Ca’ dei Zago

Sparkling Legacy in the Heart of Valdobbiadene

Quick facts:

Location: the village of San Pietro di Barbozza, the heart of Valdobbiadene, North-East of Italy

Owner & winemaker: Christian Zago, Marika Zago

Vineyard area: 6.5 ha (= 16 acres), estate-owned

Vineyard management: practicing biodynamics

Soil: clay, sand, quartz, limestone

Main varieties: Glera, Perera, Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana

Annual production (approx.): 45,000 bottles

Winemaking: Sparkling wines made by spontaneous refermentation in bottle (the locally traditional undisgorged col fondo style) or with secondary fermentation like in Champagne (metodo classico, this one disgorged), all dry
Concrete tanks, old vats from local chestnut; Spontaneous fermentation only. No fining or filtration

 

Fun facts:

  • The winery was founded in 1924 as a mixed family farm; Christian and his sister Marika represent the 5th generation
  • The most important thing for Christian is soil health: the family has never used chemicals, only cow manure, and their own “home-made” compost; he rigorously follows biodynamic principles
  • Christian’s respect for nature stems from his grandfather’s practices, his own experience in New Zealand, and the thoughts of Nicolas Joly.
  • Zago vineyards lie in the hilly part of Veneto, including vineyards that require 4x more work than the lower part of the area but yield true terroir-driven wines with distinct personality
  • The label of Zago Col Fondo has remained almost the same since the 1970s when Christian’s father designed it; Christian just added his and his sister’s signature to mark their generation’s contribution

 

Jump to wines | Ca’dei Zago Website| Ca Dei Zago Shelf Talkers

 

“Family” is a buzzword you hear in all businesses, but after a couple of minutes with Christian Zago, the 5th generation of the eponymous natural Prosecco winery in the heart of Valdobbiadene, you realize that in this particular case it’s not a marketing cliché. Family is naturally present in virtually everything this athletic-built farmer points out while showing you around. Even the bottle of their flagship Col Fondo has barely changed since Christian’s father designed the label in the 1970s; the current Zago generation only added their signatures.

The most important part of this family legacy is the vineyards—now 6.5 hectares in total—and the way the Zagos treat them. Since the beginnings as a mixed farm in 1924, they have never used chemical fertilizers, an approach that Christian is taking even further as an avid practitioner of biodynamics. “Nature is stronger than you. If you break the balance in the vineyard by trying to control it, you can’t recreate it in the cellar, only temporarily coerce the wine into a fake, short-lived equilibrium,” he asserts.

Like many of his fellow natural growers, Christian received a conventional education that led to troubling doublethink between the natural ways of his ancestors and the technical perspective instilled at school. “It got so confusing that I needed to take some time away,” he explains what led him to fly to New Zealand a mere three days after graduation. As the story goes, you sometimes need to make a long pilgrimage in order to realize that true happiness lies at your own threshold; funnily enough, Christian got a glimpse of the revelation already on the plane while reading Nicolas Joly’s famous book on farming. “It was the first time I heard somebody else thinking like my grandfather, describing what my family always did as the right thing for soil health. The moon cycles, giving the wine the time it needs, the cow circle…,” he recalls. After two years spent working for different estates, including a biodynamic one in Martinborough, Christian returned to the family adventure in 2010. 

One of the first things he did was start their own compost using materials present in the vineyards; as we walk through one of them, Christian proudly shows us the fragrant brown matter. Another cycle is the cow-related one: when the omnipresent verdant cover crop gets cut, the Zagos supply them to a nearby farmer’s cows, receiving manure in exchange. The plan, however, is to work with their own cows very soon, and he’s also working with a local beekeeper on introducing beehives, further promoting the biodiversity of the mostly complanted vines of Glera, Perera, Bianchetta and Verdiso.

The vines come mostly from old rootstock and Christian’s own massal selection nursed right next to their house. Seeing all this thinking in circles is a great way to get the gist of what the word “biodynamic” (sometimes used as an attractive label, or misunderstood/dismissed as esoteric wizardry) actually means in the real life of a grower: a lot of respect for the soil you live off and seeing the global resources cycle.

The vineyards in Valdobbiadene are quite steep, forbidding almost all use of machinery. No wonder it sometimes takes as much as four times the amount of work compared to the lower parts, where millions of liters of industrial Prosecco (with taste and charm as flat as the vineyards) are born; up here in the hills, you gotta work. Having made the hike, the Zago wines feel like even more of a bargain than they did before, both for the entry-level Col Fondo or their Metodo Classico, a more chiseled side of Zago showcasing the unique terroir of Bastia, a 2-hectare single vineyard with old, complanted vines right next to the famous Cartizze cru. 

Back down in the cellar, the family strikes again: in each room, there is the same old photo of his grandfather and uncle. It moves one’s heart to see the genuine affection in Christian’s face when he explains that he “likes having them around while working here. It’s a good reminder to do our best in our time.” 

There’s no high-tech area in the cellar; when stainless steel and machines took over traditional Prosecco production in the 1980s, Christian’s grandfather stubbornly stuck to the old ways. “He always said that when the machine replaces the hand, the quality of the wine goes down. Back then it cost us a great deal as most of the customers switched to the new, crystalline sweet style and our artigianale col fondo fell out of fashion,” Christian recalls the “poor times for the family” that he experienced firsthand during his childhood in the ’90s.

