It Is Not Always Prosecco - A Sparkling Italian Wine Primer


 picture courtesy of Gina Tringali

Most wine drinkers assume “if it is Italian & bubbly, then it must be Prosecco”. I can not blame them, as Prosecco is the number one sparkling wine of Italy in production and export numbers. It is closely followed by Asti. Most consumers associate fine perlage (soft bubbles) and a more or less sweet taste with these two most known sparkling wines. But there is so much more to sparkling wines in Italy than these two. Just as you shouldn’t call any sparkling wine “Champagne” (a very American usage, it seems to me - hello California Champagne, you strange beverage), you shouldn’t call all Italian bubbles “Prosecco”, either. All these names mean a specific area and very often a specific method - and are protected by law! Here is a quick introduction to the most important styles & names. This is by no means a complete list. To learn more, come to one of our sparkling wine tastings - we hold one every Saturday.

Asti DOCG is a sparkling & sweet wine made 100% from Moscato Bianco grapes from the Piedmont region in the Northwest of Italy. It has a rather low alcohol content (7%-9,5%) and is sweet (at least 50g/l of sugar). The bubbles come from the fermentation process in autoclaves (pressurized tanks), which is the first and only fermentation this wine goes through and the sugar is the left over (unfermented) sugar from the grapes. Drink it at the end of a meal, especially with pastries or creamy and fruity desserts.

Lambrusco DOCs (there are 5, from 5 different areas in the Emilia Romagna and Lombardy regions) are usually red, sparkling and dry (non sweet!). I said usually because you will find rosé or even white versions, still versions and sweet in varying degrees, too. But traditionally this is a red sparkling wine, aromatic (berries!) but not sweet, produced by using the Charmat method (after making a still wine, a 2nd fermentation takes place in the autoclaves). Has at least 10,5% alc. If you are from the United States and have always avoided it because you don’t like sweet wine, do ask at your wine store for a dry version, which is a great aperitif wine, best paired with the fatty salumi and prosciutto of the region where it comes from.

Prosecco DOCGs (there are two - the wonderfully fruity Colli Asolani (or Asolo) undeservedly often gets ignored next to the bigger Conegliano Valdobbiadene - as well as a less strictly ruled DOC) are the wines you think you know best - but you might be surprised. Produced 100% from Glera grapes in the cool climate and sea-fossil soils of the Veneto area, they have at least 11% alc and varying degrees of sweetness. The most common sweetness level (always declared on the label) is extra dry, meaning there is about 15g of sugar per liter in it. Not a dessert wine, but definitely noticeably sweet. Perfect for pairing with the strong, sweet-ish taste of shrimps, especially in a risotto. Note that there are also pas dosè (zero sugar) versions of Prosecco. The bubbles are most often produced by the Charmat method (see above Lambrusco); but there are colfòndo / metodo rurale (ever heard of decanting a sparkling wine? This is the candidate for that!) and metodo classico (see below) versions, too, that effect not only the looks but also the perlage of a Prosecco. Not to forget a completely still version, a Prosecco spento.

Franciacorta DOCG could just about be my fave sparkling wine of Italy. It always uses the metodo classico (same method that champagne uses - a second fermentation in the bottle. Franciacorta by law has a longer minimum time for this than champagne, 24 months as opposed to 18) and comes from the shores of the Iseo Lake in the southern part of Lombardy. The grapes allowed are Pinot Nero, Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay. Sweetness degrees vary, though the majority is brut (below 12 grams of sugar/liter). My favorites are almost always brut nature or pas dose, meaning 0 sugar! Perlage is very fine & persistent, usually not as explosive as a Champagne and not as yeasty tasting, either. If you prefer an even softer style, look for the satén typology, which has less atmospheric pressure and is 100% Chardonnay. Hint: Franciacorta is not only for a celebratory glass of bubbles - it will pair well with many foods (except maybe a grilled steak). We drink our “house” Franciacorta even with pizza!

Trento DOC, another appellation that always uses metodo classico. Grapes are similar to Franciacorta, with the addition of Pinot Meunier. It is usually yeastier and fuller tasting than Franciacorta, which makes it a better pairing with the heavier mountain region dishes it shares its origins with. The minimum time for the 2nd fermentation is a minimum of 15 months for the base version, though vintage and riserva versions go up to 24 and 36, respectively.

There are many other sparkling wines produced in Italy, almost in every region, with one or the other of the above mentioned methods. The above are my favorite appellations, have consistently the best quality (theoretically and practically) and are easiest to find. Next time you want a sparkling wine, ask your sommelier or salesperson for one of these that you haven’t tried yet - they will be delighted to help you discover!

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