Tag Archives: dolomites

Four Alternative Sparklers to Champagne and Prosecco

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This holiday season I am putting to rest two widely held notions: Champagne is the only way to celebrate stylishly, and if you can’t afford Champagne, you must drink Prosecco.

Both have their place, but so do other regions that produce exceptional sparkling wines using the same time consuming, laborious method as the Champenois, with wallet-happy results.

So, let’s take it from the top!

Bubbles for Beginners

All sparkling wines undergo two fermentations: The first turns juice into wine; the second creates the bubbles.

Authentic Champagne comes from the Champagne region in North-Central France and the rest is sparkling wine. The Champenois have effectively stopped the rest of the EU (but not the Americans) from labeling sparkling wine products “Champagne,” hence the term méthode traditionnelle (traditional method) to identify wines made similarly.

To be considered traditional method, the second fermentation must take place in a bottle, spurred by the addition of yeast and sugar. Next, the wine must spend a minimum amount of time aging on the dead yeast (lees) to gain the desirable bread crust, biscuit and brioche notes for which Champagne is renowned. Finally, the yeast is coaxed into the neck of the wine bottle, the lees are frozen then expelled upon the uncapping of the bottle, and the bottle is corked.

Champagne alternatives
Keep in mind these suggestions are not replacements for Champagne; they don’t taste like Champagne because they aren’t Champagne. Rather, each region offers a sparkling expression of its time and place. But would you only travel to Paris when you could also visit Tokyo, Cape Town and Bali?

FRANCE: The French have perfected the art of bubbles, and produce them all over the country in the style of Champagne, identifiable by the term Crémant. Two regions to try:

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Crémant d’Alsace: I once had a sommelier tell me he wouldn’t put Crémant d’Alsace on his list because it wasn’t trendy enough. Ironically, this category of fizz tops the charts in sales amongst the French, after Champagne; gaining favor when the economy was tanking and bubble enthusiasts wanted less expensive, high-quality alternatives. The postcard-pretty region, set in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains, has been making sparkling wine since the 1880’s. The grapes allowed are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Riesling and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is the only varietal for blanc de noir or rosé. If you can’t afford rosé Champagne, look to Alsace for cheaper yet charming options.

Wine to find: Gustave Lorentz, Crémant d’Alsace Rosé NV, $24. This clean, crisp 100% Pinot Noir with a rose-petal tint exudes strawberry, raspberry and bright orange zest flavors with a hint of spice. Cheap and charming with a party-perfect hue.

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Crémant de Limoux: Located on the mountainous, western edge of the Languedoc, most people haven’t heard of this region; a good thing if you appreciate high QPR in your wines plus bonus points for obscurity. Locals claim a record of sparkling wine production that precedes Champagne, meaning they have been working on the formula a long time. The wines are made from three grapes: Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Modern Crémant styles utilize Chard and Chenin, but the ultra-traditional, more rustic Blanquette de Limoux is made from a majority of Mauzac.

Wine to Find: Gérard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux, $13. This dry, bright wine made from Chardonnay (70%), Chenin (20%) and Mauzac (10%) is how I imagine Chablis turned Crémant might taste. Fresh, zippy apple notes hang on an austere frame with nuances of bread dough and a chalky, mineral-laden finish.

ITALY: Prosecco is fun and friendly, but not made in the traditional method. Italy has two appellations offering serious yet affordable contenders to Champagne:

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TrentoDOC in Trentino: Metodo Classico wine production in Italy dates back to 1902 with the founding of Ferrari winery in Trentino. Guilio Ferrari learned to make Champagne in Épernay then returned home to produce his own luxury brand, bringing along the first Chardonnay grapes to be planted in Italy. The high-altitude vineyards of the appellation, nestled at the base of the Dolomite Mountains in North-Central Italy, produce stunning, refined and structured wines. The region would be poised for recognition as the premier producer of Italian sparkling if more of the 38 wineries were picked up for exportation. As it stands, Ferrari is the dominant, albeit superior, producer available in the U.S. Although four grapes are allowed for sparkling: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Blanc, blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) is the regional highlight.

Wine to Find: Ferrari Brut NV, $25. This creamy, elegant blanc de blancs with persistent perlage, offers bright lemon, fragrant pear and fresh bread-dough, for an incredible price. Make this your “house” sparkling.

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Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardia: Franciacorta has at times been referred to as the “Champagne of Italy”, though never by the producers themselves who loathe the comparison. The wines are crafted where the Italian Alps descend into Lago D’Iseo in Brescia. The name Franciacorta applies solely to sparkling wines from this area, made in the traditional method using Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Although the history of sparkling here is nascent as compared to Trentino, Franciacorta enjoys greater name recognition in the U.S., thus wider distribution and slightly higher prices. Relative to Champagne, however, the quality to price for these structured, elegant wines is still outstanding.

Wine to Find: Ca’Del Bosco NV Cuvee Prestige Brut, $35. Packaged like Cristal, this house’s entry-level bottling is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The wine shows vibrant acidity, a creamy mousse and hints of pear, apple skin, and hazelnut, with a touch of honeyed happiness on the finish.

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Got the Champagne Price Tag Blues? Try TrentoDOC in Italy

Lots and lots of sparkles

Plenty of well-priced sparklers in TrentoDOC

The first week of December is a fitting time to discuss sparkling wine—many of us reach for a bottle of bubbly during the holidays. Since I use this blog as a forum for promoting wine regions deserving of more attention than they receive from the American wine drinker, I thought I would focus on one that does bubbles really well. Bubbles on par with Champagne. Bond-worthy bubbles James might drink if he weren’t already in bed with Bollinger. And by the way, they cost a lot less.

