A Divine Pairing

Photo: Ugo Zamperoni, president, Consorzio Asolo Prosecco

When properly paired, Prosecco and cheese create a flavorful tasting sensation.

When sparkling wine is on the menu for a celebration or an everyday meal, follow the lead of millions of people and reach for a bottle of Prosecco. These Italian bubbles have boomed in popularity in recent years — even at times when demand for other types of sparkling wine has dropped.

“People are very drawn to Prosecco for lots of different reasons,” says Richard Vayda, director of wine studies at the Institute of Culinary Education, located in New York City. “It’s light, fresh, fun and easy to drink. It’s usually a more casual sparkling wine.” Without the complex yeasty notes that are common in Champagne, Prosecco becomes a beverage that can easily be dumped into orange juice at brunch or sipped casually on a hot summer day. The lower price makes it easier to enjoy whenever the moment demands a little sparkle and not just when budgets allow.

Prosecco’s delicate, sometimes salty or sweet flavor means it pairs well with a variety of cheeses and other foods. Suggestions includes common cheese counter favorites as well as regional products made by Italian artisans.

What is Prosecco?

Like Champagne, Prosecco is a sparkling wine that is protected by a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC. It is produced in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia areas of northeast Italy. The landscape is a combination of plains and rolling hills, with part of the region butting up to the Dolomite Alps and portions touching the Adriatic Sea.

Within the DOC are three DOCGs, which impose even stricter rules on wine production. “The DOCG regions are at the very heart of the Prosecco DOC, and you are more likely to find vineyards that have been worked for centuries here,” says Katherine Cole, author of “Sparkling Wine Anytime: The Best Bottles to Pop for Every Occasion.” “The very finest, cru-caliber vineyards are worked by hand. They are labeled either as Cartizze, referring to a single 1,000-foot-high hill just south of the town of Valdobbiadene, or with the term Rive, which are small communes noted for steep hillside plantings.”

DOCG Asolo lies between the Po valley and Dolomites and serves as a bridge between the two areas, according to Susan Gordan, a wine writer and certified VIA Italian Wine Ambassador. Many of the hills are deeply forested, which contributes to the region’s biodiversity, and the Mediterranean climate makes it an ideal place to grow grapes and other agricultural products. “There are high levels of sunshine. Olives and citrus grow here, which is unusual in northern Italy,” she notes.

DOCG Conegliano-Valdobbiadene is known for its unusual landscape as well as its impressive wines. “It’s a collection of tightly-spaced, conical hills that look a bit like something out of a fairy tale,” says Cole. “These remarkable hills have been declared a UNESCO heritage site.”

The main grape used for Prosecco is Glera, a white variety that is native to the area. At least 85% of the juice used in Prosecco must come from Glera; the rest can come from other regional or international grapes (such as Chardonnay). While Champagne is fermented in bottles, Prosecco gets its sparkle in pressurized stainless steel tanks. “The reason for doing it this way is if you ferment in bottle, you’re getting secondary flavors,” says Gordon, including the bready or yeasty notes people often associate with sparkling wine. Prosecco is prized for its fruity, floral flavors, and that’s what producers want to emphasize.

Asolo’s disciplinare, a document that guides winemaking in the region, says the local Prosecco should express lemon, honey, green apple and white flower notes. Flavors of peaches and other stone fruit, tree fruits such as apples and pears, and fresh flowers are commonly associated with the Proseccos of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene.

Prosecco and Cheese

When considering what cheeses to pair with Prosecco, Cole ticks off several important factors. “The flavors of Prosecco tend to be delicate, so (don’t pick anything) too overpowering. The bubbles and acidity act as a nice palate cleanser, cutting through the creamy texture of a soft cheese in a satisfying way.” Because of that, her inclination is to reach for Brie or Acidino, a soft goat’s milk cheese from Veneto that is often flavored with fresh herbs such as thyme or chives.

