When you think of Italian sparkling wine, Prosecco is likely the first that comes to mind. The buzzy bubbly from the northeast has certainly won hearts around the world. But dive a bit deeper into the category, and you’ll discover the country’s range of excellent bottle-fermented sparklers made from both native and international grapes.
These bottlings are produced using the traditional method, known as metodo classico in Italy. Yeast and sugar are added to still wine, which is bottled with a crown cap. The yeast then ferments the sugar into alcohol, creating bubbles that contain naturally occurring carbon dioxide.
The wine then rests on the spent yeast, known as lees, which often imparts sensations of bread crust or brioche before the yeast is removed through a process known as disgorgement. In contrast to sparkling wines that are produced through the Charmat method, like Prosecco, where bubbles are formed in pressurized steel tanks, bottle-fermented sparklers typically boast greater depth, complexity and longevity.
Until the 1990s, metodo classico was made mainly in Northern Italy, specifically in Piedmont, around the town of Trento in Trentino, and in Oltrepò Pavese and Franciacorta in Lombardy. With some notable exceptions, quality often underwhelmed and most of the production remained in the country.
Today, there’s an array of stunning sparklers made from a wide range of grape varieties available in the U.S. From lively and linear to complex and elegant, there’s so much to celebrate in the world of metodo classico. Salute!
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir | The Classic Sparkling Wine Varieties
Italy’s metodo classicos were born in this northwestern region, thanks to Piedmont’s geographic proximity to and historic relationship with France. Local growers started farming Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, known locally as Pinot Nero, as early as the 1800s.
Enologist Carlo Gancia, who founded the Fratelli Gancia winery with his brother in 1850, was the real trailblazer. After studying enology and learning the secrets of Champagne production in Reims, he began to cultivate the grapes in earnest around Canelli in the mid-1800s to make traditional-method sparklers.
In the 1970s, demand for Vermouth and sweet bubbles like Asti Spumante, made by the quicker and less-expensive Charmat method with the Moscato grape, took the focus off of Piedmont’s bottle-fermented wines.
In the 1990s, a group of producers began to revive serious metodo classico production. This invigoration of the category and refocus on quality production ultimately spurred the creation of the Alta Langa Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in 2002.
Now a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) as of 2011, Alta Langa is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grown in the provinces of Asti, Alessandria and Cuneo. Aged a minimum of 30 months on the lees and vintage dated, they’re enticing, fragrant wines. Riservas require a mandatory 36 months of aging.
“The calcareous soils and hillside vineyards are ideal for Pinot Nero and Chardonnay cultivated for metodo classico production,” says Giulio Bava, president of the Consorzio Alta Langa. “We pick when grapes reach the right ripeness, but still have good acidity. The wines stay fresh even after 30 months or more on the lees and have good aging potential.”
In the mountains around Trento lies a storied area for metodo classico, thanks to Giulio Ferrari, who founded his namesake firm in 1902. Here, in high-altitude vineyards surrounded by the soaring Alps, Ferrari planted Chardonnay grapes to produce sparkling wines on par with the best Champagnes.
Today, these wines are regulated under the Trento DOC production code and known by their collective brand, Trentodoc. Success has come in part due to the unique growing area. Situated 656–2,952 feet above sea level, vineyards benefit from hot days and cool nights during the growing season. These day-night temperature shifts encourage perfect grape ripening and yield wines with pronounced aromatics, elegance and bright acidity.
Nonvintage Trentodoc must age at least 15 months on the lees, while vintage versions undergo a minimum 24 months and riservas require 36 months of aging.
Though Chardonnay is the main grape, more producers have invested in Pinot Nero. Recent results are impressive.
“Pinot Nero in Chardonnay territory like Trentino isn’t easy, especially for wines made with 100% Pinot Nero because ripening is a challenge,” says Ruben Larentis, Ferrari’s enologist who has experimented with the variety for years. “But having vineyards with a range of different altitudes and exposures like we do in Trentino allows this variety to arrive at the right maturation.”
Rising temperatures from climate change have benefited the whole area, especially for Pinot Nero, he says.
An area that spans 19 municipalities in Lombardy’s Brescia province, Franciacorta’s growing zone was created by the retreat of glaciers that deposited mineral-rich morainic soils. Bordered by Lake Iseo, the rolling hills boast a warm microclimate tempered by cool breezes that descend from the foothills of the Rhaetian Alps. These winds create strong day-night temperature changes that encourage optimal ripening and grape health.
