Cartizze: Prosecco’s Peculiar Grand Cru
“Congratulations, you’ve been upgraded,” were the last words I wanted to hear when I walked up to the Economy Rent-A-Car kiosk at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. I’d intentionally reserved a sedan, knowing a car any larger would trigger my sweat-inducing acrophobia as I attempted to scale the hills of Valdobbiadene, whose roads are already two sizes too small. But if I wanted an automatic transmission, the upgrade was non-negotiable. So off me and my hatchback went.
I had one focus that afternoon: Cartizze, the “grand cru” vineyard of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, whose Proseccos are revered above all others. Cartizze stands majestically against Valdobbiadene’s undular landscape, its vines cascading down from precipitous cliffs. It’s difficult not to be moved by the slope’s sublimity—or, in my case, to prophesize one’s imminent death.
A few hours later, halfway up the mountain, I plugged my next destination into Apple Maps. I was headed to Col Vetoraz, whose facility crowns Cartizze’s peak. After a couple turns, the pavement transitioned to dirt, and it quickly became apparent that Siri wanted me to simply drive up the vineyard—near century-old vines be damned. I gave it a brief attempt, trying to squeeze my not-sedan through the vineyard’s aisle. This is rural Italy? I thought, before coming to my senses and realizing that even here, this couldn’t possibly be considered a road. With no space to turn around, I backed up for what felt like a mile, nearly taking out a row of Glera in the process.
To my relief, I left both myself and Cartizze unscathed, but the hazardous voyage served two lessons in understanding the vineyard. First, Cartizze is truly as steep as the textbooks say, and clearly impossible to mechanize. Second, beyond the inherent labor costs, Cartizze is purportedly the most expensive vineyard property in Italy. Not Barolo, not Montalcino, but Prosecco lays claim to Italy’s most valuable agricultural ground (although some now contest that figure). “Having a piece of land in Cartizze is like having a Ferrari in your garage,” explains Primo Franco, vintner at Nino Franco. And so, should I have driven off course and razed someone’s parcel, my bank account would have been drained for the foreseeable future to repay the damage.
The rolling hills of Valdobbiadene as viewed from Cartizze Alto (Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)
For producers in Prosecco, Cartizze is the most hallowed ground in a region witnessing unprecedented popularity. The 21st century has seen Prosecco dominate the sparkling wine space, outpacing Champagne production in 2013 and besting the French region in global sales by volume in 2018. Between 2013 and 2017, two of the top three imported sparkling wine brands came from Prosecco, with Champagne not surfacing until the sixth slot with Veuve Clicquot. So if Cartizze is Prosecco’s “grand cru,” why then have so many people nary even heard of the vineyard, let alone tasted its wines?
At the pinnacle of Prosecco’s quality pyramid, Superiore di Cartizze, as it is officially titled, is a menzione within the larger Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG—not its own separate appellation but a sub-category of wines from this top site. Curiously, it has received few of the same benefits as the lower rungs during the recent boom and largely remains neglected by the dialogue. Instead, Superiore di Cartizze offers a peculiar poster child for top Italian bubbles—and one whose fame remains predominately local, despite the vineyard’s acclaim and the land’s high price. While refining everything that is loved about Prosecco into a platonic ideal, Superiore di Cartizze also dodges many of the attributes so commonly assumed of the world’s greatest wines. This article examines the intricacies of Cartizze’s fabled slopes and the idiosyncrasies of the wines born from them.
The Golden Pentagon
Despite its lack of widespread recognition today, Cartizze enjoys a near millennium-long track record of viticultural renown. A 1362 document suggests that “Caurige,” what is presumably today’s Cartizze, had already earned regard as a suitable locale for successful grapegrowing. Another from 1408 speaks of vines bordering “aqua de Carticiis,” a stream whose location matches that 15th-century vineyard to today’s Cartizze. By 1542, the Bisol family, which remains Cartizze’s largest landowner (under ownership of the Lunelli Group), is recorded to have already owned vines on “Chartice.”
The etymology of Cartizze’s name continues to be cause for debate. Most commonly, historians suggest it derives from gardiz, a historic word in the local dialect for the drying racks used to make appassimento-style wines. Others believe Cartizze’s name originates with the word cardus, or “thistle,” a reference to the vineyard’s topography. It might also stem from carro, or “cart,” alluding to a wagon road through the area.
