Category Archives: White Wines

Wine Review: Two Italian Dry Rieslings Made by Elena Walch and Abbazia di Novacella

I am writing this review with some trepidation as I know that most likely it will be read by fellow wine blogger and friend Oliver who authors the very enjoyable and educational blog The Winegetter (if you do not follow him already, I sure think you should!) and, most importantly, is definitely an authority when it comes to Rieslings! I think I know that his preference goes to German sweeter Rieslings, while the two wines that I am going to review today are both Italian dry Rieslings from the Alto Adige area of the Trentino Alto Adige region.

And now on to the reviews of the two wines that I tried. As usual, I will use a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting protocol that we described in a previous post: should you have doubts as to any of the terms used below please refer to that post for a refresher.

1. Elena Walch, Alto Adige Riesling “Castel Ringberg” 2010 DOC (12.5% ABV; ab. €15 in Italy)

Elena Walch, Alto Adige Riesling "Castel Ringberg" 2010 DOCElena Walch is one of my favorite producers of white wines from Alto Adige and, let me say it upfront, her Castel Ringberg did not disappoint me!

This is a single vineyard wine made of 100% Riesling grapes grown in the Castel Ringberg vineyard near the town of Caldaro. It was fermented and rested on its lees exclusively in stainless steel tanks. Unfortunately, although other Elena Walch’s wines are available in the US, this wine does not appear to be, which is a shame.

In the glass, the wine was straw yellow and quite thick.

On the nose, its bouquet was intense, complex and fine, with pleasant aromas of petrol (very discernible), followed by grapefruit, citrus, pear, minerals and herbs.

In the mouth, it was dry, quite warm, smooth; fresh and tasty, with medium body. The wine was balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors that trailed the wine’s bouquet. It had a long finish and it was ready in terms of its evolutionary state.

Overall, a very pleasant, fresh dry Riesling with a captivating bouquet.

Rating: Very Good Very Good – €

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

2. Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige Valle Isarco Riesling “Praepositus” 2009 DOC (13% ABV; ab. $35 in the US)

Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige Valle Isarco Riesling "Praepositus" 2009 DOCThis wine is part of Abbazia di Novacella’s premium line “Praepositus”. It is made of 100% Riesling grapes, grown in vineyards with an outstanding density of 6,000 vines/HA and harvested for 2/3 in October and 1/3 in December (late harvest). It was fermented in stainless steel vats and aged in bottle for 9 months before being released to the market.

In the glass, the wine was straw yellow with greenish hints, quite thick.

On the nose, its bouquet was intense, quite complex and fine, with aromas of petroleum, grapefruit, lime and Granny Smith apple.

In the mouth, it was dry, quite warm, quite smooth; fresh and tasty, medium-bodied. The wine was balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors. It had a long finish and was ready as to its evolutionary state.

Overall, another very pleasant dry Riesling, although it personally impressed me a touch less than the Castel Ringberg, especially due to its narrower bouquet.

Rating: Good to Very Good Good to Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

At any rate, two Italian dry Rieslings that I would certainly recommend and that I am pretty sure would not disappoint you.

That’s all for today! As always, if you have tasted either one (or both!) of these wines, make sure to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

Vertical Tasting of Marisa Cuomo’s Fiorduva

Marisa Cuomo, Costa d'Amalfi Furore Bianco During a recent trip to Milan, I participated in a pretty exciting (well, at least if you are into Italian wine!) event organized by the Milan chapter of the Italian Sommelier Association: a vertical tasting of six vintages of Fiorduva, the most awarded and acclaimed wine in the portfolio of coveted niche producer Marisa Cuomo.

About the Estate

Marisa Cuomo is a small winery controlling just 18 HA and producing about 109,000 bottles a year in an extreme and fascinating stretch of the Amalfi Coast in the Campania region in Southern Italy, near the towns of Furore and Ravello. Here the vines grow in narrow strips of land on the steep cliffs overlooking the Tirreno Sea, which make any kind of mechanical harvesting all but impossible. Commercially growing and harvesting vines here is an heroic challenge, with everything to be done exclusively by hand. Some of the older vines still grow horizontally instead of vertically, coming out of the stone walls that separate a strip from the one above it: this was an ancient local tradition that allowed land owners to have a vineyard and at the same time to grow vegetables in the narrow strips of land, shaded by the overhead vines. In those extreme conditions, every inch of land counts!

Marisa Cuomo, Vineyards in Winter

The team behind the winery is made up of Marisa, a strong woman who is in charge of the winemaking and bottling processes of their wines, Andrea, Marisa’s husband, who is the PR man of the winery and “Zio Luigi”, one of Marisa’s uncles who is in charge of maintaing the vineyards and harvesting the grapes.

About the Grapes and the Wine

Fiorduva is Marisa Cuomo’s flagship white wine, a blend of roughly equal proportions of three almost extinct grape varieties indigenous to the Campania region called Fenile, Ginestra and Ripoli.

