Wine Masters Italy: 12 Days of Christmas

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post reviewing the first season of Wine Masters – a new documentary series focused on five French wine regions and winemaking families.    The first season was thoroughly enjoyable, cinematically breathtaking and highly educational.  So, when they asked if I would be willing to write an honest review of their second season on Italy, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

My review of their first season was written during film awards season, so of course I had to give it a bit of an Oscars theme.  Honestly, there was a little part of me that wondered if the Italian “sequel” by Wine Masters would be as good as their original.  In other words, would it be a Godfather II….or a Tron Legacy?

I needn’t have worried – Wine Masters Italy is about as Godfather II as you can get.  (Complete with beautiful Sicilian scenery . . . and locals!) 😉  The second season is on par, if not better, than the original season in France.

And since we’re now in the middle – quickly nearing the end – of the holiday season, I’m giving this post a bit of a 12 days of Christmas theme.  (I say “a bit of” because admittedly several of the days below are a stretch – so bare with me and don’t be a Grinch!)  Here are some highlights of Wine Masters Italy along with my own educational tidbits and new outlines (Merry Christmas to YOU!) 😉

It’s a good thing for you this is written and not a live video where you could hear me sing off key . . . without further ado – on the Twelfth Day of Christmas Wine Masters gave to me!

12 Percent of Production

Sicily is responsible for 12% of Italy’s total wine production.  Much of this production used to be bulk wine, but today there is more focus on quality – as Alberto Tasca discusses in Wine Masters’ Sicily episode. Richard Hemming MW (see 2nd day of Christmas below) describes Sicily as a relatively great bargain since this region doesn’t yet have the international reputation as some of the other wine regions of Italy.  The keyword being “yet” – it’s only a matter of time before this rather remote region is on the radar of wine lovers everywhere. For example – the Tasca family was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s “European Winery of the Year”!

11 Native Grapes

The number of native grapes in Italy is close to 350.  Thankfully, Wine Masters Italy narrows this down to 11 to discuss in detail.  At the end of the second season, viewers come away with a better, more thorough understanding of: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese (see 10th day of Christmas), Aglianico, Greco, Fiano, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara and Osleta.

10 Percent of Vines

Sangiovese is by far the most planted grape variety in Italy.  It represents 10% of all vine plantings, a total of about 177,000 acres, much of this located in Tuscany.  The Antinori family is highlighted in this episode and they do an excellent job of succinctly describing how Sangiovese can produce very different styles of wine depending on where the grapes are grown:

  • Chianti Classico – more fruity with approachable tannins
  • Brunello di Montalcino – a “supercharged Chianti” built to age (and sadly, one of the classic wines that I’m just not a fan of)
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – an in-between style that hasn’t reached the fame of either Chianti or Brunello

The Antinoris also stress that Sangiovese is a wine that is not designed for drinking by itself – it needs food.  In my experience, I’ve found this to be true about most Italian wines . . . or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to chow down on some Italian cheeses, cured meats and pasta.

Antinori Family
Piero Antinori and his daughters Albiera, Alessia and Allegra

9th Generation “Founding Father”

Antonio Mastroberardino is considered by much of wine world to be the founding father of Campania’s modern wine industry.  In the mid-1900s, after vineyards had been destroyed by phylloxera and the country was experiencing an economic crisis, the Italian government encouraged vignerons to plant (overly) productive grape varieties like Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano.  Antonio boldly ignored this request and instead decided to remain true to Campania’s heritage by replanting his family’s vineyards with indigenous varieties such as Aglianico, Greco and Fiano.

Today, Antonio’s son, Piero, carries on the Mastroberardino tradition and is featured in Wine Masters’ Campania episode.  International varieties make up a miniscule amount of plantings in Campania.  Instead, this region is proudly and uniquely focused on native grapes – thanks in large part to the efforts of Antonio.  And while these varieties may never have the same acclaim as international ones – as Piero so eloquently states – “the world doesn’t need another Cabernet Sauvignon.”  A statement I couldn’t agree more with.

8th Century Viticulture

One of the many things I find fascinating when studying Italy is the depth of their traditions.  They have traditions that go back centuries, sometimes millennia – like the alberello vine training still practiced in Sicily . . . which dates back to the 8th century!

Alberello vine training
Alberello vine training

As Richard Hemming explains, this low to the ground vine training system works well in a hot, arid region like Sicily because it helps shade the grapes from the sweltering sun.  It also helps varieties that need heat to ripen (like Nero d’Avola) because by keeping the grapes closer to the ground, they are also benefitting from the radiant heat.

