All That Sparkles Isn’t Champagne: Italy

The word Champagne is synonymous with celebration, sex and sparkling wine. But just as the French bubbly can’t be used as an interchangeable word for party or for intercourse, neither can it be used as a generic catch-all for fizzy fermented fruit juice.

The region of Champagne is located in northeastern France, about 100 miles east of Paris. This area of roughly 10,000 square miles is the only place in the world that can actually call its product Champagne. France’s strict regulations dictate that wine must be made from specific grapes in specific areas, and the wine is named for the place it comes from. So, doing the simple math, if it doesn’t come from Champagne – it’s not.

Italy’s wine laws are similar to France’s, in regard to grape and place. Italy doesn’t have Champagne, but it does have ProseccoFranciacortaMoscato d’AstiBrachetto d’Acqui, and Lambrusco – and those are just the most popular, well-known sparkling wines. Italians love their bubbles and frequently ferment their own local versions for personal enjoyment, even if it isn’t exactly IGT. Thirsty travelers can stop into almost any town and find a homemade sparkler around somewhere.

The ones I describe here are the sparkling wines people are most likely to encounter in their oenological adventures. They’re easy to find and they’re known worldwide, and are a good place to start on an Italian fizzy foray.

PROSECCO: Prosecco is, by far, the most popular of Italy’s bubblies. So much so, that it tends to have the “Champagne Problem” – many people use the name as a generic term for all Italian sparkling wine. But Prosecco refers only to wines made from 100% Glera grapes, grown in Italy’s once sea-submerged soils of the Veneto region. Within the Prosecco DOCG, there are three production regions: Prosecco di Conegliano-ValdobbiadeneProsecco di Conegliano and Prosecco di Valdobbiadene (widely considered to be the area of highest quality production). Of this last area, the Cartizze vineyard is as close to Grand Cru as they come.

Almost all Prosecco is made using Metodo Charmat-Martinotti (also called Metodo Italiano and Charmat method). The process, wherein wine goes through an initial fermentation in bottle and then undergoes a secondary fermentation – the creation and capture of bubbles – in a steel tank, was actually developed in Italy. By contrast, Methode Champenoise – the Champagne process – sees secondary fermentation happen in bottle, and is a much more lengthy, time consuming and expensive undertaking. Italy’s version of this is called Metodo Classico, and it’s used to make Franciacorta (see below) and some of the more expensive Prosecco di Valdobbiadene.

Prosecco, like most steel-tank fermented juice, is meant to be enjoyed while it’s young and fresh, which is when those classic peach, almond, apricot and pear notes really come through. Like Champagne, it’s available in several levels of sweetness, from the confusing “Extra Dry” (sweetest) to Brut (most dry). With its bright fruit, crispness, generally under-$20 pricing, and classic abv of 11%, it’s no wonder Prosecco pairs so well with picnics and brunches. Wondering where to start? Ruffino makes a lovely entry-level Prosecco for around $10 a bottle. Ruffino Prosecco is fruity and light, with an extremely delicate mousse – more frizzante (fizzy) than spumanti (sparkling). It dances with pear and apple, apricot and yeasty bread. While this wine is bone-dry, there is a wash of sweet on the finish. All-in-all, a top-notch choice, especially for the money. Those looking for a more upscale option are encouraged to try a bottle of Bele Casel Prosecco, for $15. Bele Casel is a sort of artisanal garagiste winery (mainly because the wine is actually made in Danilo Ferraro’s garage!), located in the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG. While their collection includes four different sparklings, from brut to extra dry, the house style is light and creamy, with ample amounts of pear and a soft bead.

FRANCIACORTA: The name Franciacorta translates to “Court of the Franks.” The reference is to the ancient castles of the Frankish Empire – Germanic people who once made this place their home. But there is another interpretation of the name. Some suggest it is intended to mean “Little France,” as assigned by Emperor Charlemagne in 744 AD.

