Mention sparkling wine and most people immediately think of New Year’s Eve celebrations and wedding toasts. But in Italy, where sparkling wine production is booming, savvy consumers enjoy their sparklers year-round.
“We sell 63 out of every 100 bottles of Franciacorta between January and October, and the rest in the last two months of the year before the holidays,” says Maurizio Zanella, president of the Franciacorta Consorzio as well as the founder and president of Cà del Bosco. He goes on to add that Italy makes up 80% of the denomination’s market, and that most bottles are sold “to drink that same night, as an aperitivo to sip before dinner, or to pair with lunch or dinner.”
This is a fascinating trend, especially given that overall per capita consumption of wine in Italy has been decreasing rapidly over the last decade. One of the reasons for the success of Franciacorta—and for many other sparkling wines in Italy—is that the wines are more structured and drier than ever. Climate change (which has led to better grape maturation) coupled with improved vineyard management, and harvesting when acidity is high but the berries are ripe enough, means that producers across Italy can make delicious, vibrant bollicine, or bubbles. The best are elegant and dry, making them a great match for first courses, fish and pasta while the more complex, aged versions can also pair well with cured meats and poultry. Most producers use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—or a blend of the two—but many estates across Italy now make crisp, vibrant sparklers from native grapes.
Here are some of the best:
The province of Trentino in Italy’s far north is one of the most storied areas for Italian sparkling wine, with roots stretching back to 1902, when Giulio Ferrari began realizing his dream of creating an Italian sparkling wine that would hold its own against Champagne. Today Trento DOC is made using the metodo classico technique of refermenting in the bottle (also known as méthode Champenoise) from predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grapes. Here the high mountain vineyards create a unique climate of warm, sunny days and cool, breezy nights that generate a wide array of aromas and flavors as well as elegance and complexity. Pair the lighter styles with rice and pasta dishes, fish, and deli meats while aged, more complex versions go well with white and red meats.
Try those from Ferrari (the firm’s crisp and creamy Perlé Nero is a must), Cembra and Rotari.
Producers in Lombardy’s Franciacorta denomination produce vibrant and complex sparkling wines made predominantly with Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grapes using the metodo classico technique. Thanks to Franciacorta’s favorable climate and growing conditions, grapes can attain ideal ripening, allowing many producers to top off disgorged bottles with the same wine instead of using Cognac. Others skip the dosage entirely, resulting in the increasingly popular pas dosé. The denomination’s Extra Brut and Pas Dosé are dry and bone dry respectively, which makes them ideal to pair with pasta courses, lake fish and fresh cheeses while Franciacorta Brut works well with cured meats. Try the creamy Saten version alongside sweet Gorgonzola, or a Demi-Sec with sharp, spicy cheeses.
Nebbiolo, Lambrusco and Greco
While Trentino, Franciacorta, and also Piedmont’s up-and-coming Alta Langa appellation all produce superb metodo classico from French grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, other producers throughout Italy make outstanding offerings from native grapes, including Nebbiolo. The sole grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo is proving it has the right stuff for structured, savory bubbles. And don’t forget that the winemakers behind most of these fantastic bottlings are among Italy’s most celebrated producers, who know a thing or two about winemaking. One to look for is Ettore Germano’s 100% Nebbiolo sparkling rosé Rosanna, which has structure, grace and delicious berry flavors. In Emilia Romagna in Central Italy, be sure to try one of the best expressions of traditionally crafted Lambrusco di Sorbara, Radice, a savory and invigorating wine from Paltrinieri. Down South, Feudi di San Gregorio’s outstanding DUBL+, shows the serious potential of the Greco grape for making crisp and creamy bubbly.
No column on Italy’s sparkling wines would be complete without mentioning Prosecco, the vibrant and informal wine that has taken the world by storm, spurring Italy’s sparkling revolution. Made with native grape Glera, Prosecco is usually refermented in steel tanks, known as the Charmat method, although a few producers are returning to the traditional methods of letting the wines finish primary fermentation in the bottle, known as col fondo, or carrying out a secondary bottle fermentation in the metodo classico style. The best expressions are from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene growing zone, where the wines are labeled as Prosecco Superiore and are part of Italy’s tightly regulated DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) designation. Here, grapes are grown exclusively on hillside vineyards that give the wines more depth and flavor, and producers have long recognized the importance of specific vineyard sites, like Cartizze, for their terroir-driven attributes that impart richness and finesse. Look for offerings from Bisol, Cà dei Zago, Carpenè Malvolti, Mionetto and Villa Sandi.