Italy’s Sparkling Wine Paradox


The holidays aren’t coming; they are here. The number one thing on consumers' minds as they look to buy for their wine-loving friends, fill glasses with vinous pleasures through upcoming parties or pair with the elaborate meals that are on the horizon? Sparkling wine. Unfortunately, Italian sparklers, no matter how good they are, face two very big challenges. The first being the uptick in quality of affordable grower NV Champagne, and the second being the incredible success of generic, and often inexpensive, Prosecco. 

The categories of Franciacorta, Trentodoc and, more recently, Alta Langa, fall victim to the first issue, as they strive to create wines that are often seen by the majority of the public as a Champagne alternative. The fact is that there are many producers in Italy that are creating bubbles through metodo classico (méthode champenoise) using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Blanc, often with extended bottle aging on the lees, which can easily compare and often outpace the wines produced by their French counterparts. The problem is price, or quality-to-price ratio, and the hundreds of years of branding that the Champagne region has established. A perfect example of this can be witnessed by nearly any wine lover when they open a great bottle of Franciacorta, pour it for friends that know a thing or two about sparkling wine, and watch as they both swoon but then complain about the price of said bottle. The unfortunate reality is that, for producers of metodo classico wines in Italy, the days of good NV Champagne being out of reach for the average consumer are over because of the number of excellent grower Champagnes that are available today. What this means is that, to corner a piece of the market for themselves, the wines of Franciacorta, Trentodoc and Alta Langa have to not only deliver, but overdeliver within their price points. Granted, I’m speaking in very general terms, as a number of wines and wineries from my recent tastings were absolutely stunning, world-class examples from the Extra Dry, to the Brut, to the Brut Nature categories. These wines will stand up to some of the best bubblies from around the world and provide an amazing amount of pleasure, but they are the exception, not the norm. Generally speaking, Franciacorta continues to prove its quality and importance, while Trentodoc comes across as the underdog that’s watching anxiously to take the lead. Last, but not least, Alta Langa is slowly establishing that consumers should be paying more attention to them. 

Which brings us to Prosecco, a category where the only things holding it back is their own success and stereotyping. When a glass of Prosecco is ordered in a restaurant, does anyone ask what the brand is? Does anyone question what the style is? Does anyone think to ask where it came from? The fact that most people, other than the truly devoted, don’t think to ask any of these questions. Because of that, consumers are missing out on one of the largest surges in quality taking place in Italy today. While the amount of mass-produced, just palatable, sweet and bubbly Prosecco continues to sell out through the holidays, there is an entire other level of quality and site-specific wines out there, made by passionate growers, at much lower quantities and at only a slightly higher tariff. We’re talking about the cru bottles of the Rive designation from the hillsides of Conegliano Valdobbiandene, as well as Asolo and Cartizze. We’re talking about Prosecco that sometimes clocks in at zero grams of residual sugar per liter, but also a revolution of the Extra Dry category that creates the ideal balance of sugar, acid and terroir to create wines that speak with soul. These are the bottles that you open for your wine-loving friends and watch their jaws drop as you explain how much they cost. Will you find them at your corner wine and liquor store? No. However, looking for them will be time well spent. Frankly, I’m wondering just how far these artisan producers can push the needle, and if one day we’ll be comparing a Rive di Soligo to a Rive di Rolle as we do with cru expressions from other regions.

In the end, the sparkling wines of Italy continue to increase in quality, as can be seen from the diversity of wines in this report. In addition, more and more producers around the country are trying their hands at Metodo Classico and Metodo Ancestrale-produced wines, and often with the indigenous varieties of their own region. This creates a vast selection of unique and often-wonderful experiences to be had, at what can be an incredible value - you just need to know where to look. 

All of the wines in this article were tasted in December at our offices in New York City. Due to the recent global slowdown in shipping there are a number of producers that could not be included here.

© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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