Marisa and Andrea in their wine cellar

All three are white-berried grape varieties that are indigenous to and highly localized in the Amalfi Coast area in Campania. Fenile is said to derive its name from the Italian word “fieno” (hay) due to its straw yellow color. Fenile’s DNA profile is unique. It is an early ripening variety with high sugar levels. Ginestra draws its name from the homonymous Italian word which means broom, because of its dominant aroma. It is a late ripening variety with high acidity levels and with aging the wines made from these grapes may develop kerosene-like aromas similar to those that may be found in certain Riesling. Ripoli is a mid-ripening variety which is genetically close to Falanghina Flegrea and presents high sugar levels and moderate acidity (information on the grape varieties taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012).

It is noteworthy to mention that the average age of the vines devoted to the Fiorduva production is 80 years: you could certainly call them “old vines”! The appellation of Fiorduva is Costa di Amalfi DOC, subzone Furore. Among its many awards, Fiorduva has won the 5 clusters top rating in the ISA wine guide and the 3 glasses top rating in the Gambero Rosso wine guide.

Zio Luigi working in the vineyard

Our Detailed Review and Vertical Tasting

Now, let’s get down to the vertical tasting of Fiorduva: as I said, we have been offered the opportunity to taste six vintages, starting from the latest (2011) all the way back to 2006. I found Fiorduva (which I had never had before, despite being aware of all the praise it received) a very special and “seducing” wine, definitely worth investing in a bottle if you come across one. Incidentally, Fiorduva is available in the U.S. where it retails for about $50, certainly not an inexpensive buy.

Among the six vintages that I tasted, in my view by far the best, most intriguing one was 2006, the oldest in the range, which vouches for the good aging potential of Fiorduva for a white wine. The vintages 2007 to 2009 were also extremely good, with 2008 perhaps having a slight edge over the other two. Finally, 2010 was good, but would certainly benefit from at least one more year in the bottle, and 2011 was pleasant, but not entirely balanced yet, with acidity and minerality tending to overwhelm the smoothness of the wine: definitely too young to be enjoyed at its fullest.

Now, to make you understand a bit more what kind of wine to expect should you lay your hands on a bottle, below is my review of my personal favorite: Marisa CuomoCosta d’Amalfi Furore “Fiorduva” DOC 2006 ($50).

My review is based on a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting sheet (for more information, see my previous post that provides a detailed overview of it).

In the glass, the wine poured a luscious golden yellow in color, and it was thick when swirled, indicating a good structure.

On the nose, its bouquet was intense, fine and complex, with aromas of apricot, peach and banana coupled with minerals and hints of petroleum and nail polish (by the way, these last two descriptors are not to be intended as negative and do not signify any flaws in the wine, they just indicate certain peculiar aromas that can be found in the Fiorduva – hints of petroleum, for instance, can often be found in certain Rieslings).

In the mouth it was dry, with high ABV and smooth; acidic and tasty: definitely a balanced wine with a full body. There was also a good correspondence between the mouth flavors and the bouquet. It had a long finish, with the wine’s intriguing flavors lingering in your mouth for a long time. In terms of its life cycle, I would call 2006 mature, meaning that I think the wine is now at its apex and would not benefit from any additional aging.

The Bottom Line

Overall, Fiorduva is an outstanding, intriguing wine which is the heroic expression of a harsh land, human tenacity and a sample of Italy’s treasure chest of indigenous grape varieties. Certainly worth a try if you come across a bottle.

Rating: Outstanding and definitely Recommended Outstanding  – $$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

A Wine Review Valentine: St Michael Eppan, Alto Adige Pinot Grigio “Sanct Valentin” 2010 DOC

St Michael Eppan, Alto Adige Pinot Grigio As a valentine to my wine enthusiast readers, in this review I will share my tasting notes for a quality Italian Pinot Grigio: St Michael EppanAlto Adige Pinot Grigio “Sanct Valentin” 2010 DOC ($30). As you may know, “Sanct Valentin” is the flagship line in St Michael Eppan’s wine offering.

The Bottom Line

Overall, a very good wine and a quality product of Pinot Grigio grapes.

Rating: Very Good and Recommended Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

About the Grape

Let’s start with some general information about Pinot Grigio, AKA Pinot Gris, as a grape variety. Pinot Grigio is a color mutation of Pinot Noir whose origins can be traced back to the XVIII century in both Germany and France. Pinot Grigio is said to have been cultivated in Northern Italy since the XIX century. Pinot Grigio is a grey-berried grape with generally high sugar levels and moderate acidity. In Italy, for some reason, Pinot Grigio came into fashion in the late Ninenties/early two thousands, a trend that has been fueled by booming exports especially to the UK and the US of mostly inexpensive and lackluster wines made out of an overproduction of this grape variety. This phenomenon somewhat tarnished the reputation of Pinot Grigio, which was often associated with a cheap, mass-production type of wine, until in the last few years it started falling out of favor. Fortunately, some quality Italian Pinot Grigio is still made, particularly in the regions of Friuli, Alto Adige and Veneto (grape variety information taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012).

