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December 19, 2014

UNCORKED: Sparkling wines for every budget

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Posted: Friday, July 25, 2014 11:43 am | Updated: 4:29 pm, Tue Jul 29, 2014.

Of all the sparkling wines made in the world, Champagne is, hands down, the most famous.

It is perhaps dangerous to use the words “Champagne” and “sparkling wine” in the same sentence. Any Champenois will quickly explain that true Champagne comes only from the region of Champagne in France, and is quite unique and apart from mere sparkling wine.

In recent years, the Italian upstart Prosecco has making inroads. According to OVSE, The Italian Wine Observatory, in 2013 Prosecco outsold Champagne.

This wildly popular Italian sparkling wine comes from the Vento region of Prosecco and is made from the Prosecco grape (also known as glera).  

As Champagne dominates the sparkling wine category in France, Prosecco dominates in Italy – an interesting accomplishment for a wine that wasn’t listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary until 2008.

In Italy, like France, numerous sparkling wines are fashioned from almost ever grape varietal known to man.

Remember Asti spumante? That sparkling wine comes from the Piedmont region of Italy, and is made from the moscato grape. Asti is the name of the town. Spumante, meaning “fizzy,” is the style of the wine.

Asti spumante is made by numerous producers, but today “Asti” is featured more prominently on most labels. Some producers eliminate “spumante” entirely, adding “moscato” in front of the Asti, as in “moscato di Asti.”  

The attraction of both Asti and Prosecco is that they are attractively priced and pleasing to drink. These wines are made by the charmat process, in which wines are fermented in bulk in huge tanks. Carbon dioxide is pumped into the tanks to give these wines their fizz.

True Champagne production is much more labor-intensive. Each bottle goes through numerous processes, including an in-bottle secondary fermentation that gives Champagne its fizz.  

Unlike Champagne, Asti and Prosecco are not wines for aging. They are ready to consume upon release, and should be consumed when young.

Italy does produce a “methode traditionale” or “metodo classico,” as they say in Italy, using the same labor-intensive methods employed in making true Champagne.

“Franciacorta: Star of Milan High-Fashion Catwalks,” read the headline on a press release I recently received. “Who is Franciacorta?” I wondered. “A fashion designer to the Kardashians, perhaps?”  Further investigation led to a category of sparkling wine hitherto unknown to me.

Franciacorta (fran-chee-yah-kor-tah) is a small wine-producing area in the Lombardy area of Italy. Franciacorta is made using the same labor-intensive methods employed in making true Champagne. The grapes used are much the same as those used in Champagne, primarily chardonnay and pinot noir.

Similarly, Franciacorta-makers use the same descriptive terminology as Champagne-makers to describe levels of sweetness in their wines: brut, extra brut, extra dry and so forth.

Like Champagne, Franciacorta comes in an array of prices. Most are reasonably priced, but prices of special bottlings rival those commanded by Champagne.

Summer is an excellent time for light Italian sparklers that go with an array of summer fare, including fried okra. Consider hosting a tasting featuring three different Italian sparklers. Prosecco and Asti are abundantly available, but finding Franciacorta might take a bit of doing.

I recently tasted a Berlucchi Cuvee 61 Brut NV Franciacorta in the $20 range, available online from Zachy.com in New York. Made from a blend of 90 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot noir, I found it to be a light and sprightly wine with citrus aromas and flavors. Pleasant nose. Smooth finish. Lighter and perhaps less complex than Champagne, but an excellent and interesting sip.

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