The Cartizze vineyard drapes itself in the shape of an upright pentagon across the hillsides of San Pietro di Barbozza, between Santo Stefano and Saccol, just two kilometers east of the town of Valdobbiadene. At the foot of the Cesen Mountain, Cartizze’s boundaries encircle 107.8 hectares of vineyards, partitioned between more than 100 growers—some estimate closer to 140. As such, individual parcels are small, and even among the most revered and successful producers of Prosecco, not all have a share of Cartizze. Any winery without a slice of the pedigreed property still typically wants a Cartizze in its portfolio and will piecemeal a series of contracts together until finding a family willing to sell. This most often occurs upon the threat of further sub-divided land when an already small plot is set to be inherited by the next generation, which may not be interested in viticulture. So was the case for Villa Sandi, for example, who did not get its hands on a Cartizze parcel of its own until 2007, although the estate maintains its grower relationships for a second Cartizze bottling.
Map courtesy of Consorzio di Tutela del Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene
Cartizze’s convex arc serves as a funnel, capturing cooling winds that descend from the Dolomites in the evening. During the day, warmer breezes move west from the Adriatic Sea, amplifying the diurnal swing. The entirety of the vineyard faces south, allowing Cartizze’s vines to capture maximum light and its grapes to ripen more than most in the region. To the eye, Cartizze’s slopes seem to approach verticality, and while the average gradient sits around 35%, its steepest sections surpass 60%—in line with the most dramatic vineyards of Côte-Rôtie or the Mosel. To farm, Cartizze proves immensely challenging, with labor costs high and mechanization unimaginable. “Usually, on average, there are more than 400 hours of work per hectare in the Cartizze area because from pruning to picking the grapes, everything is by hand,” explains Stefano Gava, Technical Director at Villa Sandi. Some vintners will estimate more than double that amount of time; while still less than that required for many top German Riesling producers, this is exceptionally high for Prosecco.
The borders of Cartizze were codified into law in 1969, the same year Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco was granted DOC status (the appellation was elevated to DOCG in 2009). Some contend that Cartizze was drawn too large, with the area representing the historic Cartizze vineyard constrained to the upper parcels. Today, Cartizze can be divided into three rather heterogeneous sub-zones: Cartizze Alto, which roughly corresponds to the original perceived limits of Cartizze, and beneath, Cartizze Est (East) and Cartizze Ovest (West).
Many producers of Prosecco still attest that the best Cartizze grapes come from the highest parcels, or Cartizze Alto, an area extending from roughly 230 to 320 meters above sea level. Its boundaries are easy to observe, consisting of the tip of the pentagon, and ending with the Strada per Saccol, a road that marks its meeting with Cartizze Est and Ovest. At the summit of the hill, Cartizze Alto faces greater exposure than the lower sections, and with the near-constant winds, Cartizze Alto also experiences a narrower window of temperatures each day. The thermal range, though, is slightly higher, as cool air sinks to the bottom of the slopes. For this reason, buds break earlier in Cartizze Alto than they do further downhill. Cartizze Alto can itself be broken up into upper and lower halves. The slope of the upper portion begins to taper off, allowing for deeper soils, primarily consisting of calcarenitic sandstone. Beneath, Cartizze Alto plunges to its steepest, most Mosel-esque gradients, where marl soils only achieve shallow depths with less water retention.
The steepest parcels of Cartizze Alto (Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)
Continuing into Cartizze Est and Cartizze Ovest, as the vineyard continues to flatten off, the soils grow deeper and less marly, with pockets of calcium carbonate—ultimately resulting in less drainage and a higher crop. These sections roughly extend between 180 and 230 meters above sea level. Cartizze Est and Ovest are primarily differentiated from one another through their exposure, with the former facing southwest and the latter southeast. The increased sunlight hours in Cartizze Ovest result in warmer daytime temperatures, while Cartizze Est has the widest daily oscillations in temperature of all of Cartizze. Wines derived from Cartizze Est tend to display slightly less aroma than those hailing from the other two sections.
Vines are trellised high in Cartizze, and most utilize doppio capovolto, or “double-arched,” training, in which two canes are bent down toward the trunk of the vine, forming the shape of a heart. Analogous to doppelbogen (“double bow”) training in the Mosel, the method is said to reduce vigor and is well suited to steep hillsides with low water retention. On the lower slopes of Cartizze Est and Ovest, vintners might use Sylvoz training, where a series of canes are positioned downward from a larger, permanent arm—a training method that supports the greater yields of these gentler sloped, more fertile grounds.
Cartizze’s Grapes & Wines
As with both Prosecco DOC and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG, Glera must constitute a minimum 85% of the blend for Superiore di Cartizze, and most producers will vinify monovarietal expressions. Several argue that Glera presents itself best this way, with Ian D’Agata in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy going so far as to proclaim, “Modern-day Prosecco allows only a maximum 15 percent of Bianchetta Trevigiana and Verdiso combined, and the wine is none the better for it.” Nonetheless, these other grapes do grow on the Cartizze hill, along with Perera and Glera Lungo. The latter will typically be interplanted throughout the Veneto and Friuli with Glera, from which it is genetically distinct and less vigorous, providing a spicier nuance to the Prosecco blend. Historically, Verdiso and Bianchetta Trevigiana shared equal parts with Glera in the composition of Prosecco before the appellation laws were written. When used in Prosecco and Cartizze today, Verdiso is most commonly employed to enhance acidity, and Bianchetta Trevigiana to enhance structure. Perera, which neared extinction in the 1970s, can intensify aroma.
