Acqua di Vita is the name of a grappa in Bottega distillery’s product line, but it could — nay, should — be another name for its Prosecco, or for Prosecco in general. The bubbly is a lifeline for vineyards in the Veneto region of northeast Italy, hectares of steep hillsides blooming with glera grapes every fall, and for locals who drink it like water. Two signs of such were offered during a late-morning stop at Pieve di San Pietro, an 11th-century church perched on the hills of the tiny municipality of Feletto with views of the pre-Alps of Belluno, some 50 kilometres away.
The first: five frescoes cover the church’s exterior, one of which is Cristo della Domenica, or Christ Sunday. It depicts Jesus bleeding from several injuries. The cause of the wounds surround him: tools used by local workers. The iconographic painting was a reminder to the community to lay down their tools for the day of rest. One of the icons is a wine barrel. Even in late medieval times Prosecco was a big deal here.
The second: as my travel companions and I climb back into our car to continue our drive along the Strada del Prosecco, the most effervescent wine route in the country, I spot four elderly gentlemen at a café-bar across the street, each tucking in to an Aperol Spritz, the bulk of which is comprised of Prosecco. They looked happy, as I suppose they should. It was only 11:15 a.m.
Veneto isn’t as famous as the country’s western region of Tuscany, the first place that comes to mind when most people think Italy and wine, but what it lacks in idyllic charm it makes up for in industry. There is no room for sprawling fields of grass or wheat here. Well, there are a few, but there are just as many bustling highways allowing people to zip between city centres. Veneto is, however, home to both Venice and the Dolomites, and sitting ideally in between the two is the province of Treviso, Prosecco’s home base.
The Strada del Prosecco, or more formally the Prosecco and Colli Congeliano Valdobbiadene wine route, covers a large swath of the province’s north, and is a direct heir to the country’s first oenological trail. It’s here that Prosecco’s DOC region (Denominazione di origine controllata or Controlled designation of origin) lies. Because of the area’s steep slopes, vineyards are small and glera grapes are often harvested by hand. It sounds like a tedious process — and it looks like it when you’re perched haphazardly on a hill trying to capture the scene with a camera — but the actual production of the bubbly seems quick and painless.
You have to call ahead to Bottega to book a tasting at their winery, which is partway between Valdobbiadene and Venice, but it’s worth a stop as the Bottega family has filled the property with all types of Italian icons and art pieces. The seat of a shiny gold Vespa beckons in the front entrance. Sadly the motor has been removed, handy for stopping tourists from driving away on the thing. Above the tasting room there’s a museum of glassware, a showcase of the evolution in wine and grappa bottle design. Request a tour of the distillery and you’ll see the towering steel tanks used in the vinification process for Prosecco, which involves two fermentations and takes only 40 days to three months to complete. “Prosecco is an easy wine,” says one of Bottega’s winemakers during my tour. Compared to the lengthy process of making Champagne I understand why it’s considered easy — and why it’s so much more affordable.
But I found it’s also an easy wine to drink because it can accompany almost any type of food. As my travel companions and I criss-crossed Veneto, we drank Prosecco with scallops and branzino (sea bass) dishes at Villa Luppis, which began as a monastery in the 11th century. We had the bubbly with absolutely divine fried tortellini at L’Oco Marin, a hip, cozy osteria that’s worth the drive west to Verona. We drank it with the most comforting of comfort food — pumpkin purée wrapped in a crepe and baked — at Mela Cotogna, the local spot where Bottega employees often have lunch.
We drank it by the canals in Venice and on a terrace overlooking the hills of Valdobbiadene. We drank it as a spritz and as fizzy, cloudy fundum. It would seem the only time we didn’t drink it was with breakfast — though it someone had put down a glass in front of me, I probably would have taken a sip.
Hundreds of years of agricultural and culinary tradition can’t be wrong: Prosecco might not own the moniker Acqua di Vita, but it may as well.
This story ran in the National Post (May 9, 2015)