John Brunton explores the vineyards, villages and restaurants of the Veneto region's celebrated prosecco wine route.
On our descent into Venice's Marco Polo Airport, most passengers are peering out the window for a glimpse of the famous lagoon. I'm looking the other way, inland towards the countryside of Veneto, famed for its grand Palladian villas, frescoed churches and vineyards of soave, cabernet franc, and prosecco, the region's favourite sparkling wine.
Prosecco made a name for itself as the chic aperitif of Venice, with Harry's Bar using it as the secret ingredient in its Bellini cocktail. These days a chilled flute of this light sparkling wine is the vogueish drink to order in London and Berlin, Hong Kong and New York. Winemakers have improved the quality dramatically, the price is highly competitive - a lot easier on the wallet than champagne - and exports are booming.
Venice is heaving with tourists at this time of year, so it's something of a relief to pick up my hire car, drive the autostrada and leave the circus behind. After 20 minutes, the landscape changes rapidly from the flat plains of the Piave to rolling hills covered with vines and within an hour I'm ready for my first prosecco tasting.
The Strada del Vino, as the 50-kilometre wine route encircling Veneto is known, begins in Valdobbiadene, the unofficial capital of prosecco land and my first stop. Though it has an imposing neo-classical church and a grand town hall on the main piazza, it's more low-key than, say, Reims or Epernay in Champagne. There are no gastronomic temples in Valdobbiadene, but there is the Alpino Bar. This once rustic osteria just off Piazza Marconi has been transformed into a smart wine bar, popular with local winemakers and open at noon when I arrive.
The friendly young owner, Luca Vecchiato, serves more than 50 prosecchi by the glass in his designer enoteca, and his wife, Patty, conjures up snacks in the kitchen, including today's selection: polpettine (savoury meatballs), crunchy baby artichokes in olive oil, and grilled radicchio.
A young viticoltore (winemaker), Andrea Miotto, pops in for a quick drink on his way home for lunch, and tells us he has recently returned from working in a vineyard in New Zealand. He persuades us to try a glass of his 2011 Pro-Fondo Prosecco, grown on his family vineyard a couple of kilometres outside Valdobbiadene. "This is more frizzante than spumante," Miotto says.
"We have only eight hectares and prefer to create our own personality, following the traditional method of fermentation in the bottle rather than the more bubbly spumante."
The wine is slightly cloudy, with a metal cap instead of a cork, a small deposit at the bottom (the fondo) and sensational value; Miotto says he sells it at his cantina for €3 ($3.50) a bottle.
While vines have been cultivated for more than 500 years in this region, the modern history of prosecco began at the turn of the 20th century, when the "metodo Martinotti" was invented, allowing a bubbly spumante to ferment in large tanks. By contrast, the classic French "methode champenoise" technique is more complex, involving not just fermentation in the bottle but removal of the yeast sediment by "disgorging".
The indigenous glera grape is still the basis of prosecco, as it always has been, but the styles have changed. Wine lovers can still enjoy a classic brut spumante style, as well as top-shelf methode champenoise cru that the viticoltore insist are as good as champagne. And there's a trend among young winemakers towards naturally fermented prosecco, such as Miotto's, where the sediment is left in the bottle and the wine is best decanted.
The road out of Valdobbiadene towards Conegliano winds through some of the most idyllic landscapes in northern Italy: hills and valleys covered with neat geometric vineyards, thick woods and fertile farm land. Even in summer, we see relatively few tourists.
Despite prosecco's fame, this is far from becoming the next Tuscany. Without being followed by crowds, travellers can discover the hearty cuisine of Veneto in ancient osterie, stay in smart B&Bs or rustic agriturismi and visit family wine cellars, many of which have opened only recently to passers-by.
A few kilometres along the road lies the idyllic Santo Stefano di Valdobbiadene, a village hidden in the middle of vineyards. This is the jewel in prosecco's crown. The surrounding 107 hectares is where cartizze is produced, the elegant "grand cru" that is as close as you'll find here to champagne, and almost the same price.
I'm meeting the unofficial king of prosecco, Gianluca Bisol, whose family produces 2 million bottles a year and exports Bisol wines around the world. From his winery we take a dirt path between plots and stop at a stone plaque. "We are standing right in the historical heart of prosecco," Bisol says, "in the middle of a line that stretches from Asolo to Valdobbiadene and Conegliano."
