Vietnamese Pizza and Sparkling Heretics

Nem Nướng, a Vietnamese kind of pork sausage.

© shutterstock

Nem Nướng, a Vietnamese kind of pork sausage.

Nem Nướng, a Vietnamese kind of pork sausage.

© shutterstock

I once visited the finest pizza restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Getting good cheese in Vietnam is hard, so the owners started making their own from buffalo grazing in the highlands of Đà Lạt. A tangy burrata arrived whole, like a water balloon ready to pop, surrounded by a crust perfectly leopard-spotted with char and deep with creamy, tangy sourdough flavour. But what about those hoping for some local influence? Perhaps a coconut base, topped with fragrant Nem Nướng?

What’s in a name?

Pizza, though, is pizza. If it has Nem Nướng on it, then it is Vietnamese pizza - not Italian Nem Nướng. This identity crisis always comes to mind when tasting Traditional Method sparkling wines made from grape varieties other than Champagne’s holy trio of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Imagine an enterprising Australian winemaker, convinced their Merlot/Zibobbo sparkler is breaking new ground. Customers walk through the tasting room doors, spot the glimmering foil and ask to taste the Champagne. “Ah, but it isn’t Champagne!”, the winemaker says, at first. After a few years, though, resistance subsides. Perhaps, on some level, it is Champagne.

Going off-piste

So why not just plant the same grape varieties, as they largely have done in England, Trentino or Tasmania? After all, many purists believe that few other grapes have what it takes to harmonise with the flavours of second fermentation, of long ageing on yeast lees or the unique development that takes place after they are removed. Go off-piste, held wisdom states, and you risk a flavour clash.

Creating flavours

A sound warning, but the Traditional Method doesn’t really conjure all those golden, bakery-doorway flavours as readily as we might think. The University of Brock in Canada has just published research showing that sparkling wines spending 24 months on lees don’t actually take on much flavour from the process itself. In these younger wines, such flavours are largely snuck in at other points in the process - a dash of nuttiness at blending stage, a lick of spice at disgorgement.

Clashing with intent

If, then, we don’t have to worry too much about a flavour clash in youthful sparkling wines, does it follow that any interesting still wine might work with bubbles in it? Not quite. Some flavours – zippy greenness, voluptuous florals, intense spiciness – seem to get propelled out of balance by the relentless energy of bubbles. A bright orange rug might brighten up a dingy spare bedroom, but put it centre-stage in a sunlit living room and there will be shudders and squints at teatime.

Ideal destinies

Beyond this, a further question nags away at Riesling, Chenin Blanc or Macabeo: can they ever reach a true zenith of flavour when grown for sparkling wine? Nobody could claim that Chardonnay raised on the chalky soils of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and snipped, full of life-enhancing acidity and ripe flavours, at a perfect 10.5% potential alcohol, has lived anything other than its best life. Tasting sparkling Chenin Blanc, though, can send pangs of longing through the tastebuds, back to still wines heavy with honey and wax and stone, to intensity or even sweetness, to all the truly great things Chenin can do at the apex of a ripeness curve, its feet resting in just the right patch of land.

The real thing

Buffalo milk, too, is said to reflect the land from which it comes. Thankfully, what sat on my pizza also spoke of a buffalo. And a cheesemaker. And a wood-fired oven. Even if there had been a Nem Nướng pizza on the menu, I probably wouldn’t have ordered it. It’s easy to think there’s too much pizza in the world. Easy, that is, until you really fancy a pizza.