When it comes to Italian sparkling wine, people typically think first of Prosecco. Hailing from a swath of northeastern Italy, Prosecco producers have successfully marketed sparkling wine to the masses, in very high volumes, at a fraction of the price of Champagne. Bubbles for everyone!
So what happens to the areas of Italy that have set out to make premium sparkling wine? Is there room for them in the market?
I've gotten to know two regions that are trying to disrupt the monopoly of cheap Italian bubbly: Franciacorta and Trento. While Prosecco is made by Charmat, or tank method, these two wines are made with the méthode traditionelle—or metodo classico—that is the mandated practice in Champagne. It's labor-intensive, more expensive and lends more complexity to the wine. Both Italian regions also rely on the same grapes as their French counterpart: mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but with some Pinot Blanc (only a minor planting in Champagne).
But the first thing you'll be told by Franciacorta producers and advocates is that they are not trying to be "the next Champagne." In this small area, which hugs the southern end of Lake Iseo in the Lombardy region, production is low. "It's very conceivable that [consumers] have not heard about it," says May Matta-Aliah, New York education ambassador for the Franciacorta consortium. "That's what the Italians drink, and so most of it stays in Italy."
Although exports are on the rise, Franciacorta will never compete with Champagne or Prosecco in terms of volume. But this allows the region to be quality-conscious, as well as mindful of the environment. Many wineries in the area farm organically, a few biodynamically; the consortium's goal is to convert its entire membership—98 percent of the region's producers—to organic viticulture in the next five years. Previously, in 2012, the region established its own carbon-footprint measuring system, Ita.Ca., and many wineries strive to be carbon-neutral.
What first drew me in to these wines, though, is their style. While Champagne has many fans, its sky-high acidity can be a little prohibitive to drinkers who aren't "acid hounds." Matta-Aliah likes to say that Franciacorta has the texture of Champagne and the freshness of Prosecco. The region has a significantly warmer climate than Champagne: This means riper fruit flavors and lower malic acid. As bubbly producers worldwide turn to lower sweetness levels, Franciacorta can actually provide a more balanced zero dosage than some cooler-climate regions. Some of my highlights from recent Franciacorta tastings include Barone Pizzini, Ca' del Bosco and Bellavista.
Trento, on the other hand, is in the Dolomites mountain range, where vineyards can lie at high elevations and experience big diurnal shifts. Because of the cooler climate, Trento bubbly tends to be racier and less rich than Franciacorta.
With the exception of local giants like Ferrari, production is very small here too. Among the leaders in quality is Maso Martis, a family-run estate that farms organically and makes only 5,000 cases a year (including some still wine). They rely a little more heavily on Pinot Noir than other Trento producers, and also have small plantings of Pinot Meunier.
Alessandra Caroni, export manager for Maso Martis, notes that people often buy Prosecco because it's cheap and Champagne for a big occasion. Matta-Aliah is keen to avoid having Franciacorta pigeon-holed as a celebration-only wine—rather, she sees it as a food wine, one to be enjoyed now and not necessarily held for a special moment.
Wines from Trento and Franciacorta do offer good value, as the quality of the wines is high, but are the prices attractive enough? A bottle will typically go for $30 to $40, with some top cuvées exceeding $100.
To break into this niche of the U.S. market, Franciacorta and Trento are currently focusing on awareness and education. Hosting tastings and seminars targeted to the trade here is relatively new for the appellations, representatives noted. Such a strategy can trickle down and spread their brands' visibility among sparkling-wine drinkers.
Matta-Aliah is optimistic about their future in the U.S. market: "The quality is there, the familiarity with grape varieties is there, the connection to the Champagne method is there, the emotional connection to Italian lifestyle is there." Producers just need to get the wines in front of consumers and hope they sip.