…Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?
Assuming you don’t read these words when they are sitting at the bottom of you parakeet cage, you are likely gearing up right now for New Year’s revelry in some form or fashion. And whether it’s a quiet dinner with good friends or a chilly night out to watch the Peach Drop in downtown Atlanta at midnight, bubbly wine will almost certainly cross your lips today or tomorrow.
The big bubbly wine news this year is that for the first time in a very long time, wines from Champagne have seen—Mon Dieu!— a sales dip. Reacting to The Great Recession, wine drinkers have sought a replacement for the iconic sparkling wines of this northern French viticultural region. I could spend the next 700 or so words explaining why there is only one Champagne; the reasons why it is more expensive; and that while there are other sparkling wines, there are no true replacements for capital “C” Champagne. I’ll save that rant for another day, however, and talk about one of the main “replacements” for Champagne—Prosecco.
Many thirsty bubbly drinkers are pointing their glasses to the wines from northeastern Italy’s Veneto region, according to one trade publication. “Cheers” reports that Prosecco sales rose 20% in the first half of 2009, following double digit growth over the past four years. The sales tracking company Impact Databank reports similar growth.
The reasons for its popularity are simple. Prosecco is an uncomplicated, pleasant wine that is amazingly inexpensive.
But since it is wine from Europe, complications reign regarding how Prosecco is made, classified and named. So I give you: “The Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Prosecco (And Some Things You Don’t) Guidebook.”
Prosecco is both a grape and a place. The grape is used to make refreshing still wines, lightly sparkling “frizzante” wines and bodaciously bubbly “spumante” wines. Prosecco grapes have called the region around Venice home for more than 150 years.
Prosecco the place refers to a 12,000-acre region northeast of Venice called Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. If you are sparkling wine from Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, congratulations, you have met a number of growing and winemaking regulations and can put the letters D.O.C.G. on your forehead. D.O.C.G. stands for Denomiazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and is a big deal in Italian winemaking circles. Only a small handful of regions, such as Barolo, Chianti and Brunello, get to be a D.O.C.G. and must face more stringent government regulation and quality control than other areas.
Maybe you thought Prosecco couldn’t get more complicated. Sorry, no such luck. We’re talking European wines here. It’s always more complicated than it needs to be. Because prosecco is a grape, winemakers from anywhere in Italy can fashion a sparkling wine from it and label it “Prosecco,” but dodge all the quality and regulatory hurdles of Prosecco D.O.C.G.
About 8 million cases of non-D.O.C.G. Prosecco were made last year, much of it with “U.S.A.” stamped on the shipping crates. The 160 true Prosecco D.O.C.G. producers in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene are not crazy about this situation, but they’re not crying too loudly either because they can barely keep up with demand. Remember all that double-digit sales growth?
Whether it from true “Prosecco” or not, bubbly wines made from this grape generally have a simple, refreshing, lemon-lime flavor with a touch of toasted almond. Some have a bit of honey-like sweetness. You’ll see Proseccos with bulbous, Champagne-style corks and metal cages or traditional corks tied down with string and require a corkscrew. The latter are usually the less-bubbly frizzante style. You’ll also see a few bottles with metal pop-top closures. Closure styles are not an accurate barometer for wine quality.
Unlike Champagne makers, winemakers from Prosecco, the region, are permitted to use the charmat method. Instead of creating the fizzy bubbles in the bottle with sugar and a pinch of yeast—which have to be removed prior to putting a cork in the bottle—charmat wines get their bubbles in a big tank with a sugar and a handful of yeast. The CO2 producing yeasts are filtered out just prior to bottling. Some Prosecco makers have adopted the more expensive and labor-intensive Champagne method to amp up their complexity quotient.
Recently, I evaluated 23 prosecco-based sparkling wines—some from Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, some not—in a blind tasting. All the wines were between $10 and $25, with one outlier at $35. There was even one pink prosecco made with a touch of pinot noir. Mostly the news is good. I found the majority of wines to be the way prosecco oughta be: fresh, citrusy and fun. Interestingly, my four top picks did come from Prosecco the region, which may say something about the inherent quality of prosecco the grape’s homeland.
So whether it is with a glass of bubbly from Prosecco, Champagne or one of the many sparkling wine regions around the world, forget about all the stupid regulations and raise a glass in toast to a bright future full of hope and good health.
Adriano Adami, Bosco di Gica, Brut,
Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Italy
• Two Thumbs Up
• Exotic aromas of kaffir lime with a petroleum note. It offered up delicate, smoky flavors of toasted almond, lime and lemon custard.
Mionetto, Brut, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Italy
• Two Thumbs Up
• Aromas of yeasty, raw dough and almond cream. It has aggressive, bright flavors of tangerine, grapefruit with a touch of clove and fresh dough. Pretty complex for 13 bucks.
Villa Sandi Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Italy
• Two Thumbs Up
• Aromas of citrus, especially lime, with a faint dough quality. This is a smooth, approachable wine with flavors of ripe citrus, tangerine, lime, dried pineapple and lemon zest.
Mionetto, Sergio, Extra Dry, Prosecco, Italy
• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Beautiful, enticing aromas of lemon, lime, white flowers, minerals with a touch of dough. It has refined flavors of lemon, lime, pineapple, dried apricot and toasted walnut. Yum!
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators and teaches in-home wine classes. You can reach him at Gil.Kulers@WineKulers.com.