While winemaking in Franciacorta stretches back centuries, its modern wine industry began in 1961. That’s when the first Franciacorta metodo classico was produced by the Guido Berlucchi winery.
Chardonnay accounts for about 80% of the denomination’s vineyards, followed by Pinot Nero at approximately 15% and Pinot Bianco (Blanc) at about 5%. Interest is on the rise for Erbamat, a rare native grape that’s shown promise to help raise acidity levels in the final wines.
Nonvintage Franciacorta must age a minimum of 18 months on the lees. Satèn, made with only white grapes, and rosé require at least 24 months. Vintage bottlings require 30 months, while riservas must age at least 60 months.
Thanks to the area’s microclimate that generates ripe and juicy fruit, focused, dry pas dosé bottlings, made without the addition of a traditional mix of base wine and sugar after disgorging, are increasingly popular.
Sustainable and organic viticulture are widespread, with more than 70% of the denomination’s wineries either certified organic or in the conversion process.
Berlucchi 2012 ’61 Nature Rosé (Franciacorta); $68, 95 points. Made entirely with Pinot Nero, this elegant sparkler is both dazzling and savory. It opens with aromas of pomegranate, botanical herbs and bread crust that follow over to the dry, savory palate along with grapefruit and ginger notes. Bright acidity lends tension and freshness, while a silky perlage imparts finesse. Volio Vino.
Ferrari 2010 Perlé Nero Extra Brut Riserva (Trento); $80, 95 points. This gorgeous sparkler made entirely with Pinot Nero offers enticing scents of bread crust, mature pear, Alpine herb and yellow field flower. Boasting layers of depth, the elegantly structured palate delivers creamy apple, citrus zest, white peach, pomegranate and brioche set against a silky, continuous perlage. Fresh acidity keeps it balanced, while the dry finish closes on a hint of white almond. Taub Family Selections.
Rizzi 2014 Pas Dosé (Alta Langa); $50, 95 points. Made with Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, this crisp, elegant sparkler hits all the right buttons. It opens with scents of field flower, citrus, wild herb and yellow stone fruit. Reflecting the nose, the dry, vibrant palate delivers chamomile, citrus, golden apple, star anise and hints brioche and apricot set against a refined, continuous perlage. Bright acidity keeps it fresh and balanced. The Sorting Table.
Barone Pizzini 2014 Nature (Franciacorta); $45, 94 points. Inviting scents of bread crust, orchard fruit and chamomile mingle together on this extremely elegant sparkler. Radiant, it delivers yellow apple, lemon zest, toasted hazelnut and mineral flavors accompanied by vibrant acidity. The bone-dry finish is softened by a refined perlage of small, continuous bubbles that impart finesse. LLS–Winebow.
Cocchi 2015 Brut Rosé (Alta Langa); $45, 94 points. Fresh aromas of cut roses, red berries and white stone fruit delicately rise out of the glass. Silky and vibrant, the elegant, structured palate delivers white peach, pomegranate, citrus and a spicy note alongside a refined perlage. Alpenz.
Rotari 2011 Flavio Brut Riserva (Trento); $49, 92 points. Inviting scents of toasted bread crust, pressed wildflower and a whiff of ripe apple lure you to the glass. Silky and refined, the polished palate delivers mature Bartlett pear, lemon drop and brioche, while a creamy, persistent perlage provides the backdrop. Prestige Wine Imports Corp.
Nebbiolo | Sparkling Surprise from Piedmont’s Noble Grape
Nebbiolo, best known as the aristocratic red grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, is a rising star on the region’s revamped metodo classico scene. The variety produces wines with vibrancy, fragrance and body.
Producers here say Nebbiolo has long played a role in Piedmont’s sparklers.
“My grandfather, Pietro, learned the art of metodo classico production when he began working at Gancia in 1909, and he made sparkling wines until he died in 1989,” says Federica Colla, of the family-owned Poderi Colla firm. “Our Pietro Colla Extra Brut is dedicated to him. Following Alba’s sparkling wine tradition, it’s made with Pinot Nero and 10% Nebbiolo for added structure and complexity.”
Over the last decade, more producers from Barolo, Barbaresco and Alto Piemonte have made metodo classicos with 100% Nebbiolo.
