A sparkling reception: Interest in Prosecco bubbles up in masterclass

Journalist Ellie O’Byrne, right, taking part in the history of Prosecco masterclass with master of wine, Harriet Tindal of Tindal Wine Merchants, at The Metropole Hotel, Cork, along with Roger Russell, Metropole Hotel general manager. Picture: David Keane

Prosecco may be Italy’s answer to Champagne, but is it a girly drink or a serious business? Ellie O’Byrne raises a flute at a masterclass at Ireland’s first Prosecco festival.

Everybody loves a glass of bubbly. But how much do you actually know about Prosecco? Invited to a masterclass at Ireland’s first ever Prosecco festival, I phone a friend to invite her along, and put this question to her. “I know I like drinking it,” is her succinct reply.

I’m no different. Prosecco, Italy’s answer to Champagne, is a sparkling favourite in an increasingly wine-mad Ireland, and the perception is that it’s more affordable, so to me, as to many, it’s a relatively common occurrence to find myself clutching a flute of the stuff.

Once reserved for celebrations, it’s now on the menu for many as a standard tipple of choice. Irish people uncorked 9.1 million cases of wine in 2017, according to Revenue. Nearly three in every hundred bottles were sparkling, and Prosecco cornered the lion’s share of this market.

So maybe it was time to go and find out more about this delicious business, at a masterclass and tasting in The Metropole Hotel. The evening starts with delectable, delicately hued cocktails courtesy of one of The Metropole’s in-house mixologists: triple sec, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime, gomme and peach tincture, topped with highly photogenic edible flowers.

Our host for the evening is Harriet Tindal, one of just four female Irish Masters of Wine, and one of two accredited Burgundy tutors in the country. She’s elegant, witty and extremely charming and soon has the room lapping up her every word alongside their flutes of prosecco.

“Good to see a few token men in the room,” she says, as a waiter serves us the first wine we’re sampling, Soraloc, a prosecco frizzante. And it’s true, there really are only a handful of men present, including Harriet’s husband Jim, who’s sharing a table with my friend and me.

Why is it that prosecco has such a girly reputation, I ask?

“People say prosecco is a girls’ drink because it’s sparkling and simple, and that’s bollocks,” she says. “But for some reason women do go for it: I was in a restaurant once and two women sat down and they didn’t even look at the wine list: one said ‘I’ll have a Prosecco’ and the other said, ‘I’ll have a Pinot Grigio’, and I thought, please stop being so clichéd.”

Although billed as a talk on the history of Prosecco, we skim over a few dates — apparently, Prosecco was flat, sweet and not all that special until the 1960s — and Harriet moves on to discuss production.

What’s the difference between a frizzante and a spumante? About four bars of pressure, according to Harriet. It’s all in the bubbles: frizzante wines are bottled at around 1.5 bars of pressure, meaning they can be sold in screw caps.

The perlage, the frequency and character of the bubbles, is sparser and softer. Spumante wines, bottled at between five and six bars of pressure, are designed for extra cork-popping fizz, which may be why we associate them with celebration.

The Irish government certainly considers them a luxury; if bottles of spumante seem more pricey, that’s because we pay through the nose for bubbles, Harriet explains. There’s an excise duty of €6.37 on a bottle of spumante, while frizzante is still categorised alongside table wines, nearly half the government tax.

As these facts sink in, the bubbles are rising: time to taste the Soraloc, a DOC wine, organically grown, as are all the wines at Treviso’s Perlage

winery, the source of our three samples for the evening.

“It’s a delicate lime and lemon, soft and aromatic,” Harriet says. “This comes from the low-lands and it’s an easy-drinking, lighter style.”

The higher in the hills the vines grow, Harriet explains, the more character the wines.

When a grape is stressed, it produces more concentrated wines

I file that nugget away under useful analogies to use for friends in time of crisis.

We talk terroir, and the difference between the Italian DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and DOCG labels; that all-important G is Garantita, or guaranteed: both DOC and DOCG wines are produced in defined regions, but DOCG wines are produced to more stringent standards.

We taste Sgajo, a dry DOC spumante, light and clean and crisp, but with a more persistent flavour than the first sample, and finally, Canah, a DOCG Prosecco Superiore, worlds apart from the sweet throw-away bottles on supermarket shelves.

Sampling over, Harriet comes around for a chat at the table as platters of delicious antipasti are served and the evening dissolves into pleasant, tipsy chat.

Harriet, who works for her family business, Tindal Wine Merchants, says there’s inevitably a heavier side to the business of selling things light and fizzy: making sure prosecco doesn’t fall victim to its own popularity with unsustainable production methods. It’s why she’s supporting an organic winery.

The 2018 harvest, across the DOC and DOCG regions, will yield an estimated 3,700,000 hectolitres. For the fantasists amongst you, I’ve calculated that’s 148 Olympic swimming pools of bubbly. Synchronised swimming, anyone? That’s twice as much as was produced in the Champagne region of France.

But this boom is encouraging production methods that favour quantity over quality, Harriet warns. “There are prosecco producers out there who just want to make money and who have no interest in the quality of what they’re producing,” she says.

“So please, it might be tempting, but don’t buy the cheapest Prosecco; in general, you do get pay what you pay for.”

The Festival of Prosecco will be hosted in The Metropole Hotel, The Blue Haven in Kinsale and the Cork International Hotel throughout the month of May, and will be an annual event. There’s a Prosecco Supper Club hosted by Elena Brugnera on Friday, May 24.

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