Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Why Italy is the most exciting and diverse sparkling wine producing country in the world!
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 really is a discussion for another time). The message being: « drink Champagne and you will feel as carefree and privileged as kings and queens »! You all know I love Champagne and Cremant de Bourgogne, so I am not here to argue against those amazing wines. However, Italy has (in my opinion), 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:
1) Frizzante (1-2.5 atm)
2) Spumate 3+ atm (usually between 5-6 atm)
These wines are produced via 4 different methods:
1) Methodo Classico
2) Methodo Italiano/ Martinotti Method…aka Tank Method
3) Asti Method (single cool tank fermentation with interruptions)
4) Ancestral method (rare, but example: Col Fondo of Prosecco)
Let’s come back to the wines made by these methods later, and take a look first at some examples of the history of sparkling wine in Italy.
1) Records of interrupted fermentation date back definitively to the 16th century. In 1570 a pharmacist by the name of Corfite describes the wines of Fraciacorta as « mordace », referring to their biting acidity and (likely) effervescence.
2) Orvieto wines have been made since antiquity in volcanic and marine sedimentary caves, which, 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.
3) Brachetto d’Aqui, a favorite wine of Cleopatra, famed for it’s sweet and aromatic nature has also been noted for it’s tendency to bubble, long before contemporary times.
Systematic production of sparkling wine really begins commercially in Italy in the 1860s when an Astiano by the name of Carlo Gancia (widely considered to be the father of Italian Sparkling wine) moved to Riems, and then back to Piemonte, carrying with him the know-how of the « Method Champenois », which he used to create the first Spumante Italiano in 1986 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 » traditional method sparkling wine from the grape now known as Glera. In 1924 the name « Prosecco » is first used for the wine, in 1930 the Martinotti Method is first applied as a better way to preserve primary grape varietal characteristics, and in 2011 the grape variety « Prosecco » reverts to it’s historical local name « Glera » in an effort 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 in Italy would have been made presumably by traditional method (or ancestral method), but in 1895 Federico Martinoti patents a method of producing sparkling wine via 2nd fermentation in large wooden tanks. Even though it isn’t until 1907 that a Frenchmen named Eugene Charmat will industrialize the method for stainless steel tanks and go down in the international history books, the method is still referred to in Italy as the Martinotti Method, and let’s not forget, was created specifically to focus on a better expression of primary fruit characters in aromatic and semi-aromatic grape varieties. It is important to recognize, therefore, 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 production of sparkling wines made from aromatic varieties such as Moscato Bianco, Glera, and Brachetto.
Onward to Franciacorta, this wine region has a relatively short history of sparkling wine production, but has gained a mighty reputation in 60 short years! Although, as I mentioned before that we have evidence that the area around the southern part of Lago Iseo was naturally suited to the production of sparkling wine, it is not until an Oenologist named Franco ZIlliani, and winery owner Guido Berlucci teamed up in the 1950s with a goal 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, it is here that the story of Franciacorta begins. Today, Franciacorta is made from mostly Chardonnay (Pinot Bianco can not make up more than 50% of the blend, and in practice 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 a half a century has become a brand of formidable power (especially in Italy), and 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 Methodo Classico wines of Italy include:
1) Oltrepo Pavese Methodo Classico DOCG (based on Pinot Noir as the dominant variety)
2) TrentoDOC, with it’s catchy « brand » name focuses on Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio (probably only not a DOCG by now because of the investment they have made in the « brand » name TrentoDOC…as opposed to TrentoDOCG!)
3) Alta Langa DOCG, from Piedmont, made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Martinotti Method wines are generally crafted from aromatic, semi-aromatic grapes, and indigenous Italian varietals, examples include:
1) Asti (including Asti and Moscato d’Asti) DOCG
2) Valdobbiadene-Conegliano Prosecco DOCG, and Asolo Prosecco DOCG
3) The Labmursco DOCs ( Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrisco di Gasparosa di Castelvetro, and Salamanca di Santa Croce)
4) Brachetto d’Aqui DOCG
Getting back to Methodo Classico, besides the DOCs and DOCGs mentioned previously, there are over 150 DOCs which include a sparkling wine style, such as: Gavi, Greco di Tufo, Lugana, Soave, and Verdicchio di Castelli dei Jesi. But beyond that, small, artisanal production of sparkling wine abounds throughout Italy (largely due to the fact warmer and sunnier growing conditions do not require the blending of reserve wines such as in Champagne). In fact, as you travel throughout Italy you will find that many producers make a sparkling wine which may not be contained by the DOC that the rest of their wines fall within, and which is virtually available only at 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, Methodo Classico Brut (notice the absence of a DOC here) from Orvieto producer Decugnano dei Barbi. This wine is vintage dated 2014 and sees 4 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 is sadly, not at the moment. But if it were it would only set you back about $35 for an intensely complex vintage Methodo Classico wine with 4 years aging on the lees!
For me, whenever I am 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!