Psychobubbles: Unraveling the Intricacies of Italian Spumante – Part I

Cheers!With Thanksgiving well behind us now, it is not going to be long before the end of the year festivities are upon us and with those a tradition that is common to many to pop some kind of bubbly wine to celebrate, be it a Champagne, a Crémant, an American sparkling wine, a Cava or… an Italian spumante.

But leaving veteran connoisseurs of Italian wine aside, how many have it clear on their minds what the offering of Italian spumante really is? How many know what a Franciacorta is and how it differs from Prosecco? And how about Trento? Or Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico? And Alta Langa? Or even Asti Spumante? If by now your head is slightly spinning it is neither you nor the wine, but it is most likely due to the fact that, in my opinion, not much has been done to explain to consumers in the first place that there is such thing as quality Italian sparkling wine and in the second place that no, it is not Champagne nor is it just Prosecco. It is so much more.

So, as an early Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve or whatever it is that you celebrate 😉 present, I will do my best to shed some light on the quite mysterious topic of Italian spumante. Since there is much to say, I will try not to bore everyone to death and therefore will break this discussion into four separate posts: today’s will focus on the basics: what is spumante and what is spumante’s traditional production process: the so-called “Classic Method”; the second post will focus on the main alternative process to produce spumante, the so-called “Italian Method”; the third post will focus on a selection of the best (in my view, of course!) Classic Method spumante; and the fourth and last post (phew…) will focus on a selection of the best Italian Method spumante (again, in my opinion). So, if you are interested and want to know more, stay tuned.

Let’s start from the very basics:

1. “Spumante” (pronounced “spoomantay”) is an Italian word which translates into sparkling wine in general.

2. Commercially, a sparkling wine may be produced either (i) through the artificial addition of carbon dioxide to a still wine (so-called “artificial process”) – this is the cheapest and least prestigious (to use a euphemism) sparkling wine production process, which we will not consider for the purpose of this article or (ii) through a second, natural fermentation of the base wine (or the fermentation of a must, as is the case for Asti Spumante) – this is known as the “natural process” and is performed by following either one of two main production methods: the Méthode Champenoise (or Classic Method) or the Méthode Charmat or Martinotti (also known as the Italian Method).

3. One cannot meaningfully speak about sparkling wines without having at least some extremely basic information about Champagne, the king of wines and the wine of kings. In this case, I will take the liberty to quote myself (see, our Wine Glossary): it is the epitome of sparkling wine, it has been around since the XVII century, when it started being served at the crowning ceremonies of the Kings of France in Reims, therefore gaining worldwide popularity and repute. It is the wine for which the Méthode Champenoise refermentation process was invented. This magical name, which is the same as the homonymous AOC appellation created in 1927 (although an area had already been defined in 1908 as “Région de la Champagne délimitée viticole”), is reserved to sparkling wine that is made exclusively from all or some of the following grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grown in the Champagne region of France.

Until well into the very end of the XIX century, the Classic Method was the only known process to produce a sparkling wine. In Italy, the first sparkling wine ever produced, which therefore coincides with the date of birth of spumante, was a Classic Method wine made in Asti (Piemonte) by famous Italian winemakers Gancia (pronounced “Gancha”) in 1865.

The development of the most commonly utilized alternative process to make a sparkling wine, the so-called Martinotti Method or Charmat Method or even Italian Method, took place at the end of the XIX century, precisely in 1895 when Federico Martinotti, who was in charge of the Royal Enological Station in Asti, invented a steel pressurized and refrigerated vessel known as “autoclave” that is used to make Italian Method spumante wines. This alternative process is also known as “Charmat Method” because a French engineer by the name of Eugéne Charmat adapted the design of Martinotti’s autoclave to suit industrial production of sparkling wine and rolled out the product in 1907. Considering the contributions made by both such gentlemen to devising such alternative production process, I think the proper way to identify it would be “Charmat-Martinotti Method.”

Very broadly and generally speaking, sparkling wines made according to the Classic Method are more expensive (due to the greater complexity and the longer duration of this production process – see below), convey more complex aromas and are more structured in the mouth compared to those sparkling wines that are made according to the Italian Method. In Italy, about 90% of the annual production of sparkling wine is made according to the Italian Method while only 10% is made according to the Classic Method.

To wrap up this post, we will now briefly go through the main steps to produce a Classic Method spumante (which are essentially the same that are used to make Champagne).  One interesting difference between Champagne and Italian Classic Method wines is the grapes: if we said that Champagne can only be made from all or some of the following grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the first being a white-berried grape variety, while the second a the third being black-berried grape varieties), the use of Pinot Meunier in the production of Italian Classic Method spumante is extremely rare and such grape variety is often replaced with Pinot Blanc (a white-berried grape). Certain Italian producers have also been experimenting making Classic Method spumante out of “unconventional” grape varieties, such as Cortese, Glera (aka Prosecco) and lately Carricante (a white-berried grape variety indigenous to Sicily), as you may recall if you read our recent post regarding Sicilian winemakers Planeta. We will talk about this more in our third post of this series.

