That sparkling stuff: Prosecco
Ling Low asks if prosecco is the new champagne – and finds out just exactly what it is in the process
Our mothers always told us that all that glitters is not gold. When it comes to drinking, the same thing goes. All that sparkles isn’t champagne, and you only need to look at the label to know that. While we might look at a glass of something fizzy and automatically think it’s French, if it’s being served to you at a huge corporate function or work party, chances are it’s not. You didn’t think they were going to be so generous, did you?
The name ‘champagne’ is protected under European law to only apply to those sparkling wines made from grapes grown and fermented in the Champagne region of France. It’s a privilege the wine-makers have fought hard for, and every time we order a bottle, we pay the price of all those centuries of skill and tradition, not to mention an import tax and a little extra for the marketing. Champagne is very expensive and of course, that’s exactly what makes it desirable.
But in times of global economic austerity, we have to cut back. So if that’s not champagne you’re holding in your hand, then what is it? Well, it’s probably another – much cheaper – kind of sparkling wine. But wait! Don’t spit it out in disgust just yet. For the last few decades, other sparkling wines from Europe have been rising in popularity, presenting new competition to champagne. According to Wine Spectator (www.winespectator.com), exports of prosecco (to the US, at least) have more than doubled in the last ten years, which is all very nice, but it leads us to another question: What the hell is prosecco?
Prosecco may just be the new champagne. It’s an Italian sparkling wine, made from prosecco grapes grown in northern Italy, the traditional stronghold being the Veneto region. Why so specific? Because prosecco can only be called ‘prosecco’ if it’s made in designated areas and to certain standards. Like champagne, it’s protected under European law under a DOC (controlled designation of origin), and wines from Veneto’s Conegliano and Valdobbiadine districts even merit their own distinct label within the classification. But enough technicalities. What does it taste like?
You can think of prosecco as a younger, fresher kind of sparkling wine: the Blake Lively of the beverage world compared to champagne’s Meryl Streep. It’s made using the charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in a steel tank instead of in the bottle. This means that prosecco tends to taste cleaner on the palate, with stronger primary aromas and less overall complexity than champagne. It’s refreshing – you can drink it any time of the day, mix it in cocktails or drink it as an aperitif. The best part? It’s cheap.
Malaysian online wine retailer Wine Actually (www.wineactually.com) stocks prosecco from RM70 per bottle, while their champagnes start from around RM240 – more than three times the price. In bars and restaurants, depending on the label, a glass of prosecco can cost half as much as champagne. So it’s not hard to see why prosecco has been gaining popularity. ‘Prosecco is definitely starting to catch up with KL diners,’ says Carol Lin, general manager at Italian fine dining restaurant il Lido. ‘Even at our countdown party last New Year’s Eve, we had guests requesting prosecco instead of champagne.’
It’s not just those led by their wallets who are appreciating this Italian brew, either. Prosecco is on the radar of wine connoisseurs, who are raising its profile in line with its new image as a fine wine in its own right. There’s even a ‘grand cru’ of prosecco, made from the highly valued grown grapes in Veneto’s tiny sub-district of Cartizze. These hilly vineyards are said to yield the richest and most flavourful grapes, and as a result, their wine can fetch prices double those of other proseccos.
So everybody’s drinking prosecco these days, right? Well, not quite. The thing about prosecco is that it still has a big stigma attached to it, simply because it’s not champagne. For years before earning its DOC, the name ‘prosecco’ was used to label the cheapest and most diluted stuff that some unscrupulous companies could get away with. Now, all too often, prosecco is dismissed as just another fizzy wine – which explains why certain well-heeled establishments still don’t serve it. ‘There is simply no demand for prosecco from our guests,’ a representative from The Ritz-Carlton KL tells me. ‘Champagne is always the drink of choice.’
It’s a human – and some might say, particularly Malaysian – habit to always go for the biggest, the shiniest and flashiest thing in the shop. Whether it’s cars, houses or drinks, we always seem to want to make a statement by splashing the cash we have. That’s why champagne, even now, is still holding the hearts of KL diners. ‘When a guest walks into the restaurant for our Bubbly Brunch, we used to give them the option: champagne or prosecco,’ explains Pavin Ravindran, the manager of The Westin’s Italian restaurant Prego. ‘Automatically, everyone said champagne.’ Last year, Prego stopped serving prosecco at the brunch altogether.
It seems that champagne makers don’t need to worry about the competition just yet. When it comes to this French fizz, we’re talking about a drink that’s been enjoyed for generations, endorsed by royalty across the world, served at every glamorous event that has a single star to its name. We’re talking about a drink that Napoleon toasted his victories with, a drink that Marilyn Monroe was rumoured to have once taken a bath in. How can you resist all that? You can’t. It would be like denying Meryl Streep another Oscar for her latest flawless performance.
So when it comes to picking up a bottle for a pool party, catering for a big function or grabbing a drink with friends, don’t hesitate to go for prosecco. It’s easy to drink and it’s easier still on your bank account. But when you’re seeing in a new year, toasting that promotion, or getting down on one knee? It has to be champagne. We might flirt with the Italian alternative, but for the big occasions, there’s really nothing else. Because if we’re going to celebrate, we may as well do it in style.
Whre to buy affordable prosecco and champage in KL? We have answers.