While some are works in progress, the best examples are full-bodied and precise. An example of the latter is Rosanna, made by Sergio Germano, owner and winemaker of Ettore Germano in Serralunga d’Alba.
His debut vintage of Rosanna Brut Rosé, from 2008, yielded 1,000 bottles. Production on the 2016 release was 15,000 bottles.
“Originally, I made Rosanna with grapes from the green harvest for Barolo from my Cerretta vineyards,” says Germano, who’d long thought Nebbiolo had potential for sparkling wine production. The wine was an immediate hit. To keep up with demand, he also began to source fruit from one of his Langhe Nebbiolo vineyards.
“This vineyard has slightly more fertile soil that’s not ideal for Barolo,” he says. “For Rosanna, I harvest about four or five days later than the green harvest. The wines have great acidity, but also Nebbiolo aromas and complexity.”
In 2010, six producers, which included Travaglini from Gattinara and Rivetto from Barolo, banded together to found the Nebbione project with enologist Sergio Molino. The group created a production protocol, which stipulates its metodo classicos are made exclusively with the tips of Nebbiolo bunches, produced in either an extra brut or dosaggio zero (no dosage) style, and must age at least 40 months on the lees.
Ettore Germano 2016 Rosanna Metodo Classico Brut Rosé (Vino Spumante); $35, 94 points. Made entirely with Nebbiolo, this creamy sparkler opens with enticing scents of wild red berry, bread crust, pastry cream and botanical herb. It’s delicious and loaded with finesse, as it delivers strawberry, red cherry, vanilla and a hint of nutmeg set against a silky, continuous mousse. Bright acidity keeps it superbly balanced and fresh. Oliver McCrum Wines. Editors’ Choice.
Cuvage NV Metodo Classico Brut Rosé (Nebbiolo d’Alba); $40, 91 points. Made entirely with Nebbiolo, this elegant sparkler has delicate scents of rose, wild berry and a yeasty whiff of pastry dough. The linear, racy palate offers sour cherry, pomegranate and a hint of pink grapefruit alongside an elegant mousse. A tangy mineral note marks the close. Mack & Schuhle Inc.
Rivetto NV Kaskal Metodo Classico Dosaggio Zero (Vino Spumante); $45, 90 points. Toasted bread crust, orchard fruit, wild berry and crushed herb aromas carry over to the vibrant palate along with citrus zest and bitter walnut. A racy perlage and firm acidity provide lively support. Volio Vino.
Durella | Veneto’s Pristine Sparklers from Lessini Durello
Thanks to a combination of altitude, volcanic soils and the indigenous grape Durella, the mountainous Lessini Durello denomination produces vibrant, pristine, mineral-driven sparklers. While Lessini Durello is made through the Charmat method, the Riserva versions are exclusively metodo classico.
Its growing zone overlaps parts of the Soave denomination and spreads into the Vicenza province, with high hills composed of volcanic tuff and basalts that contain iron and magnesium. This unique terroir allows the soil to retain water and encourages vines to develop deep root systems.
Durella, a native variety that grows only in the Lessini area, thrives in these infertile, volcanic soils in high-altitude vineyards that benefit from full southern exposure. Monte Calvarina, an extinct volcanic cone near the town of Roncà, is its historic growing zone.
Naturally high in acidity, the grape is ideal for metodo classico production, and yields wines that boast tension, energy and finesse. Generally, other varieties for sparkling wines are picked early, before they reach full maturation, to ensure fresh acidity. But this is not the case for Durella.
“Durella is naturally much higher in acidity than other grapes normally used for sparkling wine production,” says Giacomo Danese, head of international sales at his family-owned Corte Moschina firm. “So rather than picking early, we harvest Durella at full maturation, when grapes are balanced between acidity and sugars.” Lessini Durello Riservas boast a crystalline purity even after lengthy aging.
“After extended times on the lees of five or six years, the wines still have great freshness and crunchy fruit flavors, as opposed to bread crust or bitter sensations,” says Danese.
Once the pending authorization of a new production code goes into effect, there will be a change in names: Lessini Durello will be used exclusively for Charmat sparklers, while the metodo classicos will be called Monte Lessini.
