Three years ago, when I was just starting out with this column, I boldly predicted the rise of prosecco in the hearts of the British quaffing classes. And oh how it has turned out to be true. Clever marketing, combined with the British love of cheap fizz, has propelled prosecco relentlessly up the wine charts.
The unassuming sparkler from Treviso saw British sales rise 36 per cent last year to more than £350m, easily outstripping champagne sales, which grew just one per cent to £250m. When you also factor in that prosecco costs around half the price, that’s a lot of bottles; around half a bottle per person in the country, to be precise.
The last few glasses I've had tasted so tasted thin and metallic that no amount of sugar could hide it.
When a wine, particularly an Italian wine, becomes popular, two things happen; neither of them are good. The price goes up, and the quality comes down, particularly at the cheaper end of the market, where all sorts of marginal producers are tempted into the market. The shameful overproduction of Soave in the 1970s is perhaps the worst case in point.
I am afraid that prosecco is embarking on the same journey. Perhaps I’m just picky but the last few glasses I’ve had, since it’s now an achingly inevitable guest at any summer drinks party, tasted thin and metallic; no amount of sugar could hide it.
If you still want to drink prosecco I urge you to pay a little more and look for the wines classed as DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or a cut above the ordinary DOC wines), which are produced in the central area around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.
For Christmas, buy La Gioisa Prosecco Superiore (Waitrose £13.49) which is as good an example as you will find, full of effervescent fruits like apricot and peach, although at that price it doesn’t really qualify as cheap fizz.
There is however another Italian sparkling wine that is catching on all over town. It is called Franciacorta. That wonderful name alone makes it worth a glass or two. Franciacorta is grown from chardonnay grapes, with sometimes a sprinkling of pinot nero or pinot bianco for colour and body. It is grown in the most picturesque of settings, in the rich limestone soils on the south bank of Lake Iseo, not far from Brescia.
If you still want to drink prosecco I urge you to pay a little more and look for the wines classed as DOCG
It is also a newcomer to the world of sparkling wine. While wine-making in the region dates back to Roman times, it wasn’t until 1967 that the first 3,000 bottles of sparkling wine were produced.
It became clear that the terroir was perfect for chardonnay vines. The resulting wine has the elegance of a blanc de blancs champagne but with an extra intensity and power.
Intelligently (and uncharacteristically) the local Consortium also set their new wine high standards; non-vintage Franciacorta must stay in the bottle with its yeast for at least 18 months, three months longer than non-vintage champagne, adding to that intensity and elegance.
The mousse is fine and champagne-like; there is all the dryness you’d expect from a brut with just a hint of complex fruit to lift it.
The bad news, or perhaps the good news, is that production is tiny, making Franciacorta hard to find in Britain. The Italians keep most for themselves. Only about 15.5m bottles are made each year, and of those only one in ten ever find their way abroad. Champagne produces almost 20 times as much and just one producer, Moet & Chandon, produces twice as much as the whole of Franciacorta.
Still, a little does find its way to us and is well worth a try, perhaps to serve your guests something different for Christmas.
I suggest I Due Lari (Marks & Spencer online £19.00) or Fortnum & Mason Franciacorta (£22.50), made by respected producer Franca Contea. Again you are paying, but you’re paying for the privilege.