Austerity and Prosecco
Posted: 3rd December 2018
November was grim month. Sometime in the twilight days of October I realised I could no longer fit into my clothes. I had a clear choice: new clothes or lose weight. As I could not afford the former, it had to be the latter; so I gave up lunch.
Lunch was only ever what the others had failed to finish, but there was quite a lot of that and then there were cakes and biscuits and all sorts of things that lay about the house. Anyway, I reduced my daily diet to two slices of my own (substantial) bread with my coffee and then perhaps a couple of tangerines during the day. Dinner accompanied by wine was at eight as usual. One or two things broke up the day and stopped me going mad: a cup of tea at four and a couple of pints of water at half past six.
After just over a month I feel quite well adapted. Members of my family offer me biscuits, even lunch sometimes, but I do not waver. From time to time I feel like St. Anthony in the desert, but I am even more adamantine in my commitment than he was. I knew that as Christmas approached there would be a few evening parties and even the occasional lunch, and that I would have to make an exception here or there, but I aim to persist, at least until the end of Advent.
So far I have had two lapses. On one occasion friends invited me to Bedford for an Anglo-German birthday party and we ate, almost without a break, all day; and the other was on the last day of the month when I attended a tasting at the Osteria in the Barbican, followed by lunch! The tasting was of Bottega prosecco. Now, I am not a huge prosecco drinker but I have noticed how popular it has become in Britain. I had first witnessed the prosecco craze in Munich and elsewhere in Germany where affluent young ‘Schickimickis’ sat around in cafés drinking it in preference to still wine or beer. Germans drink lots of Sekt or sparkling wine, so this wasn’t particularly revolutionary. In Britain, on the other hand, sparkling wine was restricted to high days and holy days: weddings and birthdays, and if you couldn’t run to champagne for the occasion you tended to drink Catalan cava instead.
That, it seems, has changed; and people are now prepared to drink a glass of sparkling wine where, in the past, it was always still. It is also true that champagne has priced itself out of many people’s budgets: with the found flailing, the price of champagne has increased by 12% meaning that the average cost of a bottle is over £20 for the first time. Sales have decreased by 20% since 2016. Sandro Bottega demonstrated that proper prosecco, made from Glera grapes grown on the steep slopes of the Dolomites, is not any cheaper to produce than champagne, despite the fact that the second fermentation is in tank, rather than bottle. The ‘Charmat’ tanks cost a lot of money. What makes champagne more expensive is the fact the champagne producers have to pay more than five times as much for their grapes. On the other hand, not all prosecco is as well made as his and at around £20 his top prosecco – Gold – is more expensive than many champagnes. Rough and ready prosecco may be had for as little as £5.25 a bottle.
Britain is now the top destination for prosecco wines and to my shame I don’t think I was aware of ever having tasted it analytically before last Friday. I was pleasantly surprised. Sandro Bottega wanted to show us that the wine had the potential to age. We tasted six vintages of his Vino dei Poeti Valdobbiadene Superiore and it was quite clear there were considerable variations between vintages. The one I liked best was the powerful 2016, the 2013, however, I thought was already oxidised. This short-ish life does contrast quite sharply with champagne; champagne ages better than many still wines. I have the odd 1990, and it is very good.
The tasting went on, and we tried the new ‘Ancestrale’: a prosecco filled with its yeast to create a second fermentation in the bottle, but, unlike champagne, the Ancestrale is not disgorged, so the yeast remains at the bottom, like a German wheat beer. I thought this rather wonderful stuff. It had that green apple character which is a sine qua non, but was slightly cidery.
We finished the tasting with the Bottega Gold, the Prosecco Rosé and the Bottega Rosé Gold. Unlike ordinary proseccos, Gold has a dosage of 11 – 12 grams of sugar to make it richer and it has a pleasant length too. The Gold rosé has a bit of added Pinot Noir from Oltreppo Pavese and has an attractive saltiness.
Then we went into lunch, and an excellent lunch at that. An aperitif of prosecco with Bottega vermouth was served with lots of lovely things including a very gooey triple cream goats’ cheese from Piemonte and three different sorts of bruschetta. Then we sat down to grilled vegetables and dried meats and cheeses, excellent Bottega six-year old balsamico and olive oil and then a delicious spaghetti cacio e pepe and fruit salad served with (Bottega) soave, Valpolicella ripasso and sparkling moscato. Bottega is a very big company indeed and has its fingers in a great many vinous pies. There was even a cask-aged grappa to go with my coffee. All my vows lay in tatters and my pious intentions were utterly crushed.
I made for the tube at Moorgate. I remembered we needed food for the evening and stopped to buy lamb and morcilla negra sausages from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town but before dinner there was a book launch in Westminster for the new edition of the late Jocasta Innes’s excellent Country Kitchen first published in 1979. It proved a delightful evening in an old house within spitting distance of Jacob Rees Mogg’s London residence and sure as eggs his name was pronounced again and again. I was far from hungry, but somebody pressed a plate of kedgeree into my hand, made, of course, according to Jocasta Innes’s recipe. I write these words on the first Sunday in Advent. I am not at my best. I have promised I shall be made of sterner stuff between now and Christmas.