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Episode #179: Italian Sparkling Wine: Toasting the Best From Prosecco to Franciacorta

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Italian sparkling wine may immediately bring to mind Prosecco, but with a huge variety from the regions around Italy, there is so much more out there for you to discover. Some exports of Italian sparkling wine have led to a bad reputation, but enjoying a glass of sparkling wine in Italy, when it is at its peak and with the food it’s designed to go with – is an entirely different and unforgettable experience. As Itay does so well, there are many sparkling wines that are produced with huge care and to such a high standard to easily rival and often surpass many Champagnes. Even with Prosecco, there are bottles to be savored and those which are better off mixed. 

Show notes

We are joined by Olivia Windsor, an Australian who’s been living and immersing herself in Italy for the last 4 years, and her Italian partner Andrea Mitti Rua who together are now based in Rome and have recently launched Italian Wine Tales. As well as taking care of our Untold Italy Tours all over Italy, Liv is an Italian food and wine expert and both she and Andrea are studying to be qualified sommeliers in Italy. This is the beginning of a series of episodes about Italian wine with Liv and Andrea where we’ll learn all kinds of things surrounding Italian wine. Not only is there a huge variety of delicious wines from all over the country to discover, but winemaking and the vendemmia (grape harvest) are extremely important parts of Italian culture, with a deep significance in each region as well as in each hilltop town or community where the wine has been made for centuries. Here we talk about Italian sparkling wine. Whilst Prosecco is known to most, there are many others that would delight and surprise even the most sophisticated palate, as we leave behind the bad memories of the 1970s and 80s Italian exports or even that which is exported today and is past its best by the time you try it.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Andrea and Olivia, an Italian – Australian couple, are the founders of the new online wine website Italian Wine Tales. They are launching wine guides on all of the regions of Italy, information on where to go wine tasting or on wine tours, and will include general advice like, “You like this wine – why don’t you drink this?”. They understand that hat the wine world can be a bit intimidating, stuffy or even. a bit boring at times, so they’re aiming to take a different approach and offer an online resource demystifying Italian wine, sharing the masses of information in a fun and approachable way
  • Olivia has lived in Italy for the last four years and is really passionate about food and wine. She is the host of many of the Untold Italy Tours. In Australia, she studied the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) course, which is regarded as one of the world’s leading providers of wine education. When she moved to Italy she worked in some wineries in Tuscany and in Piedmont, where she also did her first wine harvest in Italy. She’s really interested in organic wines and small wineries that are about quality, not quantity. She and Andrea really wanted to deepen their knowledge of Italian wine so they decided to start the AIS (Association of Italian Sommeliers) course which is in Italian so bonus points to Liv for doing it in her second language
  • Andrea is from Piedmont, where he and Olivia first met. He’s worked in restaurants for some years and is passionate about food but has always felt a particular connection with wine. This may be partly attributed to the fact his family comes from one of the most famous Italian wine regions – the Langhe wine region, where Barolo and Barbaresco are made. He wanted to start the AIS course with Liv because he felt a sense of duty to keep alive his region’s heritage and to know as much as possible about wine. And then while taking the classes, we started to realize just how much there is to know about wine and about Italian wine in particular
  • There is more to know than someone might realize, for example, in Italy alone, there are at least 350 grape varieties and wine has been made there for 4,000 years. The idea for Italian Wine Tales came out of all they were learning in the class
  • Untold founder Katy was privileged to go with Andrea’s mum to one of the wineries in the Langhe that has a family connection. She was thrilled to be able to show Katy the winery where her grandfather had played as a child. She’s also been extremely lucky to have been the beneficiary of Liv and Andreas’ wine selections when in Italy – which is always the perfect choice for the situation or food
  • We all know about the most famous sparkling wine, Prosecco, and maybe some of the wines that have an unfairly bad reputation outside of Italy like Asti Spumante or Lambrusco, but there is actually an incredibly huge variety available
  • What all sparkling wines have in common is that they’re made from a first or a second alcoholic fermentation – coming from fresh grapes, grape must, or wine itself. They’ll all release carbon dioxide when you open the bottle, hence the bubbles and the pop upon opening
  • They have bars of pressure – normally three bars and they have a certain alcoholic strength that varies between Spumante or a Metodo Classico
  • The French have done a very good job of making sure that champagne is highly regarded as a luxury item and probably the pinnacle of sparkling wine, but in fact, Italian sparkling wines have a very long and fascinating history and are of incredible quality but they just didn’t really keep up with the marketing