Our Detailed Review

Having said that, let’s now move on to the actual review of one of such quality wines: St Michael-Eppan‘s Alto Adige Pinot Grigio “Sanct Valentin” 2010 DOC. As you may know, “Sanct Valentin” is the flagship line in the wine offering of Alto Adige’s solid winery St Michael Eppan. The Pinot Grigio Sanct Valentin is available in the US where it retails at about $30.

The Pinot Grigio Sanct Valentin is made from grapes harvested from 15 to 20 year old vines at an elevation of about 500 mt/1,640 ft in proximity to the town of Appiano (near Bolzano). One third of the wine is fermented in new barrique (small oak) casks and two thirds in used ones, where the wine rest on its lees for 11 months, then 6 months in steel vessels.

My review is based on a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting sheet (for more information, see my post that provides a detailed overview of it).

In the glass, it poured a warm straw yellow, and it was thick when swirled, indicating good structure.

On the nose, its bouquet was intense, fine and complex, with aromas of pear, white flowers and citrus coupled with hints of butter, white pepper, flint and oaky notes.

In the mouth it was dry, warm and creamy, with pretty good acidity and noticeable minerality, which made it a balanced wine with good structure. The wine had a pleasantly long finish. In terms of its evolutionary state, it was ready, meaning that it can definitely be enjoyed now and can possibly evolve even more with one or two years of additional aging.

Happy Sanct Valentin, everybody! 😉

Psychobubbles Part IV: Some of the Best Prosecco’s

Cheers!

There we go, at last our series of posts on Italian spumante is coming to an end, with this last installment focusing on a few recommendations for quality Italian Method spumante wines.

As we said on the second post of our series, the two most renowned Italian Method sparkling wines are Prosecco and Asti Spumante. Beside being made from different grapes (Glera for the former, Moscato Bianco for the latter), Prosecco is generally produced as a dry wine (as per the applicable specifications, it can be produced in any of the variants ranging from Brut to Demisec in terms of residual sugar), while Asti Spumante is a sweet dessert wine with over 50 gr/lt of residual sugar.

On this post, we will just concentrate on Prosecco because… I have to admit it: I am not a huge fan of Asti Spumante or sweet sparkling wines in general. Should any of our readers be interested in a couple of recommendations of quality Asti Spumante wines, feel free to leave a comment on this page and I will gladly oblige 😉

Montesel, Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore "Riva dei Fiori" Brut DOCGBefore getting to the actual recommendations, let’s just say a few words about Prosecco in general: Prosecco is made prevalently or exclusively from partly-aromatic Glera (also known as Prosecco) white-berried grapes in two Italian DOCG appellations and in one more loosely regulated inter-regional DOC appellation, as follows:

  • Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG in the Veneto region;
  • Prosecco dei Colli Asolani DOCG in the Veneto region;
  • Prosecco Spumante DOC, an appellation which stretches between the regions of Veneto and Friuli.

Prosecco is one of the main examples of a sparkling wine made according to the so-called Italian Method production process, although there are a few producers who also make some very good Classic Method Prosecco’s, such as Valdo‘s Prosecco Brut Metodo Classico Numero 10 DOCG (see, our full review of this outstanding Prosecco).

Bepin De Eto, Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut DOCGCompared to the Classic Method, the Charmat-Martinotti Method is a quicker and cheaper production process for sparkling wine, which is known to maximize primary (or varietal) aromas although it generally sacrifices the wine structure and the finest perlage. For more detailed information, please refer to our post on the Charmat-Martinotti Method.

Now, let’s move on to a few recommendations of quality Prosecco’s:

  • Adami, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut “Bosco di Gica” DOCG (95-97% Glera grapes/3-5% Chardonnay grapes, with aromas of wisteria, pear, apple, peach, Mirabelle plum and herbs);
  • Astoria, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore “Cuvée Tenuta Val de Brun” Extra Dry DOCG (100% Glera grapes, with a bouquet of white flowers, pear, apple and citrus);
  • Bepin De Eto, Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut DOCG (100% Glera grapes, with scents of rose, wisteria, apple, pear, peach, bread crust and minerals – commendable is the investment made by the owners to achieve a very good density of 4,000 vines/HA);Adami, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut "Bosco di Gica" DOCG
  • Le Colture, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Dry DOCG (100% Glera, with a bouquet of white flowers, peach, citrus and herbs);
  • Marsuret, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore “San Boldo” Brut DOCG (100% Glera grapes, with aromas of mint, broom, elder blossoms, apple, citrus and minerals);
  • Montesel, Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore “Riva dei Fiori” Brut DOCG (100% Glera grapes, with scents of elder blossoms, wisteria, pear, apple, lime and minerals);
  • Nino Franco, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG (100% Glera, made in the finest sub-zone of the appellation known as Cartizze and displaying fine aromas of jasmine blossoms, passion fruit, citrus, herbs and minerals);Valdo, Prosecco Brut Metodo Classico Numero 10 DOC
  • Nino Franco, Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Grave di Stecca” Brut (100% Glera, with scents of wild flowers, almond, apricot and citrus).

