Francesco Drusian: Preserving the heritage of Prosecco DOCG
BIGOLINO di Valdobbiadene (TV) – Standing amidst rows of spring-fresh vines climbing the razorback hills rising steeply to of the pre-Alps of northeast Italy, Francesco Drusian smiles at the thought of this region becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“We did everything we could to preserve our heritage,” Drusian says, reaching out to a light-green shoot just opening to the April sun. “Now, it’s up to others to decide if we did enough.”
It’s only a few days past VinItaly and I’ve called on Francesco Drusian in hopes of learning more about Prosecco and Drusian’s place in the narrative of Italy’s popular yet oft-underappreciated sparkling wine.
I’ll post more about our discussions in the future.
Few people would argue Francesco Drusian has done as much as anyone to preserve his heritage and that of Prosecco.
According to Francesco, he’s the fourth generation of his family (the fifth, his daughter Marika, already is producing Prosecco DOCG under her own label) to make wine from these geometrically perfect vineyards overlooking the village of Bigolino, which itself lies on the north bank of the Fiume Piave near where the river cuts through the famed Valdobbiadene hills.
The winery began in the mid-19th Century with grandfather Giuseppe Drusian and then his son Rino making still wines. Francesco took over in 1984 and today the name Drusian connotes Prosecco Superiore DOCG, one of the best versions of the iconic Italian sparkling wine now soaring on a crest of popularity.
Francesco introduced sparkling wine to his winery in 1986, shortly after the autoclave afforded a way to control the secondary fermentation that gives Prosecco its sparkle and shortly before the world’s love affair with everything Italian became the tsunami we see today.
The advantages of the pressurized autoclave – including preserving bubbles and fresh flavors and reducing the labor and cost involved with metodo classico – suddenly made it possible for lovers of sparkling wine worldwide to enjoy a wine that is light, refreshing, food-friendly and surprisingly affordable.
“Prosecco DOC is the ultimate simple but sophisticated wine which personifies the unique Italian lifestyle” says the Prosecco DOC Consorzio website.
However, the international rush to adopt elements of the “Italian lifestyle” had its expected result: a flood of Prosecco, much of it poorly made and of dubious background (google “Paris Hilton prosecco”), hitting the market.
Even the very existence of a Prosecco DOC gives voice to the expansion, some say uncontrolled, of Prosecco as an industrial product.
By the mid-2000s, Prosecco, as with many other great things, had to be saved from its own success.
Francesco shudders when he thinks of what might have happened had not traditional Prosecco makers took a stand.
“We saw it changing,” he said, a frown etching across his forehead. “Our lifestyle, our territory but especially our heritage and our Prosecco.
“People here started making everything,” he said, rising up to look across the landscape that could tell a thousand stories of struggle and survival. “There was Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Bianco, Verduzzo, just everything.”
But Drusian held his ground and his vines.
“For the last 70 to 80 years, we’ve been making only Prosecco,” he said. “We want to preserve the ‘tipicitá’ of our territory.”
A decisive step came in 2009 when the hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene were designated as Prosecco Superiore DOCG, establishing special recognition to wines sourced from this quintessesential growing region. (The Prosecco Colli Asolani DOCG was established at the same time.)
An area outside the DOCG, including the entire region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia where vineyards dominate the landscape, was expanded from IGT to DOC and simultaneously the grape variety’s name was changed from Prosecco to “Glera,” an effort to make Prosecco more identifiable with a region.
As we moved into his tasting room with its view of the vineyards, the Piave and on towards Venice, about 80 kilometers to the south, Francesco emphasized his Prosecco contains 100-percent Glera, even though the Consorzio allows blending small amounts of Verdiso, Bianchetta and Perera..
“What sets us apart is we have our own grapes, we don’t buy other’s grapes,” Francesco said, pointing out at the 80 hectares (roughly 200 acres) surrounding the winery. “This is the difference, and it’s very important.”
He shrugged, then smiled.
“We make only Prosecco, with only Glera. I believe in our region and in our product.”
He left for a second or two and returned with a bottle of his Prosecco Superiore Brut, with nine grams of residual sugar and about 11 percent alcohol.
“It’s very fresh, only seven or eight days in the bottle,” he warned. “After 20 or 30 days it will become rounder, more harmonic.”
Even as young as it was, the wine was alive and fruity, with a brilliant perlage of microscopic bubbles.
“You see? It doesn’t explode in your mouth like the lesser Proseccos, it opens gradually,” Francesco said. “This gives it a sense of creaminess, a caress of smoothness. Prosecco is not meant to be a heavy wine.”
He said a wine’s history is revealed on the palate.
“When the harvest comes when the grapes are ready, we say the wine has the taste of (green) apples,” he noted as he looked approvingly into his glass. “When it’s a bit late, the wine changes a bit. Cartizze (Drusian has four hectares of the 107 that comprise this prized growing site near Valdobbiadene) is always harvested last, which gives it a unique flavor.”
Drusian exports about 100,000 bottles of his Prosecco Superiore DOCG annually to the U.S. (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky, Wyoming, Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas) and is looking to expand his market.
“I like the United States but they don’t understand good Prosecco,” he said with a laugh. “More communication and education needs to be done. It’s a diverse culture, just not a (Prosecco) culture.
“I would like to change that.”