Chardonnay and pinot noir, plus a bit of pinot blanc, are the most important grapes, but some Franciacorta winemakers, worried about global warming, are beginning to embrace the native white grape Erbamat, which has a longer growing period than chardonnay and maintains high acidity even when the grapes get very ripe. (Bloomberg/File)
The Prosecco boom is real: Sales are projected to reach 412 million bottles annually by 2020, up from 150 million a decade ago.
But, ho-hum, that’s old news.
Time to move on to what’s next: under-the-radar, world-class bubblies from Northern Italy’s Franciacorta and Trentino regions. Unlike populist Prosecco, these are made with the same grapes and labor-intensive method used in Champagne, which gives them similar style and elegance but at a much lower price on average than their French counterparts. Their quality keeps getting better, too, thanks to avant-garde winemakers pushing organic viticulture techniques.
These wines have been overlooked because the regions are small and little of what they produced was making it out of the country. That’s changing, however. Worldwide demand for sparkling wine is on the rise, and Italian producers see an opportunity to capitalize on Prosecco’s popularity in the U.S. and U.K. As both large and small producers of other wines focus on quality, importers are seeking them out. Online retailers have added more labels in the U.S., and wine shops have started stocking a few of the brands. (Check Wine Searcher for availability near you.)
Franciacorta is the name of both the region and the wine. Compared to Champagne, which produces about 300 million bottles annually, the 117 wineries in Franciacorta make fewer than 20 million bottles a year and export a mere 11 percent of that. Trentodoc, the trademark for Trentino’s sparkling wines, is even smaller: Just 51 producers will pump out 8 million to 9 million bottles a year, exporting 20 percent. And neither region boasts wineries with the centuries-old tall-tale history of a monk “drinking stars” like the legendary Dom Perignon in Champagne.
But vineyards have been in both places for centuries, even though Franciacorta’s serious sparkling wine lineage only dates to the 1960s. Franciacorta, about an hour from the fashion hub of Milan, is in the foothills of the Alps near Lago d’Iseo, where the artist Christo created a floating pier spectacle two years ago. The high-altitude Trentodoc lies in the shadows of the craggy Dolomite mountains, northeast of Lake Garda. The modern history of sparkling wines in this region goes back to 1902, when the now-famous Ferrari winery (no relation to the maker of sports cars) planted chardonnay grapes.
Chardonnay and pinot noir, plus a bit of pinot blanc, are the most important grapes, but some Franciacorta winemakers, worried about global warming, are beginning to embrace the native white grape Erbamat, which has a longer growing period than chardonnay and maintains high acidity even when the grapes get very ripe.
Both regions make a variety of styles, but Franciacorta also has its own all-white grape blend labeled satèn (“silk” in Italian). It’s creamier, with a softer effervescence and is meant as an aperitivo.
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The bubbles get into the wine via the metodo classico, the same way they do it in Champagne. The base wine is bottled with yeast and a small amount of sugar to create a second fermentation, trapping CO2 in the bottle, and the wine is aged for 15 months to 60 months. In Franciacorta, most winemakers are starting to use very little or no of sugar before release. Labeled “zero dosaggio” or “nature,” these wines have extra energy and purity.
What all this means is that these wines doesn’t taste like Champagne. They are fresh and lively, but also riper, with less edgy acidity and more creamy peach and pear flavors. Here are nine of my favorites.