Spumante

  • Spumante literally means something that has the spuma, which is the bubbles and fizziness
  • One of the first alcoholic beverages Katy tried was actually a Spumante imported into Australia, which is a very different beast to the kind of Spumate Liv and Andrea will be talking about
  • 375 million bottles of Italian Spumante are made every year, particularly in the northern regions. Italy and France are the top producers of sparkling wine in the world
  • It’s generally associated with being a sweet wine and to have with sweet food, typically with dessert, but you can find dry versions as well. Spumante might not be the best sparkling wine, as you said. I agree with that.
  • There are better qualities of sparkling wines but it’s an easy wine to start to get to know the sparkling wines

Prosecco

  • The wine takes its name from a little town in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region called, unsurprisingly, Prosecco, but these days s also associated with a nearby region, Veneto, where it’s now mas-produced and way more popular
  • It is perhaps the most well-known Italian wine abroad and 180 million bottles out of the 300 million that are produced every year are exported
  • If you’re interested in the aromas and the taste, you will find pear, apple, citrus, white flowers, a bit of wisteria, and sometimes even peach and apricot
  • Prosecco is made mostly from the Prosecco and Muscato grapes, and by using the Martinotti Charmat method.  The name Martinotti Charmat is derived from two surnames. The first one is from this wine producer from Asti in Piedmont, Martinotti, and the first one to invent this method. The second is from the Frenchman who was the first to patent it. A quick summary of this method is that it’s fermented twice, and both fermentation happened in stainless steel baths. It’s very different from the champagne method where the fermentation happens in the bottle and it produces a very different effect
  • Prosecco is very light and summery. It can be a little bit easier to drink than champagne as it’s a little less complex. It goes really well with foods like seafood and you can also sometimes mix it with other drinks too – a spritz. It can be an easy aperitivo wine to start the night
  • The main grape that they use for Prosecco is Glera which is directly associated with the production of Prosecco

Tips for buying

  • Not all Prosecco is created equal. There’s the supermarket Prosecco, which you probably want to mix because it’s not so tasty to drink by itself and might give you a terrible headache. Then there’s the really good Prosecco – we’d love everyone to be learning about and drinking that one
  • The best quality you can find is Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG
  • What to check on Italian labels when looking for a good Prosecco:
    • DOCG – literally translated is Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin, which is a guarantee for you that this wine has been produced following strict rules
    • Superiore – means the wine is produced with higher quality obtained through stricter regulation
  • You don’t want to use Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze DOCG to mix into your spritz. That’s the one that you’d be having for your glass of Prosecco and really enjoy the glass
  • Cartizze is the keyword for this wine. There are others that are really great (but not quite as amazing quality as the Cartizze) worth looking out for:
    • Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG
    • Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG
  • The Prosecco area, around Treviso, is a really nice area to visit. There are day trips from Venice that you can do, we recommend spending a little bit more time around that area if you can because it’s so beautiful

Wineries

These wineries are slightly bigger ones that speak English. They are a little bit more commercial because the smaller family-run wineries are harder to visit. You really need to go to those with a local guide or with a group tour. On our Untold Italy Tours we like to visit smaller wineries, but these are some options for wineries that you can visit on your own:

  • VillaSandi  – with a beautiful Palladian-style Villa and an 18th-century barrel cellar, near Treviso
  • Sorelle Bronca – with a variety of wine tours/experiences available
  • Bele Casel – a family-run winery with gorgeous hillside vineyards