Herbs show up through infusions and their influence on the local milk. In the summer, when the cows and other animals are grazing on pastures on and around Monte Grappa, their milk takes on the subtle flavors of what they’re eating, says Angelo Peretti, communications strategist with Italy’s Consorzio Asolo Prosecco. This milk is commonly used to make Bastardo del Grappa and Casatella Trevegiana DOP, two of Asolo’s best-known cheeses.

Bastardo del Grappa is semi-fat cheese that is peppered with small holes and has a flavorful crust. It is made with both morning and evening cow’s milk and is brined in a saltwater solution before being ripened for 120 to 180 days.

Casatella Trevegiana DOP is a soft cow’s milk cheese produced in Treviso, which lies in the heart of the Prosecco region. After 15 days of aging, it develops a paste-like texture and a delicate, milky flavor.

Vayda recommends fresh goat cheese logs or Ricotta with Prosecco. Ricotta de Pecora is his first choice, but Ricotta salata is also quite good.

Both cow’s milk mozzarella and mozzarella di bufala will complement the wine. “The Prosecco plays off that little bit of saltiness in these fresh cheeses,” Vayda says. Higher acid Prosecco will work with the richness of mozzarella or burrata. Enjoy either with garden-fresh tomatoes and basil leaves.

Michele Buster and Pierluigi Sini, cofounders of the import company Forever Cheese, Astoria, NY, recommend serving sparkling wine with aged cow’s milk cheeses. Buster calls out Selvatico first. Similar to aged Gouda, each wheel has strong flavors of caramel and butterscotch and hints of toasted nuts and ripe fruit. Montegrappa is a semi-hard cheese with a nutty flavor and texture similar to cheddar. Sapore Mitica is a hard cheese that reminds Buster of young Parmigiano, with a nutty flavor and slightly crunchy texture.

Buster reached out to Susi Moro, a partnering cheese producer in Veneto, who suggested pouring Prosecco alongside Sottocenere al Tartufo, an ash-rind, truffle-infused cheese with a high butterfat content. The bubbles and minerality of Prosecco do a good job of cutting the fattiness of the cheese, Moro says. Buffalo milk cheeses also tend to be high in butterfat and can work beautifully with sparkling wine. Examples are Porta Rocca, a rich cheese with a paste-like texture; Blu di Bufala, a blue cheese; and Moringhello di bufala, a tangy semi-soft cheese.

Ubriaco, which means “drunk” in Italian, can be an ideal pairing with all kinds of wine, including sparkling wine. Ubriaco al Pinot Rosé is soaked in organic Pinot Grigio rosé sparkling wine and topped with dried rose petals. There is also an Ubriaco that is aged in Prosecco, giving it some similar flavor notes.

When planning cheese pairings, keep in mind that Prosecco tends to be slightly higher in residual sugar than that of other wines, Cole says. It’s also important to keep in mind that the scale for measuring that sweetness uses different terminology than dry wines. Proseccos with the lowest level of sugar will be labeled extra brut and, according to Gordon, have between 0 and 6 grams of residual sugar. Brut wines will have 0 to 12 grams, extra dry ones will have 12 to 17 grams and dry Proseccos will have 17 to 32 grams.

Sweet wines respond well to salty cheeses and sweeter foods. For the latter, consider Mascarpone with fruit or a Mascarpone and Ricotta cheesecake topped with peach compote, Vayda recommends. Another enjoyable experience is to set out a cheeses plate with Proseccos labeled brut, extra dry and dry. Experimenting is often the best way to determine what cheeses you like best with different wines.

Such an experiment might be accompanied with other snacks because Prosecco also pairs well with food. “In the Veneto region, wine is never alone; it is always served with food,” says Peretti. Besides the local cheeses, residents enjoy Prosecco with the local sopressa. In this region, the salami-like cured meat is sweet and spicy, not filled with garlic like versions elsewhere in Italy. Given the region’s proximity to the ocean, seafood is a common accompaniment. In addition to cheese, Vayda enjoys serving prosciutto and melon with Prosecco. Both the saltiness and sweetness go well with the drink. It’s important to avoid foods that are nutty, smoky or earthy, he adds. They can overpower or draw less enjoyable flavors out of the wine.

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