7 Chianti Sub-Zones

According to Piero Antinori, the Chianti fiasco is “the symbol of Tuscan wine.”  This statement baffled me a bit because I think of the fiasco as something that came to symbolize cheap plonk wine you’d purchase at your local “Italian” restaurant that served unlimited salad and breadsticks (I DO love their breadsticks though!)  And as Sarah Heller MW asserts: “No bottle that can be used as a candle holder could ever have had anything amazing in it.” Chianti fiasco candle holder

The Chianti region produces about 100 million bottles annually.  Much of this is made by large producers within the value category – the resulting wine often being fairly boring.  However, the best wines from the Chianti region can usually be found in its seven sub-zones. For more information on these – check out my outline on Chianti.

6th Generation Ripasso

Wine Masters’ Veneto episode introduces us to Sandro Boscaini, the sixth generation winemaker at Masi, a family owned winery located in Valpolicella.  Over the years, Sandro has been instrumental in bringing international attention to the Valpolicella region located in western Veneto.  Perhaps most notably, in the 1960s he re-introduced and popularized a traditional winemaking technique known as “ripasso” which involves pouring freshly made Valpolicella wine through unpressed Amarone skins in order to increase body, color and alcohol.  The result is a wine that is somewhere in-between a light, easy-drinking Valpolicella and a rich and powerful Amarone – “the best of both worlds” according to Richard Hemming.

Sandro Boscaini
Sandro Boscaini tasting Valpolicella grapes

Valpolicella Ripasso DOC became its own DOC in 2010.  Today, many producers in the Valpolicella region have a ripasso style wine in their lineup – sometimes referring to this wine as a “baby Amarone.”  Just don’t use this term in front of the man who’s responsible for bringing this production method back in style: Sandro can’t stand this description.

5 Wine Regions

Italy is divided into 20 regions – each with its own, unique wine growing traditions.  When I studied for my Italian Wine Scholar certification, there were a handful of regions that represented a larger chunk of the textbooks and (not surprisingly) featured more prominently on the exams: Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Campania and Sicily.  These just so happen to be the five wine regions covered in the Wine Masters Italy series.

Having a thorough understanding of these five regions is paramount to succeeding in many wine certifications and I highly recommend the Wine Masters’ series for wine students of all levels.  It’s a beautiful way to wrap your brain around this country, and the stories of these five families are so much more interesting than memorizing a list of the DOCs.

4 Appellations

The Valpolicella region boasts four different major appellations. In addition to the Valpolicella Ripasso DOC (discussed in the 6th day of Christmas above), there is also Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Valpolicella DOC.  The Wine Masters’ Veneto episode provides a terrific overview of the differences between these four appellations (plus the time lapsed Amarone production is fascinating to watch!) You can also check out my outline on Valpolicella.

3 Gaja Offspring 

Angelo Gaja began working for his family’s winery in 1961 (it had been founded 102 years earlier by his great-grandfather).  He and his three children – Gaia, Rosella and Giovanni – are the focus of the Wine Masters’ Piedmont episode.  Angelo notes that each generation has made its own mark on the winery, but always with a focus on the challenging Nebbiolo grape – which he admits isn’t “a blockbuster” or “opulent.”  His oldest daughter, Gaia, I think best explains the family’s loyalty for Nebbiolo by saying that it “allows the terroir to talk, it allows the vintage to talk” more so than other varieties.

And note: Angelo’s son, Giovanni, walks us through some of the family vineyards and discusses several concepts related to viticulture – more so than in any of the other Italian episodes.  So, if you’re wanting to dork out on dirt, Piedmont is the episode to tune into.

2 Masters of Wine

As in the French Wine Masters, the Italian series helps guide and educate the viewer with the addition of two Masters of Wine:  Richard Hemming and Sarah Heller.  They are a balance of entertainment and education, and each does an excellent job of explaining difficult concepts like why a producer would declassify their wine to a “lesser” appellation and the subtle differences in Chianti’s terroir.  I also appreciate their honesty on some of Italy’s shortcomings (like mass produced Prosecco and Pinot Grigio).  However, I could have done without their food pairing suggestions for Amarone . . . you’ll just have to watch it for yourself. :-/

One Unique Gift

So here we are – just a few days away from Christmas.  Even Amazon may not be able to deliver your gift on time at this point!  Before you pick up a crapshoot bottle of wine from the grocery store, I have a better suggestion: get the wine enthusiast in your life access to Wine Masters.  You know who else would enjoy this?  The travel lover, the foodie, the perpetual student, the history buff, and even the person who has everything and is such a pain in the ass to buy for (we ALL have one of these in our lives!)

