Italian Sparkling Wines
When most people think of Italian wine, they think of robust red Tuscan wines, or the delicate white wines of Piedmont. They don't generally think of sparkling wine…but they should. Italy produces more different kinds of sparkling wine than any other country in the world. In fact, they have been crafting spumantes (literally, sparkling wines) since Roman times, long before Dom Perignon popped claimed to discover sparkling wine. From the light, off-dry Proseccos to the classic Franciacortas, Italian sparkling wines are varied, tasty, and often quite affordable.
Most of Italy's sparkling wines are produced in the cooler regions of northern Italy, particularly Piedmont, Veneto, and Lombardy. Unlike Champagne, most Italian sparkling wines are made using the Charmat method. With this method, the wine's second fermentation is done in a tank instead of in the bottles, and the resulting wine is bottled young. This technique is particularly suited to crisp, low alcohol wines, such as Asti and Moscato d'Asti. Generally, sparkling wines produced this way are best consumed when young and are not very good for ageing.
There are three major names when it comes to Italian sparkling wine - Prosecco, Asti and Franciacorta.
Prosecco has steadily risen in popularity over the last twenty years and many people believe that Prosecco is just the name of Italy's best known sparkling wine, but in fact it is the name of the grape variety that is used to make it.. The Prosecco grape variety itself is in fact very poor, it doesn't have many great flavour characteristics nor does it demonstrate any great versatility it the wines it produces compared to other varieties such as Sangiovese.
There are many stories of how the Prosecco variety came into being, some believe it came from a small village of Prosecco near Udine as it resembles the native Friulian varieties. Other people believe it to have been brought with the spice traders from Dalmatia.
The reason it came to be cultivated in the Treviso province is much more clear, as a result of a series of harsh winters at the end of the 18th century where the areas vineyards were almost completely destroyed by frost and when the vineyards were replanted the local producers used Prosecco as it was a more hardy variety. Prosecco's history began seriously in the 19th century with the establishment of the societa enologico by Antonio Carpene and his three partners, their was to bring champagne to Italy. The Champagne idea idea never happened but Prosecco di Coneglione- Valdobbiadene (to give Prosecco its full DOC title) did and since then has steadily developed into Italy's most successful sparkling white wine. Prosecco's full DOC title is rarely used by modern winemakers, they tend to abbreviate the DOC to Prosecco di Coneglione or Prosecco di Valdobbiadene.
Prosecco is made by means of a fermentation of the base wine in large pressure stainless steel tanks. After the wine has been aged for a month and possesses a bottle pressure of three atmospheres the wine will be eligible for the name Spumante, if the wine has less pressure it will be labelled Frizzante. Spumante usually commands as higher price, the difference in quality is not always so obvious, many Frizzante wines are just as good, if not better, than the more expensive Spumantes.
Even the best quality Cartizze from the steep slopes above the town of Vidor, between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene is not of any greater quality than the other lesser Prosecco wines produced in the area.
Asti (formerley Asti Spumante) is produced in Southeastern Piedmont, but is probably one of Italy's best known sparkling wines, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. In the 1970's Asti Spumante flooded the world wine market, it was pitched as being the affordable everyday champagne, but in reality its quality left a lot to be desired, so much so it resulted in the wine being known as "nasty Asti". Since the 1970s however, many Asti wine makers have been striving to improve the quality, image and reputation of Asti sparkling wines, in 1993 the wine was granted DOCG status, and in 2004 it became Italy's largest producing wine region, producing three times as much wine as Barolo per year.
Asti is produced very differently to Champagne, its produced in the same way as Prosecco, by means of fermentation in large bulk tanks to achieve the desired fizz and pressure, not by a secondary fermentation in bottle. This method is known as the Charmat Method as opposed to the labour intensive Methode Traditionale of Champagne. This method results in a sweet sparkling white wine with a fresh sweetness and crispness still present even after the Charmat methods complicated filtering process.
Asti is as small village in southeastern Piedmont, where wine makers take full advantage of the rolling hills and south facing aspects. Asti's DOCG covers wines produced in Asti but also its neighbouring communes, Cunneo and Alessandria. Cunneo is a very mountainous region with very few vineyards most of which are located in the Po Valley. In Alessndria most vineyards are located along the Monferrato hills and the Asti wines produced in this area will often have Asti Monferrati on their labels.
Asti wines are made from the Moscato Bianco grape variety, a long established Piedmont grape variety, along with Nebbiolo it may be the oldest grape variety in the region. But using Mascato Bianco to produce sparkling wines is a relatively new practise. Wine maker Carlo Gancia is believed to be the first person to use Moscato Bianco to produce a sparkling wine. Gancia studied in the champagne region of France and decided to try to produce a sparkling wine with Asti traditional grape variety. He was successful and produced the first bottle of sparkling Asti around 1870.
Good sparkling Asti is nothing like the sugary sweet Asti of the 1970s. Wine expert Karen Macneil once described Asti as "a noxiously sweet poor man's Champagne", her views changed around ten years later when she described Asti as "not sugary sweet like candy but, rather, dizzying fruity and evocative of perfectly ripe peaches and apricots". Obviously the winemakers desire to up the quality of the wines they produced is working and still even today there are some stunningly good Asti wines available. Good Asti will have a crisp fresh bouquet of soft white fruits along with a very drinkable, light wine style.
Franciacorta is the name of a wine producing region in Lombardy, near the shores of Lago d'Isco between Bergamo and Brescia. Franciacorta has been around for centuries, the name Franciacorta is believed to either come from Napoleonic times Francia corta means French Court, or it is believed to be from the Middle Ages, francae curtes means free of tax, a privilege given to the Benedictines. Wine has been produced in the Franciacorta region since Roman times but up until the mid - twentieth century only red wines were produced here.
Little is known about how sparkling wine came to be produced here, all that is known is in around 1961 a young wine maker decided that the region would be ideally suited to sparkling wine production and persuaded his employer to let him try. His experiment was successful and in the early 1970s he received substantial investment from some businessmen from nearby Milan and began concentrating on producing quality sparkling wines from Cardonnay and Pinot grapes, using the same method as they do for Champagne, unlike Prosecco and Asti, Franciacorta gets its sparkle from a secondary fermentation in bottle.
Franciacorta has succeeded where Prosecco and Asti have failed and it is truly a sparkling wine to rival Champagne and Cava, it is produced in the same way as true Champagne even down to the twisting of the bottles during the secondary fermentation in bottle. Good Franciacorta sparkling wines are very reminiscent of good champagne but often have more tropical fruit characteristics such as Kiwi fruit and Pineapple, like good champagne they will have a smell of toast and an almost dry biscuity quality when tasted.