This is what constitutes the official DOCG region, which produces prosecco superiore; the wider prosecco DOC label covers most of the Veneto, Friuli and as far as Venice.
The production of prosecco in the region has rocketed in the past few years - 240 million bottles a year, almost as much as Champagne produces - and the cru zone of Cartizze is among the world's most expensive vineyard real estate; about €1 million ($1.17 million) a hectare. Winemakers across Italy and abroad have been itching to jump on the bandwagon, forcing Veneto producers to impose a host of regulations to protect their wine. Bisol says the name of the grape has been changed recently from prosecco back to the original glera, "so nobody outside the prosecco region can claim to make our wine. Hopefully this ends the nightmare scenario of supermarket shelves filled with prosecco from Sicily, Chile or California."
Santo Stefano looks like a sleepy one-street village lined by cantinas, but Bisol has a couple of surprises. First we walk into a popular watering hole for locals, Osteria Gallina, so nondescript it doesn't even have a sign outside. The charming owner, 85-year-old Luigi Gallina, serves a plate of his home-cured prosciutto crudo, much tastier than Parma ham, and we sit in the shady courtyard - though the village has a population of only 300, the osteria is open most nights until midnight. For savvy travellers who phone a few days ahead, signora Gallina will prepare her speciality, pollo in umido: one of her own chickens, slow-cooked in a secret sauce.
Bisol ushers me into his car and we head beyond the village's street into the vineyards, then continue on foot to an ancient stone cottage on a plateau with lovely views over the Cartizze vineyards. "This is the Osteria senz'Oste," Bisol says, "the osteria without a host!" Owned by a generous salami maker from a nearby village, this is a bar without a bartender. Customers are entrusted to serve themselves; in the fridge is prosecco (naturally), as well as cheese, ham, boiled eggs and bread. You're expected to pop your payment - say, €10 - into a wooden box.
Bisol, though, has brought a bottle of his own prosecco, an elegant Cru Cartizze, and as we enjoy a glass while looking over the hills he tells me about a special place to stay in the hamlet of Rolle.
Half an hour later, I somehow manage to find Rolle beyond the bustling town of Follina. As promised, Duca di Dolle is special: a group of old farm buildings in an organic vineyard, transformed into 13 rooms and apartments and decorated in an eclectic style that mixes fireplaces, four-poster beds, high-tech bathrooms and hydro-massage.
For the moment, there's no restaurant at Duca di Dolle, but Rolle has one of Veneto's most seductive trattoria, Locanda al Monastero. Each meal here is a feast, in which chef Roberto di Martin presents dishes on different themes: oven-roasted veal, Adriatic seafood, suckling pig. Though the shady terrace has fabulous views, the cosy dining room, with simple checked tablecloths and pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, is perfect for a romantic dinner.
From Rolle, I arrange to visit two winemakers from small houses: Giovanni Gregoletto, in Premaor, and Renato della Colletta, in Refrontolo. The road to Premaor passes the Abbazia di Santa Maria (Follina), a Romanesque abbey with a 12th-century Cistercian church and serene cloisters often used for classical music concerts. The Gregoletto family has been making wine since 1600, and a tasting here spans not just an excellent brut prosecco, but also white wines made from little-known indigenous grapes, including verdisio and incrocio manzoni. Gregoletto is a wonderfully eccentric character, as happy discussing poetry, music and philosophy as wine. He's one of the few winemakers in the region making fine reds: cabernet, merlot and "rosso", an outstanding oak-barrelled blend.
In nearby Refrontolo, Paola della Colletta runs the tiny three-hectare Cantina Valdella with her brother, Renato. We taste their rustic prosecco superiore and a few oddities unlikely to be found in bigger businesses. I'm impressed by their passito, late-harvested from the tannic marzemino grape, producing a luscious dessert wine.
Della Colletta's advice is not to miss lunch in the village osteria, Al Forno, and this turns out to be another spectacular discovery.
Al Forno has been owned by the Piol family for 160 years, and used to be a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. The owner, Mario, serves wonderful Veneto dishes such as thick bigoli pasta with a rich duck ragu; ravioli stuffed with speck and bilberries; and guinea fowl in a peverada sauce, a 14th-century recipe combining liver, anchovies and sopressa salami.
