Buona Pasqua

The Italian people can be accused of a lot of things. Maybe a lack of seriousness. Maybe a bit too much of the Mediterranean "domani" mentality. And maybe even electing leaders who want to dally a little too hard while governing not quite enough. Actually, in reviewing the list, we New Orleanians have a lot in common with the Italian people, don’t we?

But what I really love about the Italian people and their historic home nation is their sense of style, their love of life and their appreciation for good food and good beverages. These people really know how to live and to get the most from what resources they have.

I’ve been to Italy many times and have enjoyed many a good meal, never been disappointed in their wines, and am always in awe by the fact that they can drive on streets made for chariots. Italian drivers are crazy, made more so by the frenetic pace of life in Rome. But they get from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time. Woe to pedestrians who venture from the sidewalk just to cross the road. Again, it sounds a lot like us.

A recent phenomenon of Italian wines is the incredible rise in the sales of Prosecco, the sparkling wine from the northeastern area of Italy. What better time to celebrate with this beautiful wine than to share this fine wine and wish all of our friends, Buona Pasqua, Happy Easter.

In 2009, Italy moved ahead of France to become the top sparkling wine exporter to the U.S., topping 2.6 million cases, more than double the number of bottles from just 10 years ago. There are a number of reasons for this growth, not the least being that the cost of a bottle of Prosecco is usually less than half of what a bottle of Champagne costs.

Yet that sort of misses an important point. Prosecco over the past decade has become a better wine. The incredibly sickeningly sweet Lambruscos and Spumantes have given way to structured wines, made with grapes from vineyards that have received more care and attention, using less sugar in the mix, and not rushing through the fermentation process.

Whether the phenomenon can last, given the rise of Champagne sales over the past 6 months, is not the question. Prosecco has indeed found a niche among lovers of wines with bubbles, and that appreciation is not likely to fade just because the cost of a bottle of Champagne has gone from $45 to $41. You can still purchase two excellent bottles of Prosecco at those price points.

But here again it really is not about Prosecco versus Champagne. They are different products from different regions, made differently, from different grapes, well, you get the idea. Lovers of sparkling wines today have a lot of quality choices, Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, sparkling wine from America, and Mousseaux and Champagne from France. It’s a veritable plethora of riches. Thank you, everyone.

Prosecco is actually the name of a grape varietal, now more often called Glera, from the Veneto region and up into the foothills of the Alps.  The grape itself probably dates back to Roman times, and it was prolific near the village of Prosecco, in northeastern Italy, outside the city of Trieste.

Prosecco possesses a fresh quality that is one of its greatest attributes. For this reason, Prosecco is best enjoyed very young. On the palate, there is the bright fruit character with flavors of pears, apples and even white peaches in evidence. The key to the preservation of this wonderful sensory experience is in the second fermentation. Prosecco primarily uses the charmat method, incorporating large glass-lined storage tanks to stage the second fermentation.

As you know, in order to achieve bubbles in any sparkling wine there is a second fermentation of the wine. At this point, yeasts are added to the mix which kick-start another fermentation and bubbles are formed in the wine. The second fermentation for Champagne is done over a period of years right in the bottle. For Prosecco, the second fermentation is done quickly and in tanks, which preserves a lot of the beverage’s young, fresh-fruit character.

Unlike initial fermentation, the purpose of a second fermentation is not to raise or set the alcohol level. In Prosecco the alcohol levels usually clock in at about 11.5%, sometimes a bit lower, but never much higher. As a point of reference, in American table wines, like pinot noir, the alcohol levels are about 14.5%, and for some zinfandels, it can go to 16%. That’s quite a bit higher on the alcohol scale.

Sometimes the Prosecco producers can bring A Great Surprise to the table: many are actually taking their higher-end products and finishing the wine in the classical champagne method, which is to complete the second fermentation in the bottle. At this point, the demarcation line between the products gets a bit blurrier. The Prosecco achieves interesting levels of depth and additional complexity in the bouquet. Check out some labels and pick one of these up. They are noted on the bottle as methode traditionelle or methode champenois.

To demonstrate the growing respect that Prosecco is achieving, the strict Italian wine laws of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) have, through the efforts of the producers themselves, been brought to bear in the area of the side-by-side villages of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, which carry the higher, more respected DOCG designation. This is a huge commitment to quality and standards on the part of the Prosecco growers and producers. Even Prosecco produced outside the defined areas can now carry the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) designations. The entire region is dedicated to growing fine fruit and making great wine.

A few Proseccos that are worthy of your attention:

Mionetto
Nino Franco
Cavit
Adami
Aneri
Bisol

Then there is always the delightful enjoyment of a cocktail with Prosecco as a main ingredient.

The Bellini

2 parts Prosecco Brut
1 part fresh white peach puree

Place puree into sparkling wine flute, gently add Prosecco. Stir easy.

Obviously an easy drink to mix, and even easier to enjoy. White peach puree is a seasonal product, so sometimes regular peach puree is used. But peach puree, even if you do it yourself, is a fruit-sweet recipe, so be cautious that the elegance of the drink does not get overwhelmed with sugars from the peach.

The drink was developed in the 1930s by famous barman, Giuseppi Cipriani, at the great Harry’s Bar, still located literally on The Grand Canal in Venice. The pink color of the drink reminded Cipriani of the color of a toga as depicted in a painting by 15th century Venetian artist, Giovanni Bellini.

Many mixologists attempt to “short-cut” the ingredients by adding peach schnapps or a peach liqueur. These do not work well, nor does Champagne in place of Prosecco. Champagne is too bold a flavor for the delicate drink.

One more for good measure:

The Spritz
1 part Prosecco
1 part Campari
1 part carbonated water

Place all ingredients in a high-ball, or “rocks” glass, add ice, and stir. Garnish with orange.

Very much enjoyed around Venice, and why an Italian drink would take on a German name is beyond me. But the drink is quite simple and very refreshing.

WAY TO GO, N.O.

It has only been about a month since the disastrous events have unfolded in northern Japan. The triple strikes of a horrific earthquake, followed by the tsunami, and then the nuclear emergency have made us all realize that living just about anywhere is fraught with risk and danger, capable of engulfing us with just a moment’s notice.

Around here, we don’t need reminding about such a fate, and our area has responded admirably to the plight of those good people who are still suffering and will for quite some time.

So far, New Orleanians have contributed more than $100,000 to the NOLA Japan Quake Fund, and this outpouring of generosity has come from every segment of our community. Bake sales, local musicians, artists  and the hospitality sector have all staged sales, created works, developed events with one goal in mind, to pay back people who were there for us when we needed it and now we want to be there for them.

If you wish to make a donation of any size, or to stay abreast of activities planned, head to www.nolajapanquakefund.org.

All proceeds are tax deductible and are being collected through the respected Greater New Orleans Foundation. The funds raised will be applied to where they can do the most good, helping the victims and the communities in that ravaged land.

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