13 Things to Know about Piemonte's Sparkling Wines
- Written by Diana Zahuranec
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Piemonte’s sparkling wines are exceptional and integral to the history of spumante in all of Italy. In fact, did you know that Italian spumante started in Piemonte? Read on for more essential info and fun facts — there is more than meets the eye with the bubbles of northwestern Italy.
1) Not all spumante is Prosecco.
Let’s get this straight: Prosecco is the appellation for a sparkling, dry white wine made in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, while “spumante” refers to a type of wine: sparkling wine produced using the Charmat-Martinotti method.
2) Sparkling wines are made in two ways in Piemonte: Charmat or Martinotti method, and champenoise or Metodo Classico.
Both styles undergo two stages of fermentation to produce bubbles; it’s the second stage that marks the difference between the two.
The Charmat or Martinotti method: With this style, wine undergoes secondary fermentation in stainless steel autoclaves and is bottled under pressure. This takes less time and is less costly than the Metodo Classico, and is attractive to producers for the possibility of immediate sales. It is also known as the Martinotti method, because the Italian Federico Martinotti first invented and patented this technique in Piemonte in 1895; later, it was adapted for industrial production by the French Eugène Charmat in 1907.
Champenoise or Metodo Classico: Also known as the “traditional method,” this requires second fermentation to take place in the bottle, which is a more costly and resource-heavy investment. The producer needs greater storage space for a longer time: during fermentation, aging after fermentation on the lees (dead yeast), and aging for at least another year after disgorgement (removing the lees).
3) Piemonte’s two most famous sparkling wines are Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti.
They are both white, made from 100% Moscato grapes, and produced in the Monferrato wine zone in eastern Piemonte – but the differences end there.
Asti Spumante is an off-dry white sparkling wine with a fine perlage, aromatic with fresh, fruity notes on the nose and in the mouth. It’s most often used for celebrations. It is made using the Charmat-Martinotti method, or secondary fermentation in autoclaves. Asti Spumante uses a cork called tappo a fungo, or mushroom cork, held in place with a wire “cage.” Overall, it is made by a small number of large wineries.
Moscato d’Asti is not, technically, even a spumante. While it is gently sparkling, it is a vino frizzante, or fizzy wine, and does not undergo secondary fermentation at all. Its bubbles, rather, come from an interrupted fermentation. It is bottled at just between 4.5% and 6.5% alcohol, leaving delicate, residual sugars for this semi-sweet, gently sparkling wine. Very aromatic, this wine is often fresh and fruity with peach and pineapple, accented with notes of honey. Moscato d’Asti is often drunk after a meal, during lunch, or as an aperitivo. Its cork is called tappo raso, or just your everyday cork in a wine bottle. This is because the pressure in the bottle is much less than that of Asti Spumante, so there’s no risk of the cork popping out with its slender form and lack of wire cage. Overall, it is made by a large number of small wineries.
Background image from zpeckler, CC.
4) Making spumante was once dangerous if you weren’t wearing “armor.”
The high pressure that built up inside the bottles during secondary fermentation sometimes caused the glass bottles to explode! Cellar workers wore thick leather aprons and protective masks. Later, glass-making methods improved and cellar masters everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief when their bottles were able to withstand the pressure.
Bottler's Face Mask: image from The Bottler’s Helper, a 1907 publication by the Blumenthal Brothers as seen on www.hutchbook.com. Click here for more great vintage pics.
5) Italy’s first sparkling wine is from Piemonte.
In the 1850’s, Carlo Gancia visited Champagne, where he was so enamored with their sparkling wines that he returned to produce his own from Moscato. It was Italy’s first sparkling wine.
6) Moscato d’Asti was once called Asti Champagne or Moscato Champagne.
It was originally inspired from this great French wine, and was assigned these names much in the same way people today call all sparkling wines either Champagne or Prosecco! Back then, Champagne was enjoyed as a sweet sparkling wine and sugar was added to it to cater to the current tastes. Moscato d’Asti, on the other hand, never has and never had any sugar added to it.
7) Moscato might be one of the first grape varieties to be cultivated by man.
Many grape varieties and wines throughout Europe can be traced back hundreds of years, cited in historical documents, Moscato included. However, what makes Moscato stand out is its incredible genetic variation. The Muscat grape family has over 200 grape varieties in the world, which attests to an evolution of perhaps thousands of years to obtain so many variations.
Moscato grapes. Photo from Kate McDonnell, CC.
8) The city of Canelli is considered the capital of sparkling wine in Piemonte – and not long ago, in all of Italy.