Franciacorta

  • Franciacorta is a region in the Northern region of Lombardy. Both Katy and Liv have similar tastes and love Franciacorta sparkling wine. That is made with the champagne-like Metodo Classico method. So different to Prosecco, the second formation happens inside the bottle
  • Franciacorta is a delicious bubbly wine. It’s very sophisticated and elegant and a little bit heavier than Prosecco. It’s got a delicious sense of butter, vanilla, citrus and white flowers on the palate and on the nose
  • It’s a bit more expensive because of the different methods of production
  • Franciacorta is found between Brescia and Lake Iseo. This part of Italy is peculiar because the wind comes down from the Camonica Valley and mixes with the warmer air from over Lake Iseo, so even in winter, there is not much fog there and not much humidity either. This makes Franciacorta a very specific product that can only be found and cultivated in that specific area
  • It’s a very beautiful area, though a very small area – around 5,000 hectares. The city of Brescia isn’t very well known but is an amazing city to visit. It has so much history all in one small city. It’s fairly close to Lake Garda, so if you’re staying here this is a great area to head to on a day trip or on the way through on a journey between Milan and Venice
  • The wine grapes for Franciacorta are Chardonnay, and Pino Nero occasionally. Satèn only uses white grapes, so it wouldn’t use Pino Nero at all. they use a little bit of Pino Bianco. They are also experimenting with some indigenous grape varieties native to the area that they’re trying to bring back. One of those is called Erbamat, which you might see in some wines too

Tips for buying

  • You need to decide if you want something dry or sweet. When it comes to the process of making Franciacorta, they need to add what’s known as dosage – a little bit of sugar, at some stage. That means there’s a whole different scale of sweeteners in Franciacorta
    So you’re best to get familiar with the types. If you don’t like sweet wine, but you want a diet Franciacorta, go for the Pas Dosé. It’s the least amount of sugar in the Franciacorta. Liv prefers an extra Brut or a Brut, which is dry. You can go for the Dolce, which has got 50 grams per liter of sugar and so is fairly sweet
  • If your budget allows, always choose a Millesimato Franciacorta. It essentially means that all of the grapes used are from the same vintage (same year), rather than a mix from all different years. This makes for a higher-quality Franciacorta
  • On the bottle of Franciacorta, they will have the year that it was produced listed, as well as the Spaccatura, which is a technical term to do with when the sugar is added. You just need to know that when that happens because you want to drink the wine between 6 to 18 months after the date of the sboccatura. Once the sboccatura happens, the quality of the wine starts to slowly go down. You don’t want to keep Franciacorta after that date – for years and years. The quality doesn’t improve. Don’t hold onto a bottle for a special occasion for too long
  • There are a few different other kinds that you can get, not related to the sugar content. You can get the Rose, or Liv’s favorite, the Satèn, which is extra creamy. Satèn is made using just white grapes and it’s been on the lees or the yeast for longer. There’s also the Millesimati which stays on the lees for longer, so is even creamier. The creme de la creme is the Riserva which spends the longest amount of time aging on the lees

Wineries

Whilst Katy and Liv like to find the smaller wineries, they come with a bunch of challenges, not least in terms of lack of information. It’s so worthwhile getting that real family connection to these wineries but you need to really have a really good command of Italian and you also need to have a tenacity that is only. Liv is particularly voracious at finding these wineries which has been great for the Untold Italy Tours.

All these wineries that Liv suggest are easier to visit and offer their websites in English to make things a little easier:

  • Mosnel – a beautiful family-run winery that can organize picnics in the vineyards. Liv loves their Satèn wine. Their tours start from €25
  • Ca Del Bosco – a really famous and more commercial winery 
  • Bellavista – with a range of different tours at different price points and timings from €40 a person for 1.5 hours

Asti Spumante/Moscato d’Asti

  • Being from Piemonte, Andrea could, of course, not include these choices
  • Asti Spumante is produced using the Martinotti method and the grape is 100% Moscato Bianco. It is a white sparkling with fine and persistent bubbles, it has hints of fruits and flowers such as peach and wisteria. A refreshing sweet taste but well balanced with a dessert
  • Moscato d’Asti, meanwhile, has many characteristics in common with Asti Spumante but differs in some ways – you can maybe think about it as a wine cousin of Asti Spumante. They are both made using the Martinotti method, it’s produced in the area around Asti, and it is made entirely from the Moscato Bianco grape. You will find aromas of citrus and aromatic plants and in the mouth you get a well-balanced mixture of sweetness and acidity
  • Asti Spumante, as the name says, is a Spumante, while Moscato d’Asti is a Vino Frizzante. Moscato also generally has more sugar, while Asti Spumante is more sparkling
  • Unfortunately, some of these wines haven’t had the best reputation outside of Italy. Some producers in the past perhaps saw an opportunity to make a bit of money and started mass-producing a lot of these wines to take advantage of international interest. The poor quality of these exports has had a  big impact on some of the reputations of these wines
  • Asti Spumante goes perfectly with good desserts. If you have cakes or if you have panettone at Christmas, it goes perfectly. Everything pastry-related will definitely go with either

