The Story of Prosecco
Multiple posts in this blog have been devoted to fine Italian wines. We’ve shared with you the secrets behind our favorite Brunello wines, and the beauty of the rolling hills that generate the grapes for a smooth glass of Chianti. But let’s leave the bold reds aside and spend a little time on a wine that truly evokes feelings of celebration- Prosecco.
There’s nothing like that moment when you first sit down in a tiny family-run restaurant and the animated host greets you with a sparkling glass of Prosecco. For me it’s like flipping a switch- let the joy of this meal begin. Sometimes I order the Prosecco right when I sit, but many times they just bring it automatically, like a sign that they will take good care of me and this is going to be fun. At one restaurant in Lucca, they even brought a glass for each of my pre-teen daughters. (Of course I allowed a sip… When in Lucca).
But what is it about Italy’s famous sparkling white that makes it so festive? My theory is that its charm is two-fold. For one thing, a good glass of Prosecco is extremely light and refreshing, and goes with any food and any occasion. Enjoy it with lunch. Sip it by your villa’s pool in Tuscany’s hot afternoon. Kick off your 5-course dinner with a glass. Bring it to a late night gathering and watch the party come to life. The other reason it’s so great is perhaps even more compelling: Prosecco is very inexpensive, so it’s easy for restaurants and hosts to graciously share the joy.
I recently went looking into the history of this versatile wine. Turns out the ancient Romans were just as smart as we thought they were. In addition to building amphitheaters and aqueducts, they were harvesting the Glera grape from the hills around the village of Prosecco near Trieste. I was surprised to learn that Trieste is a small town in Northern Italy across the Adriatic from Venice, way over near the Slovenian border. This is a part of Italy that you probably didn’t even realize was in Italy. It makes me wonder whether, way back when country borders were being negotiated, the Italians knew they needed to keep this area (and its fruits) for themselves.
In the centuries following its invention, Prosecco production spread to the neighboring lower lying areas of Veneto and Friuli. And this is where the Prosecco we know today was first produced at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the introduction of new secondary fermentation technologies. While secondary fermentation, which produces the bubbles, takes place in the bottle for France’s Champagne, it occurs in a large steel tank for Prosecco. This is much more cost effective and also explains the more simple, fruity and flowery flavor. Prosecco can sometimes be sweet (“off-dry”), but a good glass is just as dry as Champagne and more refreshing.
While we’re on the topic of refreshing drinks, let’s spend a moment on the iconic Italian cocktail, the Bellini. This sparkly pink drink is simply an ingenious combination of Prosecco and peach puree or nectar. It was invented in the 1930s by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice. This famous watering hole on Campo San Marco has served illustrious clients since Cipriani opened the doors 1931. When Ernest Hemingway stayed in Venice during the winter of 1949-1950, he spent much of his time at Harry’s Bar, where he had his own table and often drank with the owner himself. Over the years, other expat patrons included Orson Welles, Truman Capote and Charlie Chaplin.
As for Cipriani’s most famous drink, the Bellini, the story goes that he chose the name due to its unique pink color, which reminded him of the toga adorned by a saint in a painting by 15th-century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini. I love the irony of the connection to high Renaissance art as well as partying American expats. It’s perfect for a drink based on Prosecco. Prosecco is exactly where snobbery meets the streets.
Now let’s raise our glasses to good health, or as they say in Italy, “salute!”