Hope you have an opportunity to enjoy some of these wines and, if you do, feel free to share your opinion here.

Psychobubbles Part III: Some of the Best Franciacorta and Trento Spumante’s

Cheers!

After discussing the Classic Method production process and the Charmat-Martinotti Method production process in the previous two posts, our series of posts on Italian spumante is coming to an end: today, I will pass on a few recommendations of some among the best Italian Classic Method spumante wines, at least in my view, while the next and last post will focus on recommendations specific to Charmat-Martinotti Method wines.

Before we get into the actual wines, just a few words about the best Italian appellations for Classic Method sparkling wines. In Italy there are four appellations that are exclusively reserved to the production of Méthode Champenoise wines, as follows:

  • Franciacorta DOCG, in the Lombardia region (permitted grapes: at least 50% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir, along with up to 50% of Pinot Blanc – minimum aging on the lees: 18 months, with the “Riserva” version requiring a minimum of 60 months);
  • Trento DOC, in the Trentino region (permitted grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and/or Pinot Meunier – minimum aging on the lees: 15 months, with the “Riserva” version requiring a minimum of 36 months);
  • Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, in the Lombardia region (permitted grapes: at least 70% Pinot Noir, with the remaining maximum 30% coming from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and/or Pinot Blanc – minimum aging on the lees: 15 months); and
  • Alta Langa DOCG, in the Piemonte region (permitted grapes: at least 90% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir).

Berlucchi, Franciacorta Brut '61 DOCG

Beside those four appellations that are reserved to the production of Classic Method spumante wines, several other Italian appellations permit the production of Classic Method sparkling wines among other permitted wines (a few examples being Veneto‘s Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG or Piemonte‘s Cortese di Gavi DOCG or Sardinia‘s Vermentino di Gallura DOCG).

Very broadly speaking, the best Classic Method Italian spumante wines can be found in the Franciacorta DOCG and in the Trento DOC appellations. Below are a few recommendations of very good Classic Method wines with good quality/price ratio from those two appellations that, should you come across them, you should definitely consider trying out:

(A) FRANCIACORTA DOCG

  • Berlucchi, Franciacorta Brut ’61 DOCG (85% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir; 18 months of aging on the lees): a solid Francicaorta with hints of citrus, pineapple and pastry.
  • Ferghettina, Franciacorta Brut DOCGBerlucchi, Cellarius Brut DOCG (80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir; 30 months of aging on the lees): this is simply delightful, one of my favorite Franciacorta ever. It is a little more expensive than the ’61, but in my view well worth the little extra for what it gives you back: freshly baked bread crust,  apple and citrus, with a mineral note, just wonderful. Unfortunately, it is not imported in the United States yet, but it sounds like the guys at Berlucchi are seriously considering whether this choice should change in the future: I sure hope it will some time soon!
  • Ferghettina, Franciacorta Brut DOCG (95% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir; 24 months of aging on the lees): an excellent choice for the money, with pleasant aromas of wildflowers, citrus, bread crust and peach.
  • Ferghettina, Franciacorta Pas Dosé Riserva 33 DOCG (100% Chardonnay; 72 months of aging on the lees): magnificent and more expensive, one of Ferghettina’s top of the line wines, with scents of bread crust, pastry, citrus, pineapple, hazelnut complemented by mineral and slightly toasty hints.
    Cavit, Trento Brut Altemasi Graal Riserva DOC
  • Bellavista, Cuvée Brut DOCG (80% Chardonnay, 18% Pinot Noir, 2% Pinot Blanc, 36 months of aging on the lees): very pleasant, with aromas of citrus, bread crust and peach.
  • Bellavista, Gran Cuvée Brut DOCG (72% Chardonnay, 28% Pinot Noir; 48 months of aging on the lees): wonderful albeit quite expensive wine, with a complex bouquet of wildflowers, pastry, citrus and pineapple and lingering aftertaste.
  • Ca’ del Bosco, Franciacorta Brut Cuvée Prestige DOCG (75% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Blanc; 25 months of aging on the lees): very good choice with aromas of wildflowers, bread crust, peach and almond.
    Dorigati, Trento Brut Methius Riserva DOC
  • Ca’ del Bosco, Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi DOCG (55% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Blanc, 20% Pinot Noir; 84 months of aging on the lees): okay, this is really expensive, but it is also sublime: the finest perlage along with a complex bouquet of peach, honey, almond, dried nuts and subtle mineral hints of gunflint – a delightful sin.

