The good, the bad, and the bubbly
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When you think about popping a bottle of sparkling wine, you’re probably thinking about Champagne. But there’s a lot more out there than France’s prized bubbly. The world is filled with delicious, quality sparkling wines that aren’t Champagne. There’s cava from Spain, espumante from Portugal, and then there’s prosecco from Italy, the real MVP. Affordable, tasty, easy-to-find, prosecco is one of the wine world’s most underappreciated gifts, particularly since there’s a lot of subpar prosecco out there diluting our opinion of it. I asked experts to weigh in on what makes good prosecco, how to avoid the bad stuff, and what to stock up on for our drinking pleasure.

What prosecco is and why it's affordable

So what is prosecco? “Just like everything in wine, there's a long answer and a short answer,” says Theo Greenly, sommelier at Sotto in Los Angeles. “The short answer is that prosecco is a sparkling wine from Northern Italy. The long answer is that prosecco is a controlled designation of origin wine (DOC) made from at least 85% Glera grapes that comes from nine different provinces around the Veneto and Friuli–Venezia Giulia regions.”

Once upon a time, prosecco’s main grape had a different name. “It was previously known as the prosecco grape,” says Matthew Kaner, wine director and owner of Good Measure in Los Angeles. “Glera is the name of the grape grown to produce prosecco, as they did DNA testing to find its origin in the village of Prosecco.”

In addition to where prosecco is from and its grape makeup, it’s also important to note how it’s made. “Prosecco is typically made using the Charmat (or Tank) method for creating its bubbles,” says John Slover, the corporate beverage director for Major Food Group in New York. “This involves carbonating a tank of wine with a high pressure CO2 mechanism—this is quick, cheap, and easy to do (hence the lower price point).”

That quick and cheap production method hasn’t always lead to the best wines, which hasn’t been great for prosecco’s reputation. “Most people know it as this light easy quaffable sparkling wine that they can drink on it’s own or make Mimosas and Spritz with it. There is so much more to this story and it is a region/wine that has a huge disparity in what it has to offer,” says Austin Bridges, wine and spirits director of Portland’s Nostrana and Enoteca Nostrana. “Some rooted in tradition and some rooted in commercialism, the trend is changing though and there are more and more producers that are making really thoughtful wines from the area. I have been watching this change over the past 15 years and my ideas of what prosecco is and what it can be are completely different today.”

To enhance their wines, some prosecco producers use the Méthode Champenoise to create bubbles. “This is where the carbonation comes from a secondary fermentation in bottle,” Slover says. “This is slow and difficult, so the wines are higher priced. But because of branding, these wines are still not close to the cost of Champagne.”

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What kind of prosecco is out there?

There isn’t one kind of prosecco. “Firstly, there are three sweetness levels: Brut (up to 12 grams/liter of sugar), Extra Dry (12-17 grams/liter of sugar) and Dry (17-32 grams/liter of sugar). It is counterintuitive to think of dry prosecco as the sweetest, but super important to know,” says Fundamental LA’s wine director, Alicia Kemper. “Beyond the sweetness, there is also the DOC/DOCG variance. DOCG tends to be higher quality and smaller production,” she says. “The DOCG's in prosecco are Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore, Colli Asolani, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Rive, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze.”

How to spot bad prosecco

Whether you’re picking up prosecco to throw it in a mimosa or drinking it straight, you’ll want to find the best bottle for your budget and avoid the bad stuff. What is bad prosecco? “It is that homogenous mass produced prosecco that we most commonly find everywhere. It might taste OK to begin but as it warms it will get harder to drink and if you drink to much of it, you are really going to feel the pain,” Bridges says. “These are industrial wines and there is a reason they can be on every grocery store shelf across America because they make A LOT of it. They use commercial yeast, tons of sulfur and they lack a sense of place or soul.”

It’s not the grapes that are to blame. “Bad prosecco is a product of cheap production methods in which sugar (not from grapes) is added and or acidified to achieve perceived freshness, and rather than letting natural fermentation occur carbonation is added like soda,” says Iris Rowlee, wine director of Perbacco in San Francisco. “These methods often lead to big, not lasting bubbles and a flabby taste.”