Despite Cartizze’s intense luminosity throughout the growing season, grapes are typically harvested between one and two weeks later than the rest of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene area. In consequence, these are some of the ripest clusters in the whole of Prosecco—and by law the highest minimum required alcohol of all Prosecco at 11.5 %. But a high natural acidity, made possible through the vineyard’s altitude and diurnal shift, helps offset the augmented sugar and resulting alcohol. Once Cartizze’s grapes reach the cellar, they’re treated much the same as those throughout the rest of Prosecco. DOCG law mandates that the base wine must be vinified within the boundaries of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, so wineries outside the appellation are forced to receive juice from their grower contracts, rather than newly picked grapes.
With few exceptions, Superiore di Cartizze is crafted utilizing the Martinotti, or Charmat, method, where secondary fermentation occurs in pressurized tanks, or autoclave, rather than bottle, as is the case with Champagne, Crémant, Cava, and others. Like most Proseccos, Superiore di Cartizze’s unfermented must or base wine is chilled in storage until the winery chooses to release more product. Accordingly, the autoclave will perform a secondary fermentation at several points throughout the year, so that, like even the most basic Prosecco, any Cartizze found on the market will hopefully be the freshest available.
Due to the ripeness of the grapes, Superiore di Cartizze is traditionally bottled dry, meaning 17 to 32 grams per liter of residual sugar (the same required metrics for Prosecco DOC and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG) and typically at the upper half of that range. While a Champagne might already taste saccharine to many palates once dosage teeters into the sec range, Superiore di Cartizze masks its sugar well, the density of its orchard fruit profile and heady perfume overpowering the impression of sweetness. At most, the wine will taste off-dry, just a notch sweeter than a lower-tier Prosecco, whose residual sugar will more likely sit within the extra dry spectrum of 12 to 17 grams per liter. Still, some producers have translated trends toward dryness and a blossoming interest in Prosecco col fondo (made through either the ancestral method or through undergoing a secondary fermentation in bottle, but without disgorgement) into their Cartizze range. Villa Sandi produces its top Cartizze wine, the estate Vigna la Rivetta, as brut, though still using the Charmat method. Bisol, on the other hand, releases a small amount of non dosato (zero dosage), a rare metodo classico Cartizze that undergoes its secondary fermentation in bottle.
Big In Italy
Although Cartizze’s positioning provides a paradigmatic environment for the best Proseccos, its local reverence and especially its unmatched real estate value can appear confusing, as neither necessarily translates into widespread market recognition. Most Prosecco producers will contend that Cartizze is “big in Italy,” with domestic sales scarfing up the majority of its stock. Indeed, many of Prosecco’s biggest names bottle their Cartizze in such small quantities that only a handful of cases will see the export market, and several, such as Nino Franco and Adami, refrain from shipping their Cartizze wines to the United States. And admittedly, supply is limited, with approximately 1.5 million bottles in 2016. That’s just over 1.6% of the year’s production within Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG, itself already a sliver of the larger Prosecco industry.
Even among the bottles that do make it to export, Primo Franco still describes them as a hand-sell. For one, the wine is sweeter than most, a quality often viewed as a detractor in today’s fallacious “dry wine is better wine” culture. Even for those who enjoy a healthy dose of residual sugar, the sweetness of Cartizze might slow consumption when compared to drier sparkling wines, or ones less alcoholic, like Moscato d’Asti. In Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, Tom Stevenson goes as far as to write, “A Dry Cartizze is a delightful wine but, due to the sweetness, one glass is enough.”
Furthermore, the wine’s formal name is simply “Superiore di Cartizze.” While “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano Valdobbiadene” also will typically feature on the front label of a Superiore di Cartizze, “Prosecco” rarely gets top billing, if printed at all. Should a Prosecco enthusiast walk into a wine shop seeking out the best bottle around, it would be easy to overlook a Cartizze, even if one happens to be on the shelf.
But such circumstances are already unlikely. More plausibly, many might find it hard to muster much desire for a hyper-premium Prosecco altogether. The best fizz the region has to offer isn’t the same stuff that has propelled the category to international success. A consumer on the prowl for a Mimosa or Bellini mixer shouldn’t turn to a bottle of Cartizze—the more innocuous froth will do the trick.
