Italian Wines Sparkle Against Champagne
Italy’s wine culture faces a conundrum. Long associated—in the U.S., at least—with bottles of Prosecco and Asti Spumante (Italy’s top-selling sparkling wines), Italian wineries are working to thrust other, less-familiar sparkling wines into the spotlight.
Nowhere is this truer than in the Trento D.O.C. appellation in Northern Italy. Italy’s other main region for producing sparkling wine is Franciacorta, within Lombardy, which has been producing since the 1960s. In Trento D.O.C., however, wine producers are toying with marketing campaigns and pairings to earn recognition by Americans.
While the idea is to produce wine that is as compelling as Champagne, these wineries are also setting themselves apart on the palate. As food-friendly as Champagne is, Italy’s sparkling wines offer more balance, elegance, a round mouthfeel, and an off-dry profile.
At the winery Ferrari (not associated with the car manufacturer), 90 percent of its annual production of 8 million bottles is consumed by Italians. Intent on expanding and reaching Americans, Ferrari last year rolled out an English-language website along with a social media campaign for sippers to tweet their love for the wine.
Ferrari is one of 41 vineyards commercially producing wine in Trento D.O.C., a blip on Italy’s map, yet coming into its own as a relatively new appellation. About 300 acres of vineyards outside Trentino produce a portfolio of 11 sparkling wines for Ferrari; seven of the 11 sparkling wines are available in the U.S. Its three most-celebrated varieties—Ferrari Brut, Perlé, and Giulio Ferrari—use Chardonnay grapes, one of the two dominant grapes in this region. (The other is Pinot Noir.)
Sparkling wines from the more well-known Italian region of Franciacorta—with Bella Vista and Ca’ del Bosco being two leading producers—typically sell for $50–$85 a bottle on the wine list. Champagnes, of course, carry a higher price point, typically $100–$350 a bottle. But most bottles of Prosecco and Asti Spumante are under $40 a bottle on a wine list, or $8 a glass.
Trento D.O.C. is a region new to many wine drinkers, as it wasn’t until 1993 that it gained protected-origin status (second only to Champagne, France) for metodo classico, one of four methods used for sparkling wines. In this case, the wine’s second fermentation is in a bottle, unlike tank-fermented Prosecco wines. “One is twice more complex and structured than the other,” says Raimondo Boggia, a sommelier and CEO/founder of Obikà Mozzarella Bar, with restaurants in Los Angeles and New York City, plus Japan, Dubai, the United Kingdom, and Italy. This difference directly impacts food pairings.
“What you can pair with a Prosecco is different than what you can pair with a metodo classico. You can pair a Trento D.O.C. brut with appetizers such as burrata and prosciutto San Daniele,” says Boggia. On his menus, for example, he features three Ferrari sparkling wines by the bottle ($50–$68) and by the glass ($13–$14), competitive with what other restaurants in the country charge. At Obicà’s Flatiron District location in New York City, the Ferrari Brut Perlé is often suggested with taglierini king crab and sea urchins.
Joey Kleinhans, owner of California’s Wine Elite Sommelier Company, which consults with restaurants on their wine lists, likes to suggest diners uncork metodo classico sparkling wines with appetizers like smoked salmon or aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
“Main courses that match perfectly include linguini pasta with creamy sauces and fish, chicken in a garlic-lemon sauce, or pistachio-crusted scallops,” he says.
For Keith Wallace, president/founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia and author of Corked and Forked: Four Seasons of Eats and Drinks, pairings are personal. His wife—also a sommelier—hails from Trentino, Italy. Among the couple’s favorite pairings are speck, “with a smoky quality that marries exceptionally well with sparkling wine,” explains Wallace, and ricotta gnocchi. “A simple cream sauce with fresh mushrooms is all you need to create a perfect dish with sparkling wine.”
Sourcing for U.S. restaurateurs through domestic distributors is widely available. Palm Bay International handles Ferrari’s wines, and Grappoli Imports and Vision Wine Brands are sources for many Franciacorta wines. Like most wines, the markup is typically 200 percent on a wine list.
The terroir, conducive for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, makes Trento D.O.C. ripe for sparkling wines. “In the Trento D.O.C. region you have soil that is really typical for the crisp Chardonnay grape,” says Boggia.
“These grapes have a better DNA,” says Ian Cauble, a master sommelier who last year co-launched SOMMSelect, an online wine retailer.
Ferrari’s owners since 1952 are constantly reinventing their marketing campaigns, recognizing that palates continually shift. And yet the Trento D.O.C. appellation only produces 12 percent of all Italian sparkling wines.
That the price points of these wines are high enough to make a claim for quality, but low enough for a blind try, helps make the argument for adding them to U.S. restaurants. Prices for Ferrari’s bottles on most wine lists canvas a wide range, typically from $50 to $225 (for the Giulio Ferrari).
“In Obikà Mozzarella Bar, we serve the 2001 Giulio Ferrari,” Boggia says. “It’s a bottle [that’s] 13 years old … that can easily be compared in a blind tasting to Dom Perignon.”
Within the last decade he’s noticed a more sophisticated customer ordering Italian wines, ones who know the difference between Prosecco and a Trento D.O.C. sparkling wine.
When taking drink orders, Boggia says a bartender should be assertive and ask, “What kind of sparkling wine?” He adds, “There are a group of trendsetters in the market who understand what they want.”
Right now restaurants need a cost-conscious alternative to Champagne, say several Italian winemakers—alternatives that are higher in quality than mass-market Prosecco and Asti Spumante. Consumers are frustrated, they say, at paying more than $250 a bottle in eateries for Champagne labels such as Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer.
“There’s one major reason why Prosecco has not achieved acclaim among wine drinkers,” says Cauble. “The wine is made in a very simple fashion.” With other sparkling wines from Italy, he says, “It’s a much more hands-on process, even if they’re using machines. I really think it goes back to the method of production.”
Gianni Onofri, the general manager and sommelier at Dopo East Ristorante Italiano on New York City’s Upper East Side, recalls the wine culture when he arrived in the U.S. from Italy two decades ago. “At that time there was only Prosecco here,” he says, “and everybody used to call it ‘Italian Champagne.’” Ferrari was on select wine lists in New York City at that time. Even so, Lambrusco was the premier wine for Italian bubbles.
“People used to ask for ‘sweet, sparkling wine,’ and now people ask for Lambrusco,” Onofri says, adding, “Trento D.O.C. is one of the top sparkling-wine regions in Italy.”