Corte Moschina 2012 Riserva 60 Mesi (Lessini Durello); $55, 94 points. Delicate aromas that suggest mature white stone fruit, citrus, Alpine herb and pressed field flower form the enticing nose along with light whiffs of cake spice. Loaded with finesse, the bright, elegant palate doles out mature apricot, yellow apple and citrus zest alongside a silky, continuous perlage. A mineral note of saline graces the finish. FJN Fine Wines.
Sandro de Bruno NV 36 Mesi (Lessini Durello); $20, 93 points. Aromas of smoke, bread crust, yellow flower and crushed rock lift out of the glass. On the vibrant, savory palate, fresh acidity lifts yellow peach, pastry dough and lemon cream alongside an elegant perlage. A savory mineral note lingers on the finish. Il Pioppo.
Fattori 2012 Roncà Non Dosato 60 Mesi Metodo Classico (Lessini Durello); $42, 92 points. Made with native grape Durello, this has enticing scents of pressed wildflower, wet stone, bread crust and acacia honey. The honeyed note follows over to the palate, along with ripe apple, white peach and hazelnut set against crisp acidity and a polished perlage. A mineral vein energizes the bone-dry finish. The Wine Company.
Sangiovese | The Tuscan Hero Yields Enchanting Sparklers
Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico, Tuscany’s grand reds, often steal the Sangiovese stage. But the iconic grape has proved it can make fresh, tangy metodo classico that ranges from bright and easy to full-bodied and refined. Some producers experiment with blends of Sangiovese, Pinot Nero and Chardonnay, others make bubbles entirely with the Tuscan native.
Given Sangiovese’s naturally high acidity, it’s no wonder that the grape works in sparkling wines, but where it’s cultivated is crucial. Made by a small but growing number of estates across the region, the best come from vineyards with high altitudes, or from grapes grown in soils with a high percentage of sand, which results in less-structured wines than those grown in clay. Yields and harvest time are also fundamental.
“The key to our metodo classico production is a combination of grape acidity and our soil of Pliocene origin that’s rich in marine fossils,” says Francesco Lomi, production manager at the Usiglian del Vescovo estate in Palaia in the province of Pisa. “This imparts minerality and sapidity to the wines.”
Lomi says that the Sangiovese grapes for the firm’s metodo classico come from plants with more vigorous production and sandy soils to ensure the wines will have less alcohol and lighter structure.
“Sangiovese reminds me of Pinot Nero on many levels, especially in terms of acidity and ripening,” he says. “For our metodo classico, we want to pick when the Sangiovese grapes have good acidity, but also phenolic ripening, usually the first or second week of September.”
Nearly all of Tuscany’s Sangiovese metodo classicos are classified under the rather flexible Vino Spumante (sparkling wines) or Vino Spumante di Qualità (quality sparkling wine) designations.
Felsina NV Metodo Classico Brut Rosé (Vino Spumante); $37, 92 points. A blend of 50% Sangiovese, 30% Pinot Nero and 20% Chardonnay, this opens with lovely aromas of pressed rose, wild red berry, botanical herb and a whiff of fresh pastry dough. The dry, elegant palate has finesse and tension, which delivers pomegranate, orange zest and bread crust alongside a refined, persistent perlage and tangy acidity. Polaner Selections.
Usiglian del Vescovo NV Il Bruve Metodo Classico Brut Rosé (Vino Spumante); $25, 90 points. Delicate aromas of bread crust, forest floor, field flower and wild herb shape the subtle nose. The dry, elegant palate offers strawberry, sour cherry, citrus and a mineral note of saline alongside racy acidity and a refined perlage. It closes on a note of bitter almond. Wine Worldwide Inc. abv: 12.5% Price: $25
Villa Cilnia NV Larthi (Vino Spumante); $20, 88 points. Made with 100% Sangiovese, this bright, savory semi-sparkler offers red berry, grapefruit and a hint of wild herb. It’s refermented in the bottle and remains on its lees, which gives it a slightly cloudy appearance. JK Imports. abv: 11.5% Price: $20
Greco di Tufo and Aglianico | Vibrant, Enticing Bubbles from Campania
Located in the southwest, Campania is home to some of Italy’s most ancient indigenous varieties like the white grape Greco di Tufo and red Aglianico. The former is best known for crisp, savory whites, while the latter is behind the complex, ageworthy Taurasi. Both show great results in the small but growing number of metodo classicos from the region.
