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Prosecco Sunrise

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Prosecco Road Part II: Talking lifestyle and Prosecconomics with Bisol

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.

Dignified Prosecco

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Primo Franco, now a white-haired Prosecco statesman, recalls the moment the world changed for him.

More than 35 years ago, he was dining at legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi's Milan restaurant. A customer had left an unfinished bottle of classic white Burgundy, and Marchesi offered it to Franco.

"Gualtiero said, 'Would you like a glass of Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1969?'"

"I said, 'Why not?'" Franco shrugs.

Today in his Nino Franco winery in Valdobbiadene, Franco doesn't even try to describe the complex sensations, flavors and feelings he experienced with that glass, though he says it changed his life. At the time, Italy's white wines didn't reach the quality levels they do today, and he had never tasted anything like it.

Magic Mountain: Scaling the heights with Speri in Valpolicella Classico

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It was only a matter of time before I climbed Monte Sant'Urbano.

The ascent started at the dinner table in the heart of old Verona, where my wife and I supped with a velvety, complex Valpolicella Classico Superiore Sant'Urbano 2012 from Fratelli Speri, one of the oldest families making wine in this zone.

Two mornings after draining the bottle, we are on the small Monte Sant'Urbano, covered with 10-foot drywall terraces that climb to 1,100 feet. Tall pergola-trained vines dangle the dark grapes used in blending Valpolicella—Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella—above our heads. The views over the Fumane Valley stretch to Lake Garda on the southeastern horizon.

The Speris' history here in Valpolicella Classico dates to the mid-19th century, and the winery is now run by the sixth generation. Since the early 1980s, the Speris have produced a Sant'Urbano cru—their most prized vineyard—using grapes that are partially dried, but less so than those for Amarone.

Repair Man

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After Miraval and Brangelina an American in Provence continues his renovation spree

Tom Bove can’t help himself.

The 72-year-old American engineer and businessman–turned–wine producer continues to buy and restore neglected Provence wine estates.

“I love rebuilding things. I like not screwing things up,” Bove says one cloudless harvest day on a vineyard hilltop of his Château La Mascaronne. “I only touch them if I see there’s an underlying beauty to bring out.”

Bove has a rare touch. In 1993, he convinced his family to buy Provence’s historic Château Miraval, where he renovated miles of antique drystone terraces and the majestic 18th-century manor, replanted vineyards, converted to organic farming, and brought back winemaking. In 2012, he sold the 1,000-acre package for $60 million to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Côte to Coast

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A winemaking family ventures from the Rhone Valley to rugged Roussillon

The steep vineyards that rise up along southern France's Roussillon coast, near the border with Spain, bear a strong resemblance to Élise Gaillard's childhood stomping grounds in the Northern Rhône, with bush vines clinging to ancient terraces of schist.

"It looks a lot like Côte-Rôtie," says Élise, who learned winemaking from her father, the legendary Rhône winemaker Pierre Gaillard. "It's almost the same geological age, and the schist has the same iron content."

There are, of course, some dramatic differences. Behind her, down a 100-yard slope of red rock, are the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Here, in the Banyuls appellation, her father bought an old winery in 2002 and turned it into the family's Domaine Madeloc.

The Roussillon region, nestled between the sea and the Pyrénées and Corbières Mountains, has in recent years become a destination for adventurous winemakers seeking extreme mineral-rich terroirs for Grenache and other Mediterranean varieties.

A Moving Target

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Chianti legend Paolo De Marchi's pursuit of knowledge

Paolo De Marchi is, at 64, considered by many Tuscan peers to be a dean of Chianti. So, what has he learned during four decades at his highly accomplished Isole e Olena estate in the heart of the Chianti Classico hills?

"After 40 years here, you don't know anything," he says, grinning broadly as he stands atop a hillside in this remote vineyard hamlet one hot morning in August. "That's the beauty of it."

Of course, that's an exaggeration. De Marchi has studied area grapes, soils and vineyards more than most anyone and is a font of information on subjects ranging from Tuscany's agricultural history to climate change to the digestive systems of vineyard hornets.

Style and Substance in Marche

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A rising champion of Verdicchio reaches for the heights of elegance.

The first thing I noticed about Leopardo Felici was his footwear—the white retro Rivieras slip-ons completing his outfit of white slacks and a fitted blue patterned shirt.

As Felici, chic and smiling, descended a staircase at a countryside hotel in the Italian Marche for a private tasting of his Andrea Felici wines, I thought he could be the stylish establishment's director.

At 34, Felici is a rare blend: a suave and charismatic wine lover who is also a serious young farmer and winemaker from tiny Apiro (pop. 2,400). Under his direction since 2008, his family's small estate has been lauded in Italy for producing some of the most elegant examples of the Marche's signature grape, Verdicchio.

That's Verdicchio!

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A leader for whites in Italy's "next" place

Michele Bernetti pauses in the shade of an oak tree overlooking the rippling landscape of the Italian Marche. The hills between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains are covered with a patchwork of wheat fields, sunflowers, chickpeas and vineyards planted with the area's signature white, Verdicchio.

"Verdicchio is not a trendy variety," says Bernetti, 49, the athletically trim scion of the family that owns the region's leading winery, Umani Ronchi, and the official ambassador for Marche wines at the massive 2015 Expo Milano exhibition. "Also, it is complicated to pronounce."

Verdicchio had its moment of fame in the 1970s, when the Marche (pronounced Mar-kay) produced lots of inexpensive wine sold in glass amphorae and fish-shaped bottles and served in stateside Italian eateries.

Parched in Provence

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With southern France Frying, a winemaker fights to save his infant vines

Jean-Marc Espinasse rolls out of bed at 4:30 a.m., slips on a pair of faded swim trunks and a t-shirt, and prepares to work by day's first light.

This summer, Espinasse is dedicated to an urgent mission: saving his newly planted vineyards from the two-month drought and summer heat wave that has been baking southeast France.

"Every day I look at the forecast, and for the last six weeks it says it will rain next week, but then the rain doesn't come," says Espinasse, sitting in his rustic farmhouse kitchen and dunking a piece of baguette in his predawn cup of coffee. "I don't want my vines to die."

The 48-year-old former Rhône winemaker, who followed his dreams to coastal Bandol, has been planting vineyards from scratch for the past two years and farming them organically. His goal is to focus on making rosé at his stunningly picturesque Mas des Brun. (Read my previous blog on Espinasse, "Bandol—The Hard Way.")

High on Cinque Terre

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A native son’s heroic efforts in Italy’s mythic coastal vineyards

Heydi Bonanini is a rare type—a young Cinque Terre native willing to work the hard, vertiginous vineyard terraces near his home.

Standing on Possaitara, the Mediterranean seaside cliff into which his family's farm is cut, Bonanini, 37, remembers the entire landscape once covered with grapevines. By the 1990s, it was all but abandoned.

Over the last 20 years, Bonanini has fought to reverse the trend as a way "to honor my grandparents." He has restored about 5 acres—the maximum he believes one person can cultivate in the Cinque Terre, an enclave of five ancient fishing villages between sea and mountains on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

"My father cut down my grandparents' vineyard to plant fruit trees. Then I cut down the fruit trees to plant vines," says Bonanini, a strapping man with short-cropped hair, a goatee and the easy smile of someone who starts some days fishing at dawn off the rocks below.

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