How sweet is it in prosecco country

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 10:49am

It's a cliché, sure, but I was not going to spend a weekend in Venice without seeking out the perfect bellini.

It's worth the search because this combination of white peach juice and sparkling prosecco can head towards the stickily sweet if you're not careful (I'm talking about you, Ca'Sagredo Hotel).

What you need is a barman who knows how to squeeze fresh peach juice and shake it with enough ice so that a thin layer forms on the top of the drink, just as with a good martini.

You can, of course, head to Harry's Bar to see barman Claudio Ponzio. He manages to make an excellent drink despite the hordes of tourists who would pay homage no matter what he poured.

But for me, it was the Gritti Palace that managed the best bellini I've ever had. Served in oversized chilled champagne coupes, with one part peach juice to one part prosecco ("It's important to press some of the pink skin into the juice to give a deeper tinge, and also to ensure more structure and bite to the juice itself," says our beautifully dressed barman), it offered the perfect "hint of summer" combination of gentle bubbles (the prosecco was stirred first to temper its exuberance slightly) and fresh, fragrant juice.

It's pretty much a given that the 15th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini never tasted the drink that bears his name; the link comes because his paintings were often said to have a pink glow about them.

But then you're also unlikely to find many bars serving bellinis in prosecco country itself. This lies just an hour or so to the north of Venice, and the locals there like to serve their prosecco neat, in a small wine glass, ideally accompanied by a plate of Asiago cheese, another staple of the local mountains.

The Gritti uses Bisol Crede Brut in its bellini, from one of the best-known names of the region. The Bisol family has been making wine here since the 16th century. You can visit a Bisol estate in Venice itself, located on Mazzorbo Island - an amazing spot with an excellent hotel-restaurant, the Venissa, and two hectares of walled vineyards.

Here, Gianluca Bisol, together with oenologist Roberto Cipresso, have carefully restored the vineyard and brought the dorono grape variety back from the brink of extinction, producing a white wine in tiny quantities, so far only available at the Venissa.

But I wanted to explore the Valdobbiadene and Conegliano regions, where the prosseco vines are grown on the vertiginous Treviso hills. I was lucky to get a tour from another storied winemaker of the region, Primo Franco.

He runs Nino Franco, the firm founded in 1919 by his grandfather Antonio Franco, who, after fighting in the first world war, founded the winery in the town centre to bring his village back to life.

This is the heart of quality prosecco production. In recent years, there have been expansions onto the plains in the Friuli region, making a more generic, low-cost style of wine. To mark out the higher quality wine, in 2009 the original hillside areas were named Prosecco Superiore and granted the DOCG category, the highest level for Italian wine.

Producers had to agree to tighter controls on production, making wine from a particular type of grape, known as glera, from a specific geographic area, the Cartizze hills. The rest - almost invariably non-vintage - is bottled under DOC Prosecco.

The DOC and DOCG labels have been getting attention on the mainland recently. Sparkling wines are still a tiny part of the overall market, but Italy is the second-biggest exporter of the style behind France.

As with champagne, there are different sweetness levels. But the sugar ( dosage in the French version) in prosecco is added before the second fermentation rather than at bottling. One result is a slightly lower alcohol content as not all the sugar turns to alcohol.

This helps explain the fresh, easy charm of prosecco, which emphasises the floral, lilting nature of the grapes, with pear and apple blossom flavours taking precedence over the brioche flavours of champagne.

There are more complex examples, such as the wonderful Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze from Nino Franco, where tropical fruit flavours add depth and persistency. But the real pleasure of prosecco is that it doesn't try too hard.

"We are happy to celebrate the grace and freshness of prosecco, and the easy pleasure that it gives," says Franco, pouring another glass.