Besides burying Pompeii under 13–20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice during a colossal eruption in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius is also responsible for the region’s volcanic soils, especially throughout the district of Irpinia.
About 30 miles away, Irpinia’s growing areas are home to abundant plantings of both varieties. Their high acidity, combined with a cool climate, frequent rainfall and volcanic soils, produce racy, linear and mineral-driven sparklers that show complexity and finesse.
“We started in 2002, encouraged by the volcanic soils, great acidity and structure of our indigenous varieties,” says Antonio Capaldo, president of Feudi di San Gregorio.
From 2002 until 2010, the firm consulted with famed Champagne producer Anselme Selosse of Jacques Selosse.
“It took us almost a decade to start seeing the results we were looking for,” says Capaldo. “Understanding and managing the technique and applying it correctly to unusual grapes for sparkling wine wasn’t easy.”
The winery also makes a metodo classico with white grape Falanghina, but of all the varieties, “the most intriguing and the most promising is Greco,” he says. “We have a few bottles of the 2009 cuvée still on yeasts, and the results are impressive.”
DUBL NV Metodo Classico Dosaggio Zero (Vino Spumante); $80, 94 points. Clean, racy and structured, this focused sparkler opens with delicate scents of spring blossom, wet stone and white orchard fruit. The precise, radiant palate delivers yellow apple, Meyer lemon, saline and the faint hint of hazelnut before a crisp, bone-dry finish. A vibrant, but refined perlage lends finesse. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.
DUBL NV Metodo Classico Brut Rosé (Vino Spumante); $50, 92 points. Bread crust, wild berry and spring blossom aromas waft out of the glass. Made with Aglianico, the tangy palate offers strawberry, saline and hazelnut alongside an elegant perlage and vibrant acidity. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.
Nerello Mascalese and Carricante | Hot Etna Grapes Making Cool Sparkling Wines
From the slopes of the tallest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna’s pristine wines should end debate that perceptible minerality is a myth.
Nerello Mascalese, Etna’s most distinguished red variety, can yield extraordinary wines that evoke the finesse of top Burgundy and the complexity of Barolo. The white grape Carricante, meanwhile, offers unfettered purity and radiance. Both varieties can also make outstanding metodo classicos.
Besides naturally high acidity, the grapes’ distinctive growing conditions are fundamental to quality sparkling wine production. Situated in Sicily, Mount Etna has cooler temperatures and twice the rainfall compared to the rest of the island. It also bathes in intense sunlight, which results in notable day-night temperature shifts. Etna’s vineyards are among the highest in Italy, from 1,300 to more than 3,300 feet above sea level.
These conditions, along with volcanic soils that range from basalt pebbles and pumice to black ash, represent the driving forces behind the wines.
Murgo began to make metodo classico from Nerello Mascalese with the 1989 vintage.
“Nerello Mascalese is very late in polyphenolic maturation, so with an early harvest in the middle of September, we obtain an elegant blanc de noir or rosé with moderate alcohol and a low pH that gives crisp sensations,” says Michele Scammacca del Murgo, who follows the vineyards and the wine production at his family-owned winery.
“The volcanic soil imparts high minerality and lightness to the wines, while the high grape acidity is important as it allows you to detect this minerality,” he says.
Nerello Mascalese gets most of the acclaim, but Carricante shines here as well. The variety yields crisp, crystalline wines with floral and citrus sensations as well as flinty mineral notes. When it’s grown in sandier soil, harvested slightly early and made with care, Carricante can also make vibrant, elegant metodo classico.
Planeta 2016 Metodo Classico Brut Carricante (Sicilia); $40, 95 points. White spring flower, orchard fruit and Mediterranean brush are some of the aromas you’ll find on this radiant, enticing sparkler. Made entirely with Carricante, the bright, elegant and savory palate delivers green apple, Bartlett pear, white peach and lemon zest set against a silky perlage along with a hint of white grapefruit. Bright acidity keeps it impeccably balanced. On the crisp, dry close, a saline note lifts the finish. Taub Family Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Murgo 2017 Metodo Classico Brut (Terre Siciliane); $28, 93 points. Citrus, Spanish broom and Mediterranean scrub aromas lift out of the glass along with a eucalyptus note. Dry, savory and elegant, the palate offers white grapefruit, white cherry, thyme and a saline mineral note. Vibrant acidity gives it a crisp, clean finish. North Berkeley Imports.