I love this series and cannot wait to see what they do next.  In 2020, Wine Masters TV plans to add new content like a travel-focus series, short documentaries on influencial individuals in the wine world, and wine classes.  Plus Season 3 of Wine Masters will launch – this time in Spain!

So pour a glass of Nebbiolo, raise a toast to Jolly Old St. Nick, hit the play button on Wine Masters Italy, and sing along with me loudly and completely off key….

Twelve Percent of Production, Eleven Native Grapes, Ten Percent of Vines, Ninth Generation Founding Father, Eighth Century Viticulture, Seven Chianti Sub-Zones, Sixth Generation Ripasso, Five Wine Regions, Four Appellations, Three Gaja Offspring, Two Masters of Wine, and One Unique Gift!!”

Beats the hell out of a Partridge in a Pear Tree if you ask me (Pear wine is terrible!)  🙂   Happy Holidays everyone!

 

Note: I received a complimentary screening of Wine Masters second season in exchange for an independent and honest review.  All thoughts and opinions above are my own.

 

 

Italian Wine Scholar: Tackling This Boot Was No Small Feat

Nobody likes a braggart or a know-it-all.  If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know I can’t stand this type of personality and have even created a WSET Irritation Scale to evaluate them.  (Yes, I’ve been told that sometimes I take things too far).

Unfortunately, we (mostly women) are often so fearful of looking too egotistical that we don’t celebrate our accomplishments.  We downplay our successes, or qualify them by saying something like “I’m just a good test taker” or “I can memorize facts, but don’t retain them very well.” (I’ve uttered both of these phrases many times over).  Why is it so difficult to say “hey – I’m really proud of myself, I did this: [fill in the blank here with your awesome accomplishment].”  (Hubs Note:  And yet you don’t have any problem telling my friends that you kicked my ass in law school).

I think we need to be better at sharing our wins and encouraging each other to do the same. So, with that, I’m going to give it a shot- here goes: I passed my Italian Wine Scholar exam with Highest Honors!  I studied my ass off for this certification and I am thrilled with my results.

IWS certificate

And, because I’d like to see others succeed, here are some tips that will hopefully help other students rock their Italian Wine Scholar Unit 2 exam (my Unit 1 exam tips can be found here):

1. Study the glossary!

There were several questions relating to these terms and I know I answered at least one of them incorrectly.  Now I will never forget that Baglio is the name for a Sicilian farmhouse.  (However, the degree to which this particular question relates to wine knowledge is debatable IMO . . .)

2. Memorize this equation: The percentage of the text dedicated to a region = the number of exam questions on that region.

This may seem obvious, but it will help you schedule your time more efficiently if you keep this in mind.  You’re better off focusing a majority of your studies on Toscana, Sicilia and Campania than knowing all the little nuances of Molise or Basilicata.  And besides – you can use my outlines as a good starting point for both of those regions! 😉

For me, I found it best to tackle a larger region over the course of a week and then follow this up with a day covering a smaller one.  Being able to knock out a more minor region in such a short period gave me a much needed sense of accomplishment when I felt I was dragging.  Which happened more than I’d hoped!

3.  Read the answers carefully!

I know most people say read the question carefully, and clearly you should do that too, but Calabria and Campania were both options for a few questions.   Maybe it’s just me, but throughout my Italian Wine Scholar studies I would get these two regions mixed up.  Make sure you know which one you’re talking about!

4. If you don’t know the answer, move on and come back to it.

You very well may find a clue to the answer in a later question or something might trigger your memory.  This happened to me with an exam question on Verdicchio – I skipped it and a question later in the exam helped me recall the answer.  And don’t stress out too much if you have to temporarily skip a question – having an open and relaxed mind will make it easier for you to recall the information you need. (If that sounds like Headspace to you – it is!  I always do a short meditation the day of an exam . . . consider that another study tip.)   (Hubs note:  With the dogs.   She meditates with the dogs.  I don’t even know how this is possible).

5.  Don’t underestimate Sardegna.

I left Sardegna until last and, frankly, didn’t spend much study time on this region.  I figured that since it was an island, and not even the most “important” one, that there wouldn’t be many exam questions related to it.  However, I should have heeded my own advice above regarding “size of the chapter = exam importance” because based on this theory – about 8% of the exam questions would be related to Sardegna.  And although I didn’t count, there probably did end up being somewhere between 7-9 questions on it.  Thankfully, I read and reviewed Sardegna the morning of the exam so I was able to at least recall specifics relating to the island’s grape varieties.

