On a balmy fall morning in the main square of Valdobbiadene (pop. 11,000), Gianluca Bisol swirls a large wineglass with a few mouthfuls of what has become Americans' preferred sparkling wine.
"It is not impossible to drink Prosecco with breakfast," says Bisol, 49, elegant with his Clark Gable mustache and jacket pocket square.
"Especially Cartizze," Bisol enthuses about Valdobbiadene's most revered steep hillside terroir. "Cartizze is creamy. In the morning, you want something delicate."
Almost three decades after joining his family's near century-old Desiderio Bisol & Figli winery, in the heart of the Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore zone, Bisol is a Prosecco leader—both at its high end and in the mass market. In those years, Prosecco has boomed from a footnote in Italy to the leading sparkling export in the world by volume.
"Obviously it's easier to sell Prosecco because it's not as expensive as Champagne and it's easier to drink," says Bisol, the winery's president. "In the time you drink one glass of Champagne, you can drink three glasses of Prosecco."
It is barely 10 o'clock, and I join Bisol in a post-cappuccino glass at a local bar. The slight sweetness of the Cartizze Prosecco—most of which are off-dry, indicated on the label as "extra dry" or "dry"—lends itself well to the morning.
I am here with Bisol because his family company is not just big—shooting up from a little more than 8,300 cases in 1987 to 250,000 cases today—but smart. Bisol also produces some very good wine.
Their best stuff is their vintage-dated Bisol line, which accounts for one-eighth of their production and is made from estate grapes. The company now owns nearly 190 acres of vineyards, up from only 17 in 1991. The line includes five vineyard-designated "cru" Prosecco sparklers and six bottlings made in the metodo classico, like Champagne, topped by the Private Cartizze Brut Non Dosato, of which fewer than 150 cases are made.
But Bisol has grown largely by buying Glera grapes, the dominant variety of Prosecco, to create new lower-priced lines. Jeio, which includes a no-added-sulfites bottling called NOSO2, comes largely from sites in the hills of the Prosecco Superiore zone, while Belstar comes from the wider Prosecco DOC.
"I think the model of Prosecco will be more like Bordeaux than Champagne," reflects Bisol. "You can find basic Bordeaux at 2 euros a bottle and Bordeaux at 1,000 euros."
The Bisols' success is a work in progress, fed by the family's hyperactive innovation.
Eliseo Bisol, Gianluca's great-grandfather, made fizzy wine—sold primarily in barrels—from Cartizze in the late 19th century. His winemaking son Desiderio took over in the early 1920s after Valdobbiadene served as a front during World War I. But Bisol and Prosecco didn't take off until after World War II with the introduction of autoclaves—pressurized steel tanks in which the bubble-producing secondary fermentations take place in the Charmat, or Martinotti, method.
About five years ago, Gianluca and his brother, Desiderio, 39, who is Bisol's winemaker, bought out their uncle and cousins to take control. Last year, the brothers sold a 50 percent stake to Grupo Lunelli, which owns Italian sparkling-wine producer Ferrari in Trento, for the Lunellis' investment in a new Bisol winery and continued growth.
"Growing is expensive," says Bisol. "Our new winery has to be the best. It has to be perfect."
To make the planned new winery carbon neutral, Bisol envisions engineering a system to capture CO2 from fermentations and then selling the gas to industry.
The brothers have been involved in several other projects in northern Italy over the past decade, including the resurrection of a tiny vineyard of near-extinct Dorona grapes on the Venetian island Mazzorbo for a white wine called Venissa. He has also partnered with a small Euganean Hills winemaker for a line of wines, called Maeli, primarily based on the Moscato Giallo grape, and is experimenting with different varieties in Europe's highest vineyard, at 4,500 feet in the Dolomites.
As for Prosecco, Bisol says he believes the future of quality lies in using the metodo classico of secondary fermentation and aging in the bottle for wines from the best terroirs. "Not as long a time as Champagne," he says. "Eleven months gives the best balance between the original flavors and the lees."
Desiderio has been experimenting in the vineyard with techniques such as a labor-intensive (and costly) drying method in which workers pinch the stalks of grape bunches weeks before harvest to concentrate flavors. But for now, Gianluca says, Prosecco's high end is limited because consumers won't pay more than $35 retail for a bottle.
"We are studying this and other techniques in the vineyard. The results have been fantastic," Bisol says. "But now is not the time."