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A glass of Trento DOC. Courtesy of Istituto Trento Doc

Beyond Prosecco: Italy’s Other, Better Bubbles

Bubbly of all sorts is seeing growth in the U.S., and Prosecco is far from the only sparkling option.

Prosecco seems to be everywhere in the United States. The refreshing Italian sparkler has seen double-digit growth in the past several years and doesn’t seem to be slowing. But it’s not the only Italian sparkling wine in town. Wineries from the Alpine northern limits of Italy’s vineyards all the way to Sicily are making bubbly, offering a dizzying array of styles.

Perhaps the most prestigious, Franciacorta, is seeing even faster growth than Prosecco; according to the Franciacorta Consortium, which monitors production and promotes the wine, exports to the U.S. are up 60% so far in 2019 compared with last year.

A crucial difference in winemaking technique separates Franciacorta and many other sparkling wines of Italy from Prosecco. Franciacorta relies on the same techniques used in making Champagne, a process known in Italy as metodo classico, the classic method. Both Prosecco and Franciacorta go through a second fermentation, which produces the bubbles. For metodo classico, that fermentation occurs inside the bottle the wine will eventually be sold in, whereas for Prosecco that fermentation occurs in large tanks. It sounds like a minor distinction, but it accounts for enormous differences in texture, complexity, and cost: the process—and additional aging time that comes with it—make Franciacorta and other metodo classico wines pricier than almost all Proseccos.

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Trento DOC fermentation occurs in each individual bottle rather than in a barrel.
Courtesy of Istituto Trento DOC

Consequently, Franciacorta runs in the same circles as Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino—or should, according to Vittorio Marzotto, business development director for Santa Margherita USA, which imports Ca’ Del Bosco, a leading Franciacorta. “It doesn’t have the same level of notoriety yet,” says Marzotto, “but it has the same level of luxury and sense of exclusivity. In the bigger picture, we consider Champagne more our competitors rather than other sparkling wine regions.”

The similarities to Champagne go beyond technique; by and large, Franciacorta is made from the same grape varieties: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pinot Bianco is also allowed in the blend, whereas Champagne’s Pinot Meunier is left out. Growing conditions in Northern Italy are not as cool as in France’s Champagne region, and the Italian sunshine creates more ripeness in the wines. That means Franciacorta’s producers typically get away with adding less sugar at bottling and still get a well-rounded texture.

“Franciacorta is usually half the dosage of Champagne,” Marzotto explains. “Regular brut Champagne has eight to 12 grams of sugar per liter; a brut in Franciacorta can be made with between four and seven grams per liter. The Cuvée Prestige, Ca’ del Bosco’s flagship, falls between 2.5 and 3.5 grams per liter.” Marzotto says that’s become more and more important in the U.S. market, where “sugar is considered almost like a poison these days.”

North and east of Franciacorta—in the Alps themselves—53 producers also make metodo classico wines under the Trento DOC designation. While in Franciacorta Franco Ziliani made the first such wines in the 1960s, Trento DOC can look back further to 1902, when Giulio Ferrari made 200 bottles in hopes it would inspire his neighbors to do the same. “Ferrari saw similarities between Trentino and the Champagne region,” says Sabrina Schench, director of the Trento DOC Institute.

While Champagne relies on a northerly latitude for its growing conditions, the high-altitude vineyards of the Trentino region, with vineyards planted as high as 800 meters above sea level, create a similar home for the vines. Hemmed in by the mountains, Trento DOC is small, producing a little less than half as many bottles each year as Franciacorta. Ferrari is the best-known brand in the U.S., but five years ago the institute began a campaign to expand American awareness of Trento DOC wines, and the category is growing here.

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Harvesting grapes at a Trentino vineyard.
Courtesy of Istituto Trento DOC

Metodo classico wines also appear where there aren’t designations exclusive to them. Oltrepò Pavese, in the southern portion of Lombardy, has made its name with Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), so it’s no surprise producers there have tried their hand at bubbles. “I carry one producer in particular, Monsupello,” says Amanzio Tamanti, owner of Enoteca Vino Nostro in San Francisco. “It’s 95% Pinot Nero, brut, the same system, everything. I think they are one of the best.”

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are not the only grapes to get the metodo classico treatment; Italians are happy to make bubbly from the myriad native grapes found up and down the peninsula. “I believe in metodo classico, and I believe many other grapes have the potential to be made into metodo classico wines,” Tamanti says. “You just have to have the courage to do it.”

Tamanti points to the success of Orsolani, a winery in Piedmont that specializes in an obscure local variety, Erbaluce: “[Orsolani is] probably the top producer of Erbaluce and makes two labels of metodo classico. They are fantastic wines, and [their] best market is Paris!”

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Trento DOC vineyards in Northern Italy.
Courtesy of Istituto Trento DOC

These varieties can reveal an entirely different flavor profile while still offering a Champagne-like texture. “They don’t taste like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or anything like that,” says Jeff Porter, former director of liquid assets at the Bastianich Hospitality Group. Porter cites examples from all over: “The metodo classico Verdicchio wines, for example, have a steely, salty note to them and an herbaceousness that’s really interesting. Nebbiolo is somewhat like Pinot Noir but with a tannic edge to it that’s cool. Ribolla Gialla tastes like yeast and peaches, kind of like a peach turnover. Aglianico—you definitely taste that richer fruit; it’s like a bowl of strawberries.” Those are only a few examples, representing central, northwest, northeast, and southern Italy respectively.

How can good bubbly be made from so many different grapes and from so many different places? Porter says it speaks to two aspects of Italian wine culture. First, Italian winemaking has always favored grapes with pronounced acidity, which is vital for creating a balanced sparkling wine.

Second, Italians love to drink sparkling wine. Even with all their own domestic bubbles, Italy still imports more than 7 million bottles of Champagne each year. “I don’t know why there’s such an intense affinity towards sparkling wines in Italy, but I think it’s ingrained in the culture,” says Porter. “I think it goes so well with the food, and across the board in every region I’m finding metodo classico wines. I haven’t 100% figured it out, but I know they like it.”

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