And finally, this is not really a “tip” but something to keep in mind throughout your studies: enjoy learning.  After over a year of being in the Italian Wine Scholar program, I am so thankful to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, Italy.  You don’t need a certificate or a pin to prove anything.  But if you have one – be proud of it.  I am!

 

Brunello di Montalcino: the Rembrandt of my Wine World

Early during the first quarter of my freshman year at college, I decided I wanted to major in art history.  I was a couple months into an Art History 101 class and could clearly envision my future as curator for some fabulous museum or gallery, or possibly work for one of the big auction houses like Christie’s.  Even though this was my first ever art history class – I just knew that this was what I was destined for.  I excitedly called my Dad to inform him of my plans – and after our brief discussion, I hightailed it to the business office to declare my major in Business Administration.

To this day, my art history classes remain some of my most favorite.  They made me look at the world like I hadn’t before – and in a way I haven’t since.  Starting with ancient art – from ornate Egyptian tombs to Greek architecture to Roman marble sculpture.  Then the Renaissance with the David and Mona Lisa.  Next came the utterly fascinating, over-the-top religious works of Bosch and El Greco.  My art history course worked its way through each era and I found myself in awe of them all . . . and then we got to the work of Rembrandt and – well, I didn’t like it.

Was his work groundbreaking?  Was he able to capture people in their daily lives like no artist had before? Was his work influential to countless others?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Is he considered by many to be the best painter that ever lived?  Absolutely.

I’m not debating these assertions – all I’m saying is that I personally didn’t care for his work.  (And for the record – I still don’t).  I thought it was dark and dreary.  He did a lot of self portraits that all ran together in my mind.  Nothing about his work spoke to me.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want his work hanging in my house (Hubs Note:  Yeah…..that was never an option in the first place).  I’d rather have a calming Monet landscape or fun and colorful Matisse:

Right about now you might be asking “That’s all well and good, but WTF does Rembrandt have to do with Brunello di Montalcino?”

Patience . . . I’m getting there.

In the vast world of wine, there are certain wines that are considered to be “classics” or “benchmarks” of their respective varieties.  Wines such as Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), Barolo (Nebbiolo),  and Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese).

Brunello di Montalcino (hereinafter “BdM”) is considered by many to be the highest quality and most pure expression of Sangiovese.  It’s been called Tuscany’s grandest wine zone by Jancis Robinson. It was one of Italy’s first DOCs (1966) and later one of its first DOCGs (1980).  To qualify as a DOC/DOCG, several hoops must be jumped through – such as establishing geographical boundaries, permitted grape varieties grown, and limitations on yields.  For a more detailed explanation of these terms – read this short article by a Master of Wine.

Unlike many other Tuscan wines, BdM is not a blend – it is made from 100% Sangiovese.  Specifically, the Brunello clone that is grown exclusively in the region.  BdM has the longest aging requirements in all of Italy: a minimum of four years (2 years in oak, 4 months in bottle) before it can be released to the public.  These wines are full bodied with high tannins and acidity, and very long lived.

BdM is held in high regard by enthusiasts, critics, students and collectors alike.  When a classic BdM is served – words like “majestic”, “elegant” and “oh holy shit this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” fall off tongues.  Except for mine – because I don’t like BdM (insert blasphemous gasps here).

Now before you members of the Brunello Brigade come after me with pitchforks, let me explain.  Like with Rembrandt, I’m NOT claiming that BdM is crap nor am I saying that I cannot appreciate BdM. What I am saying is that I, subjectively, don’t care for it.  I would love to find a BdM that changes my mind.  Believe me, I’ve tried!  Over the years, I’ve tasted many – particularly during my studies for the Italian Wine Scholar and at the recent Master class I attended led by Master Sommelier Peter Neptune  where we tasted 11 different BdMs.

Valdicava 1997That evening, the wines tasted ranged from a 2013 Camigliano BdM to a 1997 Valdicava BdM.  There were BdM from 2001 and 2010 – both highly rated vintages.  All 11 wines tasted were very high quality and from top producers such as Altesino, Donatella Cinelli Colombini and Salvioni.  I appreciated these wines, and was particularly amazed at how their structure held up over the years.

But did I like them?  No, not really.  Why?  Well, for starters the tannins were overwhelming.  They usually dominate in a BdM’s youth, but are still over prevalent (for me) in an aged BdM.  And even if I can get past the Hoover suctioning tannins, I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of BdM.  While I’m definitely not a juicy fruit bomb lover, the orange peel/medicinal cherry/tea leaf flavors I find in BdM aren’t appealing to me either.

