Springtime is all about celebration. The sun comes out once again, the weather warms up, and everyone looks toward summer. In Italy, the first warm Sunday in spring is an amazing thing. For the first time in months, people venture out of the house without their scarves and heavy coats, and throngs of people go for a passeggiata, which is meant less for exercise and more to see and be seen. Still more linger for a drink in an outdoor cafe; the heat lamps turned off so people can again be warmed by the sun alone. And as the layers of clothing start coming off, wines too become more warm-weather friendly. So what is the best wine to pair with the new mood in the air? Why, prosecco of course. Celebration does in fact call for bubbles, so a light, sparkling prosecco is the perfect accompaniment to that first spring day.
Italy makes some really wonderful Champagne method sparkling wines, most of them based on the traditional grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While they certainly have their place on your table, I love Prosecco because it is uniquely Italian. Prosecco is the name of the grape as well as the wine. Sparkling prosecco is a kind of link to the past. In earlier times, farmer-winemakers likely tossed their very ripe grapes into open topped vats and let fermentation occur naturally. Without temperature control, fermentation would stop in the cold winter months and start again in the spring. This uneven process left some residual sugar and carbonation in the wines. They were also unstable, and would sometimes explode when the farmers tried to bottle them. While methods today have vastly improved, the style has prevailed. Prosecco therefore can be found as a still wine, but it is much more popular as a sparkler. The best examples are found in the Veneto region, in the sub zones Conegliano and Valdobbiaddene. Certainly this is partly due to these areas’ proximity to one of the top enology schools in Italy, but it has more to do with the climate and soil. There is a nice interplay of warm breezes from the Adriatic and cool air from the Alps, which helps preserve the acidity in the grapes, a key component in sparkling wine. All top sparkling wine regions in the world are in areas that can provide high acidity in the grapes, such as Champagne in France and Carneros in California. Soil is also critical to quality and flavor and in Conegliano and Valdobbiaddene, the limestone, corals, and magnesium left behind by ancient glaciers lend minerality to the grapes grown here.
The method used to produce sparkling Prosecco is most often the Charmat, named after its French inventor. Yet, being Italy, there is the claim that Martinotti was the true creator, so you will hear Metodo Martinotti occasionally as well. For reasons of diplomacy it can also be called the tank method. Unlike the Champagne method, when the secondary fermentation which produces the carbon dioxide bubbles takes place in the bottle, here the bubbles are produced in large, pressurized, stainless steel tanks. Therefore, these wines tend not to take on the characteristics of Champagne method wines, namely the yeasty, toasty, biscuity flavors that are common. Instead, tank method wines preserve the fruitiness of the grapes. This is because the sugar and yeast solution that is added to the wine to provoke the secondary fermentation is more concentrated in the smaller container, the bottle, than the large tanks. Therefore it is ideal for certain Italian aromatic varieties, such as Prosecco, with its peachy aromas, and the moscato grape, which is used in Asti. Maybe people believe that the tank method is inherently inferior, however, with a high quality base wine, an excellent finished product can be made, and many Prosecco producers are proving this. Names to look for include Bisol, Bellenda, Nino Franco, and for larger producers, Mionetto and Zardetto. A unique example is the Sorelle Bronca winery which uses a single fermentation method, where the alcoholic and carbonation processes occur simultaneously. A specialty to watch out for is wine labeled with the Cartizze Superiore designation, the only designated cru in the area. Cartizze is a steep hill between Valdobbiaddene and Conegliano, with lots of old vines and even more growers all eeking out a small amount of wine each year.
Prosecco of course is lovely as an aperitif, paired only with the mood of celebration. Yet it can be extremely food-friendly as well. Acidity and effervescence are perfect contrasts to food, and good Prosecco has plenty of both. Remember though that Prosecco is a light wine, so take care not to match it with anything too heavy or complicated as the wine would get lost. With fish dishes forget the lemon wedge and instead use the zestiness in Prosecco to cleanse your palate. It is equally satisfying with fried and smoked fish, like salmon. Another great idea is to pair it with prosciutto. The acidity helps contrast the fat, and the effervescence balances the salt. If it’s prosciutto and melon, even better. The peach, pear, and green apple hints in the wine will pair beautifully with the fruit. A new classic is sushi and Dry or Extra-Dry Prosecco. Confusingly, these wines are actually slightly sweet, Brut and Extra Brut are the styles with little or no residual sugar. That extra bit of sweetness in the Dry Prosecco is wonderful with the saltiness of the fish and soy sauce. A traditional pair in Italy is Prosecco and tramezzini, those wonderful little finger sandwiches of which there are infinite types. And Prosecco somehow seems to go well with almost all of them. Perhaps it is that we are too busy celebrating the moment to spend too much time dissecting the wine and food pairing.
Springtime is perhaps my favorite time of the year. It is a time of renewal, of celebration, and of anticipation. Yet it is important to remember to live in the moment as well, and enjoy the first day of spring instead of looking too much towards summer. Prosecco is my favorite way to do that. So the next time you’re lucky enough to be in Italy for the first day of spring, take a long stroll and check out all the people enjoying the weather, take a seat in a cafe, order a Prosecco, and celebrate the moment.
-Heather Hanson, Context Rome’s resident sommelier leads our Wine Tasting: Introduction to Italian Wines every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evening