Twenty years ago, prosecco was barely a blip on the radar of Italian sparkling wine. It was outgunned both at home and abroad by the original sparkling wine of Italy, Asti Spumante.
In the United States, producers such as Martini Rossi ran cheesy television advertising campaigns and sold vast quantities of the sweet sparkling wine, made with the moscato grape and pitched as the perfect partner to fruit desserts. Back in Italy, Asti received its DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, the top quality designation in Italian wines) back in 1993, compared to 1995 for the Franciacorta sparkling from Lombardy and just 2010 for prosecco.
How things change. Today, prosecco is the world’s biggest selling sparkling wine, with close to half a billion bottles sold last year and on course to double that again within the next decade. Sales of Asti, in comparison, stand at 80 million bottles today compared to 150 million a decade ago. Sales have fallen by 30 per cent over the last three years.
“The big Asti producers failed to evolve in the same way as prosecco,” Enrico Gobino says with a shrug. We are chatting over coffee at the Cuvage production facility in Piedmont, northern Italy, opened in 2011. Hot August sunshine is just rising over the hills behind us in the beautiful Roman spa town of Acqui Terme.
Cuvage, under winemaker Loris Gava, is part of a small band of producers in Piedmont not content to just look with dismay at prosecco’s rapid ascent, but to see the opportunity that it affords.
“Prosecco has focused the world’s attention on Italian success in sparkling wine,” says Gobino. “Sparkling wine production is one of the traditional arts of Piedmont. There is a great opportunity to us to restore our reputation in this area, if we focus on both quality and innovation.”
I could see his optimism after tasting the range of Cuvage wines, in particularly a mouthwateringly delicate sparkling Rosé d’Alba, one of the most impressive non-champagne sparkling rosés I can remember tasting. And there are plenty of other reasons to believe in the future of sparkling Piedmont wines. For a start, the name is increasingly alluring. Piedmont was recently the first Italian wine region to gain Unesco World Heritage recognition for the beauty of its landscape, and its barolo and barbaresco wines are among the most sought after reds in the world.
Asti, once dismissed as the poor man’s champagne, is undergoing its own makeover, dropping the Spumante from its name and bringing in new rules, just this month, that allow a drier style, called Asti secco (yes, the “secco” of Prosecco means dry) to meet the contemporary taste for crisper, cleaner wines. A good bottle of Asti now offers flavours of perfectly ripe peaches and apricots, rather than the cloyingly sweet styles of 20 years ago.
But there is another type of sparkling wine being made in the hills of Piedmont that should make even more of an impact over the coming years. If you want to get ahead of the crowds, look out for sparkling wines made in the metodo classico style. This means a second fermentation in bottle to create the bubbles (as with champagne producers), unlike Asti which keeps the entire fermentation process in tank, capturing the carbon dioxide bubbles as it goes along. Many of the best are being made under the DOCG Alta Langa label by producers of good-quality, usually red, wine such as Giulio Cocchi, Ettore Martini, Castello Banfi and Fontanafredda.
Around 15 producers bottle under the Alta Langa designation – Cuvage will be joining them this year – using mainly chardonnay and pinot nero (also known as pinot noir) grapes. Although these are the only two varieties allowed under Alta Langa, this is not the only place to look for interesting bottles. Many producers are increasingly finding excellent metodo classico results with Piedmont’s own indigenous grape varieties such as nebbiolo and cortese. These Piedmont sparklers are seriously worth exploring, with a minimum of 36 months ageing on the lees to get the best depth of flavour, combined with fresh acidities natural to a mountainous wine region. I visited the brilliant GD Vajra a few months ago and was blown away by what they are doing.
“Alta Langa and sparkling Piedmont in general has a history dating back at least 200 years but has always produced only small quantities and never made as much impact as it should have,” says Gobino. “This time around, our plans are much more ambitious.”
Three bottles worth searching for
Nostra Signora Della Neve Metodo Classico Rosé Vajra
A blend of 50/50 nebbiolo and pinot noir made in extra brut style. Beautifully pale in colour, crisp and tight on the palate, the floral overtones keeps the fruit fresh rather than sweet, even though there is clear ripeness here. Think rosehips meets redcurrants. 12 per cent alcohol by volume. 93/100
Acquesi 100% Cortese DOC Piemonte
Clear emphasis on the fruit, this asti-style wine from Cuvage is full of soft peaches with some green apple grip that gives lift. With 16 grams of residual sugar, it is dry for the style, beautifully aromatic, easy to drink with a lovely lilting finish. 11 per cent alcohol by volume. 89/100
Cuvage Metodo Classico DOC Rosé d’Alba
Easily one of my favourite sparkling rosés, this has the gentle complexity that is so hard to find in rosé wines and yet combines this with serious character and finesse. Only free-run juice from 100 per cent nebbiolo grapes, grown in the Barolo region and aged on the lees for 24 months. 94/100