And it’s not that I don’t like Italian wines.  I love Barbera, Aglianico, and Etna Rosso.  And I actually really enjoy Rosso di Montalcino – more than most Brunellos in fact.  Even though Rossos are usually from younger or “lesser” vineyards, have few restrictions on production (no oak aging required!) and are way less expensive.  I know this is like saying I’d prefer to wear Tory Burch shoes as opposed to Manolo Blahniks, or that I’d rather drive a Chevy truck than a Tesla – but both of these examples are also true (Hubs Note:  She drove a Chevy truck for a decade).

However, like a Rembrandt painting that I don’t want in my house, I don’t want a BdM in my glass.  I’d rather have a dozen other wines instead.  And on that note, I’m going to go pour myself a non-BdM and leave you with this awesome outline on Montalcino.

 

Italian Wine Scholar: One Exam Down, One Exam to Go!

This past Monday I (finally!!) took my first of two exams in pursuit of the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  This first exam focused on the wine regions of Northern Italy, as well as general information about the entire country (history, geography, soils, viticulture, etc.).  The second exam will be focused solely on Central and Southern Italy.    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m tackling the IWS primarily because Italian wines are my Achilles heel and I’m going to need to know this country inside and out for my WSET Diploma studies.

Since I opted for self study as opposed to an instructor led course, I was scheduled to take the exam online where a proctor takes over my computer remotely (to ensure there aren’t any hidden notes to cheat with) and watches me via camera the entire exam.  While learning the names of dozens of grapes I’d never heard of like Timorasso and Marzemino, and memorizing a myriad of DOCGs, DOCs and IGTs, might sound challenging – I think the most stressful part of the whole experience for me was setting myself up on Skype and Adobe Connect the day prior to the actual exam.

First, I accidentally called the proctor on Skype while sitting in front of my screen in . . .  well, let’s just say I was wearing something that I wouldn’t wear out in public as I had just gotten up from a nap.  Thankfully, she didn’t pick up – so I dodged that bullet.  But then I DID somehow leave a recorded message where you can hear Hubs in the background yelling “[insert my very private petname here] what’re you doing?” and me responding dopily “oh, just trying not to make a complete ass of myself in front of my examiner!  Tee-Hee!” (Yes, I actually did say TEE-HEE).  I’m not sure if this message was deleted despite my best efforts.  But at least my proctor was classy enough not to say anything to me about it the next day.  (I think she was British, and thankfully they’re into etiquette and manners.)

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on my whole exam experience, besides not leaving the technical setup to the last minute, I’ve realized there are several things that I wish I would’ve done differently for my first exam.  At least I’ve got a “second chance” (so to speak) with my second exam, which I’ll be tackling early next year.  So I plan to follow these helpful tips:

1. 10 Months is Waaaaay Too Long to Spend Studying for this Exam!  I started my Italian Wine Scholar self-study course back in January – TEN MONTHS AGO.  While I’m not making excuses, I did get derailed by some pretty big life events since then: moving from my beloved Washington state to Southern California, starting my WSET Diploma classes, and learning that the upcoming season of The Walking Dead will be Rick Grimes’ last.  However, even after taking all these factors in account, I still should have completed my IWS exam sooner.  For the second IWS exam – I’m giving myself three months of study time: November through January.  Take the exam in early February, and move on!

2. No Multi-Tasking!  One Exam at a Time.  I love multi-tasking – I get half as much done in twice as much time.  And that was definitely the case here.  I tried to study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 2 Diploma exam at the same time.  That didn’t work overly well for my brain, so I thought I’d try it again (what’s the definition of insanity?) and study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 5 Diploma exam.  Surprisingly, this wasn’t optimal either.  I’ve learned my lesson: for the next month, I’m focusing solely on my Unit 5 studies until exam day (November 7th).  After that, I’ll jump into IWS Central/Southern Edition.

3. Use the Wine Scholar Guild Online Materials.  The Wine Scholar Guild online resources are a wealth of information that I just did not take enough advantage of for my first exam.  There are practice quizzes, flashcards, maps and short overviews of each wine region – a wine geek’s dream!  During the last week of my studies, I tried to frantically make my way through some of these – and I’m glad I at least did this as some of the questions from the practice quizzes were quite similar to those on my exam. (Those of you planning to take the IWS exams – make a mental note of this!)

4. Don’t Focus So Much on %s.  I spent a lot of time and brain space memorizing the various %s of permissible grapes in certain blends.  Now, I’m not going to say that there weren’t any questions on this, but certainly not as many as my studies would have warranted.  I would have been better off focusing on major bodies of water and synonyms for Nebbiolo instead (another mental note!)

