Sparkling Wine: Behind the Bubbles
Anthony Giglio laments how the word Champagne has become a common misnomer for any wine that sparkles, and he highlights producers in Italy who make their bubbly following the metodo classico.
by Anthony Giglio
“Champagne?” When you’re asked this at parties, there’s a good chance that what’s being passed around in the flutes is something cheap that’s not only not Champagne, it’s probably not even made likeChampagne. The word Champagne has become a common misnomer for any wine that sparkles, even the cheapest bottles, despite the fact that true Champagne is made in a costly and time-intensive process called méthode traditionnelle, and only wines made in this method in France’s Champagne region can legally bear the name.
The Champagne that we know and love evolved over the centuries in winemakers’ cellars, where, as temperatures fluctuated between winter and spring, wine would occassionally undergo an secondary fermentation. The secondary fermentation causes carbonation, and winemakers in Champagne went to great lengths to avoid this until someone realized the effervescence was enjoyable and worth harnessing. Yet it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century, in the estate of Madame Veuve Clicquot, that the process streamlined.
To make Champagne, the winemaker starts with conventional still wine, usually a combination of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The still wine is then bottled with the addition of a small amount of sugar and yeast, which kickstarts the secondary fermentation and subsequent carbonation. The wine is then aged in the bottle, which is the most important aspect of the Champagne method (in Champagne, the wine must spend no less than 18 months aging in the bottle), because the longer the wine stays in contact with the spent yeast and sugar, called lees, the more the wine takes on the method’s characteristic aroma of brioche and rich flavor of pear andherbs. While they age, the bottles are kept on special racks where they are incrementally tilted until they are vertical and neck-down, at which point the necks of the bottles are frozen and the lees removed, called disgorgement. A small amount of sugar, or dosage, is added and the bottle recorked with the signature wire cage to keep the cork secured against the pressure of the carbonation.
Winemakers outside of Champagne have had great success with méthode traditionnelle. In Italy, it’s called metodo classico and shines at the hands of skilled winemakers, particularly in Franciacorta and Trentino.
For Italy, the sparkling revolution started in the late 1840s when Carlo Gancia, a winemaker from Piedmont, ventured across the Alps from Torino to Reims, the capital of France’s Champagne region, in search of the secret behind the preferred wine of The Savoy Court, the Piedmont aristocracy and the ever-thirsty Parisian bourgeois class. He returned in 1850 with the idea of making the first Italian “Champagne” and founded Gancia winery. In 1865 he released his first successful bottling.
The word spread to Trentino, where Giulio Ferrari brought the region’s first Chardonnay grapes back from Champagne around 1900, when Trentino was still part of the Habsburg Empire. He championed the production of metodo classico wine, which is now regulated by Trentino DOC laws that require the grape varieties must be limited to Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, the Italian name for Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier—the same grapes used in Champagne—as well as the local Pinot Bianco.
Lombardy’s Franciacorta, however, holds a special place among wine geeks like me because the wines made there on the hills south of Lake Iseo, in the Province of Brescia, are comparable to great Champagne in aroma, flavor and overall texture. Many of the metodo classico wines made there are aged more than two years in the bottle, rare even for Champagne, which gives them a lively mousse (the French term for the frothiness of the wine when it is poured into the glass), with fine perlage, or bubbles.
While Virgil and Pliny the Elder noted the region’s still wines as far back as the 13th Century, they weren’t known as Franciacorta until 1957, when Guido Berlucchi released a Pinot Grigio that he called Pinot di Franciacorta. Franco Ziliani, a winemaker working for Berlucchi,pursuaded Berlucchi to let him make a metodo classico wine, which debuted in 1961. Its popularity was instantaneous. When Franciacorta was granted DOC status in 1967 it became the first DOC to specify that its sparkling wines must be metodo classico. With its elevation to DOCG status in 1995, regulations required that the wine be made of 85 percent Chardonnay, 10 percent Pinot Nero and five percent Pinot Bianco. If the wine is rosato, it must contain at least 15 percent Pinot Nero. Most importantly, though, the regulations require no less than 18 months of bottle fermentation (the same as Champagne).
Now, I’m sure you’re asking: What about all those other amazing Italian sparkling wines such as Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti, Lambrusco or Brachetto d’Aqui? While those wines, named after the places from which they hail, are absolutely worthy of distinction and hold their own vaunted place in the pantheon of Italian sparkling wine, they are not metodo classico wines. They are made using the Charmat process, and undergo the secondary fermentation in bulk tanks rather than in individual bottles. Don’t get me wrong, I love these wines, too, but that’s another story.
Today the U.S., according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, is the world’s top yearly consumer of wine, and 20.5 million gallons of that are the sparkling variety. I consider that something to cheer. But the next time you toast with bubbly, raise a glass of metodo classico. These sparkling wines are certainly a cut above most but won’t break the bank.
Champagne might be the household name for sparkling wine, but Italy’s metodo classico wines make an outstanding and affordable alternative for occasions calling for bubbly.
Aldo Rainoldi Brut Rosé
This Nebbiolo-based wine is a pale pink thanks to cold, short maceration. It then ages on the lees for three years before disgorgement. This a lively, delightfully aromatic brut that makes a delicious companion to seafood.
Bellavista, Gran Cuvée Brut
Franciacorta DOCG, 2005
Made from 72% Chardonnay and 28% Pinot Nero, this elegant Franciacorta is matured for 7 months in small oak barrels and is cellared for up to 72 months in bottle.
Berlucchi, Guido Berlucchi Cuvée storica
Franciacorta DOCG, NV
A small percentage of the wine that goes into this sparkler is first aged in oak barrels. This wine is a great value and can serve as a light, fresh, citrusy aperitivo with hints of tropical fruit.
Ferrari, Perlé Rosé
Trentino-Alto Adige, 2004
Made from estate fruit, this Pinot Nero and Chardonnay blend is matured for five years, and has intense, concentrated notes
of rose with delightful raspberry, red currant and rose petal aromas.
Ronco Calino, Brut Rosé ‘Radijan’
Franciacorta DOCG, NV
This sparkler is matured on the lees for at least two years, and it picks up aromas of ripe raspberry and blackberry, and a palate that introduces pleasant minerality and bright acidity.
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