That’s not to say there isn’t interest in more premium Prosecco. In 2017, Prosecco costing more than $14 comprised only 10.8% of the category’s total sales, but the retail price of those wines grew 39.6% from the previous year, more than any other price bracket. The introduction of the Rive classifications indicates an attentiveness to site specificity in the appellation, and an interest in historic pre-Martinotti methods (alongside the current fashion of pét-nat wines) has made way for the rising visibility of Prosecco col fondo. Both styles command a premium, but not typically at the level of Cartizze.
Producers will often point to cost as the factor preventing more people enjoying Cartizze. After all, much of Prosecco’s market appeal is the lower barrier of entry versus other sparklers. Comparatively speaking, however, Cartizze also appears astonishingly affordable. Bisol’s and Col Vetoraz’s can usually be purchased in the $30 to $40 range at retail in the US, as can those of many other wineries. Only the most entry-level of Champagne is sold at those prices. “For the Prosecco, there is not a big space for margin . . . and also in the Cartizze. It is the philosophy of the area to not push too much,” explains Gianluca Bisol. Considering the unparalleled property value and the arduous labor on Cartizze’s vertiginous slopes, all of a sudden, the price tag seems impossible.
Bisol’s share of Cartizze Alto (Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)
And yet Cartizze doesn’t behave like most other fine wines. Producers project the same ethos onto their Cartizze wines that they do the rest of their Proseccos—emphasizing above all else fresh and immediate consumption. Considering that Cartizze producers commonly vinify their wines as the market demands them, it’s clear most want the wines drunk young. Some producers claim that bottle development will occur in a Cartizze wine, but whether that evolution is positive is a point of debate. Primo Franco, for example, asserts, “Every wine, it doesn’t matter if it is Cartizze, Prosecco, or Pinot Grigio, Soave, or white wine from Friuli or from Alto Adige . . . if you work well, it will age.” On the other hand, Alessio Del Savio, the head winemaker at Mionetto, counters that “there is no potential” for aging. “The longer you have the Cartizze stored, there’s the tendency toward honey. And this means the sweetness of the honey would be louder than the taste and the smell of the perfumes of fruits and flowers,” he continues—the sweetness of Cartizze finally overpowering the concentration of its flavors.
In that vein, Superiore di Cartizze is an oddball, the rare category of sparkling wine that approaches greatness completely untethered to the image of Champagne. To some degree, the success of Franciacorta, Cava, and many of the New World’s sparkling wines are measured in their ability to mold themselves into the profile of the famous French delicacy—so much so that correcting vocabularies where “Champagne” and “sparkling wine” mistakenly remain synonymous seems an insurmountable battle.
In the introductory chapter to The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil lists “nine attributes of greatness” shared by all extraordinary wines: distinctiveness, balance, precision, complexity, beyond fruitness, length, choreography, connectedness, and ability to evoke an emotional response. Jancis Robinson proposes longevity as the foremost unifying attribute of wine’s highest tier. She writes in a 2013 article, “To be great, I think most wines need to demonstrate that they are capable of changing for the better in bottle.” If you type the name of any beloved wine luminary in Google’s search bar followed by “what makes a great wine,” you’ll likely come to some article where they pontificate on the subject.
While I’ll contribute no such definition of my own today, the question stayed with me as I tasted my way through Cartizze. The category certainly checks more boxes off of MacNeil’s lists than it does Robinson’s—and with the myriad definitions of fine or great wine put forth by our industry’s thought leaders, Cartizze seems to average 50/50 in passing their collective barometers. Can a wine be great if its shelf life is so ephemeral? Can an entire category be great if its apex of achievement doesn’t meet the most common of criteria?
Considering the vastness of the world of wine—an industry that encompasses as disparate entities as Eiswein and Uruguayan Tannat, Manzanilla and Pinotage—it’s easy to imagine how “fineness” or “greatness” might not merit a universal definition. Cartizze does not offer the same things as Chambertin, Cerequio, or Clos du Mesnil. It’s not a wine for which to seek out your birth vintage, nor one that might earn you a small fortune on the secondary market. But Cartizze and Krug do share something in common. If a tête de cuvée emblematizes the best Champagne has to offer by dialing up its component parts—grand cru grapes, leesiness, lengthy bottle age—then Cartizze does the same thing, just with Prosecco. If Prosecco is sweet, Cartizze is sweeter. If Prosecco is fruity, Cartizze is fruitier. Not only is Cartizze harvested from the best Glera vines Italy offers, in a way, it’s the most Prosecco-y Prosecco a person can enjoy.
The only winery physically operating on Cartizze, Col Vetoraz owns 1.6 hectares at the hill’s summit, which is blended with some purchased fruit. The enterprise wasn’t launched until 1993, but Francesco Miotto, who founded the winery with Paolo de Bartoli and Loris dall’Acqua, can trace his family’s history of farming on Cartizze to 1838. Col Vetoraz’s Cartizze offers structure and intensified flavors, where more confectionary notes are complicated by the faint sensation of sesame oil on the finish.