5. More drinking!!  This one should be easy enough to do.  During my studies, I did manage to go through several bottles of Italian wine – but there’s always room for improvement!  When there was a question about these grapes or appellations on the exam, and I was confident of my answers –  in part due to the fact that I’d previously sat down with a glass (or two, or three) of the wine.

Linus and IWS

So, now I’m going to put my IWS to rest for awhile. I’m heading off with Hubs to our first ever Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend!  Stay tuned!

Editors Note: as I was putting the final touches on this post, I received this email from the Wine Scholar Guild with my exam results.  Now I’m thinking I should just do everything the exact same way for my second exam!

IWS Results
96%!!!! 🙂

 

 

Italian Bubbles: Moving Beyond Prosecco

When it comes to Prosecco, I believe there are three types of people: those who love it, those who turn their noses up at it, and those who will drink it . . . but only if Champagne isn’t available. I fall pretty firmly into the last category.  Given a choice, I’d almost always opt for Champagne – unless I’m mixing my sparkling wine with orange juice (Helllooooo Boozy Brunch!!)

For many, sparkling wine is a commodity – completely interchangeable.   And that’s totally fine.  Others (present company included) are a bit more selective about their bubbles.  For me, I really like what autolysis* brings to the party so, if Champagne isn’t available I’ll look for a label that says “methode traditionalle” or “methode champenoise” – which indicates that the wine was made in the traditional method* – in other words, the same way that Champagne is made.  Prosecco, on the other hand, is produced by what is referred to as the tank method.*

*I realize that these terms are total winespeak for any relative newbies who might be reading this, so if you’re not exactly sure what those corkdorky terms mean – here’s a (very) quick debrief:

Traditional Method.  Once the base wine is finished, it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.  To accomplish this, a bit of yeast and sugar are mixed together, added to the base wine, and then the bottle is sealed up.  As in the first fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol and CO2 – but since this is happening within a sealed bottle, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to escape to.  So it remains in the bottle – creating the sparkle.

After the sugar is consumed, the yeast dies 😦 but its work is not yet done!  Dead yeast cells are referred to in winespeak as “lees.”  The wine “rests on the lees” for a period of time after the second fermentation is complete and this is where autolysis occurs.  Autolysis is essentially the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells . . . and if your eyes just glazed over by reading that sentence you’re not alone!  I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this myself.  Yet another scientific concept that I’m struggling with. :-/  The duration of autolysis can be anywhere from a few months to several years – the more time spent, the more yeasty/bready characteristics in the resulting wine.  Usually, lees aging needs to be at least 18 months in order for the wine to show any autolytic characteristics.

Tank Method (aka Charmat Method).  With this method, the second fermentation takes place in a large pressurized tank as opposed to inside the bottle.  The tank method is cheaper, faster and requires less labor than the traditional method.  It’s also used with more aromatic grape varieties like Glera (the primary grape of Prosecco) and Riesling (used in German Sekt) since there isn’t the degree of lees contact – which can overwhelm the delicate fruitiness of these varietals.  While you still get bubbles with the tank method, the resulting wine is much more fruity and fresh.  You don’t get as much (or any) of those yummy bread dough, brioche aromas that you do with the traditional method.

While Prosecco is Italy’s best-known sparkling wine (and best-selling at over 220 million bottles a year!), the country also produces a handful of sparklers made in the same method as Champagne.  And, typically, at a fraction of the cost.  Here are three traditional method Italian sparkling wines that are great alternatives (NOT substitutes, because in my opinion – there is none!) for Champagne:

Franciacorta DOCG.  This region released its first traditional method sparkling wine relatively recently – 1961.  Since then, Franciacorta has enjoyed immense success with their wines and is currently producing over 17 million bottles annually (with the bulk of this being consumed by locals – only around 20% is exported).  In 1995, Franciacorta became the first DOCG in Italy exclusively for traditional method sparkling wine.

Franciacorta is located in Lombardia and has a significantly warmer climate than Champagne.  This translates to riper fruit flavors in the glass and a lower overall acidity.  (Tip: look for “brut nature” or “zero dosage” versions of Franciacorta if you want to maximize acidity).  Interestingly though (to me anyways!), non-vintage Franciacorta is required to spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees – which is 3 months longer than Champagne’s minimum requirement!

The grapes used in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir), and Pinot Bianco.  The latter is being used less frequently as it doesn’t add much longevity or energy to the wine.

