The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
Most likely you've not heard of glera. But unless you've been living with an uncontacted tribe in Brazil for the past 20 years, you've certainly heard of the ultra-fashionable Italian sparkling wine Prosecco. Glera is the Prosecco grape.
"Wait a minute," keen oenophiles may be saying to themselves. "Isn't Prosecco made from the prosecco grape?" Well, yes and no. That's the variety's traditional name, but a consortium of Italian producers recently lobbied for an official change. To protect the term "Prosecco" from a potential onslaught of New World competitors seeking to capitalize on the bubbly's surge over the past decade, they declared that "Prosecco" be reserved for the geographically distinct (and thus legally protected) wine and that "glera" – historically a local synonym for the vine that yields the wine – be used as the grape name. Think of it as a sort of oenological equivalent of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
It turns out that the Italians may have jumped the gun. Not all grapes historically referred to as glera are the same. In some cases the locals had been referring to a spicy variety technically known as prosecco lungo, while in others they were speaking of prosecco tondo, a genetically distinct variety with a confusingly similar name and softer, more floral character. Got that? Precisely which "glera" now goes into your bottle of Prosecco can be hard, if not impossible, to tell. The wine might even represent a blend of both.
The confusing, and controversial, name switcheroo has done little to curb the world's thirst for the frothy wine that recently overtook Champagne in global sales – 307 million bottles in 2013 compared with 304 million for the bona-fide French luxury bubbly. Many producers of other fine sparkling wines around the globe, including Champagne, are at a loss to explain Prosecco's sudden surge in popularity. But price clearly has been a factor, particularly in the wake of the global recession. A typical Prosecco costs between $15 and $20, less than half the price of an entry-level Champagne and $5 to $10 cheaper than many other quality sparkling wines. Call it affordable elegance.
I suspect the rise of such Italian-food-oriented celebrity cooks as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson have played a role, too. How better to begin an evening of risotto or ragu than with a flute of Prosecco? And it's an easy and fun word to pronounce, not unlike pinot grigio, the other Italian wine that has taken the world by storm in recent years. I call it the Pinocchio factor – starts with P and ends in O; you get to sound like David Rocco even if you're not.
The key reason for Prosecco's low cost is the production technique. Rather than receiving a second, bubble-generating fermentation in individual bottles, as occurs with Champagne and other top "traditional method" sparkling wines, it's almost always refermented in large tanks, industrial-style, then bottled under pressure to preserve effervescence. The wine may not be as complex as Champagne-style bubblies, but at least the grape politics behind the label is far from simple.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.