(B) TRENTO DOC

  • Cavit, Trento Brut Altemasi Graal Riserva DOC (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir; 72 months of aging on the lees): quite expensive, but of excellent quality, with aromas of pineapple, citrus, bread crust coupled with a touch of incense and mineral hints.
  • Maso Martis, Trento Brut Riserva DOCDorigati, Trento Brut Methius Riserva DOC (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; 60 months of aging on the lees): yet another great choice, with aromas of magnolia blossoms, citrus, pineapple, bread crust, vanilla.
  • Maso Martis, Trento Brut Riserva DOC (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 52 months of aging on the lees): an exquisitely refined wine, with a wide bouquet of bread crust, wildflowers, apple, citrus, banana, butter and slightly oaky due to partial aging in barrique barrels. Wonderful.
  • Ferrari, Trento Brut Perlé DOC (100% Chardonnay; 60 months of aging on the lees): an excellent wine, with aromas of magnolia blossoms, citrus, apple, melon and pastry.

That’s all for now – stock up and drink good wine!  🙂

Psychobubbles Part II: An Overview of Méthode Charmat-Martinotti (or Italian Method) Spumante

Cheers!

On our previous post we started our journey into the world of Italian spumante by covering the basics, very briefly touching upon Champagne, introducing the two main processes to make a natural sparkling wine, the Champenoise or Classic Method and the Charmat-Martinotti or Italian Method, and finally going through the main steps of the Classic Method production process. So, if you missed that post, you may want to go through it first and then dive into this second chapter of the “spumante saga” 😉

On today’s post we will briefly discuss how and when the Charmat-Martinotti Method came to be, we will then point out the main differences between the production processes for the Italian Method and the Classic Method and finally we will go through the main steps of the Charmat-Martinotti Method, including its variant used in the production of Asti Spumante.

Let’s therefore start with some history. The development of the most commonly utilized alternative process to make a sparkling wine, the so-called Martinotti Method or Charmat Method or even Italian Method, took place at the end of the XIX century, precisely in 1895 when Federico Martinotti, who was in charge of the Royal Enological Station in Asti, invented a steel pressurized and refrigerated vessel known as “autoclave” that is used to make Italian Method spumante wines. This alternative process is also known as “Charmat Method” because a French engineer by the name of Eugéne Charmat adapted the design of Martinotti’s autoclave to suit industrial production of sparkling wine and rolled out the product in 1907. Considering the contributions made by both such gentlemen to devising such alternative production process, I think the proper way to identify it would be “Charmat-Martinotti Method.”

Now, let’s get a little more into the specifics of how the Italian Method differs from the Classic Method and what this means to you if you want to buy a bottle of wine made according to one versus the other of such production processes.

First of all, let’s start by saying that two of the most renown Italian Method spumante wines are:

  • Prosecco (although there are a few producers who also make very good Classic Method Prosecco’s, such as Valdo‘s Prosecco Brut Metodo Classico Numero 10 DOCG). Prosecco is made prevalently or exclusively from partly-aromatic Glera (also known as Prosecco) grapes in either one of the following two DOCG appellations of the Veneto region: Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG or Prosecco dei Colli Asolani DOCG as well as in the more loosely regulated DOC appellation Prosecco Spumante DOC, which stretches between Veneto and Friuli; and
  • Asti Spumante, which is made exclusively from aromatic Moscato Bianco grapes in Piemonte’s DOCG appellation Asti Spumante.

Generally speaking, Prosecco is made as a dry wine: according to applicable regulations, it may be produced in all variants between Brut (less than 15 gr/lt of residual sugar) and Demi-Sec (33 to 50 gr/lt of residual sugar, which would make it fairly sweet tasting), but your best bets are in the Brut, Extra Dry (12 to 20 gr/lt of residual sugar) or Dry (17 to 35 gr/lt of residual sugar) versions.

Asti Spumante, instead, is typically a sweet dessert sparkling wine, with over 50 gr/lt of residual sugar. So, do not serve Asti Spumante with appetizers – just keep it chilled until the end of your meal and pair it with a dessert.

On our previous post, we saw how two key features of the Classic Method are its in-bottle refermentation process of the base wines and then the generally long period of time spent by Classic Method wines aging on their lees before their being shipped off to wholesalers and retailers worldwide.

What makes Italian Method sparkling wines generally less expensive than Classic Method wines and different in terms of aromas and taste is mainly their different production process. For Italian Method wines, this is much shorter because refermentation of the base wine(s) takes place in a pressurized autoclave instead of in-bottle and so does their much shorter aging time on their lees. Essentially, after the production of the base wine(s), the entire refermentation, aging and bottling phases of an Italian Method spumante all take place in an isobaric, refrigerated environment inside an autoclave, which dramatically shortens production time.