For more info – here’s my outline on Franciacorta.

Trento DOC.  These wines hail from the Trentino region located in northeastern Italy.  Sparkling wine production started here in the early 1900s here thanks to Giulio Ferrari who believed the area had the potential to compete with the wines from Champagne.  And while these wines are produced in the same method and use the same grapes as Champagne (the holy trifecta of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) they taste incredibly different.  You’re likely to get aromas of peach, apricot, candied lemon and orange peel from Trento sparkling wines – with maybe a hint of biscuit character if they’ve been aged longer than 3 years. They tend to be fuller bodied with a level of richness to them.

Compared to Prosecco and Franciacorta, Trento DOC has a rather small production – 8.5 million bottles in 2010 (of which the Ferrari house produced nearly 60%) and the bulk of it is consumed locally.  Which might help explain why I haven’t been able to get my hands on one of these . . . yet. 😉

Alta LangaAlta Langa DOCG.  This area is becoming increasingly important for traditional method sparkling wines produced in southern Piemonte.  Although it is a large appellation overall, the actual area under vine is just over 250 acres (roughly 1/3 the size of Central Park).  And Alta Langa production is quite small – just over 600,000 bottles per year. Both planted acreage and production are expected to increase, however, as popularity of this region’s wines has soared in recent years.  And with good reason – they have some pretty strict requirements as far as what goes into the bottle and, as a result, are producing some delicious bubbles! 

Alta Langa vintageAlta Langa DOCG wines are made from a minimum 90% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  And, unlike Champagne and the other regions mentioned above, there is no “non-vintage” production here.  All Alta Langa wines must be vintage dated and spend a minimum of 30 months on their lees.  So you’ll definitely find more of those yummy bready aromatics in wines from this region. 

I hope next time you’re thinking bubbles you’ll give one of these a try.  If you do, please let me know what you think! 🙂   Want to learn more about wine and bubbles?    Click the link to the right and subscribe to this blog!!!   

 

Drinking Outside the Box: 5 Northern Italian Wines to Check Out

In life, most of us tend to stick to our comfort zone.  The same route home.  Our favorite coffee mug in the morning.  Cozy sweats and re-runs of a show we’ve already binge watched a few times (I’m certain that I’ve seen every episode of Sex & the City at least four times).  And the same varietals in our glass of wine.  Even when ordering at a restaurant we’ve never been to before, or visiting a new wine store with endless options, we’ll probably choose something we know – rather than something we don’t.

Since I started studying for the Italian Wine Scholar exam a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how many grape varieties there are that I’ve never even heard of – let alone tried.  (Italy itself has at least 350 different native grapes!)  Hubs and I have gradually started working through some of these grapes – mostly to positive results!  Proving that when I allow myself to branch out beyond what I’m comfortable with – my frequent Pinot Noir or Washington state Syrah – I expand my palate and my mind, but also my wine cellar. 😉

So, I’m encouraging you to “drink outside the box” and try something new as well.  Next time you’re at a restaurant or wine store with a carefully curated Italian section (particularly from the North!) – nix the Nebbiolos, pass on the Pinot Grigios and Proseccos, and give one of the following wines a shot instead.  You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. 🙂

italianwineregions
Map courtesy of the always awesome Wine Folly

Cortese/Gavi.  Cortese is the grape and Gavi the location in Southeast Piemonte where it’s been grown since at least the early 1600s.  Cortese performs particularly well in Gavi and throughout the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed immense success.  However, in the same manner that other popular things have been WAY overdone – the Real Housewives series (did we really need DC?), the zombie apocalypse, “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” – lots of producers jumped on the Gavi bandwagon and tons of meh wines were the result of this massive overproduction.  Thankfully, Gavi has recovered and was elevated to DOCG status in 1998 – Happy 20 year Anniversary Gavi!  Same year as me and Hubs. 🙂

Gavi DOCG wines must be made from 100% Cortese.  These wines are usually crisp and refreshing with minerality and a striking lemon zest character.  And while it’s best known for still wines, Gavi is also produced in a variety of sparkling styles as well.

The Gavi we had recently was from Broglia.  Impressively, the estate has records of its vineyards going back to 972!  The wine was slightly riper on the palate than I expected – with flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon along with Cortese’s trademark minerality.  Some wines from this region can be nice little porch pounders for the summertime (or 10 months out of the year down here in SoCal), but this one definitely had more complexity and depth.

