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Why the steepest slopes often yield the best wines

In the Prosecco region and beyond, great effort comes with great reward.

By Nina Caplan

The famous riposte to the question of why someone might want to climb Everest, “because it’s there”, is usually attributed to Edmund Hillary, the first confirmed person to make it to the top and back down again alive. Despite my respect for this extraordinary achievement, I have always found the faux casualness of “the most famous three words in mountaineering” slightly distasteful, as if Hillary had just strolled along a Nepalese street, spotted a mountain and sauntered up to the peak. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course – and the words are not Hillary’s anyway. It was George Mallory, who attempted the climb in the 1920s, who made the comment, and it wasn’t flippant. “If you cannot understand that… the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward,” he also said, “then you won’t see why we go.”

I think of this often in vineyards, where life struggling upward is on display in every reaching vine, especially on steeper hillsides. Many of the world’s best wines come from slopes that no right-minded person would plant on. Above the Mosel river in Germany or the Rhône in France, the plants behave like aspiring mountaineers, and the winemakers must, too. There may not be sub-zero temperatures or the dangers of altitude sickness, but instead there is soil stripped of its river-level fertility and gradients that make machine-harvesting impossible. Although, if the project is as quixotic as Hillary’s or Mallory’s, at least the results are more tangible. You cannot drink glory.

The Prosecco DOC (the quality designation denominazione di origine controllata) is on the flatlands. Above, between the medieval towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, rise vertiginous hills topped with churches that we find beautiful partly because of the struggle that Mallory cited – one that lives dormant in even the most unadventurous of us. This is Prosecco DOCG. The G stands for garantita, or guaranteed, an irony in that there are a lot more guarantees at sea level.

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The fertile lands below produce more than 620 million cheap bottles a year, many of them fairly sweet (the terminology is confusing: Dry and Extra Dry are in fact less dry than Brut and Extra Brut). The price is partly down to the Charmat method – inducing the second, bubble-producing fermentation in a steel tank is a lot less time-consuming than the bottle fermentation that Champagne and other sparkling wines demand – although even producers of the best DOCG Prosecco maintain that their grape, Glera, responds well to this process.

The quality of the DOCG wines was a great surprise to me, although it probably shouldn’t have been: nobody tends slopes this steep unless they believe profoundly that the results will be worth the effort. Look, on labels, for the word “Cartizze”, the chalky south-facing hill that is considered the best terroir of the region, or for “Rive”, which refers to specific vineyards that are the most inaccessible and hard to tend – and therefore the most prized.

DOCG Prosecco winemakers, such as Christian Zago of Ca’ dei Zago or Maurizio Favrel of Malibran, don’t risk their lives like Hillary or Mallory, but they are in no danger of making them easy, either. Both men harvest by hand. Maurizio vinifies each plot separately; Christian has a tiny hillside winery beside his house, and two cows to provide manure for the vineyards. His family has made wine here for at least five generations: “We have the possibility to change everything, but we don’t do that,” he told me.

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Those churches on every hilltop were once, for the faithful, a reminder that Heaven – another peak, of sorts – would compensate the virtuous. Great rewards still require great effort, although many of us today prefer to find them in bottles rather than houses of worship. That is the real guarantee in a DOCG: it is a flag planted on a summit. Hard work has been expended on these slopes, for many reasons – the least of which is because they are there.

[See also: The Greeks were right about wine: it is the definition of civilisation]

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer