Monday, October 19, 2015

TNV Guide to Prosecco – Italian Sparkly Goodness

Since we’ve been on a bit of a sparkling wine kick around here, let’s take a look at another star of the world of inexpensive bubbles: Prosecco, the official sparkling wine of brunches from sea to shining sea. When you run across cocktails like mimosas, kir royales, or bellinis, odds are that the sparkler used to fizz the drink up will be Prosecco. So, what is the stuff?

Kir Royale...because Prosecco makes you happy.
First off, as you probably already know, Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine. As with most Italian wines, “Prosecco” does not refer to the grape that the wine is made from. Prosecco is actually a village in the growing region where the grape is said to have originated. The Prosecco DOC is the term for the actual growing region, which encompasses parts of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions.

Prosecco is not the name of a grape, at least not anymore. The primary grape varietal used to make Prosecco is called Glera. The grape itself was known as both Prosecco and Glera until 2009, when Italy officially started using Glera as the sole name of the grape to avoid confusion.  Other grapes can be included in the mix, such as Pinot Grigio, but there must be at least 85% Glera.

Prosecco comes in three varieties: spumante, meaning sparkling -- the most common version; frizzante, meaning semi-sparkling; and tranquillo, meaning a still wine – which you’ll rarely see outside of the Veneto. There are also designations for levels of sweetness, which are a bit counterintuitive. Brut is the most dry and the most common; Extra dry, which is slightly sweeter; and Dry, which is the sweetest. 

Most Prosecco you will commonly encounter will be labeled “Prosecco DOC” – meaning that the grapes are all from the growing region. The higher quality stuff will be labeled “Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG” – which I will let you explore at your leisure.

The wine is produced slightly differently from other sparkling wines. Rather than the Methode Champenoise (known as Metodo Classico in Italy) style, where the wine is carbonated in bottle through secondary fermentation, Prosecco is carbonated in stainless steel tanks and bottled under pressure, which is known as the Charmat process or Metodo Italiano. This method allows for a less expensive production.

Prosecco is relatively low in alcohol – usually around 11-12%, which is why it’s so popular for brunches. It’s usually drunk as an aperitif or, as I mentioned before (and will mention again in a bit), used as a cocktail mixer. Like most Italian wines of any stripe, it’s exceptionally food friendly – and can be broken open with almost anything. It really shines with bacon, believe it or not. Prosecco tends to be relatively inexpensive. Most bottles will run between $10-20. Serve it well chilled.
I recently came into a few bottles for sampling from Kelly at Colangelo. All of these are Prosecco DOC versions:

Mionetto Brut Prosecco DOC – This prosecco had a distinct yeasty aroma when first cracked. Along with the yeast, there were flavors of apples and pears on the palate. This was one of the least carbonated Prosecco that I’ve had the chance to try. While listed as “spumante” – it seemed much more in the “frizzante” range. The overall effect was that of drinking a very dry, slightly bubbly hard cider. On its own, it was not my favorite Prosecco. It did make a nice accompaniment to some roasted vegetable “paninis” (we didn’t have the right bread, but we did have some whole wheat naan – worked well enough!) that we put together with assorted items from our CSA share and basil pesto from our patio container garden. Side note: Mionetto is the largest exporter of Prosecco.

Jeio Brut Prosecco DOC – Vvery different character with this bottle. Considerably more carbonated than the Monetto, it also didn’t have those particular yeast characteristics. Instead, this one sported a much more delicate, floral nose to go along with a fresh flavor of green apples and a touch of lemony citrus. The finish is dry and crisp. We had this alongside some leftover Minestrone soup and some flavored pita chips and it paired nicely. I think it would be a fantastic brunch bottle. I declare this one officially tasty.

La Gioiosa Prosecco DOC Treviso – The “DOC Treviso” means that the grapes are sourced from
around the village of Treviso, Of the three, this is the one I liked the feel of the best. I thought it had the right amount of sparkle and a certain richness to the flavor that I enjoyed. There’s a refreshing lemon bite at first sip, which quickly calms down into some nice key lime pie flavors. The bubbles keep the train moving across the palate, and the finish is long and lemony. I had this one as an aperitif over a couple of days. (A sparkling wine stopper makes a great stocking stuffer!) Super pleasant for sipping and conversation. Another point in its favor – the bottle looks pretty darned cool.

As I mentioned, Prosecco works well on its own, but the brut versions work exceptionally well as a mixer. For your next brunch or party, here are some Prosecco cocktails you can try:

  • Mimosa – fill a sparkling wine flute halfway with Prosecco. Fill with orange juice.
  • Kir Royale – add ½ oz. of crème de cassis (I prefer Chambord) to a wine flute. Fill with Prosecco. For an extra fancy presentation, add a few fresh raspberries and watch ‘em float around.
  • Bellini – add a couple of ounces of peach puree or peach nectar to a flute. Top up with Prosecco.
  • Sorrento Sparkle – add a shot of chilled limoncello liqueur to a flute. Top up with Prosecco.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

Tapas Tuesday Part II – Sherry to Make Merry?

