Spreading the gospel of Italian sparkling wine

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Experts have long said sparkling wine belongs on the table just as any other bold red, buttery white or fruity rosé—and Americans are catching on. Domestic consumption increased nearly 6 percent in 2017, driving overall sales of wine. And as our thirst grows, so has the quantity—and quality—of what is offered. Gabriele Rosso, one of the lead contributors to Slow Food’s annual wine guide, Slow Wine, says, “We’re noticing a great resurgence of Italian sparkling wines. Not only those made in the most famous denominations like Trentodoc and Franciacorta, which are gaining a growing national and international reputation, but, year after year, we’re also tasting extraordinary sparkling wines coming from lesser-known areas.”

Sommelier Roberto Anesi raising a glass of Trentodoc. Credit: Simran Sethi (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The quality of these wines is something we can only fully discern when tasting, but the information below can help. The regions listed are the main areas producing sparkling wine in Italy. The grapes may be endemic to place (such as Glera), or they may also be found in other sparkling wines (like the ubiquitous Chardonnay) but have a different expression due to factors such as climate, soils and terrain. Take, for example, Trentodoc: the sparkling wine I recently discussed with Evan Kleiman on Good Food. Tom Stevenson, the founder and head judge of the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships, shared this eloquent description: “Trentodoc’s secret is its mountain viticulture. The snow-capped Dolomite mountains represent the most influential factor in determining the quality and style of these sparkling wines. At night, chilly mountain air slides down the mountainside and over the vines. When the grapes are suddenly immersed in this chilly air, their metabolism stops dead in its tracks, preserving the acidity above and beyond the level found in the same variety at the same point of ripeness elsewhere. The reverse happens during the day, when warmer air rises from lower elevations, allowing the ripening process to continue.”

This expression of terroir is also revealed through a wine’s appellation. In Italy, there are four categories, two of which are specific to the primary regions of sparkling wines. DOC—Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or Controlled Denomination of Origin—are wines that have to be produced in a “well-defined area of origin, also with indication of sub-area,” according to strict rules around how the grapes are grown and processed. DOCG—Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin—wines go further. They require two rounds of evaluation for quality and focus on smaller, more defined areas of origin.

2 - Chardonnay grapes, the foundation of most sparkling wines_credit Simran Sethi
Chardonnay grapes, the foundation of most sparkling wines. Credit: Simran Sethi (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Processing is also critical—and has a significant impact on every aspect of our experience of the wine. The traditional method—a key component of the UNESCO world heritage designation awarded to Champagne—is the most highly regarded. It is, according to Wine Folly, not only “the most appreciated method for sparkling wine production in terms of quality, [but also] the most costly in terms of production.” Known in Italian as “metodo classico,” this process requires a secondary fermentation in the bottle and that the wine be aged with residual particles of yeast that sink to the bottom of fermentation vessels, known as “aging on the lees.” An October 2018 paper entitled “Study of the changes in volatile compounds, aroma and sensory attributes during the production process of sparkling wine by traditional method” explains that secondary fermentation and ageing on the lees “completely change the organoleptic properties of the base wine, and confer the sparkling wine its characteristic aroma, flavour [sic], foamability and roundness.”

And that leads us to the final bit of information below: flavor notes. “Trentodocs” Stevenson says, “have a much more linear taste profile. Their structure is more like a rapier than a broadsword, with a long finish that relies more on intensity than weight.” He describes the wines as “crisp and crunchy” while a wine such as Franciacorta—produced in a warmer region—offers a riper, fuller experience.

As I wrote in my book, what each of us finds in our glass is deeply personal and highly malleable, depending on external influences and the quality of the wine we’re actually consuming (which, as we know, is a dynamic product shaped by season, place and processing). For detailed information on Italian bubbles, check out Slow Food’s new guide to sparkling wines (only available in Italian). And read below for general hints of what you might discover when you pop the cork and raise a glass.

Cin cin!

Region: Trentino
Primary grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Noir), Pinot Bianco (Blanc) and Pinot Meunier
Classification: DOC
Production method: Metodo classico
Flavors: Crisp yet rounded, with aromas of tropical fruit, apricot and vanilla, as well as spice and freshly baked bread

Region: Franciacorta, Lombardy
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco
Classification: DOCG
Production method: Metodo classico
Flavors: Fresh and mineral, with notes of biscuits and bread crust, as well as citrus, almonds and dried figs

Oltrepó Pavese
Region: Lombardy
Grapes: Pinot Nero
Classification: DOCG
Production method: Metodo classico
Flavors: Savory and citrusy, with notes of brioche and lemon

Alta Langa
Region: Piedmont
Grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Nero
Classification: DOCG for sparkling white wines
Production method: Metodo classico
Flavors: Delicate and savory, with aromas of almond and honey, as well as bread crust and dried fruit

Region: Piedmont
Grapes: Moscato Bianco
Classification: DOCG
Production method: Martinotti-Charmat method—a.k.a. the tank method or Metodo Martinotti, in which the wine’s secondary fermentation occurs in a closed, pressurized stainless steel tank. The process was invented in 1895 by Italian enologist Federico Martinotti for use in the production of spumante and then adapted to French production in 1907 by Eugene Charmat.
Sparkling wines fermented by the tank method are typically characterized as fresher and fruiter than those that used the traditional method, though “some may argue that the tank method is not as high-quality of a production method as the traditional method.”
Flavors: Floral and fruity, with aromas of Asian pear, honeysuckle, nectarine and honey

Region: Veneto
Grapes: Predominantly Glera
Classification: DOC and DOCG wines are available
Production method: Metodo Martinotti
Flavors: Sweet and fruity, with notes of green apples, peaches and pears

Region: Lambrusco region within Emilia-Romagna
Grapes: Lambruscos are made with two or more Lambrusco varieties (Lambrusco Grasparossa, Lambrusco Maestri, Lambrusco Marani, Lambrusco Montericco, Lambrusco Salamino and Lambrusco Sorbara are the most common) and frequently blended with other grapes for color and body.
Classification: DOC
Production method: predominantly Metodo Martinotti
Flavors: Fruity and acidic, with aromas of blackberry, stone fruit, rhubarb and cream