IF YOU stop to think for a moment, sparkling wine is an amazing product. No other drink has such a strong connection with celebrations, whether it’s a bottle of Champagne to toast a newly-married couple or getting the keys to your first house, or just a glass of Cava or Prosecco to congratulate yourself on making it through to the end of the week.
During drinks receptions before gala dinners or while canapes are being served at art galleries or museums, more often than not there’s a tray full of fluted glasses on hand. Few wines work better as an aperitif, with the high acidity in the sparkler stimulating your saliva production and getting your taste buds going in time for dinner.
Yet once we sit down to dinner, fizz is often forgotten, with white, red and sweet wines taking over at the table. It’s a crime, as regular readers will remember the previous fun we’ve had matching sparklers to food.
That’s why it was so exciting to join Victor and Carina Contini last night for the launch of their new private dining room at their eponymous restaurant on Edinburgh’s swanky George Street. The room has been developed with Bellavista, one of the best-known brands of Franciacorta, Italy’s flagship sparkling wine, and follows in the footsteps of the Glengoyne whisky room at the couple’s Cannonball restaurant on the approach to Edinburgh Castle.
Franciacorta is made using the “traditional” method, with the second fermentation that creates the bubbles taking place in a bottle, just like with Champagne, Cremant from other parts of France and Cava in Spain. In contrast, the fermentation that produces the bubbles in Prosecco takes place in a tank, with the wine then bottled under pressure.
We’ve also had fun with Franciacorta before, but last night’s gathering focused on how well the different sparkling wines in Bellavista’s range can pair with food. The Alma Gran Cuvee (£45 a bottle or £9 a glass) is a stalwart on the menu at Contini, with its fresh lemon, green apple and pear flavours combined with high acidity and a long finish. It got diners in the mood for what was to follow.
Alma is the brand’s non-vintage blend, made from 80% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Noir and just a touch of Pinot Blanco or Pinot Blanc. It’s the label’s calling card, consistent year-after-year.
The 2011 Saten, on the other hand, is made entirely from Chardonnay and has a richer and more rounded feeling in the mouth. For me, the lemon and red apple flavours were joined by delicious doughy bread notes and softer acidity. It paired nicely with the mozzarella cheese, figs and honey, with the more balanced acidity not over-powering the food.
A carpaccio of thinly-sliced fillet of Scotch beef – served with rhubarb, toasted almonds and horseradish cream – was accompanied by the 2011 Brut Teatro La Scala, a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, which turned the acidity back up a notch, but retained the mixture of green and red apple aromas and flavours.
The star of the night was the 2011 Rosé (£80 or £14), full of strawberry and raspberry flavours that were so ripe you’d be forgiven for thinking it was off-dry instead of the “brut” advertised on the label. The acidity sliced through the herb butter that drenched the agnolotti, small ravioli-esque squares of pasta filled with Eyemouth lobster. Stunning.
While the Franciacorta designation is reserved for sparkling wines, the same area of Lombardy also makes still wines from Chardonnay, labelled instead as “Curtefranca”. While I’m not convinced the 2011 Convento della Santissima Annunciata was the right pairing for the sensationally-good Borders lamb chop, the wine itself was stunning.
Burgundy-like new oak flavours of butter, cream and vanilla mingled with lemon and peach flavours, but with the same familiar kick of acidity as the fizzy wines to provide balance. It was interesting to compare the wine from the edge of the area with the 2011 Uccellanda, which comes from the heart of the region, offering pear, green apple and lemon flavours to sit alongside the vanilla and almond tones.
The Uccellanda was an ideal partner for the “embriago” cheese course, with sultanas infused with Marsala wine. Serving white wine with cheese can be a real treat and is worth a bit of experimentation one weekend.
Back to fizz to finish, with a glass of the 2006 Vittorio Moretti Extra Brut Vintage sitting alongside a baba or sponge pudding of blood orange with a grape sorbet. I’d normally reach for a sweeter sparkler to accompany a pud, but this dry vintage wine was a real treat instead.
Still tasting superbly fresh after seven years ageing on its lees or spent yeast cells and then a further four on its own in a bottle, all of the “autolytic” or bread flavours associated with vintage sparkling wine were starting to come to the fore, with brioche and cake joining the fruit flavours of red apple and quince and the buttery vanilla notes.
As well as serving Franciacorta by the glass, Contini is also licensed for off-sales, with the Alma available at £32 a bottle and the 2011 Rosé at £55, alongside its full range of tempting wines.