Last fall I attended an unusual tasting event at the Nino Franco winery in the town of Valdobbiadene. Trenta Brindisi al Prosecco Primo Franco celebrated thirty years of producing the company’s eponymous prosecco. The wine was something of a groundbreaker when it was first introduced in 1983 and, appropriately enough, so was the tasting that followed.
Primo Franco, creator of the wine, kicked off the evening by giving the audience—comprised mostly of journalists, sommeliers, friends and a handful of other wine producers—a bit of background.
“I didn’t set out to be a winemaker; I thought I was going to be an architect,” he began by saying. “I finally entered the family business in 1973. Ten years later, I came across a bottle of prosecco made by my grandfather that had been forgotten in the cantina. It had been made in 1956. I thought ‘this wine will surely be shot but maybe we can at least use it to make risotto.’ Then I tasted it. Much to my surprise, not only was the wine drinkable, it was enjoyable—still fresh and alive after almost thirty years. We had it with our dinner that evening rather than in it.
“This made a big impression on me,” he continued. “It changed my idea about prosecco and what it could be. I wanted to make a wine like that. And so, after the harvest of 1983, prosecco Primo Franco was born. It was an experiment. We did many of the things my grandfather (and others in the area) did—using grapes from one particular plot and from one vintage, and adding a fairly high amount of sugar (typically 27-30 grams per liter) to make a ‘dry’ prosecco—combined with the tools of modern technology. And we are still doing it, though each year is new and we are constantly making small changes and refinements, both in the vineyard and in the winery.”
“Okay, let’s taste.”
It’s takes a certain amount of gumption to hold a sit-down tasting of old wines to an audience of wine critics and producers, especially old wines that were never really intended for extensive aging. But Primo Franco is not lacking in confidence.
One by one, the wines were poured into the eight empty glasses sitting on the paper placemat in front of us, from the most recent to the very oldest: 2013, 2003, 1992, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1984 and 1983.
The range of hues ran the full gamut, from the almost transparent pale straw of the 2013 through the golden caramel of the hot vintage of 2003 to the amber amontillado-like color of the older wines, coming full circle with the faded-to-almost-clear 1983.
Effervescence, on the other hand, showed a steady softening from the ebullient 2013 to the practically bubble-less 1983. In between, the wines had more or less of a gentle fizz that echoed their other flavor components, while also conferring on them a subtle sense of liveliness that came across like a whisper of ‘yes, we are still here!’ just before the finish.
As for the wines themselves, each had something different to offer: the fresh wildflower and cut-grass aroma of the 2013; the restrained orange-peel fruit and dried mushroom earthiness of the still very solid 1989 (which, I thought, would pair quite nicely with roast squab or seared duck breast and foie gras); or the 1986, with its light but persistent effervescence, roasted chestnut honey palate and slightly bitter preserved-lemon finish.
This was new for me. I had never tasted prosecco this old before and came away from the tasting with three surprises: The first was that all of these proseccos—a wine generally considered to be drunk within the first year or two after its release—were not only still drinkable (though the older ones showed their age with a certain amount of pleasant oxidation) but also, on some level, interesting and enjoyable. Second, that the high level of sugar was not readily apparent in the flavor profile of any of them including, even, the youngest. (What role, I wondered, does the amount of sugar play in the wine’s capacity to age?) And, finally, despite the thirty-year time span and radically different vintages in which the eight wines were made, there was a common stylistic thread running through all of them.
Others in the audience were surprised too. Hyperbole flowed as abundantly as the wine. One person used the word ‘magical’ and another ‘revelation.’ Someone suggested that the 1983 was like a Grand Cru burgundy and another compared it to an old-vine Riesling. Yet someone else said it was a shame so few people had the opportunity to taste old proseccos like these and that he untended to lay aside some cases of 2013 for twenty or thirty years.
That’s when the host took back the microphone and explained that the purpose of the tasting (besides celebrating the thirtieth birthday of his trailblazing ‘child’) was not so much to demonstrate that should be aged for a long time, but rather that it could, that it was not merely a wine that had to be consumed within a year or two of its release.
“Drink prosecco young,” said Primo, “we need to sell it! But if you happen to overlook some bottles in the cellar, don’t throw them away—you can drink them; you might even be pleasantly surprised.”
On that note, the tasting adjourned, but the prosecco continued to flow freely throughout the night at a gala dinner party in the Villa dei Cedri. And, after walking around pouring large-format bottles of Primo Franco 1991 and 1993, the host removed his jacket and tie and spent the rest of the night on the dance floor, suggesting that Primo’s prosecco was not the only thing with a surprising capacity to withstand the passage of time.