WineInk: The many styles of Italian Sparklers
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Enrico Serafino Brut Alta Langa DOCG 2013
Not only do they taste great, but one of the best things about Italian sparklers is their affordability. This wine, which I would definitely put up against any number of French Champagne and California sparkling wines, has a suggested retail price of around $25 a bottle. And there are DOCG Prosecco wines in that range as well. The moral of the story is that if you love bubbles, especially Italian bubbles, there are bargains to be had. These are wines that one can purchase and drink with a meal, not just for a celebration.
Though a glass of bubbles can make any day feel like one.
It is with great good fortune that I can say I have been bitten by a bubbles bug this summer.
It was by no means intentional, it just kind of happened. An early summer birthday was celebrated with grower Champagne. A meeting with Gianluca Bisol, my favorite producer of Prosecco wines from the hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, was joyously serendipitous. Then the European sporting summer prompted a column on the official bubbles of victory.
But it was a bottle of sparkling wine from the northwest Italian Piedmont region shared with much conviviality with friends over a lemony dessert that inspired this column. The wine was fresh and floral. Though dry, there were hints of honey on the nose as well as fruits of the tropics and a whiff of lemon. It was the golden color, the dancing bubbles in the glass that got me. As we toasted with the wine it seemed a special occasion, as it had all of the attributes of a grand vintage Champagne. But it wasn’t Champagne, it was Italian.
The wine was an Enrico Serafino Brut Alta Langa DOCG 2013. As a DOCG wine, it carries the highest ranking in the Italian wine region pecking order (there are currently 75 such regions), and was made using what the Italians call the Metodo Classico. The same winemaking techniques used by the French to make Champagne that calls for a second fermentation in-bottle. A blend of 80% pinot nero (or pinot noir) and 20% chardonnay, the Serafino Brut Alta Langa mirrors the varieties most used in the Champagne region, some 500 miles to the north.
Many will likely know the Piedmont region for the amazing velvety red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. Barolo and Barbaresco are among the most sought-after wines on Earth. But the region also has a long history of sparkling wines. Asti Spumonte is a white sparkler made from the moscato blanco grape and Brachetto d’Acqui is a sweet red wine from the region that also has a hint of fizz.
The Alta Langa, translated “high hill,” is a very small but very special region in Piedmont that is devoted to the production of a very precise Champagne-style wine. The region sits south of Turin, near the UNESCO World Heritage vineyards of the Langhe. There are fewer than 30 producers making wine in the Alta Langa on less than 300 acres of vineyards, all of which must sit at or above the 250-meter, or 850-foot, elevation. Total production is less than 50,000 cases annually and the wines are designated by vintage.
The Enrico Serafino name is well known in Piedmont as the winery has been in operation for over 140 years. Established in 1878 by a pasta maker-turned winemaker, Enrico was fascinated by the winemaking techniques employed by the Champagne makers of France and decided to try to make wine from moscato grapes using the method. It set the stage for what would become one of the most interesting progressions in sparkling winemaking in Italy. While other Italian regions make wines using the same method, the Alta Langa is recognized as one of the premier sparkling wine regions in the nation. The Enrico Serafino winery is today owned by Kyle Krause, the CEO and president of the Iowa-based Kum & Go convenience stores and they, of course, also produce Barolo, Barbaresco and the other better-known wines of the region.
The Italians love to drink sparkling wine and, like most things about Italian wine, there are so many different regions and grapes and production techniques that it is hard for the average person to keep track. In addition to the wines made in the Metodo Classico method in Alta Langa, other types of sparklers are made using different methods for creating the magic of bubbles.
Prosecco is likely the most well-known and certainly the best-selling Italian sparkling wine in the U.S. It is made from a grape called glera. But perhaps most notably, it is made in the Charmet Method, where sugars and yeast are added to the wine in steel tanks and the conversion of the sugars to carbon dioxide, which makes the bubbles, takes place before the wines are bottled.
Then there are the aforementioned Asti Spumante sparkling wines from Piedmont and the berry-flavored, red and pink sparklers known as Lambrusco from the Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna regions. Both of which also are made using the Charmet method as well. And many love Franciacorta, which like Alta Langa, use pinot nero and chardonnay grapes and a second fermentation in bottles to make the wine.
Maddening? Yes, but that is part of the beauty of Italian sparkling wine. There is so much nuance, so many regional variations and so much character.
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.