But the persistence has paid off: the shiny cast-concrete vats from the 70s are still in use, along with Christian’s own addition of sleek oval-shaped vessels from the same material. “I like concrete for fermentation because it is stable temperature-wise and less hermetic. I don’t enjoy the reductive character that inox imparts on wine,” he explains. When we point at a couple of stainless steel tanks nearby, Christian chuckles: “Those are for rainwater that I then mix in the vineyard preparations. It works better when I spray the vineyard treatments and saves natural resources.” 

This little hack is just one of the many details you notice: the whole cellar is located underground, so the grapes can move only by gravity. The Glera [the main Prosecco variety that represents at least 85% of each blend, according to the DOCG laws] berries have a thin skin, so they need really delicate handling: “manual harvest into small crates, sorting table, destemming by hand, delicate vertical press,” Christian counts the measures to avoid bitterness. Another essential part of the process is a short maceration that endows the nascent wine with all it needs for a good, long life: yeast, enzymes but also “tannins that help the natural clarification of the wine”. 

It’s true that all Zago wines show quite pure and radiant. So much so that, when Christian serves a glass of their Col Fondo during an indulgent lunch in a nearby restaurant, I can’t help but ask about filtration. Which makes him laugh: “You don’t need to when you do good work and use long-time experience. I carefully rack the wine 3 times, always at the descending moon, just as my grandfather taught me.” The family know-how shines again… 

 

Indulge in the lush greenery of the Zago vineyards with Christian himself in this video  (you can add English subtitles by clicking the “cc” button at the bottom right of the youtube window):

 

 

 Wines

  • Valdobbiadene DOCG Frizzante Col Fondo
  • Valdobbiadene DOCG Metodo Classico Dossagio Zero


Valdobbiadene DOCG Frizzante “Col Fondo”


Age of Vines: up to 90 years, 50 years on average.

Altitude: 250 meters above sea level

Soil: Clay and sand with siliceous rock parts

Varieties: Glera from very old clones, small amounts of Verdiso, Perera, and Bianchetta from own massale selection.

Vinification: The grapes are harvested by hand in small crates and then are delicately selected and destemmed on a sorting table. After being crushed, the must is transferred using gravity flow to cement tanks. Maceration with skins is carried out for 2 days with occasional pumping over and punching down. Alcoholic and malolactic fermentation both occur spontaneously. The wine rests over the winter, racked only when necessary, during a waning third-quarter moon. Clarification, tartaric stabilization, and protein stabilization all occur naturally – no fining or filtration here.

In spring, with the first waxing first-quarter moon of March and April, the wines made from the previous fall’s harvest are bottled using gravity flow. The second fermentation occurs spontaneously in the bottle, generating gentle fizz and sediment in the bottom (or fondo) of the bottle.The bottles spend a further 3 months stored horizontally to ensure that the wine gains further harmony through this contact with the cork and oxygen: “it has to make friends with the cork”, as the Zago family says. No disgorgement. The winery uses a bit of sulfur by burning a mineral stick when the grapes are crushed and a bit after malolactic fermentation. The total amount of sulfur is indicated on the label and rarely exceeds 40ppm.

Tasting note: Light and refreshing, with pleasant notes of citrus, honeysuckle and wet stone. Lively acidity, purity, precision, fine long-lasting bubbles and only 11% alcohol. The perfect embodiment of the Italian aperitivoculture, this wine can be enjoyed with all kinds of food, at any time of day. In Valdobbiadene, the col fondo is often stored standing upright, then decanted into a pitcher, reserving the last bit of sediment-rich wine to be tasted separately.

Download tech file for this wine

 


Valdobbiadene DOCG Metodo Classico Dossagio Zero


Age of Vines: 50+ years

Altitude: 300-400 meters above sea level

Soil: Clay limestone with silicious parts

Varieties: Glera 90%, Verdiso 5%, Perera and Bianchetta 5% from a single-vineyard located in Bastia di Mondeserto, Frazione di Saccol in Valdobbiadene.

Vinification: The grapes are harvested by hand in small crates and then are delicately selected and destemmed on a sorting table. After being crushed, the must is transferred using gravity flow to cement tanks. Maceration with skins is carried out for 2 days with occasional pumping over and punching down. Alcoholic and malolactic fermentation both occur spontaneously. The wine rests over the winter, racked only when necessary, during a waning third-quarter moon. Clarification, tartaric stabilization, and protein stabilization all occur naturally – no fining or filtration here.

In spring, with the first waxing first-quarter moon of March and April, the wines made from the previous fall’s harvest are bottled using gravity flow. Liqueur de tirage is added for the second fermentation to begin, and is then stored for 14 – 18 months in pupitres with Marika Zago regularly turning them all by hand. The wine is then disgorged and topped-up, using zero dosage.

Tasting note: Light, but with beautiful tension, lively acidity and pleasant mineral notes: a touch of class. The traditional (or “champenoise”) method of secondary fermentation in bottle is not typical for the Prosecco area; Christian started experimenting with it in 2010 to see what the wine looked like when aged without the fondo. The result is definitely more delicate and subtler than the traditional style of Prosecco; however untraditional, the fine mineral notes, raciness and delicate tiny bubbles show that this method is useful for showcasing the terroir.