In real life, what does this mean to you? Well, for starters it means that if you buy an Italian Method spumante (like Prosecco, for instance) it will feel different both in the nose and in the mouth compared to a Classic Method sparkling wine (such as a Franciacorta or a Trento). This is because, by aging often for years on their lees, Classic Method wines develop a number of intriguing secondary and tertiary aromas, such as the quite notorious bread crust or “just baked bread” aroma.

Because of the different production process and the much shorter aging time, most Italian Method wines have fewer (or less distinct) secondary and tertiary aromas, but make up for it by being generally made from aromatic grapes (as is the case for Asti Spumante, which is made from aromatic Moscato Bianco grapes) or partly-aromatic grapes (such as Glera, also known as Prosecco) and therefore emphasizing the primary or varietal aromas of the grape(s) their base wine(s) are made out of.

In other words, chances are that if you pop a bottle of Classic Method sparkling wine you will get a broader, more complex aromatic palette and mouth feels while if you pour a few glasses of a quality Italian Method spumante you will likely get a fresher, simpler wine with quite distinct flowery and fruity aromas.

Other differences between a Classic Method wine and an Italian Method one are that the former generally has a color that is warmer in hue, a finer perlage and more structure than the latter. Regarding structure, this is a bit of a generalization as it is essentially dependent on the grape varieties that are used for making the base wines, so the point holds true especially for Classic Method wines that have Pinot Noir in their cuvée (a grape variety that is known to confer structure to the wine) and, even more so, for Blanc de Noirs.

Let’s take a little detour here: on our previous post we said that the base wines of a Classic Method sparkling wine are made from all or some of the following grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (as far as Champagne is concerned), which last grape variety in Italy is generally replaced by different grapes, such as Pinot Blanc (as far as Italian Classic Method spumante is concerned). So, what we could call the “kosher” version of Champagne or Classic Method wines is made out of a cuvée produced from all three of such base grapes. However, there are two main variants from the “kosher” version, that are known as Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs.

The former is a wine made exclusively out of permitted white-berried grapes (in the case of Champagne, this means a Chardonnay-only wine), which is generally fresher, gentler and of lighter body, very suitable for instance as an appetizer or paired with delicate flavored seafood.

The latter is just the opposite, that is a wine made exclusively or prevalently out of permitted black-berried grapes (again, in the case of Champagne, this means Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier), which is generally a more structured, more complex wine that is more suitable to be served with an appropriate pasta dish or even main course.

Although we will provide a more in depth overview of what a proper wine tasting should entail in a future post, I think it is important to point out certain distinctive features that everyone with an interest in wine can have fun identifying and assessing in a sparkling wine:

  1. Color: this varies depending on the grapes used in the base wines, but it is one of the characteristics that should always be appreciated, be it a warmer straw or even golden yellow color of a well-aged Classic Method wine or a paler straw yellow, sometimes with greenish hints, of an Italian Method wine;
  2. Perlage: this is the key feature to be assessed in a sparkling wine, which oftentimes either makes or breaks the wine – what you are looking for here is the three distinct characteristics of a quality perlage: (i) fine-grained bubbles; (ii) abundant bubbles forming uninterrupted chains from the bottom of the glass to the surface; and (iii) long-lasting formation of new chains of bubbles;
  3. Bouquet: although fine-nosed wine tasters can go wild identifying the slightest hints of this or that, anyone can take pleasure in picking up the scents of a good sparkling wine and trying to identify some of the more distinct aromas, such as bread crust or yeast, apple, almond or wild berries that may be present in a Classic Method wine or the flowery, fruity notes of a Prosecco, often reminiscent of white flowers and pear or again the sweet aromas of sage and peach of an Asti Spumante.

Before we get to the description of the main steps of the Charmat-Martinotti Method, a few practical pieces of advice to maximize your sparkling wine tasting experience (by the way, these apply to any sparkling wine, regardless of its being a Classic Method or an Italian Method wine):

  • The proper glass to serve a sparkling wine (except only the sweet ones, on which see below) is a flute, not a cup: this is because the elongated and narrow shape of the flute both emphasizes perlage and concentrates the fine aromas in the nose;
  • While we are at it, much to Francesca’s dismay (she just loooves her tinted glasses), all glasses you serve wine in, regardless of it being sparkling or still, red, white or rosé, must be made of clear glass or crystal: no matter how “cute” the tint of those pretty glasses you have sitting in that special cupboard, tinted glass is a no no because it kills right away one of the most important features of a wine: its own color!
  • Ideally, your flutes should not be washed with soap, you should just use hot water instead and they should be dried using a natural fiber cloth (such as cotton or linen): this is because, in order for perlage to be at its best, those chains of bubbles need to hang on to something inside the glass, so minuscule lints of cotton or linen are just perfect to maximize your favorite spumante’s perlage, while an ultra-clean, super shiny inside of the flute is going to penalize it.
  • Finally, the proper glass to enjoy an Asti Spumante or any other sweet sparkling wine is instead a cup with a wide, shallow bowl, because its larger opening tames a little bit the generally exuberant varietal aromas, while its shallower depth is not so detrimental to the often coarser, less refined perlage of that kind of sparkling wines.

