Our fascination with Tuscany is an enduring one: thousands of Britons flock to the region each year to holiday, or even to set up home. The attractions are obvious: a dreamy climate; glorious hillside country dotted with ancient villages, castles and churches; winding rural roads with excellent little restaurants and wineries to visit. Then, of course, there is the proximity to the historic and breathtakingly beautiful cities of Florence and Siena.
This mass invasion has led to Tuscany being dubbed “Chiantishire”: the Italian outpost of the Home Counties. Visiting the region and its wine roads is still a must for the wine-loving traveller, but the idyllic countryside can appear so full of English voices and faces that the Romance is in danger of being lost.
Italy, of course, is a country filled with secrets far better kept, and roads far less travelled. From the heat and dust of Puglia in the Mediterrannean south, to the snowcapped Alpine passes of Trentino and Alto Adige in the north, lie historic regions imbued with their own cultures, food and wine traditions.
Queen of the North – La Serenissima – is the heart-rendingly beautiful city of Venice. One of the world’s great destinations, few of its hundreds of thousands of visitors venture much beyond its canals and squares. Yet just an hour’s drive north lies a beautiful wine country, with a burgeoning scene of Agriturismo wine farms, fine, inexpensive restaurants and charming villages. This ruggedly beautiful coutryside is the land of Prosecco, the basis of a million Bellinis served to thousands of tourists, or poured as an aperitif in every restaurant in Venice. Prosecco is both the name of the grape, and of the wine made from it in the DOC Prosecco hillsides around Valdobiaddene and Conegliano, and as generally less distinguished IGT wines from the plains.
One of the leading lights of the region, with a portfolio of wines ranging from inexpensive party Prosecco to single-vineyard vintage wines, is Bisol. Bisol is a family-owned company, based in the little town of Santo Stefano, and owning some of the finest terroirs of all Prosecco, including a three hectare chunk of Prosecco’s effective Grand Cru, the the Hill of Cartizze. As Bisol has recently been introduced to the UK by Bibendum Wines, British wine lovers now have a chance to discover the wines for themselves.
I visited Prosecco in summer 2004, to see their property and vineyards, and to met both Gianluca Bisol (right), and Export Director Giovanni Oliva. Between them, there mission is to both entice some of Venice’s throng of visitors north, and to educate the world more generally in the quality the wines of Prosecco can achieve. Bisol have recently opened an abosultely stunning Agriturismo of their own: a brilliantly restored farmhouse near the historic village of Rolle, called Foresteria Duca di Dolle that is surrounded by vineyards folding and creasing into the undulating landscape.
This is wonderfully tranquil countryside, silent apart form the hourly tolling of the Rolle church bells. This magical land cast a suitably powerful spell: this countryside is utterly charming and very unspoiled, given drama by volcanic outcrops and cone-shaped mountains. View from the farmhouse, below left.
The Bisol family has farmed in Prosecco since the 17th century, owning and making wines on this estate since 1875. Their 16 different vineyard sites enjoy varying microclimates and soils, mean picking of grapes spreads over five weeks, often with three passes through each vineyard to ensure optimum ripeness. This is hugely labour-intensive land to work – with possibly the steepest slopes along with Germany’s Mosel valley, at 60% or more. The notion that Prosecco is confined to a supporting role as the basis for the classic Bellini cocktail, or as a cheap party Spumante, is soon swept aside as one discovers the attention Bisol gives to detail in both vineyards and winery.
Tasting through the various wines made by subtly different methods or from different vineyard sites, I learn that each batch of grapes passes through the presses three times: “the first juice comes mostly from the skins”, Gianluca told me, “so it is flavoursome and concentrated. The second is full of the sugar and fruitiness of the pulp, and the third produces a more acidic juice”. The three different musts are kept separately until it is time to blend.
By law, DOC Prosecco is a tank-method wine, where the secondary fermentation takes place in bulk containers, rather than bottles. Bisol also make superb traditional method sparkling wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Giovanni Oliva told me “we have tried many experiments with using the Champagne method for Prosecco, but really it does not suit this grape: our philosophy is to express the freshness and flavour of Prosecco, not the flavours of yeast autolysis”.
Bisol was the first Prosecco producer to introduce the concept of single vineyard “Crus”, harvesting late – sometimes into November – and fermenting in separate batches, using barrique fermentation for some cuvées. For the Proseccos, oak is used as “seasoning” never to a major component. Crowning glory of the Bisol estate is thier three hectares of the Hill of Cartizze. This patch is one of Italy’s most expensive terroirs, where land costs over one million euros per hectare and grapes sell for four times the price of other DOCG vineyards.
With just 107 hectares there are 140 owners, and Bisol is the largest. Bisol’s Cartizze has a really delicate profile and a fine sense of purity, yet the top wine in the Prosecco range from Bisol is Garnéi, a blend of the best grapes from across the 16 vineyards that is wonderfully fruity, with a little toasty edge from partial barrique fermentation.
Left: Giovanni Oliva pours a welcome glass of Cartizze, in front of the Hill of Cartizze.
And there’s the rub: whilst Bisol are leading the way with their single-vineyard Crus – and they are right to do so on this evidence – it is a blended wine, made from the very best fruit and given extra attention in the winery, that for now provides the Prosecco flagship. The Cru wines are a wonderful demonstration of Prosecco’s capacity for nuanced and delicate expressions of this Veneto soil, and will hopefully educate more and more of us. But the wisdom of centuries of tradtion in making blended wines still shines through. I was very impressed by the wines of Bisol, and by this unspoilt countryside of the Prosecco region.