The region is Trentino, located due south of Alto Adige, and it is the Italian-speaking part of this pristine, central alpine region of Italy (they mostly speak German in the AA). The regional capital is Trento—as in Council of Trent—which combined with DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), provides the TrentoDOC appellation devoted to this region’s sparkling wines.

Beautiful Downtown Trento

Beautiful Downtown Trento

What makes Trentino special? The craggy terrain at the foothills of the dolomites provides a solemn, spiritual backdrop to the task of winemaking. The air is pure and fresh, and the rivers sparkle while gliding through the glacial valley. But perhaps most significant is the intense bond between the locals and their landscape.

Amongst the people to whom I spoke, a conversational theme was the region’s “mountain magnetism” and the constant pull they felt to be amongst them. I met one professional who manages to mountaineer between office meetings. Yet everyone, from a winery’s brand export manager to the winemaker himself, spoke of vocational excellence, seemingly as fond of their jobs as the outdoors. I believe this attitude drives the quality of the wines. For ultimately, what is the tending of a vineyard, the crafting of wine and the business of selling it, if not the culmination of a career tied to nature?

View of high altitude vineyards

View of high altitude vineyards

Just as the mountains are integral to the psyche of Trentinos, one can’t discuss TrentoDOC without acknowledging the role of Cantine Ferrari. Ferrari singlehandedly set the quality bar on sparkling wine and has tirelessly promoted the region’s uniqueness domestically and worldwide.

Nearby lake amongst the mountains

Nearby lake amongst the mountains

Ferrari’s founder Guilio was the forefather of méthode traditionnelle in Trentino, known as Metodo Classico in Italy. Of equal note, Guilio brought Italians their first Chardonnay grapes. Enamored of the wines of Champagne, he spent time in the region learning the art form of its production so he could return to Trentino in 1902 to create a luxurious sparkling wine for Italians, by Italians.

Ferrari’s instinct that Trentino would be a superb sparkling wine region due to climate and terrain was correct. After pioneering the effort, the region now boasts a few dozen wineries producing sparkling wine under the TrentoDOC guidelines. Four grapes are allowed: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc. In line with the Champagne method, the second fermentation must take place in bottle, and wines must age at least fifteen months on the lees for “brut” and “rosè” varieties, twenty-four months for vintage, while “reserve” label wines must be aged a minimum of thirty-six months. Just as in Champagne, many Trentino wineries age their bottles much longer than required.

One trait of the Trentino region that may prove advantageous in our brave new world of climate change is the high altitude available for vineyard sites. Should vineyard temperatures continue to rise, as has already happened over the last decade, Trentinos can respond by pushing their plantings further up the mountains to cooler temperatures. Unfortunately, the Champenois have nowhere to go. Perhaps still wines will be their future?

Image by Lauren Mowery

Wines to Find:

  • Ferrari: They are the leaders in the appellation. All of their wines are carefully made, of exceptional quality, and extraordinary value, particularly as compared to Champagne. If you are fond of vintage wines, Ferrari crafts a line called Perlé that is outstanding and retails around $35. Yes, $35. For vintage wine. Most from Champagne start at double that price.
  • Cavit: The largest producer in the region. You have probably seen their entry-level Pinot Grigio on a grocery shelf or by the glass at a chain restaurant. But they actually make nice sparkling wines (forget that Pinot Grigio crap). Look for Cavit Altemasi Brut and their vintage Riserva Graal 2004.
  • Cesarini Sforza: A small producer, but I was able to track down a bottle using wine-searcher: Tridentum Brut for $32.99.
  • Abate Nero: I tasted this in Italy. I couldn’t find it on wine-searcher, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. Talk to your local wine shop or visit in person!
  • Maso Martis: I tried the rosé and the blanc de blancs while in Italy. Both had strong character, presumably reflective of the winemaker. Worth hunting down, but may be difficult. Look for this producer while in Trentino.

If you are considering a visit to Trentino, here are some details from my trip that may help you plan yours:

How to get there: Flying from the States, I took a direct flight to Rome, then a connection to Verona. We had a car service, but one could rent a vehicle from Verona to drive the last hour and a half to Trento.

Where to Stay: I stayed at the Grand Hotel Trento. Despite its modest, mid-century exterior, the rooms were nice with generously-sized marble baths. The morning breakfast buffet was plentiful, offered in a pleasant, sunlit room. Although I didn’t have a chance to partake, the daily spa deals sounded enticing

Dining: The best dining in the city can be found right outside of the gorgeous Villa Margon at the Michelin starred Locanda Margon, owned by the Lunelli family (Ferrari). One may dine with lighter Ferrari Metodo Classico Camp-42fare on the Veranda—perfect on a sunny afternoon with views of the valley; or in the elegant dining room which offers creative, gourmet dishes from the chef Alfio Ghezzi. Of note is their wine list. The family’s former wine shop is the source of inventory, so mine away at the unique, modestly priced selections. Once those bottles are drunk, they are gone forever.

Other dining options in the town of Trento include:

Activities: The region is known for its mountains(!), providing lots of opportunity for hiking in the summer, and skiing in the winter. And if you need a mountaineer man, I know just the guy named Federiko.

Wines of Ferrari TrentoDOC

Wines of Ferrari TrentoDOC

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Filed under Sparkling Wine, Trentino and TrentoDOC