When we think of celebrations, we think of toasting with Champagne. But isn’t every day worth celebrating? Why not drink sparkling wines more often? Why not have them throughout a meal instead of just before or after? It’s all in the bubbles: carbon dioxide forms during the fermentation process, creating bubbles under pressure in the bottle. Not only are they elegant, they can clean your palate and actually help you digest food. With a little effort you can find a perfect sparkling wine for virtually every dish.
Nearly every region of Italy has sparkling wines that are recognised as DOC (the origin of the grapes is controlled) or DOCG (not only controlled but guaranteed). These are good to look for on the label. All types of sparkling wines can be found as whites or rosés, and all can range from very dry to sweet. It’s critical to know which is which. On the label of the absolute driest wine you will see dosage zero, pas dose, pas opera or nature, all of which indicate that no sugar has been added. “Extra brut” has almost no sugar added and “brut” very little. The confusing phrase is “extra dry.” This is actually a somewhat sweet wine. You should regard Demi sec or “medium dry” wines as dessert wines.
The European Union says that Champagne with a capital “C” must be made in the Champagne region of France. They did it first; they do it best; but some Italian sparkling wines are not far behind. The word “spumante” in fact, simply means “sparkling wine.” With a capital “S” it means a particular drink made in a particular area. Spumantes must be under at least three atmospheres of pressure in the bottle. Other sparkling wines that are under less pressure and have lower alcoholic content are called “frizzante,” or fizzy wines. The best known of these are Proseccos.
If you want Italy’s top sparkling wine, look for a Franciacorta. The grapes are almost all harvested by hand, then hand selected. Since 1990, the Franciacorta winemakers have produced a Saten, made from 100% chardonnay grapes. It consistently ranks with the top sparkling wines of the world. Deservedly, the best known producers are Ca’ del Bosco and Bellavista (their Gran Cuvée Brut is a real star at around 25 euro). An up-and-comer in my book is Roberto Gatti’s Ferghettina Franciacorta Saten.
As an aperitif or with light first courses, you may want a Prosecco, generally made with 100% prosecco grapes. It is always a refreshing, well made wine at a reasonable price. The DOCs from Conegliano Valdobbiadene are a good choice. A personal favourite is Nino Franco’s Rustico, available in Florence at about 8 euro/bottle. If the grapes come from a tiny village called Cartizze and the wine is at least 11.5% alcohol, it carries the sub-label “Superiore di Cartizze.” Well worth seeking out at around 10 euro per bottle. Bisol’s have won international attention.
Looking for a special menu for Valentine’s Day? Whether planning a romantic dinner for two or a treat for a crowd, a costly but lovely way to start would be with fresh oysters. However, vegetables or calamari fried in a light batter or stuffed mushroom caps are also good choices. A more substantial starter could be warm scallops in a cheese sauce (Coquilles St. Jacques), a risotto with seafood, spaghetti allo scoglio or other light fish dishes.
As your main course, almost any fish, simply prepared, would be a wonderful choice. Small trout cooked in butter or monkfish with lemon come to mind. You also might opt for chicken in a light sauce or even rabbit. Next, perhaps a cheese course: aged cheeses, such as parmesan or grana padano, if you are serving a brut. Or go for a fruit cup or a fruit based tart served with a demi sec. Finding a wine to pair with chocolate is always difficult, since the two flavours do not have a good rapport. But some of the sweet spumantes, based on the Moscato or Brachetto grape, can do nicely.
Risotto with Shrimp & Sparkling Wine
(based on a recipe from Sale&Pepe)
400 grams of Carnaroli rice
(use Abrorio if Carnaroli is not available)
2.5 dl of champagne or other sparkling wine
500 grams of asparagus
(or frozen peas – see note)
500 grams of whole shrimp
1 scallion, diced
1 celery stalk, washed and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 leek, cleaned and sliced into rounds
(white part only)
Some French tarragon, chopped
50 grams of butter
3 tablespoons of olive oil
Freshly ground white pepper /salt
1.clean the shrimp and put the meat aside, in a cool spot. Keep the shells for the fish broth you are about to make: chop the heads and put them, with the rest of the shells, into a pot with a litre (33 oz.) of cold water. Add the carrot, leek, celery, half the tarragon, half the champagne, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and let it simmer for 20 minutes. Filter the broth through a sieve into a fresh pot, discarding the solids. Keep it warm over a very low heat.
2.bring a pot of water to a boil and add salt. Cut asparagus stems into small slices on an angle, keeping the tops whole. Boil for 3 minutes, and then remove with a slotted spoon. Add the tips and boil for 1 minute. Remove and keep separate from the stems.
3.put the olive oil and half the butter into a wok or large, flat bottomed sauce pan. Heat through, then add the asparagus stems. Allow them to cook for about one minute, then add the rice. Stir the mixture slowly and allow the grains of rice to “pearl” until each grain is well covered. Once this has happened, pour in the rest of the champagne, and let it evaporate.
4.add a ladle of the broth and continue cooking, adding ladles of broth as each is absorbed and stirring frequently.
5.about 5 minutes before you think the rice will be ready, add the shrimp and continue stirring. Once cooked remove the pan from the heat, adjust the salt, add the rest of the butter and allow it to melt, stirring rapidly.
Whether you choose your wines to match your food or vice versa, visit your local wine store to help plan a special evening. Salute!