovered at the Colonnara winery to infuse carbon dioxide to produce sparkling wines
I am also a fan of Franciacorta, the champagne of Italy, however, it is priced much higher than the sparkling verdicchio and on a price/quality value scale I would choose the sparkling verdicchio. After a trip to Franciacorta last year, I came back a big fan of the Barrone Pizzini organic Franciacorta which is now available in California and Bella Vista. Gavi has been one of my favorite white wines for a very long time, and there are also some very nice sparkling wines made from this grape variety as well. 

In Italy there are so many wonderful grape varieties and many more sparkling wines made throughout the country from a great variety of grapes. In Le Marche, for example, they are also making sparkling wine from the Pecorino grape. Yes, Pecorino is a wine variety not just a cheese. I still remember the time several years ago when I asked for a bottle of Pecorino in a very well known Venice restaurant and they brought me cheese and not the wine. When I voiced my surprise and reiterated that I wanted wine, the sommelier admitted that he never heard of Pecorino wine. I think the most distinctive and particular, as the Italians say, sparkling wine I have tasted came from Piemonte. It is from the Erbaluce grape, an ancient grape variety grown in the area of Caluso. The nose of this wine is not of citrus or flowers, but the earth and sage and rosemary. It is quite interesting, but I must admit it is not on my list of favorite wine varieties. 

Of course, no discussion of Italian sparkling wines would be complete without mentioning Ferrari. Since arriving back in the states, the Ferrari Brut Rose has become a favorite, and I am sure to order it whenever we go out to dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant.

Pictures compliments of Maree Church.