Since I’m having a bit of a dry spell to get things back to normal after the festive period, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about fizz, and Prosecco in particular. In memory of the great moments spent with close friends and family over Christmas and New Year.
I am not often seen drinking sparkling wine. It is normally restricted to those occasions that call for it but my drink of choice will more often than not be a good glass of red or a craft ale. Over the last few years I have been introduced to a wider range of sparkling wines than just Champagne and other mousseux. I particularly enjoy how Chenin Blanc is used in the Loire Valley, both for still and sparkling wines. But until recently, I saw Prosecco as a cheap, budget alternative to actual fizz, a bit too sweetie sweet and clumsy. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that going on in our bars and supermarkets and it seems many consumers have the wrong idea of what Prosecco, or many other drinks for that matter, should taste like. Worse, they probably enjoy the bad stuff more than the good one…by habit. Thankfully, the numerous wine tastings I have attended convinced me that Prosecco can also be a well-made, pleasant drink, probably not displaying the complexity of a Champagne or more pretentious drinks but pleasing by its purity, simplicity and freshness.
I have recently been approached by a team called Con Gusto who are just starting to import some high quality Prosecco in the UK. From what I gathered, they are the 2nd and 3rd generation of an Italian-English family – I think Grandma moved to the UK in ’48. For that reason, and maybe the extra sunshine, the Con Gusto family regularly spend their time off in the North East of Italy in the Veneto region, or more to the point the Prosecco region. So when Mr Con Gusto, an entrepreneurial English man, visits a local producer of Prosecco D.O.C.G who tells him that he would really like to export more to the UK market, obviously the thought of taking that on himself is tempting. And that’s pretty much what’s happened here.
When we met, Mr Con Gusto, his daughter Lara and I had a chat for what seemed a very short half hour discussing not only Prosecco but subjects as wide as our common belief and passion in true gastronomic products, unsoiled and uncompromised by the powers of consumerism. Being able to showcase some of the beautiful French wines that unfortunately do no make it onto British tables (which consequently participates in successfully implanting the erroneous idea that French wines are farting above their weight) would truly make me proud, so I can totally relate to what they are trying to do. I don’t know the details or the business plan, I don’t really know how it will work in practice and more importantly how soon we will be able to procure ourselves these bubbly treats. But they want to do it right; by that I mean building up a perennial, sustainable business based on quality of service and trust as well as aiming to reach as wide a market as possible. I love the wines, as objectively as I can be, and I wish them great success in 2013 and beyond.
Now, more than talking about them, I’m sure they’d rather we get on with what it is they are offering. Prosecco, like all sparkling wines, debuts its life as a still white wine made with a minimum of 85% Glera (renamed so in 2009 when it was still called…prosecco). Other grape varieties, Verdiso, Perera and Bianchetta as well as the more classic Chardonnay and Pinot, are used in smaller quantities, each bringing to the wine its own characteristic such as acidity and zestiness or perfume and aroma. There are several types of prosecco wines: the fully sparkling (“Spumante”) and the semi-sparkling (“Frizzante”) but also a completely still wine (“Tranquilo”). I must admit I never came across a tranquilo prosecco but the name alone sounds like music to my ears and peace to my tastebuds. There are also different level of sweetness: Brut (driest), Extra Dry and Dry (the sweetest of the three but not quite sweet yet).
Prosecco is made in the Veneto region of Italy which is the area north of Venice. Ca’ Salina are located in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG area just above Treviso (see detailed map here). This area benefits from a very specific location, at the foothills of the Dolomites mountains but only 30 miles from Venice and the Adriatic sea. Fairly cold winters and hot but not too dry summers combined with varying altitudes provide a complex but ideal set up for growing each grape to its best. Mainly due to the hilly conditions, the grapes are harvested by hand. Although this means a lot more tiresome labour, you get the benefit of a much more careful selection of bunches and berries which can be tasted in the final product.
Unlike champagne and many other traditionally made sparkling wines, where the second fermentation of the still base wine occurs in the bottle, Italian sparklers use a more modern method called the Charmat process. The base wine, a carefully blended still white wine, generally quite low in alcohol but full of crisp acidity, is submitted to a second fermentation in airtight stainless steel tanks with added sugar and yeast. Contact with the yeast will impart some biscuity and buttery flavours to the final wine but less so than if using the Traditional Method due to the larger size of container (large tank vs bottle). This second fermentation, which takes place over 30 days, is what gives the “fizz” to the wine as the carbon dioxide (the infamous CO2) gas cannot escape and is therefore “trapped” in the wine. Extra fermentation also means increase in alcohol level as the yeast eats away the sugar to reach a typical 11 to 12%.
Now that we know all this, what do the wines actually taste like? Well Con Gusto kindly gave me a sample of the Ca’ Salina “Sirocol” Extra Dry just before Christmas and you may remember that I mentioned it in my previous post. As explained, I am not a Prosecco expert and have not tasted enough examples to make a meaningful comparison with the best and the rest. But in my humble opinion, which was shared by Miss Mash and mum, both completely impartial, it was a very satisfying drink. Very pure and fresh, fruit and flowers coming through, quite light and breezy at first but then yeasty flavours bring a little bit more body and complexity whilst the citrussy acidity keep your palate fresh and clean of unpleasant bitter aftertaste.
Con Gusto currently imports and offers four prosecco wines from Ca’ Salina and two from Cirotto. We had the Extra Dry but I also bought other samples from them for New Year’s Eve. We had the Cirotto Millesimato Brut at the twelfth stroke of midnight and I still have the Extra Dry in the cellar. You’ll forgive me for not taking detailed notes of the Cirotto but I was definitely having a great time, even though I was losing at Articulate. I definitely think it’s worth organising a blind tasting of the range at some point though, what do you think?