My off-again, on-again love affair with prosecco
Supply and demand has spoiled this wine in the past decade. But the good stuff is still out there
skeins of mist coiling through narrow valleys. The flavour is subtle but also distinctive: there’s a gentle creaminess; a scent of ‘Conference’ pears, white peach and yeast.
We opened this wine on a cold, dark evening and sipped it with fatty, thin sheets of prosciutto and grainy lumps of parmesan and I enjoyed it in a way that I just haven’t enjoyed prosecco for years.
And alleluia to that. I’ve lost interest in the bland prosecco that fills the supermarket shelves, but there is another side to this wine, and it’s one worth getting to know.
Prosecco has been one of the most – if not the most – successful wines of the last decade. In the 10 years from 2008, prosecco sales in the UK rose by an extraordinary 6,000 per cent. It has done so well that it stopped being a drink and became a leisure activity (“Come over for a glass of prosecco”), its name emblazoned on sweaters and greetings cards, and co-opted as the punning title of an OPI nail varnish, Be There in a Prosecco.
Such high demand has caused a few problems. For instance, a couple of years ago there was a prosecco shortage so acute that one supermarket reduced the amount of glera (the key prosecco grape) in its own-label prosecco from 100 per cent to 85 per cent
(this is legally allowed) just so that they could make more of it. From my perspective, though, the biggest issue has been the drop in quality, or, at least, the drop in the quality you can expect for the money you pay. The simple rules of supply and demand apply here. Demand has been stratospheric
– and so much of the prosecco now offered up for our consumption has the sour tang of old boiled sweets and headaches. I think it says a lot that, even when it no longer needed
CAMPANEO OLD VINES GARNACHA 2017
to, Sainsbury’s continued to add pinot bianco and chardonnay to its Taste the Difference prosecco – because the wine tasted better than it did when it was 100 per cent glera.
Runaway popularity rarely lasts.
It’s a short and rather quick step from there to pariah status. It happened to chardonnay, and it also happened to pinot grigio. This year, sales of prosecco in the UK fell by 7 per cent – the first drop since the sparkling wine began its meteoric rise. I hear friends talking about this drink they once loved in disparaging terms. But the Italians are one step ahead. They know that we know the mass-market side to the sparkling wine – now they want to show us its more boutique incarnation.
Over the summer, I received a couple of boxes of wine: 14 bottles of prosecco selected to showcase its more artisan qualities and change my perspective on the wine. It worked.
Rather than putting all the bottles on my workbench and swilling through them, as I usually do, I opened two or three at once, to give myself time to get to know them.
I particularly enjoyed those made in the traditional col fondo style – a prosecco version of the “pét nat” that has become so popular. Most prosecco undergoes its secondary fermentation in stainless steel tanks – it’s a relatively cheap way to make wine sparkle. Like champagne, col fondo wines have their secondary fermentation in the bottle. Unlike champagne, they are sold still on the lees (dead yeast cells), which, as well as adding a subtly bready flavour, make the wine slightly cloudy. “You can choose to drink it limpid, or veiled,” explained the label of one such wine, “by pouring, without shaking, into a carafe, or straight into the glass so that it starts clear and becomes richer as you work your way down the bottle.”
There were also some very delicate, but very precise, wines from the Cartizze region, sometimes referred to as “prosecco’s grand cru” which lies at the foot of Mount Cesen. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that I found (with a few exceptions) that I liked my prosecco on the sweeter side. It’s become very fashionable to decry sugar in wines, and talk about preferring a drier style. In fact, the extra quantity of sugar you drink in a prosecco that is extra dry (confusingly, this is a sweeter style than a brut) is minute compared with the amount in a glass of brut, but it often lifts the wine immeasurably, bringing out the light pear tastes.
These are not hen night or letter-sweater wines. They are wines to sip with a chopped winter salad (spinach, endive, tomatoes); with a lagoon of fishy risotto; with homemade antipasti.
I’m afraid they are not easy to get hold of – you can’t find them in the supermarket, and the Marchiori I loved so much doesn’t even have a UK importer. But there are two good proseccos (plus a great deal on an autumnal red) in my wines of the week.