Wineries

  • Gancia – a must-try. They are 170 years old and are the first creators of Spumante made with metodo Classico. Their cellars are so beautiful that they are listed in the UNESCO world heritage
  • Il Falchetto – for Moscato d’Asti in Santo Stefano Belbo, between the UNESCO area of Langhe and Monferrato

Lambrusco

  • Lambrusco is from the Emilia Romania region. Mainly in Emilia, because it’s produced around Modena. It’s a red sparkling wine that definitely got itself a bad reputation due to bad exports but drink it on your Italy trip and you’ll find it a really delicious wine.
  • It’s produced in a few different ways:
    • the Martinotti Charmat method
    • the higher quality are generally produced using Classico Method (similar to Franciacorta champagne)
    • the Ancestral method also produces higher-quality wines. This is where the fermentation happens in the bottle rather than in the stainless steel vats
  • It’s made with the Lambrusco grape. There are lots of different varieties of Lambrusco grapes, but the most well-known are Salamino, Grasparossa, Sorbara, Marani, and Maestri. They’ve all got slightly different characteristics, but the one thing similar across them all is the beautiful ruby red color, the bubbles – some of them have more bubbles than others. They’ve got aromas of red berries, currants and blueberries
  • They’re nice and fresh and light, perfect with some of the cuisine from Emilia, like the cured meats – Affettati. They’ve got a lovely refreshing aftertaste of sour cherry
  • Lambrusco in Australia, and likely in the US/Canada, has not the greatest reputation. Alongside mass production, the other issue is that people do not understand how to drink it or what to drink it with. Lambruscos need to be drunk pretty quickly – within 6 to 12 months, so by the time it even arrives in your country, it’s getting past its best. It’s best enjoyed in Italy itself and with the correct foo

Tips for buying

  • The highest quality Lambrusco is generally made using the ancestral method or the more trendy way to call this is Pet Nat. The wine is bottled while it is still going through its first alcoholic fermentation. Look out for the bottle’s cork which looks a bit like a champagne cork but it will be attached with a metal clamp instead of a wire cage. The Metodo Ancestrale makes the wine frizzante, or lightly sparkling
  • Look for Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC which produces the region’s most highly regarded wines. 
  • Look at the label for Secco, Semisecco or Dolce depending on the style you want
  • It’s at its best when young, so go for new vintages

Wineries

  • Cantina Della Volta –  an hour away from Bologna, this winery is family-run and offers 4 different kinds of tour It’s easy to book online in English and is a really lovely winery
  • Chiarli –  this winery is right outside of Modena in a 19th-century villa surrounded by vineyards – you can even do a tour paired with a tasting of some of the area’s delicious cured meats

Other sparkling wines

  • We have just touched the sides here – there are so many sparkling wines out there
  • There is a new trend in Prosecco for Prosecco Rose and there is a new DOC – Prosecco Rose DOC. If you like Prosecco, but also Rose wines that’s definitely a fantastic choice to try
  • In Australia and the US, there is the trend of Pet Nat, which is essentially the same as the Ancestral Method of producing sparkling wine – with one fermentation that happens in the bottle. That’s a trend in Italy, too, so you can find lots of natural wines that are naturally sparkling. There’s one in Umbria that Liv loves called Cinino – a rose Pet Nat.
  • There are many, many other wines of the classical method a couple worth mentioning are Alta Langa in Piemonte and Trentodoc from Trentino-Alto Adige

Trying great regional sparkling wines in Rome

If your trip doesn’t allow you the opportunity to get out further into these wine regions, you can try them in some specialist places in various cities. 