On our last night I drive to the edge of the prosecco DOCG territory to the rather noble town of Vittorio Veneto. I've booked a night at Alice Relais Nelle Vigne, an elegant guest house run by the wives of two winemakers, Umberto and Luigi Cosmo. These ambitious brothers are renowned for making prosecco the French way, and at their adjoining Bellenda winery we taste a half-a-dozen outstanding wines.
"Luigi and I come from a farming family, but were always passionate about champagne, and we were determined to produce the same kind of quality here with prosecco," Umberto says. "It was a challenge we couldn't refuse."
Later at the guest house, I discover they have another challenge on their hands - their feisty wives, Francesca and Cinzia, have established their own winery, Le Vigne di Alice.
Sitting on their lawn, looking over the criss-cross lines of vines, Francesca opens a bottle of her prosecco named Alice.G, a cheeky reference to the erotic G-spot. Are their husbands worried by the competition?
"This is a friendly, amoroso competition," Cinzia says, laughing. She points to the label. "Just look at our motto: 'Life is a Bubble'."
John Brunton drove courtesy of carrentals.co.uk.
Emirates has a fare to Venice from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1960 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Venice (6hr 30min); see emirates.com. Comparative car-rental website carrentals.co.uk can be used to find the cheapest option among car-hire companies across Europe.
- Cantina Miotto is a small family winery across the road from its vineyard, with no need to book ahead for a tasting. Via Scandolara 24, Colbertaldo; phone +39 0423 985 095; see cantinamiotto.it.
- Bisol has a state-of-the-art cantina and visitors who call in advance can see prosecco being produced by two methods. Via Follo 33, Santo Stefano di Valdobbiadene; phone +39 0423 900 138; see bisol.it.
- The Gregoletto family has recently restored its historic cantina, with giant barrels for ageing its signature red wine. Via San Martino 81, Premaor; phone +39 0438 970 463; see www.gregoletto.it.
- Cantina Valdella is run by two siblings, so best call ahead for tastings. Via Drio Col 1, Refrontolo; phone +39 0438 894 116.
- Bellenda and Le Vigne di Alice are labels run by the Cosmo family, which has just opened a designer salon. Reservations are essential. Via della Chiesa 20, Carpesica di Vittorio Veneto; phone +39 0438 920 818; see levignedialice.it and bellenda.it.
- Bar Alpino serves seafood to accompany its wines — oysters, tuna tartare and raw swordfish. Via Mazzolini 14, Valdobbiadene; phone +39 0423 972 122; see www.baralpinosteria.it.
- Stop at Osteria Gallina for a glass of wine but book ahead for a five-course feast for about €35 ($41), wine included. Via Vettorazzi e Bisol 10, Santo Stefano di Valdobbiadene; phone +39 0423 900 297.
- Osteria Senz'Oste is more of a unique picnic spot than an osteria, so no one will mind if you BYO food. Santo Stefano di Valdobbiadene; see osteriasenzoste.it.
- Don't miss Sunday night tagliere at Locanda al Monastero di Rolle: a wooden plate of polenta topped with vegetables, cheeses, salami and wild mushrooms. Via Enotria 21, Rolle; phone +39 0438 975 423.
- Antica Osteria al Forno has no written menu, so pay attention when the waiter reads out the dishes of the day. Via degli Alpini 5, Refrontolo; phone +39 0438 894 496; see alforno.it.
- Surrounded by vineyards, Duca di Dolle has superb views plus a breakfast salon and wine bar. Rooms from €110 ($129). Via Piai Orientale 5, Rolle; see ducadidolle.it.
- Alice Relais Nelle Vigne is a grand 19th-century farmhouse with 10 guest rooms from €110. The owners whisk guests to their winery in an electric buggy for prosecco tastings. Via Giardino 94, Carpesica di Vittorio Veneto; see alice-relais.com.
- Hotel Abbazia is the top address on the Strada del Vino for special occasions. Rooms from €250. Piazza IV Novembre, Follina; phone +39 0438 971 277; see hotelabbazia.it.
- Relais Dolcevista has five rustic-chic rooms from €98 each, above the vineyards of Cartizze. Via Masare 4, Santo Stefano di Valdobbiadene; phone +39 0423 900 408; see dolcevista.it.
- Agriturismo le Noci is a working farm that makes its own wine and runs a trattoria. Rooms from €70. Localita Costarut 10, Arfanta; phone +39 0438 925 095; see agriturismolenoci.net.