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I went to Rome recently, and while there I was able to try a glass of Franciacorta, a methode traditionelle style sparkling wine from the Lombardy region. Words almost fail to describe how amazing this wine was. It had that wonderful slightly sweet dried cut grass aroma with a delicate taste of lavender, white peaches, and toasted almonds. At the lunch where I had it I tasted things as varied as eel, rabbit, and a gloriously eggy carbonara, and the Franciacorta somehow managed to work with every single dish. After returning home, I couldn’t wait to try to find something similar to drink for the summer. This proved more difficult than anticipated. Part of my problem stems from living in Pennsylvania and having a limited selection in state stores, but even if you’re spoiled for choice, it can be hard to tell if you’re looking at a good sparkling wine or one of those overly sweet bottles that has kind of ruined the reputation of Italian wines. I decided a short primer on label phrases to look for, wines and regions to watch out for, and pairing suggestions is exactly what we need to help make Italian sparkling wines the new refreshing drink of the summer.
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One of the best ways to ensure that you are getting a quality bottle of any Italian wine is to check if the bottle lists geographical indications such as Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), Denominazione di Origine Controlata (DOC), or Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). These indicate that the wine comes from one of the special designated wine zones regarded as producing the best wines in the country. DOCG being the best, followed by DOC, IGT, and finally plain Vino. More specifically relevant to determining if a sparkling wine is one you’ll enjoy, are the terms Frizzante, Spumante, Secco, and Dolce. Frizzante is a delicate, lightly sparkling wine. Spumante is fully sparkling. Secco means that the wine is dry, and Dolce indicates that it will be sweet.
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Piedmont, a region sandwiched between the Alps and the Apennines is one of the best wine regions in Italy, and it is the home of three types of sparkling wine. In the southwestern portion of the region they make Asti (formerly Asti Spumante) and Moscato d’Asti which are made from Moscato grapes. Typically Asti is made by the Charmat, or tank method, which involves crushing the grape must, chilling it almost to the point of freezing, and then fermenting it in batches in pressurized sealed tanks that trap the naturally occurring carbon dioxide, which in turn, becomes the carbonation in the wine. When the Asti reaches 7 to 9 percent alcohol and has only 3 to 5 percent remaining residual sugar, the wine is chilled, put through a pressure resistant filter to remove remaining yeasts, and bottled. Although poorly made exports have given both a reputation for sticky sweetness, Asti and Asti Spumante are both beautifully refreshing wines with a low alcohol content and a wonderful flavor of reminiscent of fresh apricots and peaches. Both should be served well chilled. Asti is fully spumante, so the preferred serving vessel is a tall flute, but Moscato d’Asti is simply frizzante and thus is better served in a normal wine glass. As the Piedmont region is famous for both white truffles and fresh tagliatelle pasta, I can’t imagine a better pairing for an Asti than making a Piedmontese riff on cacio e pepe with some white truffle-infused butter and grana padano and tagliatelle in place of the typical Roman pecorino and spaghetti…except perhaps some pumpkin stuffed agnolotti drizzled in a sage-infused brown butter.
Piedmont’s other well-known sparkling wine is a beautiful lightly sparkling red called Brachetto. This wine is a low-alcohol frizzante with light floral notes and fresh black cherry and red berry flavors. Brachetto has the additional benefit of being one of the few reds in the world that genuinely pairs well with chocolate, as the low alcohol and tannin levels mean it won’t fight with the tannins in the chocolate. Chill your brachetto and serve it after dinner with a mix of good dark and milk chocolates, and summer fruit. If you want to get fancy, make a chocolate bark by spreading melted dark chocolate on parchment paper and sprinkling it with crushed freeze-dried raspberries and pistachios to highlight the red fruit flavors in the brachetto.
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Veneto is the wine region around Venice, and the home of Italy’s most famous sparkling wine, Prosecco. Prosecco is primarily made from the regionally specific glera grape varietal (formerly called Prosecco) using the same Charmat process as the Asti and Moscato d’Asti. Occasionally it will also contain small amounts of pinot bianco, pinot grigio, or regional varietals like verdiso. Typically, the best prosecco comes from the Prosecco Superiore DOCG region right to the north of Venice. While most proseccos are made from grapes from various locations and vintages, if you want to ensure a certain level of quality control, look for the phrase “rive” on the bottle. A Prosecco Rive is made from a single town and vintage. Almost all proseccos you’ll find these days are dry spumantes with a light fruity flavor and a touch of bitterness from the glera grapes. As a nod to the fact that the Bellini was invented in Venice using prosecco and white peach juice, I like to serve my prosecco with a white peach granita or sorbet if I can find it. If I’m feeling more savory, I find it pairs well with a Venetian cicchetti like bruschetta spread with some lemony crushed fava beans and shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
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The Lombardy wine region specializes in two dry sparkling wines: franciacorta and cruasé. Franciacorta and cruasé are made using the method traditionelle, which is the way one describes the champagne fermentation process when talking about wines not made in the Champagne region. Franciacorta is generally a white wine made from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes like actual champagne, although occasionally the winemakers will include local pinot bianco grapes. It typically has a bone-dry taste and a frothy head of bubbles. Cruasé is a spumante rosé made from pinot noir grapes. Both franciacorta and cruasé are DOCG’s so if you find a bottle, it’s bound to be good. Much like champagne, the dry bubbly characteristics of the franciacorta and cruasé make it a perfect pairing for almost any food you’d try to pair it with. Something like an earthy shitake mushroom risotto or a fatty, guanciale speckled pasta amatriciana would go beautifully with either of these wines.
Emiliana Romagna is typically considered the food capital of Italy and really isn’t known for their wines. With one big exception...Lambrusco. That instinctive cringe you feel when you read that sentence is the result of sweetened mass-produced commercial Lambruscos that somehow made up the bulk of US Lambrusco imports for decades. While some people are still producing wines like that, Lambrusco can be so much more. More often than not, Lambruscos are dry, but while all Lambruscos are technically made of the Lambrusco grape, there are at least thirteen distinctive varieties of grape featuring the word Lambrusco in the name, so the exact definition of what the wine should be can get tricky. There are three main varieties: Lambrusco di Sorbara, which tends towards the floral, Lambrusco Grasparossa, which tends to be more tannic than the others, and Lambrusco Salaminio, which grows in oblong clusters that slightly resemble a salami. The quickest way to determine if a Lambrusco you’re looking to purchase is going to be to your taste, is to examine the label for either the word secco or amabile. As I mentioned earlier, secco means dry. Amabile translates to lovely in Italian and when used for lambrusco, it means the wine will be sweet. In either case, the Lambrusco should be enjoyed young and served chilled in a standard white wine glass. A perfect pairing with a lambrusco secco is another regional specialty, pasta bolognese. As with all sparkling wines, lambrusco has the acidity and effervescence to cut through the richness of the ragu without fighting or overpowering it. Lambrusco is also the perfect pairing for a cheese board featuring Emilia Romagna specialties like Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, and fresh or dried figs.
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Next time you’re out shopping for wine, take a chance on a sparkling Italian wine. It just might be your new favorite wine of the summer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristy Kingan is a research analyst at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by day and a complete wine geek by night. She completed the first level of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2016 and is particularly interested in wines from Central and Eastern Europe