By Celia Strong
Well, this weekend is a big holiday. Family, friends, food and, yes, wine. Our job today is to find some special wines to help celebrate. (Please tell me you noticed that you now have this job too! Nice to be included in the drinking work isn’t it?) Just for the fun of it, and because of the variety that’s available, I thought we’d look at some bubbles from Italy. Bubbles always seem to help spread the joy of special occasions and keep us in good moods for a bit longer. And Italy has good bubbles at mostly more than reasonable prices and from several grapes varieties so that there are flavors and styles for all of us.
To start our work, let’s sort out some of the most common names and terms we’ll be using. (From this point on you can use these words like pros. It comes with your new job of doing this!). “Spumante” is the Italian word for sparkling. Sparkling refers to any wine with bubbles in it regardless of where it comes from. All Italian wines with bubbles, every one of them, are sparkling wines, spumantes, but none of them are Champagne because that is a legally designated region of France. Only wines made in that region from grapes grown in that region can be called Champagne. And every country in Europe that is a member of their EOC recognizes and follows this law.
In Champagne, all the bubbles in the wine come from a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle. This is the most expensive way to create bubbles because of the time and labor involved. It is generally agreed that these are the best bubbles (the smallest and most numerous). Other methods for getting bubbles into wine include a second fermentation in bulk tanks where the wine is bottled after and bulk injection of CO2 gas, under pressure, that makes very large bubbles that escape much more quickly once the wine is poured. (You may have noticed more burping when drinking this style of wine. Easy escape!)
For years, the best known Italian sparkling wine was “Asti Spumante.” Asti is a town in northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region. So, clearly, the wine’s name referred to where it came from and that it was bubbly. (Italian wine laws declare that these wines are made in their town from grapes grown there.) Ten years ago or so, the labels on these wines were simplified to just “Asti.” This caused a bit of confusion because most of us used to call the wine just “spumante” like we were using just its last name. Wines labeled “Asti” are made with the Champagne process (meaning the second fermentation in the bottle). The grape used to make “Asti” is Moscato.
Moscato in the last five years or so has become an extremely popular category of wine in the United States. (Italians as a group are known to enjoy sweeter wines, and yes, Americans too have palates that lean toward sweetness.) The majority of these wines are fruitier, almost sweet and lightly fizzy. By Italian wine law, again, Moscato d’Asti wines are made from the best Moscato grapes in Asti, and bottled before the first fermentation is completely finished. This allows for some residual sweetness to remain in the wine and a slight fuzziness to form in the wine in the bottle. These wines have regular corks though because the bubbles have way less pressure. Also, because the first fermentation is cut short, they are lower alcohol wines. Because of the huge popularity of these wines, they are now available from all over Italy and most other countries as well. (Only the ones from Asti can use the town name. All the others just use the grape name.) Some are sweeter than others, some have no fizziness. Like any other big group of wines, there are all kinds of variations now so everybody can find one they like.
The tradition of putting a strawberry in your glass of bubbly comes from this wine. Moscato grapes have a tremendous affinity for strawberries. Which means, as our local strawberries ripen, we need to get a bottle of Moscato d’Asti, some big, red, ripe, sweet strawberries and sit back and enjoy them. My favorite for this spring ritual is Villa Rosa — at $12.99 a bottle it’s well priced. (Like all other wines, these come in a range of prices.). Villa Rosa Moscato d’Asti has the DOCG rating, the highest for Italian wines. This winery dates back to 1934 and produces a wide range of delicious wines. Their Moscato’s flavors are light and crisp, apricots, peaches, honeydew, citrus, floral. All very pleasant but especially so with fresh strawberries on a holiday weekend.
About the same time that Moscatos were becoming big, wine publications started doing a lot of articles on another Italian bubbly — Prosecco. For years now this, too, has been a growing category for anyone looking for a good but reasonably priced bubbly. Interestingly, this wine usually comes in Dry and Extra Dry. (Neither one of these is as dry as Brut — again leaning toward a less dry/sweeter style.) I know we’ve talked about Prosecco not too long ago, so I don’t want to repeat too much. But here are the basics: These wines come from the Veneto region in northeastern Italy, around the city of Venice. There is a well-known cocktail from there made from sparkling Prosecco and juice from the locally grown white peaches, the Bellini.
Although we don’t see them here, Prosecco wines in Italy can be both still and sparkling. The still wines can range from very dry to sweeter, just not quite dessert wine sweet. Technically, sparkling (or “spumante” as us pros know now) Proseccos are mostly made by a bulk second fermentation. This is a part of why they are so well priced. When I drink a Prosecco, I go to the Lamberti. This winery is located on the shore of Lake Garda which I hear is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. This wine is a medium-bodied Prosecco with citrus, melon, blanched almond and perfume notes. Always a treat at $14.99 a bottle.
And, not to be left out, we have to mention a rose bubbly. Lamberti has one that is made from one-third Pinot Blanc, one-third Pinot Noir and one-third Raboso ( a local variety). This wine is a beautiful medium pink color that just makes you feel good when you look at a glass of it. Another holiday treat at $14.99, especially for ham dinners.
So, now we have a mountain of information, known as work. And three Italian spumantes to enjoy all of it with. Except for the sipping, and of course holiday celebrating, our job is done. But note, the sipping part of the job is really the most important. We just use the all the other stuff to keep us professional. Happy Holidays. Enjoy!