Champagne has dominated the world’s image of quality sparkling wine with a centuries-long, massively successful marketing message. I like to call it the most successful marketing campaign in the history of the world…but that is a discussion for another time. The message is, "Drink Champagne and you will feel as carefree and privileged as kings and queens!"
I LOVE Champagne and Cremant de Bourgogne, so I am not here to argue against those amazing wines. However Italy, (in my opinion), has the most diverse, dynamic, and exciting array of sparkling wine options of any country in the world! For those of you who know me as a Francophile, and a Champagne and Bourgogne expert…I have seen jaws drop when I make this statement, but I do believe you will understand my statement by the end of this blog post.
What is Bollicine?
In Italian…bubbles! Italian wine has two pressure categories, Frizzante (1-2.5 atm) and Spumante 3+ atm (usually between 5-6 atm). These wines are produced via four different methods:
Metodo Classico...aka Traditional Method
Metodo Italiano/Martinotti Method…aka Tank Method
Asti Method single cool tank fermentation with interruptions
Ancestral method (rare but an example is Col Fondo of Prosecco)
Let’s come back to the wines made by these methods later, and take a look first at the history of sparkling wine in Italy.
Early Examples of Italian Sparkling Wine
Records of interrupted fermentation date back definitively to the 16th century. In 1570, a pharmacist by the name of Corfite describes the wines of Franciacorta as "mordace", referring to its biting acidity and (likely) effervescence.
Since antiquity, Orvieto wines have been made in volcanic and marine sedimentary caves. This coupled with the continental climate of Umbria is a natural for arrested fermentation and therefore natural effervescence, yielding wines recorded as fizzy and sometimes off-dry since the Middle Ages.
Brachetto d’Acqui, a favorite wine of Cleopatra, famed for its sweet and aromatic nature has also been noted for its tendency to bubble, long before contemporary times.
Production Methods of Italian Sparkling Wines
In the 1860s, Carlo Gancia, widely considered to be the father of Italian Sparkling Wine moved to Reims and returned to Piemonte carrying with him the know-how of the "Methode Champenoise".
Gancia used this method to create the first Spumante Italiano in 1870 from Moscato Bianco grapes in the area of Asti. Asti would later adopt the Martinotti Method which is better suited to preserving the intensity and fresh primary fruit characteristics of the ancient Moscato Bianco aka Muscat a Petit Grains.
Not long after Gancia’s first sparkling Moscato, Antonio Carpenè, of the Veneto, founds the Oenological school of Conegliano and produces "Champagne Italiano", a traditional method of sparkling wine from the grape now known as Glera. In 1924 the name "Prosecco" is first used for this wine.
The Martinotti Method is used in 1930 as a better way to preserve primary grape varietal characteristics, and in 2011 the grape variety "Prosecco" reverts to its historical local name "Glera" to identify the wine name with a place of origin. This name change serves the dual purpose of protecting producers from outside the zone from branding their wine as "Prosecco" just because it is the grape used to make the wine. The Prosecco people are keeping their eye on the prize of protecting and communicating the inherent quality of their wines.
Until the late 19th century all sparkling wine made in Italy would be presumably by the traditional method (or ancestral method) but in 1895 Federico Martinotti patented a method of producing sparkling wine via a second fermentation in large wooden tanks. Even though it isn’t until 1907 that a Frenchman, Eugene Charmat will industrialize the method for stainless steel tanks, and go down in the international history books. However, the method is still referred to in Italy as the Martinotti Method.
Let’s not forget, this method was created specifically to focus on a better expression of primary fruit characteristics in aromatic and semi-aromatic grape varieties (as opposed to autolytic/leesy characteristics which are more prominent in the traditional method wines).
It is important to recognize that the « tank » method is not simply a cheaper way of producing sparkling wine in bulk, but actually, a method designed specifically and arguably (and I love to argue this) best suited for the production of sparkling wines made from aromatic varieties such as Moscato Bianco, Glera, and Brachetto.
Martinotti Method wines are generally crafted from aromatic, semi-aromatic grapes, and indigenous Italian varietals, examples include:
Asti (including Asti and Moscato d’Asti) DOCG
Valdobbiadene-Conegliano Prosecco DOCG, and Asolo Prosecco DOCG
Lambrusco DOCs (Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrisco di Gasparosa di Castelvetro, and Salamanca di Santa Croce)
Brachetto d’Aqui DOCG
Franciacorta - The Champagne of Italy
This wine region has a relatively short history of sparkling wine production, but has gained a mighty reputation in 60 short years! As mentioned before, we have evidence that the area around the southern part of Lago Iseo was naturally suited to the production of sparkling wine. However, it's not until Oenologist Franco ZIlliani and winery owner Guido Berlucci team up in the 1950s to produce Champagne-style wine in Franciacorta that this story begins. In 1961 the men released their « Pinot di Franciacorta » made by Traditional Method from 100% Pinot Bianco.
Today, Franciacorta is made from mostly Chardonnay (Pinot Bianco cannot make up more than 50% of the blend and typically makes up much less) holds the highest quality designation - DOCG, and is the only other wine in the world (besides Champagne) to not have to append the appellation control indication (AOC, or DOC, etc…) after the wine name.
Franciacorta has in just over half a century become a brand of formidable power, especially in Italy. It holds the title for being the sparkling wine with the longest aging requirements, even exceeding Champagne for non-vintage bottlings (18 months for Franciacorta and only 15 months for Champagne).
Other intriguing Metodo Classico wines of Italy include:
Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG (based on Pinot Noir as the dominant variety)
Trento DOC, with its catchy brand name, focuses on Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio (probably only not a DOCG by now because of the investment made in the brand name Trento DOC…as opposed to TrentoDOCG
Alta Langa DOCG, from Piedmont, made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Italy's Diverse Sparkling Wine
Besides the DOCs and DOCGs mentioned previously, there are over 150 DOCs that include a sparkling wine style, such as Gavi, Greco di Tufo, Lugana, Soave, and Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi. Beyond that, small, artisanal production of sparkling wine abounds throughout Italy largely because warmer and sunnier growing conditions do not require the blending of reserve wines such as in Champagne.
As you travel throughout Italy, you will find many producers make sparkling wine that may not be contained by the DOC that the rest of their wines fall within, and is available only at the cellar door! Many of these wines are made from local varieties and are hand riddled with extended lees aging times.
Today, I am drinking a bottle of Vino Spumante di Qualita, Metodo Classico Brut (notice the absence of a DOC here) from Orvieto producer Decugnano dei Barbi. This wine is vintage-dated 2014 and sees four years on the lees in 800-year-old Cistercian caves carved into the sandy clay hillside on the property in 1212. The wine is 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, and is hand riddled and disgorged.
Although the estate’s Orvieto and Umbria IGT wines are available in the US, this wine sadly is not at the moment. But if it were, it would only set you back about $35 for an intensely complex vintage Metodo Classico wine with four years of aging on the lees!
Whenever I'm in Italy, I always try whatever sparkling wine is on offer everywhere I go! And so now you see why I assert that regardless of how much we love Champagne or Cremant de Bourgogne, Italy is definitively the most diverse and exciting sparkling wine-producing country in the world!