By Frank Cipparone
Just as all that glitters is not gold, all that sparkles is certainly not champagne. The limestone cellars that safeguard France’s national treasure may be sacred ground for connoisseurs, but they aren’t the only place the bubbly can be found in Europe. Spain is justifiably proud of its cava, and spumanti are produced in many parts of Italy from Veneto to Sicily. Though they don’t have the pedigree or prestige of Champagne, sparklers from Franciacorta and Prosecco are worthy and affordable alternatives.
Prosecco is better known and widely distributed. Whether in Rome, Milan or a small town wine bar, an afternoon or early evening stop for a glass or two is as common as espresso on the way to work. A progressive crawl of the cicchetti bars
of Venice at any time is an inexpensive way to eat and drink, especially since Prosecco’s primary area of production in Conegliano-Valdobiaddene is less than an hour away. Here in America, as sales of Italian wine have soared, Prosecco has overtaken Moscato as an everyday wine of the moment.
Though written accounts can be found in the mid-18th century, what can be considered “modern” Prosecco can be attributed to Antonio Carpene, founder of the Carpene Malvolti winery of Conigliano in 1868. He was the first in Italy to use the Charmont method in which the secondary fermentation that produces bubbles is done in tanks rather than bottles. His pioneering efforts have created an industry that 150 years later produces a staggering 465 million bottles a year, with no signs of slowing down.
Prosecco is driving the annual increases in exports of Italian sparkling wine. Roughly 50,000 acres are devoted to the growth of Glera, the primary grape used for Prosecco. That’s a 60 percent increase from 2000, and with rising demand plans are in place to add even more.
Like German Riesling, Prosecco is labeled according to its level of sweetness: Extra Brut (driest), Brut, Extra Dry (off-dry), and Dry (technically the sweetest, but not actually “sweet” like most Moscato). Its popularity can be traced to its simplicity and range of styles. It can be light and delicate or firmer and fruitier. Either way, it’s a perfect aperitif at a moderate price.
If the sparkling wines of Franciacorta seem familiar it’s no surprise. They are the product of French grapes that are used for Champagne and have been cultivated in Lombardia for over a hundred years — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Ironically, Franciacorta as a wine region has only existed since the late 1960s, when there were only a handful of commercial producers. Similar to Prosecco’s story, a winemaker at the Guido Berlucchi estate turned to France for inspiration. Unlike Carpene, he employed the traditional methode champenoise whereby secondary fermentation occurs in bottles.
The results were immediate. Seemingly overnight the area on the south shore of Lake Iseo and within sight of the Alps was transformed into a dynamo of production. Capital from nearby industry financed a wave of new wineries and transformed the area economically. Franciacorta became the Italian answer to champagne.
The DOCG regulations that govern winemaking are some of the most clearly defined in Italy. Grape yields are strictly controlled and the term spumante is not allowed, since it would associate Franciacorta with cheaply made frizzante wines. Most wines bear no vintage date; those that do are from years deemed worthy of being singled out and are aged in bottle for at least 30 months.
The categories of Franciacorta mirror the French system based on the amount of residual sugar. Extra Brut (driest), Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi Sec. There are also wines labeled Saten made from only white grapes in the creamier, softer, less fizzy cremant style.