The second theory seems particularly relevant at the moment. While most of Italy can proudly point to ancient wine traditions stretching back to the Roman era and beyond, Franciacorta didn’t start producing sparkling until the 1960s. Franciacorta is always made via Méthode Champenoise (Metodo Classico), which is the in-bottle secondary fermentation used to make Champagne. And Franciacorta’s designated grape varieties are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero), which are also the most popular varieties in the French stuff, (while there are seven designated grapes allowed in the making of Champagne, Franciacorta only permits three; instead of France’s more common Pinot Meunier, Italy subs Pinot Blanco). Like Champagne, Franciacorta requires 18 months of bottle aging for non-vintage releases and three years for vintage. Sugar levels don’t go by any other name to taste as sweet: Just like with Champagne, Franciacorta is categorized as Brut, Extra-Brut, Dry and Demi-Sec. While in France a Champagne with zero sugar added before secondary fermentation is called pas dosage, in Franciacorta it’s known as pas dose. And if you’re looking for a pretty pink tint to your perlage, the Rosato you ordered in other parts of the country is called Rosé here.

One thing Franciacorta does not share in common with Champagne is cost. While the best bubbly from the most esteemed French houses can go for thousands, shoppers would be hard-pressed to find a bottle of Franciacorta priced at over $100 (although they do exist). In general, Franciacorta tends to have more almond and vanilla than the yeastiness to which Champagne drinkers are accustomed, with a finer, softer, more persistent mousse.

Franciacorta is a designated area in the Brescia province, in the Lombardia (Lombardy) region of North-Central Italy. Within the Franciacorta DOCG, grapes for its sparkling can only come from the communes of Adro, Paderno Franciacorta, Brescia, Capriolo, Cazzago San Martino, Cellatica, Iseo, Coccaglio, Cologne, Rovato, Provaglio d’Iseo, Corte Franca, Erbusco, Gussago, Monticelli Brusati, Ome, Paratico, Passirano, and Rodengo Saiano. The region’s non-sparkling DOC has been known as Terre di Franciacorta from the time Franciacorta and its bubbles received DOCG status in 1995.

Wondering where to start? Franciacorta utilizes a long, labor-intensive fermentation process, and this more involved method is not an inexpensive one. None-the-less, there are a few lovely entry-level Franciacorta wines on the market, including Ca’del Franciacorta Bosco Cuvée Prestige Brut, for about $36/bottle. It’s a blend of Chardonnay (75%), Pinot Nero (15%) and Pinot Bianco (10%) grapes. Lots of lemon, lots of brioche, lots of tart green apple and lots and lots and lots of tiny bubbles. Creamy and buttery but with bright, crisp acidity. Bellavista Franciacorta Cuvée Brut is a blend of Chardonnay (90%) and Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero (10%), with flavors of peach, citrus, vanilla and mineral, with a fragrant, floral finish, for $45.

MOSCATO D’ASTI: The Moscato Bianco grape has grown in Asti – an area in Italy’s north-western Piemonte, filled with ancient history (but not as much with people) – since at least the 1200s. In the 1600s, Giovan Battista Croce, famed jeweler to the Royals, developed what we know as Moscato d’Asti. He then gave up his career in adornments in favor of one in intoxicants, purchased a vineyard and devoted himself to perfecting his sweet invention. In his publication, Of the Excellence and Diversity of Wines that are Made on the Mountain of Turin and How To Make Them, he thankfully showed a much greater talent for winemaking than for writing titles.

Moscato d’Asti is made from 100% Moscato Bianco grapes, which are fermented only once, in pressurized steel tanks called autoclaves. Fermentation naturally stops at about 5 – 7% alcohol. The remaining, unfermented fruit sugars are the reason this wine tastes so sweet.

