Fizz Fever

Foodservice and Hospitality, August 2005

There's still time to put some fizz into summer wine sales, so take a fresh look at Italy's sparkling wines. Prosecco from Veneto is inexpensive, dry and wonderful with food, and is a superb addition to any restaurant's by-the-glass selection. According to the LCBO, sales of this stylish wine have more than doubled in Ontario in the last three years to around $2.1 million as more brands find their way to Canada. And prosecco has history: suave Venetians and Milanese have been enjoying it as an aperitif for decades.

Most proseccos are low in alcohol - 11 percent - and dry to off-dry. Mildly fruity, ranging from pear to peaches to citrus, prosecco's crisp acidity levels make it refreshing. And it's bubbly, so it's fun: "It's a great way to start a meal or a party. It's a happy drink," said Angelo Rindone, owner of Bu, a cool trattoria on St. Laurent in Montreal. In fact, at Bu's opening party in October 2003 prosecco was served all night.

Until recently there was only one prosecco available in Quebec, but now there are five at the SAQ, plus several more brands through agents. "There is now more choice and better quality [prosecco on the market]. It's also fashionable. "Everybody says 'ah, prosecco'," says Rindone.

At Vancouver's Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill, owner Pino Posteraro believes "prosecco is the perfect way of starting a meal; the classic procedure is starting with more acidic wine, and champagne or prosecco fit this description. Prosecco has an even greater variety of food matches because it's not very bubbly." Prosecco's less-than-exuberant bubbles sometimes causes patrons to wonder if it's flat, but that's just the way it is - a lot of bubbles at first, not a lot after five or ten minutes.

Prosecco is the name of the grape variety, but it is also a designation in the Italian denomination system - Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene - and most proseccos are produced in this sub-region within the Veneto district, of which Venice is the main city.

In addition to numerous frizzantes, spumantes, moscatos and sparkling Lambruscos, Italy also produces champagne-style sparklers based on chardonnay and pinot noir. These are pricey and have proved a hard sell in Canada. Danny Sanelli of Symposium Imports is the Ontario distributor for Bellavista, a fine chardonnay-based sparkling wine from Franciacorta. "In Italy, Bellavista sells out, but they want to create a market internationally. They want to say 'we are as good as champagne'. However, it's really difficult to convince people that they should not drink champagne, but choose this instead." Especially since Bellavista costs between $40 and $60, depending on the style. The LCBO turned it down as too expensive, but Sanelli is putting together a program to boost trade sales of Bellavista and, he says, "there's definitely going to be some tastings and dinners to promote it," but he knows he's got his work cut out for him, even though the product is so good.

Still Happening
Italian still whites have been doing rather well lately, though almost all of the 23% increase in Ontario sales since 2003 came from the "north" districts, which include Piedmont, Veneto, Friuli and Trentino Alto Adige. Pinot grigio remains Italy's numero uno - and if anything it's growing in popularity. "Pinot grigio is still going strong - it's about 80% of our Italian white sales," said Peter Waring of the Small Winemakers Collection, a Toronto importer with an emphasis on Italian. Waring says that Italian restaurants are the main buyers of lesser-known varieties: "it's very rare for these to cross over to non-Italian places." Pinot grigios range from about $10 to $30, with most at the lower end. "You're never going to get an oak-aged pinot grigio because the grape just can't stand up to it. And it'll never be full-bodied - it's always light. A more expensive one will be a little more complex, but still light- to medium-bodied." Waring added that better-quality pinot grigio will have "a little more depth of colour, and it might even be a bit coppery because the pinot grigio grape gives off a grey colour [hence its name, grigio = grey]. In terms of the palate, you get some tropical fruit, which you wouldn't in an ordinary one. Pinot grigio typically offers just nice clean, light fruit flavours."

Pino Posteraro of Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill in Vancouver likes it too, but then immediately suggested moving on. "Take a look at some of the whites from Piedmont, like Gavi di Gavi. It's high quality, but it's not well known here. The price is around $35. And recently I introduced a white from the south, Greco di Tufo. It's dry, with lots of minerality. It's very fresh, unoaked and not too expensive." Postarero says the best way to get customers interested in new wines is to do a "hand sell," which literally means to hand the wine to them for a taste. He also likes to suggest wines with the food the customer orders.

Toronto consultant sommelier Zoltan Szabo, who runs savourflavour.com, acknowledged that the leading Italian whites remain pinot grigio, soave and verdicchio, but Szabo is excited about new vinos in the cellar: "Oh my God, Campania! Fiano, Greco di Tufo, Lacryma Christi. Incredible wines. Pure, minerally, clean wines, totally unoaked. The soil is volcanic."

Like Posteraro, Szabo said these lesser-known wines require a hand sell. At the highest end, Italian still whites can weigh in above $50 retail, like the full-bodied Cervaro Della Sala by Antinori, a blend of chardonnay and grechetto. It's a personal pick of Salvatore Ferragamo, the nephew of the haute couture shoemaker, who was recently in Canada promoting his fine reds from Il Borro of Tuscany. Meanwhile, at a less painful price point, prosecco can liven up lunch or add interest to the appetizers, and a crisp pinot grigio or something racy and adventurous from the volcanic south can carry diners through light summer meals. So if you're looking for some fresh new whites to round out the summer, take another look at Italy.

Prosecco Picks
1. Villa Sandi Prosecco, Treviso, Italy. 11% alc. $14.40 (LCBO) - Although the bubbles disappeared faster than appetizers at a press launch, this one had a great nose of candied grapefruit and pear. The small bubbles were delicate and creamy on the palate, the acid level was crisp and the finish decent.

2. Bottega Prosecco Brut, Caetello Rogansuelo, Italy. 11% alc. $12.25 (LCBO) - Bright and clear, the bubbles were small and the nose had a fruity, candied quality. Peaches, pear, nougat and acacia were discerned. Good finish. We thought this very typical, and very drinkable.

3. Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut, Cantina Produittori di Valdobbiadene, Valdobbiadene, Italy. 11% alc. $14.80 (LCBO) - More pear and candy on the nose, but also fresh citrus. It was crisp, clean and pleasant on the palate. Good finish, with the characteristic slightly bitter edge.

Prosecco Cocktail
The Bellini was invented at Harry's Bar in Venice in the 1940s. The mixture of white peach juice and prosecco is named after the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini.

  • 1/3 glass of peach juice, ideally white (fresh if possible)
  • a few drops of raspberry syrup or grenadine
  • 2/3 glass chilled prosecco

Recipe courtesy of James Savona of Brunello Imports in Toronto

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