Italy is doing pretty darn well in the sales stakes, it is the number three country of origin for sparkling wine. In 2010, Italian sparkling wine sales in the UK were up 19% set against a relatively flat sparkling market where sales were up just 1% (although the UK still sells more Cava and Champagne).
Prosecco has captured the world’s imagination in much the same way as Pinot Grigio has, and sales are rocketing. A Wine Intelligence report released last year showed that 15% of the nation’s 28 million regular wine drinkers now enjoy Prosecco, up from 8% in 2007.
Prosecco has tapped into a different market, consumers say they like the drink, because it is pleasant-tasting, low cost, but has a sophisticated image – it offers something different for those who find Champagne too acidic or expensive.
Prosecco isn’t the only sparkling wine from Italy. There are a range of different styles Muscat based Asti and Moscato d’Asti, the much imitated Lambrusco and traditional method premium sparkling wine – Franciacorta.
Prosecco is both a grape variety and a region. It is a white grape variety native to the Veneto, in north east of Italy, which enjoys a moderate continental climate with alpine influence and cold winters.
It has enjoyed phenomenal success in the past ten years, sales are up year on year and the UK is the number three market for Prosecco.
As a grape it is rather neutral and enjoys high yields, it is often harvested late. It is produced using the tank method to retain the fresh fruit flavours and is often off-dry or medium-dry in style.
In 2009 Prosecco achieved DOCG status for the region based around Conegliano-Valdobbiadene with the wider Prosecco region elevated from IGT to DOC status. There is one cru – a 1,000 ft high hill called Cartizze, it covers just 260 acres. There, 190 producers make 1 million bottles of very fine Prosecco from this cool subregion – a hectare of Cartizze land is worth in excess of 1 million US dollars.
As part of the shakeup of the Prosecco rules, if it says Prosecco on the bottle it must come from Prosecco and anyone growing the grape outside of Prosecco delimited area will have to call the grape by its synonym – the not so attractive sounding ‘Glera’. Rosé Prosecco is also now outlawed.
The changes aim to protect brand ‘Prosecco’, by preventing cheap imitations and improving the quality. Yields have been massively slashed in the Prosecco DOC down from 180 to 126 hectolitres per hectare – and new quality controls have been introduced on vineyards and vinification.
The rules are being enforced and a year after they were introduced a shipment of ‘Rosecco’ destined for M&S shelves was seized by the Italian authorities for imitating Prosecco.
Prosecco can be fully sparkling – spumante or gentle sparkling frizzante and even still.
Asti used to be known as Asti Spumante but when elevated to DOCG status along with Moscato d’Asti in 1993, Asti Spumante became simply Asti.
Asti is a mountainous town and province in Piedmont, North East Italy. It enjoys a continental climate, and is planted in the coolest plots of land on calcareous clay soils.
Much like Champagne, the land here is divided into many little parcels and individual growers will supply the Négociant Houses which dominate production.
Both Asti and Moscato d’Asti are made from Moscato Bianco (otherwise known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains)
Asti denotes a fully sparkling wine and is made using a variation on the tank method.
The muscato bianco juice is stored at 0⁰C to protect the fresh fruit character.
It is fermented in pressure tanks to about 6% abv before pressure is built up and the carbon dioxide from the final 1.5% abv is retained to create a pressure of approximately 5 atmospheres. Alternatively, a little of the carbon dioxide is retained from the very beginning and the pressure reaches about 5 atmospheres when the alcohol level reaches 7.5% abv.
Fermentation is halted by chilling the wine down, the yeasts are filtered and removed along with any nitrogenenous nutrients to ensure the end product is biologically stable despite the high levels of fermentable sugar remaining.
Moscato d’Asti is quite a different wine to Asti – it is a lightly fragrant, frothing wine from Piedmont. It has a third of the pressure of an Asti (max 1.7 atmospheres) whereas an Asti is fully sparkling. It has a less powerful aroma and is more delicate in flavour than an Asti. It is also considerably lower in alcohol – 5.5% compared to between 7-9.5% for Asti.
The best and ripest moscato grapes are used to produce a Moscato d’Asti and by law the minimum potential alcohol level must by 10% (Asti requires 9%). The wine is classed as partially fermented grape must and the juice is chilled and filtered immediately after pressing and fermented when required to ensure the aromas are not lost. Fermentation is interrupted as the wine reaches 5.5% alcohol.
Moscato’ d’Asti is a tiny proportion of the wine made in Piedmont, Asti’s 75 million bottles per year dwarf Moscato d’Asti 3 million bottles.
Martini-Rossi, owned by Bacardi, is a major brand of Asti and has doubled its investment in the brand in the past year or so.
Franciacorta was made a DOCG in 1995 and introduced a tough new set of standards to make the grade. Yields were reduced, vine density increased (min 4,000 vines per hectare), Pinot Grigio eliminated, fractional pressing – to separate the finest from the coarsest wines – insisted upon across the board, and 25 months minimum lees ageing introduced (37 months for reserve wines).
It has limited recognition in the UK, partly because of its size – it produces 10.3 million bottles annually and most never leave Northern Italy. Franciacorta played host to the European Wine Bloggers conference just last month which will no doubt go some way to improving its recognition in the UK and Europe.
Franciacorta reaches a significantly higher average price point than other Italian sparkling wines and is closer price-wise to Champagne territory.
It is grown in a warm Mediterranean climate, on the fertile alluvial soils of Central Italy mainly around the three central provinces of Modena, Parma and Reggio nell’Emilia (Emilia-Romagna)
It was supremely popular in the US and Europe in the 1980s but has suffered from cheap imitations many of which aren’t actually wines – like Halewood’s Lambrini – actually a perry not a wine and a raft of non-DOC Lambrusco which has an alcohol level too low to qualify as a wine and is sweet, partially fermented grape must which can be white, rosé or red.
Nonetheless, Lambrusco has 4 DOCs; Lambruso di Sorbara is regarded as the best and can include wines made using the traditional method. Other DOCs include Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambruso Salamino di Santa Croce, Lambrusco Reggiano.
Today, production is dominated by co-ops and Lambrusco has become a fairly standardised product created in industrial quantities using the tank method and with heavy filtration, stabilisation and even pasteurisation stripping away character.
Most DOC Lambrusco is sold dry or off-dry and has high acidity and a sour cherry flavour, it is a frothing red wine designed to be drunk young. Very little artisan bottle fermented Lambrusco is made any more where it is found it is usually off-dry or medium-sweet.