Asti became a DOCG in 1994, and includes the province of Asti (where the bulk of the wine production takes place), and some parts of Alessandria and Cuneo. The wine formerly known as Asti Spumante also hails from here, and is now simply called Asti. It’s important to note that despite both being sparkling wines, made from Moscato Bianco and coming from the same general area, Asti and Moscato d’Asti are different wines. Asti is more bubbly than Moscato d’Asti’s light frizzante style. Moscato d’Asti is lower in alcohol, and it tends to be richer and fuller and more elegant than its more exuberant sibling.

To appreciate the wine’s sweet peach-apricot freshness, Moscato d’Asti should be consumed within two years of bottling (the sooner, the better). Wondering where to start? Moscato d’Asti had a re-release party of sorts in 2005 when R&B; artist and lover of all indulgence, Kanye West, served Saracco Moscato d’Asti at a listening party. Since then, Moscato d’Asti has been mentioned by the likes of Lil’ Kim, Drake and Soulja Boy, among others. If you’re interested in drinking in the lush life, this particular wine – with its fragrant white flower, lychee and pear, and crisp acidity – will only set you back about $16. La Spinetta is another rock star producer. Although they make a few Moscati, this quote from Grand Wine Cellar puts it perfectly: “The vineyard differences are less important than the fact that readers should purchase this wine.” So whether you choose La Spinetta “Bricco Quaglia” or La Spinetta “Biancospino” Moscato d’Asti, you can expect lightly fizzy, fruit-forward pear and apricot, peach and honey, for about $19 per bottle.

BRACHETTO D’ACQUI: While we’re in Italy’s lovely Piedmont, let’s stay awhile and enjoy another of the region’s bubblies. This one is a light-bodied, light red wine, either frizzante or spumanti (but sometimes still) in style, made from 100% brachetto grapes. Some people refer to Brachetto d’Acqui as Moscato d’Asti’s red equivalent, which makes some sense for a variety of reasons. Not only do both of these wines come from the same overall region, they’re also both sweet, aromatic, floral and have been enjoyed since ancient times. In fact, legend has it that Julius Ceasar and Mark Antony both used this wine as a way to bed Cleopatra. Years later (and more diligently historically documented), Brachetto d’Acqui took center stage in Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte, when the popular character, Gianduja da Gioan d’Laduja (dare you to say that one three times, fast), drank it straight out of a jug. As long as Giovanni of the Jug/”the wino” had his Brachetto, he remained as effervescent and sweet as the wine he loved.

It’s no wonder Brachetto is both loved and linked with love. With its seductive strawberry, raspberry and rose notes and slight edge of tannin, it’s very hard to resist. It’s also a terrific pairing with chocolate, which makes it a great choice for Valentine’s Day.

Brachetto d’Acqui has held DOCG status since 1996. As part of the classification, 18 communes in the province of Asti (in the hills of Monferrato), and eight communes in the province of Alessandra (near the town of Acqui Terme), were awarded the sole rights to the wine’s production. The best of these are said to come from Nizza Monferrato, from Asti, and Acqui, from Alessandra. There is a Brachetto DOC, as well. These wines must contain 85% of the grape, and are usually still or frizzante.

According to DOCG regulation, brachetto grapes must be harvested at no more than 8 tons per hectare, and the wine has to spend three months aging in bottle before release. Although the grapes are required to ripen enough to achieve a potential alcohol of 11.5% for frizzante and 12% for spumante, most Brachetto comes in at around 5% abv. This is another wine that is meant to be drunk young… so what are you waiting for? Wondering where to start? Classic, elegant, delicate and bursting with ripe red fruit and rose, Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is what many people think of when they think of Brachetto. With its lovely aromatics, intense fruit, frothy mousse and under-$20 price tag, this is likely to be your first choice, too. Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui is another traditional go-to Brachetto. Lightness of color, berries and fizz, this frizzante is bursting with aromatics and sweetness, yet is fairly dry on the finish – a long finish on the palate, but probably not for the bottle, which one can expect to finish fairly quickly. $22.

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