How to spot good prosecco

It’s important to smell your prosecco. “Trust your nose. How does it make you feel? When you drink it, is it something you savor,” Bridges says. “But more specifically what makes a good prosecco is the fruit and where it is from and who is making the wine. Thoughtful, sustainable farming practices, native yeast fermentation, grower wines.” Bridges urges prosecco shoppers to look at who makes the wine, how involved are the winemakers in the vineyards they’re using, and what winemaking practices they follow. “We should all be asking ourselves these questions and researching what we are putting in our bodies. Wine is one of those foods that we don’t have to put everything every ingredient on the bottle. Discover wines that are made by people and not machines. You will find more connection to the place it comes from and you will feel better drinking it.”

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Prosecco buzzwords

When you’re scouring the shelves of your local supermarket or wine shop, pay attention to key terms on prosecco labels. “Look for the names Valdobbiadene and Conegliano on the label,” Slover says. “These are the traditional hometowns, so to speak, of prosecco in terms of quality and prestige.” It’s important to look out for the DOC and DOCG markings, not just for measuring quality but for making sure it’s actually genuine prosecco. “Nobody wants to support a cheater. Prosecco is one of the most falsified wines around the world,” Rowlee says. “DOC is a reference to the idea of a ‘controlled designation of origin’ and prosecco, named for a town, Prosecco, near Trieste the capital of the state of Friuli in the corner of North eastern Italy, can only be made in this area and neighboring Veneto. Both of the grand crus or DOCGs for this wine are found in the heart of the Veneto, and it is here that proseccos of the highest regard are made.”

Don’t get overwhelmed by the process, and ask for help from the pros when available. “Shopping for wine should be fun. There's a lot of great wine out there and always something new to try,” says LA’s Skylar Hughes, sommelier at Rossoblu. “I like to talk with whoever is tending the store, they can usually guide you even if you don't know what you are looking for. I prefer old-school and natural wines because they speak to tradition and place, and because I don't want anything extra added into what I'm drinking. These are guidelines that can help you narrow down the field and because these aspects aren't usually printed on a label, the shopkeeper can help direct you.”

A few bottles to buy

Bisol “Crede” ~$20
“I am a huge fan of Bisol for the more traditional prosecco,” Kaner says. “Bisol is now a partnership between the original founders and the owners of Ferrari in Trentodoc who have been making sparkling wine in Alto Adige since 1903. So much history.” The Bisol family has been around the region since the 16th century, living between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites. “Crede is named for the soil in the vineyards, which translates convincingly into the wine,” Slover says.

Sorelle Bronca “Particella 68” ~$20
Sisters Antonella and Ersiliana Bronca have been making a sommelier-favorite prosecco since the vines were passed down to them from their father Livio Bronca. “Sisters make this wine at the base of the Dolomites from one steep hillside plot of Glera,” Rowlee says. “The wine is fresh, clean and speaks of it’s terrior.”

Casa Coste Piane “Frizzante” ~$23
Wine insiders love Casa Coste Piane’s whole deal. “Hands down my favorite producer is Casa Coste Piane. They have 60-plus-year-old vines in limestone-rich soils. All native yeast and they use they reintroduce the fermented lees to the wine at bottled for secondary fermentation,” says Bridges. “They are one of the unique producers that use Method Traditional to make the their bubbly goodness. It is soulful, lively, fresh, terroir driven, and delicious with all types of food.”

Bele Casel Prosecco “Colfòndo” ~$46
“Bele Casel is a family of farmers that uses a field blend of indigenous varietals from the hills outside of the medieval village of Asolo to produce old-school, fresh and vibrant prosecco,” says Hughes. “Like all great prosecco, it's a wine for all occasions: on its own to celebrate or to help cut through rich foods like cured meats and cheeses, even pasta and items from the grill. Sparkling wines can help keep things fresh and lively throughout a meal. In my house, we drink this one straight through dessert.” Greenly is on the same page. “Bele Casel is my favorite producer right now,” he says. “Col fondo means ‘with the bottom’ because the unfiltered sediment gathers at the bottom of the bottle. It is super fresh and almost cider-like, with green apple notes and white flowers.”