Main Steps in the Charmat-Martinotti Method Production Process:

  1. Soft pressing of the base wine grape(s)
  2. Treatments of the must (e.g., clarification and application of sulfur dioxide)
  3. Fermentation of the base wine(s) by the addition of selected yeast
  4. Where necessary, blending of the base wines
  5. Transfer of the base wine(s) into a pressurized, refrigerated autoclave with the addition of sugar and selected yeast
  6.  Refermentation in autoclave, which makes the wine bubbly because the carbon dioxide created by the yeast as a byproduct of alcoholic fermentation remains trapped inside the pressurized autoclave and dissolves into the wine
  7. Brief period of aging on the lees in autoclave (generally, just a few months)
  8. Isobaric stabilization and filtration, to remove the lees
  9. Isobaric bottling and closure

The production process of a sweet Asti Spumante is basically the same as that described above, except that Asti Spumante undergoes one single fermentation phase, directly in autoclave, where yeast activity is inhibited by dropping the autoclave temperature when the wine has reached the desired low alcohol by volume and high residual sugar levels.

That’s all for now. On the next post, we will chat about some of what we believe to be among the best Classic Method spumante wines made in Italy that are available on the market, especially for their price/quality ratios.

Cheers!

Psychobubbles Part I: An Overview of Méthode Champenoise (or Classic Method) Spumante

Cheers!

This post was originally published in Flora’s Table in anticipation of the 2012 end of the year festivities, and with those of the tradition that is common to many to pop some kind of bubbly wine to celebrate, be it a Champagne, a Crémant, an American sparkling wine, a Cava or… an Italian spumante.

But leaving veteran connoisseurs of Italian wine aside, how many have it clear on their minds what the offering of Italian spumante really is? How many know what a Franciacorta is and how it differs from Prosecco? And how about Trento? Or Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico? And Alta Langa? Or even Asti Spumante? If by now your head is slightly spinning it is neither you nor the wine, but it is most likely due to the fact that, in my opinion, not much has been done to explain to consumers in the first place that there is such thing as quality Italian sparkling wine and in the second place that no, it is not Champagne nor is it just Prosecco. It is so much more.

So, I will do my best to shed some light on the quite mysterious topic of Italian spumante. Since there is much to say, I will try not to bore everyone to death and therefore will break this discussion into four separate posts: today’s will focus on the basics: what is spumante and what is spumante’s traditional production process: the so-called “Classic Method”; the second post will focus on the main alternative process to produce spumante, the so-called “Italian Method”; the third post will focus on a selection of the best (in my view, of course!) Classic Method spumante; and the fourth and last post (phew…) will focus on a selection of the best Italian Method spumante (again, in my opinion). So, if you are interested and want to know more, stay tuned.

Let’s start from the very basics:

1. “Spumante” (pronounced “spoomantay”) is an Italian word which translates into sparkling wine in general.

2. Commercially, a sparkling wine may be produced either (i) through the artificial addition of carbon dioxide to a still wine (so-called “artificial process”) – this is the cheapest and least prestigious (to use a euphemism) sparkling wine production process, which we will not consider for the purpose of this article or (ii) through a second, natural fermentation of the base wine (or the fermentation of a must, as is the case for Asti Spumante) – this is known as the “natural process” and is performed by following either one of two main production methods: the Méthode Champenoise (or Classic Method) or the Méthode Charmat or Martinotti (also known as the Italian Method).

3. One cannot meaningfully speak about sparkling wines without having at least some extremely basic information about Champagne, the king of wines and the wine of kings. In this case, I will take the liberty to quote myself (see, our Wine Glossary): it is the epitome of sparkling wine, it has been around since the XVII century, when it started being served at the crowning ceremonies of the Kings of France in Reims, therefore gaining worldwide popularity and repute. It is the wine for which the Méthode Champenoise refermentation process was invented. This magical name, which is the same as the homonymous AOC appellation created in 1927 (although an area had already been defined in 1908 as “Région de la Champagne délimitée viticole”), is reserved to sparkling wine that is made exclusively from all or some of the following grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grown in the Champagne region of France.

Until well into the very end of the XIX century, the Classic Method was the only known process to produce a sparkling wine. In Italy, the first sparkling wine ever produced, which therefore coincides with the date of birth of spumante, was a Classic Method wine made in Asti (Piemonte) by famous Italian winemakers Gancia (pronounced “Gancha”) in 1865.

The development of the most commonly utilized alternative process to make a sparkling wine, the so-called Martinotti Method or Charmat Method or even Italian Method, took place at the end of the XIX century, precisely in 1895 when Federico Martinotti, who was in charge of the Royal Enological Station in Asti, invented a steel pressurized and refrigerated vessel known as “autoclave” that is used to make Italian Method spumante wines. This alternative process is also known as “Charmat Method” because a French engineer by the name of Eugéne Charmat adapted the design of Martinotti’s autoclave to suit industrial production of sparkling wine and rolled out the product in 1907. Considering the contributions made by both such gentlemen to devising such alternative production process, I think the proper way to identify it would be “Charmat-Martinotti Method.”

