The holiday season is upon us once again, and as always that means countless reasons- and excuses- to celebrate. Nothing lends a sense of occasion better than a glass of sparkling wine. Luckily for Italian wine-lovers, there is a bubbly to suit all tastes and budgets.
There are two main types of sparkling wines, those in the Champagne style, often called Traditional or Classic Method wines, and those made by the Charmat method, Prosecco being the most well-known. These wines are produced in different ways, which in turn means distinct flavor profiles.
Traditional method wines, such as the DOCGs Franciacorta, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico, and the DOC Trento as well as scores of IGT wines, go through their secondary fermentation process which will create the effervescence in the bottle in which they will eventually be sold. Prosecco Superiore DOCG as well as Prosecco DOCs, on the other hand, go through their secondary fermentation process in large, pressurized, stainless steel tanks. In the large tanks, the yeast and sugar solution which will create the bubbles sinks to the bottom, and does not influence the flavor of the wine very much. The whole process takes about six months. Classic method wines however have yeast and sugar added to the wine in the bottle, a much smaller container compared to the tanks, and the wines spend at least fifteen months with the yeasts if non-vintage (blended from different years) and at least thirty-six months if vintage ( blend of still wines all from the same year).
The result is a much greater influence of the yeast on the character of the wine: with Charmat you maintain the freshness and the fruitiness of a young white wine, along with effervescence, whereas with Traditional Method wines you also gain a yeasty complexity. You will notice aromas of toast, baking bread, digestif biscuits, as well as fruity and floral notes in the better examples. Asti and Moscato d’Asti which is lighter, sweeter, and less effervescent than Asti, is made by a slight variation on the Charmat method. Both are based on the moscato grape which like Prosecco lends itself well to the Charmat method. It allows the light, fruity character of the grapes to come through. Look for Bisol, Nino Franco, and Soligo for Prosecco and Michele Chiarlo and Paolo Saracco for Asti.
Prosecco and Asti are traditionally paired with appetizers while Moscato d’Asti is reserved for dessert.
Less well-known and unfortunately less well-respected are the fizzy red wines of Italy. Lambrusco is the most widely available abroad, though often and unfortunately the sweeter, less-interesting examples abound. Locals however tend to drink the drier versions, and this fizzy, fruity, acidic red grape from Emilia-Romagna is a perfect pair with the rich dishes of this region such as ragù bolognese and tortelloni. What most people don’t know, however, is that many DOCs through Italy also allow for the production of sparkling wines. Watch for frizzante (slightly sparkling) versions of Bonarda and Barbera from Piedmont in particular.
While more expensive than Charmat method wines, Italian Classic Method wines can be excellent economic alternatives to Champagne, as they utilize virtually the same grapes and the same methods and can be of very high quality. Look for Ca del Bosco, Bellavista, and Monte Rossa in Franciacorta, Ferrari and Abate Nero in Trentino, and Monsupello and Sergio Ronchi in Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico. While we usually think of them as the ultimate celebration wines, or if anything ideal as an aperitif, these types of wines with their acidity and palate cleansing-effervescence are wonderful foils to all types of dishes. Barring a big, hearty red meat dish that requires the tannin of a red wine, it would be difficult to find a dish that is not improved upon by a glass of sparkling wine. Or, for that matter, any occasion, celebratory or not.
This post was written for the Context Blog by Sommelier and Rome docent Heather Hanson. Heather leads many of our culinary tours.