Reaching for "the Stars"

Is it just me, or are matters a little dull around here? Of course, saying things are dull in New Orleans is a relative measurement, but things still seem a bit humdrum.

Yes, the wee ones are back in school, the Tigers are the No. 1 college football team in the land, and the Saints are finding their rhythm for this current season of NFL football. Given all that, I was looking forward to a big September, but that month has come and is now gone, and I’m still in the summer doldrums.

Even the usually crazy season of gearing up for elections does not seem to have caught fire yet. The Times-Picayune the other day even ran a story on candidates’ nicknames. Interesting, but hardly the stuff of past election seasons when Dutch, Moon, “Silver Zipper,” Big Jim and Big “Jawhn” were all hurling invectives and accusations at anything that moved.

When Louisiana politics starts causing drowsiness, then matters have really changed. It seems as though we are so desperate for a good scandal that the garbage dump tale involving a trusted radio talk show host and a few minor bureaucrats has captured our cocktail party chatter.  Come on, people, we are in danger of losing our hard-earned reputation for sleaze and graft to New Jersey or Illinois.

It’s at times like these, when nothing seems to excite, that I reach for bubbles. Okay, so I reach for bubbles all the time, but particularly at times like these. Nothing like a chilled glass of champagne or sparkling wine to put the smile back on one’s face and the spring back in one’s step – and to instill the ability to accept whatever hand grenade life has tossed into our laps lately.     

Only real issue with this approach is that champagne, which is truly the real deal, is a bit on the cher side. Or as Dennis Quaid said more than 312 times in the movie The Big Easy, “cha’.

I love the product that comes out of the storied wine region only 90 minutes outside of Paris. Champagne is a very special place making a very special product. I wish I could drink it more often. But when I do enjoy it, I really enjoy it … a lot.

Luckily, just in time for the continued economic woes that have befallen most of the nations on earth (except China), Italy and Spain have stepped up and started making truly decent and reasonably priced sparkling wine. Fortuitous.

If you have not tried an Italian prosecco in a while, but still harbor thoughts about too-sweet, too-flabby, too-lacking-in-character wines, you may want to toss out the Atari and get yourself one of those newfangled smarty-pants phones.

Wake up! Times have changed and so have the wines. Technological advancements in wineries, improved viticultural techniques in the fields and cleaner cellar practices have produced better quality wines.

Prosecco is hot, hot, hot. Merchants and restaurants are ordering this stuff by the boxcarload, and consumers are enjoying these newly crafted wines that deliver solid flavors, restrained fruit, and good value.

Also, for those of you in the know about Italy’s wine laws, and the importance of quality control at the government level, the region of Prosecco now has DOC, DOCG and IGT designations. These productions are just hitting the shelves, and this bodes well for consistency and assurances of quality.

I have recently enjoyed both the prosecco (from De Paolo in the Trentino region, $13.50) and Bisol sparkling wines (several quality levels, from Valdobbiadene in the heart of the Prosecco region, northeastern Italy).

De Paolo really delivers a fun flavor and is a lively, delicious prosecco. Keep in mind that our dollar is not worth much in the world market so the fact that these wines are at this price point is all the more amazing.

Bisol may be the leading maker of Charmat-method sparkling wines in Italy, and the generations-old company also does make some wines in the méthode champenoise – but those are mostly for consumption within Italy.

Falling off in sales, or at least falling off somewhat in profile (which is curious given the current demand for reasonably priced sparkling wine), are the cava wines from Spain’s Cataluña region near Barcelona.  These Spanish wines are made in the same methode-champanoise process used in Champagne. A pretty impressive feat given the expense of production.

From Spain, three wineries – Freixenet, Codorníu, and Segura Viudas – dominate the market and produce the wines that we usually see here in New Orleans. In these wines, do not hesitate to spend just a bit more on the next higher quality level. The step-up makes a big difference.

A word of caution on both prosecco and cava: avoid sweeter designations. Stick with brut. As you go sweeter, like extra dry, the wines tend to get too sweet and flabby. In case you fear that a pink sparkling wine from Spain or Italy may be way too sweet, I like the Codorníu rosé wine which still features the acid component of the pinot noir grapes, yet also delivers a creaminess that makes pairing food easy.

One more wine worth mentioning is a sparkling wine from Germany, Raumland. Most German iterations of sparkling wine are from the Pfalz and Rheinhessen regions, and most of the wines are designated sekt, meaning dry. I recently tried the Blanc de Noir and it was refreshing and fresh. Fun stuff.

I’m taking Dom Perignon at his word (he’s a monk after all, and if you can’t trust those guys, who are you going to trust? A bunch of Louisiana politicians?) when he noted, while drinking his precious champagne, that “I am drinking the stars.”  

Thanks, Dom, for a great comment. I’m with you, dude.

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