When Paris Hilton went on David Letterman’s program two years ago to promote Prosecco, saying it was “sexy,” she was referring to a specific Prosecco, one from Australia, packaged in a box. I’m not a television watcher or a Paris Hilton groupie and missed the moment. But according to Jason Wilson, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Italians heard her loud and clear in the Veneto where the best Prosecco has always been made. And they didn’t like what they heard.
In the last five years or so, sparkling Prosecco has become a standard item on wine menus in Mediterranean restaurants in the U.S. It has become so popular that it’s gone even beyond the category and can be found in restaurants and bars without Mediterranean themes. Not only consumers but also winemakers have noticed the trend and as far away as Australia and Brazil, they’re planting the grape variety. Because their results don’t yet begin to approach Venetian quality, at least the winery that hired Paris Hilton had the good sense to put its Prosecco in a box, which no doubt it deserved. In prison might have been even better because it would have been kept out of circulation without a chance to sully the recent reputation for excellence that Prosecco has finally achieved in the U.S.
Researchers think that Prosecco is probably indigenous to the village of Prosecco in Friuli, but it has reached its highest expression in the eastern Veneto on the hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Especially the vineyards in Valdobbiadene are on such steep slopes that harvesters need to tie themselves to the vines so that they don’t slip down the hills. The grape bunches are placed in shuts and slide to the bottom of the hill where farmers collect them. Most farmers have very small plots, from a half to three acres, which they’ve inherited. Since the plots are too small to generate a full income, farmers have other jobs, but they refuse to sell their land, which has been in families for generations, driving up prices from $700,000 to 1 million dollars per acre.
Prosecco has won admirers, not because it’s like champagne, but because it’s so different. Everything about Prosecco is fresh and refreshing. Delicate aromas, citrusy flavors, creamy bubbles, and lower alcohol make the wine perfect as an aperitif with finger foods and with first courses such as prosciutto or bruschetta. But Prosecco can also complement light main courses like fish and even fresh fruit desserts. Champagne is another experience, higher in alcohol, yeasty, and complex. Like champagne, Prosecco is made in brut, extra dry, and dry styles. Brut has no residual sugar, extra dry has a small amount, and dry has more. At home, I’m never without Prosecco and choose extra dry because it is the most versatile. You can serve it to arriving guests but also enjoy it through dinner. It’s less appropriate for dessert though.
Unlike Champagne, Prosecco from Valdobbiadene or Conegliano is around $15 to $20 a bottle, and the finest, called Cartizze after the man who first made Prosecco as a sparkling wine in the latter half of the 19th Century can cost as much as $50 a bottle. While most of us can’t afford the finest hotel in the land or eat at the finest restaurant, or live in the finest home with the finest furnishings and the finest art, most of us can afford the finest Prosecco. Its price is low because, unlike champagne, whose fine bubbles are produced by a second labor-intensive fermentation in sealed bottles, Prosecco’s second fermentation takes place in sealed tanks. Because the process is simpler, prices are lower than fine champagne.
But back to Paris Hilton and sexy Australian Prosecco in a box. Despite the fact that Italians continue to support Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister, they are generally an intelligent people. In case you’ve forgotten, Berlusconi called to congratulate newly elected President Obama, and complimented him on both his intelligence and his tan. Italian and EU politicians were astounded by the disrespect. Prosecco producers, demonstrating infinitely more acumen than their Prime Minister, banded together and created a strategy for preserving the reputation of their wines, which came to fruition less than a year ago. Conegliano and Valdobbiadene applied to the government for DOCG status, which is the most highly regulated category of wines, especially regarding farming practices, designating Italy’s finest. The nine surrounding provinces on flatter terrain, whose wines are less prestigious, applied for DOC status with fewer controls. But the truly great leap of intelligence, occurred when producers changed the grape name from Prosecco to its ancient one, Glera, so Prosecco now refers to the geographic location for these wines of quality. Winemakers from other areas and countries, who are experimenting with the grape are no longer able to refer to it as Prosecco, just as no one outside of Napa is able to put the name “Napa” on a label although many have tried. So now Glera is available to anyone anywhere who wants to investigate its mysteries, but none of it will be confused with ever delicious Prosecco.