When it comes to sparkling wine, we are all northeastern Italians now
It’s an early spring afternoon in the Piazza dei Signori in the heart of Padua in the Veneto, north-east Italy. This is a quietly beautiful city with much of the appeal of nearby Venice but almost none of the tourist tat. Like most visitors who find their enjoyment of Padua’s renaissance art, architecture and markets greatly enhanced by not having to weave through a forest of selfie sticks, I’m feeling as smug as a Victorian grand tourist who’s finally found what he’s been looking for ever since he ditched the Baedeker in search of that mythical place, “the real Italy”.
And what are the “real Italians” doing in the cafes that line the piazza on a weekday afternoon? A few fur-coated ladies enjoy leisurely coffee; clusters of students make their way through giant jugs of beer. But pretty much everyone else – no matter their age, gender, class or stylistic tribe – is sipping prosecco, whether they’re having it on its own in a small flute, or in a tumbler mixed as a “spritz” with the vivid ruby-coloured bitterness of Campari or the slightly sweeter, paler local favourite Aperol.
As I order a spritz myself (two-thirds prosecco to one-third Campari, soda water, ice, a slice of orange, invigoratingly bittersweet-sour), it occurs to me that a few years ago this scene would have felt uniquely Italian. Sure, you could find prosecco in the UK but for years it retained a tang of the exotic. Back home, it was what you drank before the spaghetti alle vongole in the local trattoria or Carluccio’s; what you bought to mix with white peach juice to make a bellini if you wanted to feel like Hemingway in Venice’s Harry’s Bar.
Prosecco only really began to drift into the British mainstream in the 2000s, as merchants presented it as a softer, less acerbic budget-fizz rival to Spanish cava. It wasn’t until the recession of 2008 that it started, in the words of one wine trade acquaintance of mine, to really “do a pinot grigio”, increasing its sales so rapidly that, by last summer, it was outselling champagne in the UK in both volume and value.
When it comes to sparkling wine, we are all northeastern Italians now. But, as my wine trade buddy’s comment shows, not everyone is happy about it. While most wine merchants will have a prosecco on their books, you get the impression they only do it because they feel they have to.
I have some sympathy with them. Much of what is sold as prosecco is deeply ordinary. This is particularly true of those wines made in the further flung reaches of the recently expanded production zone, which now covers more than 14,000 hectares from Vicenza in the west to Trieste in the east. Even the best proseccos, from the traditional Conegliano-Valdobbiadene area, have none of the sophistication of champagne.
That’s largely to do with the production method: almost all prosecco (see my recommendations for one exception) gets its bubbles from a second-fermentation in a large stainless tank; in champagne the process takes place in bottle, a method that, combined with the more demonstrative grape varieties used in champagne (pinot noir and chardonnay versus the somewhat neutral glera of prosecco) is always going to create more complexity.
Maybe I was being swayed by the beauty of my surroundings, but as I switched from spritz to straight prosecco before dinner later that day in Padua, I couldn’t help thinking that this comparison was a little unfair. Prosecco isn’t champagne, any more than chablis is soave or Bordeaux is chianti. At its best it has an icing-sugar fluffiness, a breezy pear-scented freshness, a soft-touch charm that is all its own – a charm that, at the right moment, can be irresistible wherever you are in the world.
Six of the best proseccos
Valdobbiadene Prosecco Spumante Superiore NV (£7.49, Aldi)
While this is a perfectly decent example of the big-foam and pear-drop character of cheaper prosecco, its price also means it’s the one I’d choose for mixing with Campari or Aperol for a homemade spritz, or with pureed white peaches for a bellini.
Taste the Difference Conegliano Prosecco Superiore 2014 (£10, Sainsbury’s)
Generally neck-and-neck with the (currently out of stock) Tesco Finest Bisol Prosecco as my favourite of the high-street proseccos, this is a classic style with a nice streak of freshening lemon-sherbet to go with the sweet pear and relatively dry finish.
Col Vetoraz Valdobbiadene Prosecco Frizzante 2014 (£17, Huntsworth Wine)
I was very impressed by the quality of the Col Vetoraz wines during a recent trip to northeast Italy: the whole range had a touch more verve than the average, with the delicate pear and white flowers joined by tropical richness and a soft, graceful mousse in this cuvée.
Zanotto Col Fondo Prosecco 2012 (from £14, Natoora; Aubert & Mascoli)
The increasingly popular col fondo (with sediment) style is a throwback to how prosecco used to be made, with the second fermentation taking place in bottle, and with the yeast lees remaining after bottling. In this case, it yields a distinctive mix of apple, lemons, yeast and salty minerals.
Nino Franco Cartizze di Valdobbiadene Prosecco 2014 (from £29.70, Sommelier’s Choice; Hedonism)
Locals rate the Cartizze sub-zone of Valdobbiadene as one of the best sites for producing glera grapes. I’m not sure if I’d be able to spot a distinctive Cartizze character, but Nino Franco’s finely nuanced bottling has the racy clarity, fruit intensity and tropical juiciness to justify the higher price.
Ferrari Brut Trento DOC, Trentino, Italy NV (£20, Marks & Spencer)
If you’re craving something with a little more bite and intensity, something more champagne-like, than prosecco can offer, but want to stay in Italy, this 100% chardonnay from the consistently excellent Ferrari from the far north is a beautifully poised mix of brioche, lemon and crisp apple.
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