Few cities are more intimately acquainted with a drink than Venice is with prosecco. Produced mainly in the Veneto region, of which Venice is the capital, it is sipped in every back-street bacaro and plush hotel bar across town, whatever the hour. It provides the fizz in a bellini and tops up many a spritz as long Venetian afternoons give way to evening. Some places even have it on tap.
As I’ve come to the Veneto to learn more about this surgingly popular sparkling wine (Britons bought 85m bottles of prosecco last year; the UK market is expected to grow by more than 10% between now and 2020) it feels appropriate that Venice is my first stop. Indeed, it would be rude not to spend an afternoon dipping in and out of tiny wine bars around the city, getting a sense of how prosecco ought to be drunk, before heading inland to find out how it is made.
We begin at Cantina Do Mori, around the corner from the Rialto food market. This low-lit room, with copper pots hanging from the ceiling and a long counter laden with cicchetti (bar snacks), is said to be the oldest bacaro in Venice. One of my companions, Luca Dusi, who co-owns the east London wine distributor Passione Vino, orders a bottle of the house fizz while Maurilio Molteni, head chef at Tozi in Victoria, London – who is scouting for new sparkling wines to stock at his restaurant – negotiates the cicchetti.
The prosecco, which we drink out of coupe glasses, is a crisp, refined version of the often sickly sweet drink I know from back home. “Not bad,” says Luca, noting the flavour of Williams pear common to most types of prosecco. He takes another sip and raises a conspiratorial eyebrow. “But I think we can find better.”
Our next stop, in the university area of Dorsoduro, is a lovely little canal-side bar called Adriatico Mar, which specialises in food and wine from Italy’s coastal regions. The owner, Francesco Molinari, lays out a selection for us, beginning with a sublime baccalà (salt cod) crostini with pink peppercorns, which gets an approving nod from Maurilio. Although there’s no fizz here, I do try an interesting still wine made from glera, the prosecco grape. It has the grapefruit notes that you find in some proseccos but no sparkle and very little of the sweetness.
Luca is keen to show me yet another side of prosecco, one that has become increasingly popular in recent years, and so we slip out of Venice and drive north-east to Ponte di Piave. In this unassuming town on the Veneto flatlands, Carolina Gatti has been putting her stamp on the family winery since she took over in 2012. We visit her home amid the vineyards for dinner – pork ribs in red wine – and try her version of prosecco, which she produces col fondo, or unfiltered. The result is cloudy, due to the sediment in the bottle, and full-bodied, its robust apple and baked-bread flavours a world away from the delicate drink we had earlier at Do Mori.
Col fondo is not just a new trend: it’s how Carolina’s family has been making prosecco for generations. It is only in the past decade, since it started becoming fashionable outside the region, that she has started bottling it for public consumption. Carolina’s wines are magnificent – gutsy and complex – but by this stage I’m craving a bit of scenery. The next morning, we head north into the mountainous heart of prosecco country.
The area between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene is one of two regions where prosecco with the designation of origin DOCG is produced. It’s not necessarily better than DOC prosecco from the wider Veneto, explains Luca, but it tells you that the bubbles in your glass come from the heartlands, where prosecco has been made since the mid-19th century.
Encircling the region is the Strada del Prosecco, a 90km wine route that winds through villages and past ancient churches, castles and hermitages, as well as endless rows of neatly planted vines. We join it at Conegliano and head west, passing the Scuola Enologica, Italy’s oldest wine school, on our way out of town. The landscape gets progressively hillier towards Valdobbiadene and at a certain point the mist clears, revealing the snowy Dolomites in the far distance.
On a hilltop above Col San Martino, we pause to take in the dramatic view. Gazing out across the undulating landscape, it seems that every available inch of land, however steep, is planted with vines – it’s no surprise that the DOCG area yields 90m bottles of prosecco a year.
We descend to the town of Sernaglia della Battaglia, and stop by a little osteria on Via Roma. There’s no sign outside – it’s known locally as Silmava’s – and the interior is plain, with an old marble counter, red and yellow tiles on the floor and framed poems on the wall. The owner, Silmava Pillonetto, inherited the bar from her parents, who opened it 70 years ago. Cloudy prosecco is her thing, though Silmava notes that drinking habits have changed over the years and early-morning customers these days want coffee instead of wine. We have a couple of glasses of chilled col fondo to correct the balance, and head on, utterly charmed.
The final stop of our trip is Malibràn, a winery outside the town of Susegana, with its looming 13th-century castle of San Salvatore. Though his farm is several times larger than Carolina’s, Maurizio Favrel still harvests his grapes by hand. He walks us through the cellar, explaining how his col fondo is fermented in the bottle after an initial stage in a steel tank, whereas his filtered prosecco is tank-fermented all the way through.
After the tour, we retire to the estate kitchen, where Maurilio unpacks the vegetables and seafood we bought from the Rialto market the day before and gets cooking. As well as feeding us handsomely – with castraure artichokes, gratinated langoustine and a brodetto of sea bass and monkfish – Maurilio helps deliver the last and most important lesson of the trip. Prosecco shouldn’t be thought of as merely an aperitif. If it’s good enough and has a bit of col fondo character, as Malibràn’s cloudy Sottoriva does, you can drink it with all kinds of food.
You don’t have to be in a Venetian bacaro, or amid rolling vineyards in the Veneto, to appreciate this lesson, but it certainly isn’t a drawback if you are.
Way to go
Doubles at Casadisergio in Refrontolo from £80 B&B. In Venice, Hotel San Samuele has doubles from £70 room only. BA flies from Gatwick to Venice Marco Polo from £31 one way
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