Nothing says “Celebrate!” like bubbles. And that includes the new wave of Italian sparklers enjoyed prolifically throughout the country ... definitely not your papa’s Asti Spumante!
Like quality olive oil and artisanal cheeses, Americans have discovered the good stuff when it comes to sparkling vintages. In addition to the already popular Prosecco, there’s the wonderful world of Lambrusco, Franciacorta, Moscato, and the “new” Asti—all of which are produced in the north (Piedmont, Veneto, Lombardy), and can be enjoyed at a fraction of the cost of many champagnes.
Spumante means Sparkling
Frizzante means Fizzy
Spumante, like so many food and beverage “discoveries,” was a happy accident, Man has known for millennia that when you make wine it requires storage in a consistently cool dark place to ferment (i.e. those convenient wine caves). BUT, if you forget to put your barrels of autumnal grape juice into that cool place and leave them exposed to the whims of the seasons, when the temperature rises in spring, fermentation starts up again and you get ... bubbles! This is how champagne gets started, of course, except that it’s the individual bottles that go through a secondary fermentation where the quality can be controlled. With Spumante, the wine is left in barrels for its second round (called the charmat method), so it’s less refined. But given that this novelty “wine” was served to the likes of Antony and Cleopatra during a first century banquet (as documented by poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, who was quite enchanted with the bullulae, or “bubbles”), who are we to turn our noses away from the tingle?
So what’s the difference between Spumante and Frizzante? The amount of bubbles! In contrast to Spumante, Frizzante undergoes its second fermentation for only half the time, therefore taking in only half the amount of carbon dioxide. Which is why it’s a “softer” bubbly and Spumante a more prickly one.
Following are a few distinguishing features of the favored Italian sparklers:
PROSECCO – Spumante, Veneto & Friuli (11-12% alcohol)
Characteristics: Light, crisp, dry to slightly sweet
Pairs with: Cheese, almost any appetizer, and risotto, especially made with shrimp
Of interest: At Harry’s Bar in Venice, Prosecco was turned into the Bellini with a splash of peach juice.
FRANCIACORTA – Spumante, Lombardy (11-13% alcohol)
Characteristics: Ranges from demi-sec to brut; crisp, almondy
Pairs with: Fish and seafood dishes, including risottos and spaghetti with shellfish
Of interest: This is Italy’s most popular sparkling vintage, and considered one of the finest sparkling wines in the world; by law it must be aged for a minimum of 18 months.
LAMBRUSCO – Spumante, Emilia Romana and Lombardy (10.5-12% alcohol)Characteristics: Red, dry (secco) or slightly sweet (amabile), refreshingly light, fruity
Pairs with: Salumi appetizers or sandwiches, grilled meats, hearty pasta sauces
Of interest: Today’s Lambrusco is not the “cheap” sweet wine popular in the 1970s. Its pedigree reaches back to Roman times; Italy is currently lobbying to be the only country permitted to label its noble vintage “Lambrusco."
ASTI – Spumante (DOCG), Piedmont (7-9.5% alcohol)
Characteristics: Soft, fewer bubbles, slightly sweet, honey and citrus blend
Pairs with: Desserts with creams, fruit pastries, strawberries, light cheeses
Of interest: Asti can claim to be the world’s first sweet sparkling wine.
MOSCATO (Moscato d’Asti) – Frizzante, Piedmont (5-6% alcohol)
Characteristics: Delicately fizzy, sweet, fruity and floral blend, aromatic
Pairs with: Desserts (anything with apples), and aged cheeses such as Gorgonzola.
Of interest: The Moscato is famous for its heady, multi-layered fragrance; be sure to put your nose in first for that delicious whiff!