From the easy-drinking introductory level of the Jeio – just off-dry and vivaciously full of fruit – to the much more serious, toasty and complex Garnéi, these wines are ample proof that Prosecco is a grape and a wine of excellent potential if treated with due respect. Do not compare Cartizze or even Garnéi, with Champagne – that would be an insult to both – this is Prosecco, and wines that express this remarkable landscape, multiplicity of soils and singularity of grape. They are well worth getting to know.
Prosecco Molera 2003
This is a still, dry Prosecco wine, with around 5% Verdiso in the blend, normally harvested in mid-October. In 2003 Prosecco had as dry, hot, and atypical a vintage as anywhere in Europe, and the harvest was several weeks early to preserve the acidity in the fruit. Bisol also had to apply for permission to irrigate, which was done by helicopter to reach these impossibly steep slopes. Molera has a very pale colour, tinged with a touch of green. It has a fine, lemony nose, with fresh pear and pear-drop aromas, a little crunchy red apple sweetness and just a hint of honey and oatmeal. It is very crisp and clean on the palate, with more of that limpid lemony fruit, and a definite touch of residual sugar giving softness, though barely perceptible sweetness. It is very ripe, with a hint of peach-skin, downy quality. Acidity is lacking just a touch (possibly a symptom of this vintage), but it is very easy to drink and is still fresh on the finish. Very good indeed.
Prosecco Jeio 2003
This non-vintage wine is in many ways quintissential Prosecco: straw coloured and filled with gentle effervesence, and full of lively, crisp apple and sherbetty fruit. Very good.
Prosecco Crede 2003
Crede is the driest cuvee made by Bisol, from a vineyard planted on sandstone, enriched with marine fossils. It is 85% Prosecco, with 10% Pinot Bianco and 5% of the indigenous Verdiso. It is a very pale gold colour, with a steady stream of tny bubbles. There’s a hint of green apple on the nose, then sherbetty, bright, pear and apple-blossom. There is also a soft, but notable herbal quality. On the palate the mouse is creamy though quite short-lived, with a soft, rolling palate of sweet pear and a core of lemony, and quite waxy fruit, leading to a dry, citrussy and very fresh and elegant finish. Very good indeed.
Prosecoo Superiore Cartizze 2003
Cartizze is the only Superiore “Cru” of Prosecco, a high, steep, cone shaped hill of 107 hectares, of which Bisol is the largest land-owner with three hectares. Around 40,000 bottles of this cuvée are produced. It is a very pale, almost transparent gold with a steady, vigorous stream of bubbles. It is delicate and more floral than the Crede cuvée, with lemon zest and flowery notes dominating. On the palate there is a more mineral base to this wine, with very clean, focused citrus fruit, and a decisive acidity that makes it mouthwatering and long, even though the residual sugar in this wine is higher that the Crede. This is a very elegant wine indeed. Excellent.
Prosecco Garnéi 2002
This is the top Prosecco in the Bisol Portfolio, made from the best selected bunches, hand-picked from across Bisol’s 16 vineyard sites. 14 hours cold soaking precedes a year spent in the first fermentation tanks, followed by second fermentation in tank, and release 16 months after the vintage. Around 8% of this wine is fermented in barriques. The colour is a very pale straw/yellow. There is a mass of slow-moving, very small bubbles. It has a wonderfully toasty nose, with notes of walnut, peaches and a soft autolytic yeastiness. On the palate it is full and rich, with a rolling mousse that disippates quite quickly. The palate is fine and very peachy, with a broad-based acidity that is very gentle, and a floral edge to sweet, juicy nectarine fruit. In many ways this is like a slightly more solid and serious Moscato d’Asti, with a really long finish layered with lemon and lime. Excellent. Around 10,000 bottle produced.
Methedo Calssico “Elisio” 1998
This wine is a blend of 20% Pinot Noir and 40% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. Around 25% is barrique fermented. Bottled in July 1999, it was disgorged in January 2004, and 4,353 bottles were produced (now that’s an informative back label!). This has a fantastic nose; it is huge and leesy, with buttery, sweet, Chardonnay-dominated aromas that are dense and full. Notes of waxy green beans, some peach, and some crisp apple aromas. On the palate it is full-bodied and has a fantastic fruit sweetness, where more of that vegetal quality is joined by a soft, strawberry flavour and emerging perfume, with a lovely cut of acidity. This is basically a soft style of wine, that gently fills the mouth, but it has excellent length and a crispness too. Excellent.
Only 1,000 litres of this remarkable dessert wine are produced, packed in very elegant 37.5cl bottles. It is a unique style: a solera of at least 10 vintages back to 1991, made from selected bunches dried in the loft of Bisol’s beautiful farmhouse near the village of Rolle. After four months drying, the raisined grapes are fermented in barrique (incidentally, a special cheese called Fromage del Duque is available, which is aged in the pressings of this wine to form a rind). It has a lovely amber colour with ruby at the core. It has an oxidised nose with aromas of herbs, hay, and a fig and caramel warmth. Lovely notes of tea and tobacco leaves join dried apricot in layered, complex aromatics. On the palate it is medium-bodied and quite fresh, with definite sweetness, but a fascinating palate of burnt orange, crème brûlée, More of that tea and stewed fruit, and a persistent lemony acidity. An intriguing wine, and excellent again.
The wines of Bisol are available in the UK from their importer Bibendum Wines.