As a young enology student less than a decade ago, Christian Zago learned that most Prosecco was akin to beer.
"They taught us that common Prosecco was something you drank and then pissed out," laughs Zago, 29, at his family's 91-year-old Ca' dei Zago winery in the hamlet of San Pietro di Barbossa.
His blue eyes widening, Zago counters that, within the gorgeous sloping hills of Valdobbiadene in the Prosecco Superiore zone, "We have some fantastic terroirs. The problem is that, to the public, it is all Prosecco."
Prosecco's image is changing, if slowly. And in a very short time of only five vintages, Zago has established himself as an important producer of what is known as traditional col fondo Prosecco.
Zago's single-vintage wines don't rely on the charmat method, dominant in Prosecco, in which the wines undergo secondary fermentation in large, pressurized steel tanks. His more rustic approach is similar to the metodo classico, used in Champagne, with the bubbles created by fermentation in bottle. The difference is that the resulting lees are not disgorged before sale. Instead they rest, somewhat murkily, at the bottom, or "col fondo," of the bottle.
"For me, it's the best way to bring the terroir to the table," says Zago, who also defines "best" as a minimal amount of filtering and sulfites and no enological corrections.
Zago, who lives with his wife and newborn above the winery and his grandmother's house, is both new wave and a traditionalist winemaker. His bone-dry sparkling wines—made without the sweetened dosage that finishes off most sparklers—are admired not just in natural wine circles, but also by veterans of the quality Prosecco movement, such as Primo Franco, who counts Zago among his favorite young Prosecco producers.
Zago's great-grandfather began making wine on the family farm in 1924. His grandfather made Prosecco with the col fondo method from the late 1950s until 2004, four years before his death. "Me and my sister learned from him from when I was seven," says Zago; his younger sibling is now a winemaker for Bortolotti in Valdobbiadene.
Zago finished his enology studies in 2010. After working an internship with Larry McKenna at New Zealand's Escarpment vineyard (which earned a spot in Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of 2015), he returned home to lead Ca' dei Zago—inspired by longtime col fondo producers such as Loris Follador of Casa Coste Piane.
Zago organically cultivates about 16 acres of Glera, Prosecco's signature variety, along with small amounts of other old local blending grapes. Half of his vineyards are too steep for tractors, requiring the work to be done by hand.
After an initial fermentation on wild yeasts in steel and cement tanks, the wine ages through winter; in spring, Zago bottles it, giving it just enough sugar and yeast so that it will ferment to bubbly and go dry for release a few months later. The result is a low-alcohol (about 10 to 11 percent), quaffable wine.
Since col fondo wines aren't disgorged, producers must decide on the closure before the fermentation completes. Zago releases the wine under a crown cap, instead of natural cork, which many other col fondo producers choose. "If the wine touches the cork during the secondary fermentation, you have cork influence," he says, "and I don't like it."
From his first vintage in 2011, Zago's wines have sold out, with the United States as his major export market. Last year, he produced about 3,500 cases of Prosecco Col Fondo, retailing for about $20.
Despite his focus on col fondo, Zago uses his family's best vineyard, Bastia di Saccol, planted with old Glera clones nearly 80 years ago, to make about 350 cases using the metodo classico.
"Every year, the wines are complex and balanced," he says of the vineyard. "People think of Prosecco as a wine that can't age. But here, we have body and minerality that can allow a wine to age."
For his Ca' dei Zago Valdobbiadene Dosaggio Zero (about $30), he ferments the Glera grapes partially with skin contact, then does a secondary fermentation of 16 months before disgorging the bottles, topping them off with more of the same wine, rather than a sweetened dosage. At disgorgement, the crown caps are replaced with the more typical corks.
The result, he says, is a pure expression of his vineyard that rivals his Col Fondo bottling, with less influence from the lees.
"It's my challenge. It's my dream," he says, "to have a clean expression of Prosecco that can last with time."