Two online tastings prompt Peter Ranscombe to muse on how well Italian sparkling wine can match to food.
THINK prosecco, think aperitif – whether it’s a dinner party or a gallery opening or a glass to kick-off a night out, Italy’s all-conquering bubbles are a popular choice.
Yet two online gatherings in recent weeks have highlighted just how versatile the right glass of prosecco can be when it comes to full-blown food too.
This morning’s virtual trade tasting with Edinburgh-based chef Paul Wedgwood and Diana Thompson from Wine Events Scotland was due to take place in the cook’s eponymous restaurant.
As coronavirus restriction descended once more, the event was shifted online, with Wedgwood’s creative canapes ferried to participants.
And it was worth every ounce of effort that was clearly poured into the operation.
Wedgwood created eight canapes that not only captured the excitement of opening one of his menus but also offered an enticing insight into how a wine that’s often dismissed as one-dimensional can work with a wide variety of foods.
First up was the Ponte Prosecco Extra Dry (£11.95, Secret Bottle Shop), full of classic sweet apple and pear notes on the nose.
“Extra dry” in the context of Europe’s sparkling wine labelling laws means the sparkler can contain between 12 and 17 grams of residual sugar in each litre of liquid.
That’s not a bad thing – it gives the winemaker the ability to balance the sharpness of the acidity, like here with the Ponte.
Pairing the prosecco with a simply sensational fried panettone smothered in poached crab apple helped to soften even more of the acidity.
An almond frangipane with pear and whipped lemon crème fraiche worked less well for me, simply heightening the almond flavour.
The Riccardo Prosecco Brut isn’t available in the UK yet, but look out for the producer appearing in Waitrose soon.
On the nose, the lemon outpaced the apple, with the situation reversed on the palate, with a touch of lemon rind coming through on the finish.
Matching the bubbles to a cigar of roast butternut squash rolled in pistachio and peanut “dust” emphasised that savoury lemon rind note in the wine for me.
A classic pairing came via sitting the wine alongside confit pork belly and sweet pickled apple; Riccardo Fornasier, joining the video call from Italy with his fellow producers, nodded his approval, highlighting how prosecco’s acidity slices through fattier cuts of pork.
Salty and sweet
Le Colture Sylvoz Prosecco Brut (£13.75, Corney & Barrow) shone with bright lemon and lemon sherbet aromas, leading into teeth-squeaking acidity on the palate, balanced by more savoury lemon rind and stalkier green apple flavours.
The off-dry sweetness of the prosecco played beautifully off the saltiness of Wedgwood’s two accompanying canapes – a round of grana Padano shortbread coated in cream cheese, caviar and sea plantain, and a crisp Jerusalem artichoke skin shaped to hold smoked haddock brandade and a Parma ham crumb.
Those sweet and salty interactions won over the audience of sommeliers – and me too.
To finish, the Valdo Bio Prosecco Brut (£15.30, Tannico), an organic wine not yet available in the UK, but shipped by websites including Tannico; look out for the label’s other bottles in Sainsbury’s.
For me, organic wines always bring an intensity and definition to their aromas and flavours, and the mix of red apple, green apple and pear in the Valdo was no exception.
Again, its acidity sliced through the mozzarella that accompanied fig and wild mallard ham on a skewer.
The saltiness of the smoked salmon mousse smothered on a slice of crunchy cheddar and onion bread and butter pudding left the wine feeling drier than its brut designation – between six and 12 grams of residual sugar – would suggest.
Hats off – as ever – to Wedgwood for his creative canapes, with Emiliano Fermi from Valdo throwing in his own suggestions of herb risotto and pasta with white game as potential pairings.
What grows together…
Those traditional dishes were also a focus during a “virtual press trip” to the prosecco production region earlier this month.
While today’s session was hosted by Neil Phillips, the brand ambassador for the wider area covered by the prosecco denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) consortium, this month’s media outing was laid on by the Conegliano Valdobbiadene prosecco superiore denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) consortium, which represents specific higher-quality sites within the region.
The prosecco superiore’s virtual outing included a lecture from “food anthropologist” Sergio Grasso, who not only explained the sparkler’s connections with the wider cuisine of the region between the Dolomite Mountains and the Adriatic Sea but also the role that food and wine play within society.
He explained that, traditionally, nothing would go to waste – when it came to livestock, the whole animal would be used, from snout to tail.
Grasso reeled off a list of classic dishes – from tripe to liver and onions, taking in river fish like eel, perch and trout along the way – that would feature in every nonna’s repertoire, alongside risotto and asparagus dishes.
Olives weren’t cultivated in the area and so animal fats like lard were key; with such a rich diet in a relatively cooler climate, wines with acidity were the order of the day.
Yet another example of that old adage – “What grows together, goes together”.
My ears pricked up especially high when Grasso mentioned pairing prosecco to three-year old parmesan cheese, especially as the trip’s organisers – master of wine Sarah Abbott, who hosted a great prosecco DOCG online tasting earlier this year, and export consultant Michele Shah – had armed participants not only with samples of wines but also with a pair of intriguing cheeses too.
The grapes and the bees
The first was a creamy buffalo milk cheese that had been steeped in grape skins for 15 days; the second was a harder cow’s milk cheese that had been wrapped in beeswax.
The creamier cheese paired well with the lemon sherbet and peach notes in the 2019 Villa Sandi Millesimato Brut (£14.95, Dolce Vita Club), which had the liveliest bubbles among any of the wines in either online tasting.
The 2019 Masottina Prosecco Le Rive di Ogliano Extra Dry (£20, Amazon) was my pick with the harder beeswax-encased cheese, with its crisper acidity providing a contrast of textures and its fresher lemon juice and apricot flavours shining through.
While I may be fresh out of peanut dust and sea plantain, the major ingredients in Wedgwood’s bite-sized dishes have given me plenty of ideas for prosecco pairings – in the style of some great Champagne and Franciacorta dinners that have appeared on this blog over the years.
In the meantime, trying different proseccos with Scottish cheeses is a must, exploring which softer and harder cheeses work with slightly sweeter (extra dry) and slightly drier (brut) bubbles.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.