Producing over 100 million bottles of Asti spumante and Moscato d’Asti alone, not to mention being the birthplace of Italian sparkling wine, are just two reasons this city earned that title. Now, Franciacorta and Prosecco have entered the scene, but Canelli still produces a staggering amount of sparkling wines in addition to high quality Metodo Classico wines from Pinot Nero and Chardonnay. The major spumante wine families are still located in Canelli today: Gancia, Coppo, Contratto, Bosca, Martini&Rossi, Riccadonna, and Cinzano.
9) Some of Piemonte’s wines are fermented in historical, underground caves.
Starting in the late 17th century, producers began excavating caves from the calcareous tuff rock underneath Canelli to store their wines. Today, the casks and pupitres (A-frame wine racks) line the long, bricked tunnels and fill large rooms, reaching a depth of 30 m (98 ft) for a total extension of more than 18 km (11 mi). There was no plan to grow these cellars to such cavernous dimensions, but they were enlarged with pickaxes and chisels chip by chip as the wineries grew larger. These “Underground Cathedrals,” today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have the perfect natural thermal insulation. They maintain a constant temperature of 12-14 degrees C (54 -57 degrees F), ideal for aging great wines.
10) Alta Langa wines are the up-and-coming sparkling wines of Piemonte.
Actually, these wines are already well-known in Piemonte, but they are becoming more appreciated abroad in recent years. Alta Langa wines are proof that international varieties Pinot Nero and Chardonnay have found excellent expressions in Piemonte, especially in the Langhe. The grapes must be grown above 250 meters altitude; alta, in fact, means “high” in Italian. This wine is made only with Metodo Classico, can be white or rosé, and is produced exclusively during the best vintages.
Carlo Gancia, aside from making Italy’s first sparkling wine, also played a pivotal role in spreading Pinot Nero and Chardonnay, whose vines were brought back by the Count Emilio Balbo Bertone de Sambuy and Filippo Asinari of the Ministry of Savoy, respectively, a bit earlier in the 19th century. The vines’ roots found the soil of Piemonte very favorable.
11) Piemonte’s sparkling wines don’t stop there: more reds, rosés, and whites await a curious enotraveler.
Beyond Asti Spumante, Moscato d’Asti, and Alta Langa, the two sparkling whites you’ll find are Erbaluce Spumante and Cortese di Gavi Spumante. The Erbaluce is made from Metodo Classico, while Cortese di Gavi, or just Gavi, may be made from either method (and it will always be indicated on the bottle).
A unique dessert wine from around Acqui Terme is Brachetto d’Acqui. This rosy-red sparkling wine is made from 100% Brachetto, low in alcohol and lightly sweet.
Finally, while rosé wines are not Piemonte’s specialty, bottles from classics to extremely rare gems can be found from the hills of the Langhe to the foothills of the Alps. See how varied the rosés can be, and get inspired to try something new: Rosé Tinted (Wine) Glasses for the Summer.
Erbaluce is made from 100% Erbaluce grape in the Canavese area (that’s included in the Torinese wine zone). It has a fine, persistent perlage, a delicate aroma, and is dry and fruity in the mouth. It’s an ideal before-dinner drink and completely adaptable to finger foods.
Gavi is made from 100% Cortese grape, which has found its calling in a small, restricted area in the province of Alessandria. It’s a finely balanced wine with great minerality, a tangy spritz of citrus, and a unique aroma that seems to gather the salt and herbs of the Mediterranean and freshness of the Apennine Mountains in a glass. It goes perfectly with fish-based dishes like pasta d’acciughe (pasta with anchovies, a savory dish bursting with umami) and a variety of risotto dishes.
Brachetto d’Acqui has a bouquet of rose, strawberries, and raspberries, is medium-bodied with balanced tannins and has a refreshing zing of acidity in the end. It pairs perfectly with chocolate, fruit tarts and pies, and traditional Italian cookies like amaretti.
12) Erbaluce was the first white Piemontese wine and spumante to earn the DOC certification.
Together with the still, white Erbaluce di Caluso and precious Erbaluce passito, it was the first white wine in 1967 to earn the DOC. Today a DOCG wine, it must be fermented according as Metodo Classico.
13) Brachetto d’Acqui was Cleopatra’s aphrodisiac of choice
Though she knew it by the name of Vinum Acquenese, Cleopatra requested wine skins and gourds of Brachetto to be shipped to Egypt. Both Marc Antony and Julius Caesar loved it. Today, Brachetto d’Acqui is less frothy, slightly sweeter, and with a finer effervescence. We think the Egyptian queen would approve.
Brachetto d'Acqui: Doesn't it have the most beautiful color?
Cover photo from warrenski, CC