Say yes to bubbles
Think prosecco is nothing more than a poor cousin of Champagne? A visit to Italy's Veneto region will change your mind – and perhaps your next drink order
Most travellers know it's a faux pas to order a cappuccino in Italy after 11 a.m. But the proper etiquette is less clear when you walk into a coffee bar in Treviso, a pretty medieval town in the heart of prosecco country, late in the morning and find a room full of locals drinking not only foam-topped coffees but also glasses of pale, sparkling liquor and Aperol spritzes the colour of Orange Crush.
This shouldn't entirely be a surprise. With hundreds of prosecco wineries – the best of which line a 42-kilometre stretch of meandering road known as the Strada del Prosecco – Italy's Veneto region, where Treviso is located, is the sort of place where, when you sit down in a restaurant and your server asks "still or with bubbles?" he's talking about the wine, not water. (The correct answer is bubbles. Always bubbles.)
Since this is a vacation and you have nowhere in particular to be, you savour one last cappuccino for the day followed by a spritz, fancy in its long-stemmed glass. Then, after strolling Treviso's cute bridges and narrow, canal-backed streets, often likened to a smaller, less touristy Venice, you pull up to an outdoor table on the edge of a cobblestoned piazza lined with colourful bikes, and settle in for a pre-lunch snack of salty, olive oil potato chips, which pique your thirst for, yes, more prosecco. The colour of straw, the wine is fruitier and more complex than what comes to mind when you think of prosecco. It's light and crisp and delicious, with layers of green apple and flowering jasmine.
When people talk about the great wine regions of Italy, they don't often refer to these parts. Though Veneto's most prized vineyards rival the ones in Montalcino as some of the country's most expensive, prosecco doesn't have the same cachet as, say, Brunello or Amarone. But if your general thinking is that prosecco is a very poor cousin of Champagne, a visit here will show you why 2,000 years of winemaking in these very hills can't be wrong.
Halfway between Venice and the Dolomites, the Strada del Prosecco is Italy's oldest wine route, formally established in 1966. Bookended by the towns of Conegliano in the east and Valdobbiadene to the west, the route grows steeper as you traverse it, nearing the foothills of the Italian Alps. This hilly highway is known for the legally designated DOCG zone that produces the best prosecco, both because of the unique climate and soils in which the grapes grow, and for the carefully prescribed methods by which they are harvested and fermented.
Though Veneto is home to hundreds of prosecco wineries outside of the DOCG zone, their flatter farms make for less interesting wines (called prosecco DOC, these are the wines used in Venetian cocktails such as the Aperol spritz and Bellini).
Only those produced in the 15 towns along the strada can be called Prosecco Superiore. Here, the grapes sweeten slowly thanks to summer days that never get too hot or cold, the result of cool mountain breezes and the moderating effect of the sea. Soils deposited by the Piave River or washed down from ancient glaciers lend a special fruitiness, floral aromas or fine minerality that set Prosecco Superiore apart. So when Leonelo Lot, estate director at Case Bianche winery, pauses by a row of vines, takes a whiff of marine-tinged air and tells me the prosecco we're soon to taste is "the real expression of these hills," he's not exaggerating.
Sometimes called the garden of Venice, the region in springtime is easily the most dazzling green I've ever seen. Vines grow everywhere here, from practically vertical vineyards to the front gardens of homes I pass while out for a morning jog. "There used to be meadows and cows," Manuela Oregna of Villa Sandi winery told me late one day as we watched the sun set from the Cartizze, a 1,000-foot hill upon which grow the best grapes in the region. "Now every inch, vines."
Well, not every inch. Once a summer getaway for Venetian nobility, the countryside is full of gorgeous old villas. Before visiting Sandi's tasting room, we toured its namesake villa, a Palladian-style mansion full of colourful Murano glass chandeliers, where centuries-old tunnels – used to store munitions during the First World War – now make for an impressive 1.5-kilometre long wine cave.
In Asolo, a medieval village known as the city of a hundred horizons for its postcard-perfect hilltop views, we strolled around a 15th-century castle that once belonged to the queen of Cyprus, amazed not just by the town's charm but by how uncrowded it was. At Caffe Centrale, sitting by a fountain that still draws water from the ancient Roman aqueduct which runs below, we ordered Tintorettos, Asolo's play on the Bellini, spiked with the fresh, tangy juice of pomegranates that grow all over town.
As you'd imagine, there's no shortage of places and ways to taste prosecco here, though if you're talking about Prosecco Superiore, your best bet is straight up. With 183 producers in the DOCG zone alone, we didn't come close to tasting them all (if that's your goal, it's worth planning a visit during the third weekend in May, when dozens of producers pop their corks for the annual Vino in Villa festival at San Salvatore Castle). But from sleek operations such as Bortolotti, which pioneered the modern-day method of making prosecco, to Roccat, a third-generation, family-run winery (the 90-year-old grandfather of Roccat's young winemaker, Manuel, stopped by during our tasting after he'd wrapped a morning of work in the vineyards), we did our best.
In Treviso, we sipped it with handmade tortelli full of fresh porcini –possibly the best €10 ($14.75) prix fixe lunch in existence – and with risotto at a rustic ristorante in the tiny hamlet of Campea. We helped ourselves to a bottle at Osteria Senz'Oste, a cottage/honour bar (the name translates to a place serving drinks and simple food with no host) high in the hills above Valdobbiadene; I heard about it from several locals but, until we finally found the spot, didn't believe it could be a real place, and later at Seccoo, a thoroughly modern bar on Valdobbiadene's main square. With its golden decor and lighting, it evokes the feeling of being the inside a glass of prosecco.
Unlike champagne, which is better aged, prosecco needs to be consumed sooner than later, before its fresh green fruitiness starts to change into something else. Which is why in Veneto, wherever you are, whatever the time of day, it's best not to overthink – just order a glass.
If you go
Air Canada Rouge flies direct to Venice Marco Polo Airport from Toronto and Montreal. From there, it's 45 minutes to the eastern end of the Strada del Prosecco in Conegliano.
Where to stay
Locanda Sandi – Situated on the outskirts of Valdobbiadene and close to Villa Sandi's winery and tasting room, this rustic-chic inn is surrounded by vineyards and has a terrific on-site restaurant featuring regional cooking. From €70 ($103) a night, including breakfast. locandasandi.it
Where to drink
Wineries (reservations recommended):
Villa Sandi – Via Erizzo 112, Crocetta del Montello villasandi.it
Roccat– Via Rocat e Ferrari 1, Valdobbaidene roccat.com/en
Bortolotti– Via Ruio d'Arcane, 6, Valdobbiadene bortolotti.com
Case Bianche– Via Barriera 41, Susegana colsandago.com/en
Osteria Senz'Oste– An old stone cottage stocked with self-serve prosecco (€10-15 a bottle), cheese and prosciutto. Str. delle Treziese, Valdobbiadene
Seccoo– Trendy wine and snack bar and lively local gathering spot. Piazza Marconi, 25, Valdobbiadene seccoo.it
Vino in Villa– Annual prosecco-themed festival at a 13th-century castle each May with tastings of hundreds of local wines. prosecco.it/en/consortium/vino-in-villa
Where to eat
Hosteria Due Torri – A cozy osteria with homemade pastas and an unbeatable €10 two-course lunch deal. Via Palestro, 8, Treviso ristoranteduetorri.it
All'Edera – A charming, family-run restaurant specializing in seasonal local dishes. Via G. Canova, 3, Miane ristorantealledera.com
The writer's accommodations were provided by Locanda Sandi. It did not review or approve this article.