While enjoying our Tapas Tuesday kick, I received an offer to sample a few bottles of sherry. Sherry’s popularity peaked in the 1970’s in the U.S., when every household seemed required by law to keep a bottle of cream sherry around for nightcaps and highballs. I cook with sherry all the time – it’s a fundamental component of many of my sauces and no chowder is complete without at least a splash of the stuff.

Neither are the sherries regularly found in tapas bars and Spanish restaurants around the world. The “drinking sherries” are somewhat more carefully constructed, usually quite old, and have a small yet passionate following in the world of small plates.
Sherry casks aging in "solera."
Years ago, back when blogging was considered cutting edge and I was just beginning my wine education, I did a rundown of the major types of sherry. I can honestly say that, at the time, none of the various styles agreed with my palate. Fast forward a bit, now that I’ve become slightly more refined in experience if not in practice, and I hoped the passage of years might have made me more appreciative of the stuff.

Before I get to that, though – let’s talk for a moment about what sherry is. The name “Sherry” is an Anglicized version of “Jerez” (pronounced “zhe-RETH”) -- the region in Spain from where this tipple hails.

Sherry is a type of fortified wine, which makes it a cousin to port, Marsala, and Madeira. In WineSpeak -- a "fortified" wine means that the winemaker's gone and added a bunch more alcohol, usually a neutral spirit like brandy, after the grapes have been fermented. This additional alcohol prevents the wine from spoiling, and allows the wine to be aged in barrel for a long period of time.  Most sherries are between 15-22% alcohol. Sherry is made largely from the Palomino grape, but other grapes called Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are used in sweeter varieties.

Sherry has a fascinating method of production. Winemakers fill the large casks, known as butts about 80% full -- and then put the bung (translation: "big ass stopper which closes a cask") in loosely, so air can circulate during fermentation. While in the barrel, as much as 5% of the wine evaporates. As any veteran of a distillery tour can tell you, this is what's called "The Angel's Share."  

During the aging process, many types of sherry develop a solid layer of yeast, known as flor, on the surface of the wine in the barrel. This yeast layer slows the process of oxidation as the wine ages, preserving certain aspects of the flavor, as well as adding certain compounds called acetylaldehydes, which give sherry its “sharp” aroma.

As a part of the aging process, Sherry producers use what is called the "Solera System." Solera is Spanish for “on the ground.” In this process, as much of a third of a cask of sherry is drained and bottled, and the butt is refilled with younger wine made in the same style. This process is known as "refreshing the mother wine," and maintains consistency in the product from year to year. Sherries are aged a minimum of three years before bottling.

There are five basic types of sherry: Fino and Manzanilla are dry. Amontillado is aged for a minimum of  eight years and is dry to medium dry. Oloroso is also a medium dry sherry which is produced without the flor. Cream sherry is sweet. Fino and Manzanilla are made to be served well chilled. The others can be chilled slightly. (Also, Cream sherry is often poured over vanilla ice cream.)

For a summary of this information, Samantha at Colangelo provided this helpful infographic:

All you need to know about Sherry -- click to embiggen!

She also sent along two bottles -- Emilio Hidalgo Fino ($14) and Faraón Oloroso ($17) – to try alongside our Tuesday slate of various yummies.

Back to my hope for an evolution of my palate. The last time I did a sherry tasting was somewhere in 2007. Eight years later, I can honestly say that my sherry palate is largely unchanged. I just don’t think I’m programmed to appreciate it, as someone who has it as a “house spirit” on a regular basis would. The old “acquired taste” cliché applies firmly.

The fino, which was my favorite of the two, had a nice floral nose and an almost olive brine-type flavor. It was the most drinkable on its own, and it paired OK with the various olives and spreads that we’d assembled for dinner. But I wouldn’t exactly seek out that drinking experience. The oloroso – I simply wasn’t a fan. The darker, oxidized flavor had a nutty characteristic that was interesting – but it was largely overwhelmed by the jet fuel-y alcohol flavor.

I’m sure that there are many out there with more sophisticated sherry palates who might be able to guide me through the cultivation of an understanding of the stuff, but on my own, it just didn’t really resonate. There are so many good Spanish reds and whites – not to mention my beloved sparkler cava – which I would turn to in a tapas bar ahead of either of these.

That said, with the broad range of flavors and aromas in tapas – a higher-alcohol wine like this would be able to cut through most flavors. If you’d been out and found yourself at a tapas bar in the wee smalls, you might consider a glass of this to keep your evening rolling. As for me, bring me that split of cava and I’ll be a happy man.