What to drink when not drinking Champagne

Paolo Endrici of Endrizzi winery with his wife Christine and their daughter Lisa Maria and son Daniele

 

Italy’s popularity as a fizzy wine country is increasing on the back of widespread distribution of Prosecco and a growing interest by top-end consumers in traditional method sparkling wines spearheaded by Franciacorta and Trentodoc.

 

 

 

Photo credit: Portrait of Walter Webber: Courtesy of the Consorzio Trentodoc, Alice Russolo. 

 

The international bubbly scene has never been so exciting. English fizz is challenging Champagne’s long-term monopoly, US wineries in California, Washington State, New Mexico and Oregon are increasingly investing in sparkling wines, and the so-called King Valley’s Prosecco Road is bursting with Australian wine lovers. Italy is holding its own too. Its popularity is spreading across the world thanks to Prosecco’s pleasant drinkability and impressive numbers whilst the peninsula’s many traditional method sparkling appellations provide the inquisitive and demanding consumer with a wide range of wines to choose from. Led by Franciacorta and Trentodoc wines from the Alps, the list of high-end Italian fizz also features the small Alta Langa Doc appellation and even smaller Durello made with the eponymous native grape, along with the aromatic Asti and Oltrepò Pavese focusing on Pinot Noir.

 

Critical mass at last

Both Trentodoc and Franciacorta are entirely devoted to the production of traditional method sparkling wine, a fact that has definitely helped their communication abroad. Located around the town of Trento in the Alps, the Trentodoc appellation has over a century of history and a demure personality which is part of the charm of this small wine region. “Sparkling wine from the mountains” is Trentodoc’s tag-line and the mountain climate undoubtedly plays a central role in developing both highly aromatic profiles and freshness. Franciacorta is a young appellation which has managed to reach high average standards and noticeable popularity in a short space of time, thanks partly to an intense marketing and promotional campaign – Franciacorta was the official wine at Expo 2015. Ultimately, this has paved the way for a critical mass of traditional method Italian sparkling wines, finally attracting the attention of foreign markets and redefining Italy’s reputation - from a country of great reds, it has morphed into a country of great reds and some great bubbles.

 

Trentodoc, sparkling wine from the mountains

Awarded the Doc in 1993, the story of Trentodoc actually started many years before, in the first decade of the 20th century when Giulio Ferrari, following a visit to the Champagne region, came back and decided to plant Chardonnay. His intuition marked the beginning of a story not only for a single estate, Cantine Ferrari, but also for the whole region. Nowadays, the appellation includes 47 wineries producing 8 million bottles from 800 hectares. Four grape varieties can be used: Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot blanc and Pinot meunier, with Chardonnay the flagship variety and the latter two only used in small amounts. Trentodoc has to age for at least 15 months on the lees, whereas Millesimato requires 24 months and Riserva 36 months, although many producers age the wine longer, for up to ten years. The appellation also includes the Rosé version of Trentodoc, Millesimato and Riserva which has lately got many a consumer hooked.

 

Booming Franciacorta 

Over 17 million bottles of Franciacorta were produced in 2016 by 117 producers over 2,800 hectares located around Brescia, in Lombardy. Awarded the Docg in 1995, Franciacorta is made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir with a maximum 50% Pinot Blanc and maximum 10% Erbamat, a native variety recently allowed for its later-ripening and high-acidity attributes in order to counter the effects of climate change. The minimum ageing period on the lees required by law for Franciacorta is 18 months, 24 for Rosé and Satèn, 30 for Millesimato and 60 for Riserva. Rosé is produced from a maximum two thirds of Chardonnay and at least one third Pinot Noir, and, should the producer so wish, Pinot Blanc and Erbamat. Satèn is a creamy version typical of Franciacorta – the name is a registered trademark. The lower atmospheric pressure (4.5 atm versus a standard 6) produces a silkier effect on the palate, created by the use of white grapes only; it is only available in the Brut version (below 12 g/l residual sugar).

 

Italian alternatives to Champagne

Although some well-known Trentodoc estates such as Ferrari and Endrizzi have always been export-oriented, “foreign markets have really only opened up to smaller Trentodoc estates and to other Italian traditional method sparkling wines in the last 5 years” reveals Lucia Letrari, owner and wine maker at the eponymous winery in Rovereto, Trento. “The credit goes to some great brands promoting the “made in Italy” stamp abroad and showing that Italian style is more than just Prosecco” she believes. “We have noticed a change in the perceptions of both opinion leaders and consumers, partly thanks to international awards. In many countries people are looking for a top-end alternative to Champagne” claims Marcello Lunelli, deputy chairman and winemaker at Cantine Ferrari, which in both 2015 and 2017 was named Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championship. “Consumers’ interest and knowledge are increasing and this paves the way for the promotion of Italian sparkling wines like Franciacorta” says Lucia Paladin CEO of Castello Bonomi.

 

The role of export sales

Franciacorta exports roughly 10% of total production whereas Trentodoc reached 20% in 2017. This means 2 million bottles each, with a growth rate of 10% for both appellations. Japan accounts for 22% of total Franciacorta exports, followed by Switzerland, Germany and the US, with the four countries totalizing over 60% of sales. The highest increase rates were registered by Sweden (+514%), Norway, the US and Japan. “We have also received good response from Singapore, Canada (Quebec) and Scandinavia whereas the US market works mainly on a price point approach” explains Mario Falcetti, winemaker and director at Quadra winery in Franciacorta. “We export 20% of our production” states Maurizio Zanella, owner of well-known Franciacorta estate Ca’del Bosco, “with Japan absorbing 18% of exports, Germany 17% and the US 10%”. Asian countries now also represent the most interesting market for the Trento Doc, as confirmed by Walter Webber, managing director of Aldeno winery, where constant investments have been made abroad since 2010, and by Marcello Lunelli whose rosés are highly appreciated in Japan.

 

 

Walter Webber managing director of Aldeno winery. Courtesy of the Consorzio Trento Doc, ph. credit Alice Russolo

 

A weak spot for rosé

Rosé is helping sales of both Trentodoc and Francicorta. “Our Piancastello Rosé, from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay aged 60 months on the lees is always the first wine to be sold out” says Lisa Maria Endrici, Brand Ambassador and 5th generation of the Endrici family who runs Endrizzi winery. “My father told me that even back in the 1960s rosé was a trendy product but subject to sudden rises and falls. Despite this, we have always believed in it and we produce a Rosé and a Rosé Riserva aged for 36 and 72 months” says Lucia Letrari. Franciacorta Rosé versions tend to have a lower amount of residual sugar. This is true at Quadra for its Q Rosé Brut (3 g/lt) from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for Castello Bonomi Lucrezia Rosé (2 g/lt) from 100% Pinot Noir as well as for Ca’del Bosco Annamaria Clementi Rosé (no dosage) from 100% Pinot Noir.

 

 

The typical pergola trentina system

Top Picks

The greatest results achieved by Trentodoc are embodied by the Blanc the Blancs – where Chardonnay, Trentodoc’s flagship variety, can fully express itself – along with Pas Dosé and Extra Brut versions whose low amount of sugar enhances aromatic complexity and terroir character. The personality of Franciacorta, where more and more wineries are choosing to reduce residual sugar, is represented by some masterful cuvées, including 100% Pinot Noir Rosé and the typical Satèn.

 

By Irene Graziotto