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Ciao, Champagne

Italy's traditional Proseccos and new-guard spumantes want to give French sparkling wines the boot.

Italian sparkling wines? Yuck, I used to think, remembering the cloyingly sweet Lambruscos and Asti Spumantes that I tasted as a child at my Italian grandparents' table. Once I discovered Champagne, I never looked back. Not until recently, that is, when I found out how good some Italian sparkling wines have become, thanks largely to a number of Italian producers who are using the same grapes and techniques as their counterparts in France's Champagne region.

Indeed, Champagne sets the quality standard--a standard being met most successfully in Franciacorta. This hilly region of Lombardy, not far from Milan, is home to such stellar méthode champenoise producers as Bellavista, Berlucchi and Ca' del Bosco. Bellavista employs the Champagne method with such grapes as Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), inducing a secondary fermentation in the bottle, where the wine is aged for up to six years. The result is rich, elegant and powerful wines whose international style has helped Franciacorta producers win the right to call their sparkling wines Franciacortas and to ban the traditional Italian term for a sparkling wine, spumante, from their labels.

On the other hand, Pojer e Sandri has turned out an equally ambitious méthode champenoise wine that proudly bears the traditional name Pojer e Sandri Spumante Extra Brut Cuvée 1993/1994. This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Nero from the Trentino region encapsulates what I find best about Italian sparkling wines: charm, accessibility and generosity of spirit.

But as good as these méthode champenoise wines are, I've found that Italy's traditional sparkling wines offer more fun and better value. Italy's most accessible variety is Prosecco. Produced from a late-ripening white grape of the same name in vineyards an hour north of Venice, Prosecco is light, crisp and totally without pretension. Traditionally served in tumblers, it's one sparkling wine that doesn't require a special occasion.

The best Proseccos come from grapes grown on cool hillsides near the village of Valdobbiadene. There, respected producers like Nino Franco and Mionetto employ the Charmat method, in which the bubbles are captured during a secondary fermentation in a pressurized stainless-steel tank. Cheaper than the more labor-intensive and time-consuming méthode champenoise, the Charmat method does preserve the freshness of a Prosecco, whether it's spumante (a fully sparkling wine) or frizzante (a wine that's more often fizzy than sparkling).

Reggio Emilia in Emilia-Romagna is home to two of Italy's best frizzantes. The first comes from Medici Ermete, one of the region's oldest Lambrusco producers, which decided nearly 20 years ago to grow its own grapes for its best wines. The effort has paid off with Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano Secco, a dry red frizzante that is a far cry from the mediocre sweet, fizzy reds typically made from the Lambrusco grape. But the Medici Ermete frizzante I find irresistible is the Daphne Malvasia Secco. This delicious white made from the Malvasia grape has earned its local nickname: Champagnino, or "Little Champagne."

Although I don't have a sweet tooth, I confess to a weakness for Piedmont's Moscato d'Asti and Brachetto d'Acqui. The former, a delightfully frothy white dessert wine, is my favorite. It comes from Moscato Bianco, the same grape as Asti Spumante, but in the hands of a small, quality-driven producer like La Spinetta, it has a charm far superior to that of its mass-produced cousin. A close second is the Banfi Cellars Brachetto d'Acqui, a sweet, fizzy red made from the Brachetto grape, which I like to drink in lieu of dessert.

I don't regret the years I've spent drinking Champagne, but I'm making room in my cellar for Italian sparkling wines. They are perfect on their own but also ready to pair with dishes such as these from Marcia Kiesel of F&W's Test Kitchen, including grilled squid skewers and a not-too-sweet hazelnut tea cake. It took me a while to understand the potential of Italian sparkling wines, but now, at last, I do.

Michael Bonadies is the author of the wine guide Sip by Sip (Main Street Books).

Published October 2000
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