Rome

  • Roscioli Rimesa is fantastic for its wine and food paired dinner. You get to try about six different wines from all over the country, paired with the dishes and they have a Sommelier explaining each wine as you drink it. If you’re into learning a bit more about wine, that would be the best choice
  • If you happen to be in the Testaccio neighborhood, we recommend Volpetti and Da Corrado at the market. Beautiful selection of wines. The people there, it’s very happy to explain all the different wines and help you choose the one you prefer

Florence

  • Volpi e l’Uva is a really nice wine bar with a selection from all over Italy
  • Il Santo Bevitore is connected to their restaurant, so you could pop in, have a glass of wine, and then wander over into the restaurant for dinner

Venice

  • Vino Vero is highly recommended. Just don’t ask them for a spritz there because they absolutely won’t serve a spritz under any circumstances

Visiting wineries

The places that we have listed here are used to having visitors from abroad, so the process is smooth and they are used to explaining the wines in English. If you really want to have a deeper exploration of wines it’s great to go out into the countryside and meet some of these winemakers.  All their stories are so different. Their passion has come from different places like family and the connection to the land. It’s a really beautiful way to explore Italian culture. An important part of our Untold Italy Tours is to go and meet these people and to understand at a very deep and intimate level how they feel about their wine, and how important it is to their family and community.

Heading to Torino?

Andrea is from Piemonte and Katy recently spent time in this region with Liv and Andre’s mum, including some time in the capital Torino(Turin). If you’re visiting Torino then be sure to check out their anti-pasta. They take aperitivo very seriously. They also enjoy good wine and it’s where vermouth was invented so it’s a great place to try a beautiful vermouth.

Learning more with Andrea and Liv

The wonderful website that Andrea and Liv are creating is Italian Wine Tales. You can follow them on Instagram for some more inspiration @italianwinetales, or join their new Facebook group ItalianWineLovers. You can connect with me on @livguine, or see me on an Untold Italy tour.

About our guests – Olivia Windsor and Andrea Mitti Rua

Olivia, an Australian who moved to Italy in May 2019, and Andrea, an Italian from Piemonte, Northern Italy are based in Rome and have recently launched the Italian wine site Italian Wine Tales, where you’ll find not only the best wines to try, but also information on all the Italian wine regions, the best wine tours and wine clubs you can join. Follow them for Italian wine inspiration on Instagram @italianwinetales or join their Facebook group Italian Wine Lovers.

Olivia writes a blog called Livguine, named after her love for pasta and her nickname Liv.  She has explored the country south to north, working in agriturismi and organic wineries before settling in Turin, Piedmont for a time after meeting a local Piemontese Andrea. They are both now based in Rome and Olivia hosts various Untold Italy Tours throughout the year in Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany Capri and Puglia.

You can find Liv and Andrea on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Le Langhe – a hilly area in the province of Asti in Piedmont, northern Italy
  • Friuli Venezia Giulia – region in north east Italy with the region capital city being Trieste
  • Treviso – the main city of the Prosecco region – a fantastic base for exploring the region
  • Franciacorta  – wine region near Lake Garda
  • Brescia – city in Lombardy
  • Lake Iseo – the fourth largest lake in Lombardy
  • Val Camonica – one of the largest valleys of the central Alps, in eastern Lombardy
  • Roscioli Rimessa – the ultimate destination in Rome for food and wine experiences
  • Volpetti – grocery store in Testaccio for great wine
  • Da Corrado – food and wine stall in Testaccio market
  • Volpi e l’Uva – wine bar in Florence
  • Il Santo Bevitore – wine bar in Florence connected to their great restaurant next door
  • Vino Vero – wine bar in Venice

Food & Drink

  • Barolo – famous Piedmont wine
  • Barbaresco – wine made with the Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont
  • Spumante – meaning sparkling wine
  • Metodo Classico the same as what’s known as the Traditional Method for champagne
  • Martinotti Charmat method – a method of making sparkling wine used for Prosecco
  • Glera – wine grape used for Processo
  • staying on the lees – means not moving the bottle, so that the lees (sediment) of wine that settles on the bottom of the bottle is not disturbed
  • sboccatura – the process of removing the yeast (lees) from the sparkling wine with metodo classico
  • Satèn – in Italian translates to silky or silken – is a particular type of Franciacorta wine
  • Erbamat – an old indigenous grape variety of the Franciacorta region that they are trying to bring back
  • Pet Nat (short for Pétillant Naturel) – refers to the sparkling wine made in the ancestral method
  • Trentodoc – sparkling wine made in Classic Method from Trentino-Alto Adige
  • Alta Langa – brut sparkling wine from Piemonte

Resources

  • WSET – the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Australia
  • AIS – the non-profit Associazione Italiana Sommelier (Italian Association of Sommeliers)
  • agrums – citrus

Resources from Untold Italy

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