The king is dead; long live the king! The French invented the term long ago to bid farewell to a deceased monarch and pledge fealty to a new one.
Today it has a whole new meaning. Today French champagne — elegant and expensive, long the most popular bubbly wine in the world — has been overtaken in sales by a brash pretender. It’s the simpler, lower-in-alcohol, easier to drink (and easier to afford) sparkling wine from Northern Italy called prosecco.
Created in Roman times but almost unknown by wine fans only 20 years ago, prosecco by the end of 2013 had soared to outsell champagne by 307 million bottles to 304 million, according to the Italian Sparkling Wine Observatory.
The worldwide economic downturn of the late 2000s was a major cause. Champagnes can cost hundreds of dollars a bottle; prosecco is seldom more than $20.
Today it’s considered “cooler” than champagne by America’s iconoclastic 21-somethings, a helpful boon by their economically challenged elders.
Also, many say prosecco is easier to drink. It’s feather-light, with bubbles that are gentler because they’re under only about half the atmospheric pressure of the bubbles in champagne, making it feel creamier in the mouth. It’s less alcoholic, often 10.5 to 11 percent alcohol. It’s sometimes a bit sweeter than champagne. And it’s often served a little cooler — maybe 40 degrees — so its feathery bubbles will hold together.
Champagne lovers bristle, of course, saying prosecco will never approach the august heft and yeasty, flinty character of the bubbly made of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meuniere in the Champagne region northeast of France.
I agree this is true, that there is no finer wine in the world than top champagne. But still, prosecco has pulled off its coup.
As prosecco boomed, pretenders flocked to it — mass-producing the wine with industrial methods, sometimes using the wrong grapes, techniques and even bottling methods.
The problem was that prosecco was the name of a grape, like merlot or zinfandel, and not the name of a region, like Champagne. So foreign producers planted the grape in places as far-flung as Australia and Brazil and called the resulting wine prosecco.
“The ultimate slap in the face came with the introduction of a prosecco in a can, with Paris Hilton recommending drinking it with a straw,” wrote blogger Walter Speller on the website of respected British wine authority Jancis Robinson.
Finally in 2009, Italian wine authorities changed the grape name from “prosecco” to “glera” — one of its other historical monikers — and decreed that a bubbly could be called prosecco only if it was made in the region in Northeastern Italy around the small town called Prosecco.
In doing so, they were supported by the European Union’s Common Market Organization, an institution that sets the rules for many of Europe’s agricultural products. And they moved to upgrade prosecco’s quality with new rules about fermenting and bottling methods, and reductions in permitted grape yields per acre of vines.
Today prosecco is the aperitif wine for America’s drinking-age youth, its picnic wine, its wine for seafood and shellfish and risotto and chicken and fish, and even not-too-sweet fruit tarts.
So while you might not safely serve prosecco to your affluent in-laws, you certainly can pop open a celebratory bottle when your kids graduate from college and move back into your basement.
Fred’s Wine List
• Nonvintage Mionetto Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene DOCG: floral aromas, soft bubbles, green apple flavors, lightly sweet; $19.
• Nonvintage Col Credas Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore “Rive di Farra di Soligo” DOCG: lightly fizzy, crisp and tart, with flavors of green apples; $22.
• Nonvintage Mionetto Prosecco Brut DOC: foamy bubbles, feather-light, floral aromas, green apple flavors, crisp and lightly sweet; $14.
• Nonvintage Mionetto “IL” Prosecco, “The Gentle Sparkling Wine:” semi-sparkling, aromas and flavors of pears, hint of sweetness; $12.
• Nonvintage Mionetto Organic Prosecco di Treviso DOC Extra Dry: lightly sweet, with soft bubbles and tropical fruit flavors; $16.