Once upon a time I was not a fan of Prosecco, even today, despite my personal motto (“If it doesn’t sparkle, it doesn’t matter!”) I remain relatively reluctant to relish in its renown. I know that is not a popular sentiment as Prosecco has never been as trendy as it is today, with nearly every wine writer and sommelier extolling its virtues as if drinking it were some sort of religious experience.
For me, most of the Prosecco that reaches the US is either overly sweet, quite bitter, or some awful combination. No thanks. Yes, it is usually one third (or at least one half) the price of champagne, but those who claim that Prosecco is as good as champagne (and there are some kooks who claim it is better) are just aiming to be contrarian.
Well, that changed about a year ago when I had lunch in New York with Silvia Franco, of Nino Franco (there were two other lovely people at that lunch: Lisa Anselmi and Mary Anne Sullivan, but their stories are for another time). There, Silvia poured three of the wines made by her father, Primo, who has been running the winery since 1982.
While I like to think that I am not so easily swayed, my opinion on Prosecco shifted almost immediately after tasting those Nino Franco wines. They did not possess any of the aforementioned detriments that I associated with the region. Instead, they did show fantastic fruit, considerable depth, and even gravitas.
Fast forward about six months when I was invited on a press trip to Northern Italy. I decided to extend my stay for another week and visit a few more wineries with my wife who flew over once the press trip had ended. On the top of the list of wineries to see was Nino Franco in Valdobbiadene.
Silvia suggested we stay at Villa Barberina, the bed and breakfast run by her mother, Annalisa. Villa Barberina is an amazing place–an 18th Century villa adjacent to Nino Franco’s prized vineyard, Grave di Stecca. Primo initially leased the vineyards in the 1990s, but then started to gradually purchase vineyards–the first in the family run business, which was started in 1919, to do so. The building itself became available in the early 2000s at which point the Francos snatched it up with the idea of converting it into a bed and breakfast.
After checking in, we climbed into Silvia’s SUV for a quick tour of the Valdobbiadene appellation. I have been to many wine regions spanning three continents, over a dozen countries, and innumerable appellations and I have never experienced any like Valdobbiadene. It is both stunning and incredible in the sense of unbelievable.
The vineyards in the DOCG are planted on steep, really steep hillsides, so steep in fact that it truly seems physically impossible to farm them. Once we arrived at Cartizze, one of the more well-known vineyards in Valdobbiadene, I indicated to Silvia that I just did not understand, given the difficulty of farming the vineyards, how anybody could produce a Prosecco that costs $10-12 on the shelves in the U.S.
“That’s just it,” she said, “they can’t. The cheaper wines are made on the valley floor and are farmed and picked almost entirely by machines. Up here, as you can see, we have to do everything by hand, which makes the wines more expensive, but we also think they are of much higher quality” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
After visiting a few more vineyards, Silvia dropped us back off at Villa Barberina, where we had a bit of time to peruse the grounds before our scheduled dinner with Primo and Annalisa.
Primo drove up into the hills to a restaurant surrounded by vines where the regional meals were made from locally sourced ingredients, the wine list was impressive, and the food was outstanding.
The conversation though, which meandered from children (and grandchildren) to skiing (Primo was quite the skier, apparently, as are both of his daughters), to Texas and beyond. Before we knew it, several hours (and a few bottles) had been consumed, and we headed back to Villa Barberina with contented bellies and the knowledge that we were fortunate enough to have just dined with two of the nicest people in Italy.
The following morning, we met Silvia at the winery for a quick tour and a tasting of the Nino Franco lineup.
Prosecco, by law, has to be composed of at least 85% Glera and can be blended with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, but all of Nino Franco’s appellate Proseccos are 100% Glera. The winery only exports the DOCG wines (the higher quality Prosecco), of which 85% is Rustico, their flagship wine.
Before we started with the finished Proseccos, we tasted the still base wine for Primo Franco (yes, named after the current head of the winery–a tradition that started with his father), one of their top-level wines. Silvia stressed that the first fermentation (like almost all sparkling wines, Prosecco goes through two fermentations–the first converting the grape must into wine, the second capturing the bubbles–which in Prosecco is done in stainless still tanks) is very important as they strive to make a fantastic still wine before making it sparkle.
The base wine had a bit of citrus, a slight nuttiness (walnut?), and was rather tart, but it was quite tasty. The alcohol was low (9.5%) with no residual sugar. After visiting the vineyards, dining with Primo and Annalisa, and chatting with Silvia, I looked at the still wine in my glass and knew that I was experiencing the heart of Valdobbiadene.
All that was missing was the bubbles.
Which were next.
Since I had tasted Rustico many times already, Silvia focused on those wines that I may have not tried before….
N.V. Nino Franco Brut: Cousin of the Rustico, for which they only use five of the ten vineyards that go into Rustico. 25k bottles produced and the only wine from Nino Franco that comes in half bottles. A bit sweeter on the nose with some biscotti notes. Wonderfully balanced. Delightful. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2012 Nino Franco Grave di Stecca: Left on lees for six months after the first fermentation employing battonage until the second fermentation. The wine is usually bottled a year after vintage, and then held another two years before release. According to Silvia, the contact with the lees causes the wine to close a bit so it needs time to open after pulling the cork. Unique aromas for a Prosecco: lime and white stone fruit with a bit of flintiness, wonderfully dry with just a hint of the 7g of sugar. Again, unique when it comes to the region. A wine to seek out. Seriously. Find some. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2008 Nino Franco Grave di Stecca: A few shades darker. Very complex and expressive nose of caramel, almost a Werther’s candy, or even butterscotch. Same flavors on the palate with even some coconut. I defy anyone to identify this wine blind. Gorgeous. Outstanding+. 93-95 Points.
2015 Faìve Rosé: This can’t be called Prosecco as rosé is not allowed in appellation. 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc. Base wines are purchased from a friend with the second fermentation done at Nino Franco. 16 hours of skin contact. A bit closed on the nose with some rhubarb and cherry. On the palate the red fruit really comes out. Rounder and richer than the others. Very nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2015 Nino Franco Primo Franco: Shortly after his father died, Primo went down into the cellar and found a 26-year-old bottle which was surprisingly high in residual sugar. He blended it with some base wine to come up with the idea for the Primo. Citrus is prevalent, as is a touch of sweetness. On the palate, this is certainly sweet, but nothing crazy as the 28 grams of sugar seems to be in balance. Nice. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Nino Franco Superiore di Carteze: Creamier on the nose and more refined on the palate. Whoa. Green apple is predominant but there are a host of flavors. This has a relatively high level of residual sugar (30g), but it really does not come off that way. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
Near the end of the tasting, Silvia asked us what year of Primo Franco we would like to try. A bit stumped, we settled on the birth year of our older son, Nathan. And we were glad we did.
2003 Nino Franco Primo Franco: Darker color with that aged, slightly sherried nose that I crave, but it had lost a bit of effervescence and the sweetness comes through. Silvia called this a more “contemplative” wine and she’s right: It causes you to slow down and reflect a bit. Not just about the year it was produced, but also about the layered flavors and the emotions it provokes. And the hills. The crazy hills that produced the fruit. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
We regrettably had to leave Nino Franco at that point as we had a few more adventures waiting for us in Venice, but as we pulled out of the drive, I knew that my view on Prosecco had evolved. Once upon a time I felt that the wines were at best mediocre, but leaving Nino Franco, I realized I had just been drinking the wrong wines.