Main Steps in the Classic Method Production Process:

  1. Soft pressing of the base wine grapes (separately for each grape variety)
  2. Treatments of the must (e.g., clarification and application of sulfur dioxide)
  3. Separate fermentation of each of the base wines by the addition of selected yeast (so-called “pied de cuve”)
  4. If appropriate, malolactic fermentation of the base wines (whereby lactic acid bacteria  convert the tart malic acid that is present in grape juice into sweeter lactic acid and carbon dioxide, thus making the wine “rounder”)
  5. Proprietary blending process of the varietal base wines to produce the so-called “cuvée” (pronounced “koovay“), that is the still wine resulting from the blend of the base wines
  6. Bottling of the cuvée, addition of the liqueur de tirage (a mix of wine, sugar and selected yeast that is used to start the in-bottle refermentation process typical of the Classic Method) and sealing of the bottle by using a crown cap known as “bouchon de tirage” to which a so-called “bidule” (see below) is attached
  7. In-bottle refermentation of the cuvée (so-called “prise de mousse”) that makes the wine bubbly because the carbon dioxide created by the yeast as a byproduct of alcoholic fermentation remains trapped inside the bottle and dissolves in the wine (roughly, every 4 gr of sugar present in the liqueur de tirage create 1 atm of additional pressure: generally, the liqueur de tirage contains 24 gr/lt of sugar, which at the end of the refermentation phase results in a 6 atm sparkling wine – however, in Crémant or Satén wines the liqueur de tirage contains less sugar thus producing a gentler pressure)
  8. Sur lie” (pronounced “soor lee”) aging phase: it is the period of time (which, depending on the applicable regulations of the producing country and relevant appellation, may range from 12 months to several years) that a Classic Method sparkling wine spends aging in the bottle on its lees (i.e., dead yeast cells) after the refermentation phase is completed
  9. Remuage: at the end of the aging phase on the lees, the bottles are placed in a pupitre (a wine rack that holds the bottles bottoms up at an angle) and are manually or mechanically rotated at regular time intervals along their axis so as to cause the lees to precipitate down the bottleneck and deposit into the bidule, that is a small receptacle attached to the inside of the crown cap of the bottle
  10. Dégorgement (or disgorgement): it is the removal process of the lees sediment after the remuage step is completed. Dégorgement was once performed manually by removing the crown cap so that the top portion of the wine (which, as a result of the remuage contains the lees sediment) would be ejected from the bottle. Nowadays it is generally a mechanical process that entails, after the remuage phase is completed, partially submerging the neck of the bottle (which is kept upside down) in an ice-cold solution (-25 C/-13 F) which freezes the portion of wine next to the crown cap and therefore also the lees sediment contained in the bidule so that the crown cap and the iced bidule containing the sediment can be easily removed
  11. Dosage: it is the phase following the dégorgement, when the liqueur d’expédition (a proprietary mix of wine and sugar) is generally added to finish off the sparkling wine restoring the desired amount of residual sugar – winemakers may decide, however, not to add any liqueur d’expédition (and therefore no additional sugar) to certain of their sparkling wines, which are known as “Dosage Zéro” or “Pas Dosé” and which as a result have extremely low residual sugar levels (around 0.5 gr/lt)
  12. Final sealing of the bottle with the typical “mushroom-shaped” cork and wire cage closure.

That’s all for now: we will continue our discussion in the next post, which will focus on the Charmat-Martinotti Method.

About Stefano

I am a photographer and an ISA certified sommelier. I contribute to two blogs, Flora's Table (the fine cooking and wine blog - www.florastable.com) and Clicks & Corks (my photography and wine blog - www.clicksandcorks.com). My photography Web site is at www.LightQuill.com
This entry was posted in Sparkling Wines, White Wines, Wine, Wine Education and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Psychobubbles: Unraveling the Intricacies of Italian Spumante – Part I

  1. Dina says:

    A truly enjoyable post, Stefano, interesting to read and the photo is sooooo inviting! No chmapagne around unfortunately, but tonight I’ll go for the prosecco. Cheers! 🙂

  2. Stefano says:

    Thank you very much, Dina! Good Prosecco is very good too!
    In the next posts there will be some recommendations in that camp too.
    Oh, and as you know I love your blog!!!
    Take care

  3. Stefano, I seem to remember Asti Spumante as being quite sweet, at least to my taste. Would you consider it so? Thanks! Lovely post.

    • Stefano says:

      Hi Kathy!
      Your recollection is most definitely right: Asti Spumante is a sweet Charmat-Martinotti style sparkling wine made out of Moscato Bianco grapes in the Asti DOCG appellation in Piemonte. It is generally used as a dessert wine that people drink during the Winter festivities together with panettone or pandoro (typical Italian Christmas treats). I will briefly touch upon it in my next posts of this series.
      Thanks for the question and for your kind comment 🙂

  4. Great post. Sadly it reminds me of how much I have forgotten about wine. I used once upon a long time ago to work in a wine shop and did a number of wine exams – but how quickly the knowledge evaporates when it’s not used.

    • Stefano says:

      Thank you for your comment!
      Please don’t be sad: it’s great that you took those wine exams and your knowledge is still there in your brain, it’s just that it has been temporarily stored on a different hard drive 🙂 nothing that cannot be fixed with a little brush up and… a few glasses of good wine! 🙂
      Cheers!

  5. Great educational post. I learned so much. I also had a friend who took a full course and she studied very diligently. It was a pleasure picking out a wine for a meal with her as she brought so much information to the table. This is an area that I would like to learn more about and I am certain you can help me with! Take care, BAM

  6. Kiara Style says:

    Stefano, I can’t wait for more posts! I have always been good at “drinking” wines, now I am truly enjoying reading about them! Salute 🙂

  7. Wow, you guys have been busy! Great stuff. I have my wife taking notes! haha.

  8. Gorgeous photo, Stefano.

  9. I know so little about wines.. my husband is the one in our family to collect and study wines. He pours me a glass now and then.. but I’ve always thought I should learn more! Great post!

    • Stefano says:

      Thank you very much, Barbara!
      I think that, once you have the basics all figured out, nothing beats learning by doing 😉
      Also, the post on Charmat-Martinotti style spumante will be coming soon…
      Take care

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