Northern whites

Arneis.  This white grape is native to the Roero hills in Piemonte and was saved from near extinction in the 1960s by two prominent producers in the area: Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.  Today, in large part thanks to these two, plantings of Arneis are around 2,400 acres.  Arneis is a challenging grape to grow – it’s prone to poor and irregular yields and tends to drop acidity rapidly when approaching full ripeness – which often isn’t until late September.  So, it’s no surprise that “Arneis” in local dialect translates to “difficult personality.”

When in the right hands, Arneis produces fuller bodied wines that are subtly perfumed and complex with aromas/flavors of white flowers, stone fruit and pear.  The wines are typically fresh and floral and should be consumed within a few years of release.

We had an Arneis produced by one of its rescuers – Bruno Giacosa.  The wine was definitely delicate in the aromatic department, I was getting yellow fruit (apples, pears) and some floral notes.  On the palate it was zesty with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, finish.  This would pair amazingly with grilled fish or lighter/herbed pasta dishes.  Or a big ol’ pile of prosciutto.

Ruché.  This will undoubtedly be the most challenging of the five wines to find.  Ruché is a rare, aromatic red grape likely native to the town of Castagnole in Piemonte, where it has been grown for centuries.  Today, there are only around 250 total acres planted to this grape in Italy and it is rarely found elsewhere.

In 2010, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG became the first (and only!) delimited area dedicated entirely to the Ruché grape.  Wines from this DOCG must be made from at least 90% Ruché (with Barbera or Brachetto making up the balance).  Ruché based wines are typically intensely perfumed with aromas of roses, red fruit and spice.

I recently sampled a Ruché from Montalbera – an Italian producer hugely supportive of and dedicated to the grape.  The wine was one of the most unique wines I’ve ever had.  Incredibly pale in the glass, it looked like it should be delicate and subtle – yet it was anything but.  The wine was full of aromas of cherries, tea leaves, orange peel and spices with very prevalent acidity and tannins and a lengthy, bitter finish.  If you want to try something truly different, Ruché is your wine.

Lagrein.  (rhymes with “wine” – easy to remember!) This red grape is can be found predominantly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northeast Italy.  Lagrein is late ripening and needs significant warmth and sun to ripen fully – so it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it would be grown in an area that’s bumping up against the Italian Alps.  However, this region has 300 days of sunshine per year and a warm growing season, so Lagrein thrives – and it’s delicious!

Lagrein makes up about only 8% of total grape plantings in Alto Adige and around 1,200 total acres.  There are also a few California wineries that produce a Lagrein (although I haven’t run across any of these yet).  Lagrein produces fuller bodied, rich, darkly colored wines with higher tannins and acidity and often a bitter finish. The wines are frequently packed with aromas of berry fruit, violets and a savory/meaty component.

We had a Lagrein from Castelfeder, which is located in Alto Adige. This wine was somewhat reminiscent of a Northern Rhône Syrah for me – violets, charred black fruits, smoked meat.  This was Hubs favorite of the two reds, probably because he’s obsessed with smoky anything since he recently purchased a new smoker. 🙂

Lambrusco.  Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region and is essentially an umbrella term covering several distinct varieties all within the Lambrusco family.  Some of the more common ones you’re likely to see on a wine label are:

  • Lambrusco di Sorbara – produces the lightest version of Lambrusco and is considered to be the benchmark style
  • Lambrusco Salamino – the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa – produces fuller bodied and more tannic wines

Unfortunately, most of the Lambrusco that is exported is sweet, characterless and mass-produced (kind of like my old college standby Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – yes, dear reader, my introductory “wine” was Boone’s, please don’t judge me).  Classic Lambrusco wines are dry (or very slightly off-dry) with refreshing acidity, fizziness and flavors of bright red berries and spice.   To find this style of Lambrusco, your best bet is to look for DOC or DOP on the label – indicating that the wine was made according to stricter production standards and that the grapes come from a specific geographical area.  Other terms to look for include:

  • Secco, Amabile or Dolce – these mean dry, medium-sweet and sweet
  • Frizzante – lightly sparkling
  • Spumante – fully sparkling

LambruscoHubs and I sampled a few different styles of Lambrusco, ranging from a rather flat and nondescript juicy red wine, to a delicately effervescent wine with black cherries and spice, to an incredibly aromatic sparkler full of dried black fruits.  My favorite by far was the 3rd (the Medici Ermete) and it was incredibly delicious with our barbequed burgers!

So, let’s see . . . that’s 5 native Italian grapes down, only around 345 left to go! 😉

Oh – and I purchased the majority of these wines at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, CA (which I will be frequenting frequently because it’s the most awesome wine store EVER!!)  But if you’re having problems finding any of these, Hi-Time ships!