Very broadly and generally speaking, sparkling wines made according to the Classic Method are more expensive (due to the greater complexity and the longer duration of this production process – see below), convey more complex aromas and are more structured in the mouth compared to those sparkling wines that are made according to the Italian Method. In Italy, about 90% of the annual production of sparkling wine is made according to the Italian Method while only 10% is made according to the Classic Method.

To wrap up this post, we will now briefly go through the main steps to produce a Classic method spumante (which are essentially the same that are used to make Champagne).  One interesting difference between Champagne and Italian Classic Method wines is the grapes: if we said that Champagne can only be made from all or some of the following grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the first being a white-berried grape variety, while the second a the third being black-berried grape varieties), the use of Pinot Meunier in the production of Italian Classic Method spumante is extremely rare and such grape variety is often replaced with Pinot Blanc (a white-berried grape). Certain Italian producers have also been experimenting making Classic Method spumante out of “unconventional” grape varieties, such as Cortese, Glera (aka Prosecco) and lately Carricante (a white-berried grape variety indigenous to Sicily), as you may recall if you read our recent post regarding Sicilian winemakers Planeta. We will talk about this more in our third post of this series.

Main Steps in the Classic Method Production Process:

  1. Soft pressing of the base wine grapes (separately for each grape variety)
  2. Treatments of the must (e.g., clarification and application of sulfur dioxide)
  3. Separate fermentation of each of the base wines by the addition of selected yeast (so-called “pied de cuve”)
  4. If appropriate, malolactic fermentation of the base wines (whereby lactic acid bacteria  convert the tart malic acid that is present in grape juice into sweeter lactic acid and carbon dioxide, thus making the wine “rounder”)
  5. Proprietary blending process of the varietal base wines to produce the so-called “cuvée” (pronounced “koovay“), that is the still wine resulting from the blend of the base wines
  6. Bottling of the cuvée, addition of the liqueur de tirage (a mix of wine, sugar and selected yeast that is used to start the in-bottle refermentation process typical of the Classic Method) and sealing of the bottle by using a crown cap known as “bouchon de tirage” to which a so-called “bidule” (see below) is attached
  7. In-bottle refermentation of the cuvée (so-called “prise de mousse”) that makes the wine bubbly because the carbon dioxide created by the yeast as a byproduct of alcoholic fermentation remains trapped inside the bottle and dissolves in the wine (roughly, every 4 gr of sugar present in the liqueur de tirage create 1 atm of additional pressure: generally, the liqueur de tirage contains 24 gr/lt of sugar, which at the end of the refermentation phase results in a 6 atm sparkling wine – however, in Crémant or Satén wines the liqueur de tirage contains less sugar thus producing a gentler pressure)
  8. Sur lie” (pronounced “soor lee”) aging phase: it is the period of time (which, depending on the applicable regulations of the producing country and relevant appellation, may range from 12 months to several years) that a Classic Method sparkling wine spends aging in the bottle on its lees (i.e., dead yeast cells) after the refermentation phase is completed
  9. Remuage: at the end of the aging phase on the lees, the bottles are placed in a pupitre (a wine rack that holds the bottles bottoms up at an angle) and are manually or mechanically rotated at regular time intervals along their axis so as to cause the lees to precipitate down the bottleneck and deposit into the bidule, that is a small receptacle attached to the inside of the crown cap of the bottle
  10. Dégorgement (or disgorgement): it is the removal process of the lees sediment after the remuage step is completed. Dégorgement was once performed manually by removing the crown cap so that the top portion of the wine (which, as a result of the remuage contains the lees sediment) would be ejected from the bottle. Nowadays it is generally a mechanical process that entails, after the remuage phase is completed, partially submerging the neck of the bottle (which is kept upside down) in an ice-cold solution (-25 C/-13 F) which freezes the portion of wine next to the crown cap and therefore also the lees sediment contained in the bidule so that the crown cap and the iced bidule containing the sediment can be easily removed
  11. Dosage: it is the phase following the dégorgement, when the liqueur d’expédition (a proprietary mix of wine and sugar) is generally added to finish off the sparkling wine restoring the desired amount of residual sugar – winemakers may decide, however, not to add any liqueur d’expédition (and therefore no additional sugar) to certain of their sparkling wines, which are known as “Dosage Zéro” or “Pas Dosé” and which as a result have extremely low residual sugar levels (around 0.5 gr/lt)
  12. Final sealing of the bottle with the typical “mushroom-shaped” cork and wire cage closure.

That’s all for now: we will continue our discussion in the next post, which will focus on the Charmat-Martinotti Method.