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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Bubbly Biography - The Story of Sparkling Wine - Part 2: Italy and The New World

Welcome back to the history of sparkling wine! Part One: France and Spain was about the emergence of intentional carbonation, the creation of methode champenoise, and the people who made it happen. Part Two: Italy and The New World is about the charmat method, partial fermentation, and the people who spread sparkling wine to new places. Part Three: Sekt and the Future will be about about what lies ahead.

Bacchus by Thomas Dodd
As stated in Part One, sparkling wine can be naturally occurring. Hell, I'm having an issue with Big Fire Pinot Gris going through a secondary fermentation at work right now. The pressure being created is loosening the caps and it's dripping! Give it a little help and it starts spraying out like I just won the Stanley Cup! WTF! But I digress...

It's been happening since wine has been made with no real explanation of why other than the gods made it happen, or it was the alignment of the moon, or there were jerk-face spirits messing with us. The Greeks ran into bubbles in their wine often. The Etruscans, Romans and other ancient civilizations of Italy, being the land of vines, experienced it often as well. Then in the Limoux and Champagne regions of France. It took some time for the reason behind the carbonation to be realized and created purposely. And when it was, Italy embraced it like no other.

The first sparkling wine on the list is actually red! It calls the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna its home and it was first cultivated by the Etruscans. I'm talking about Lambrusco. The name of the grape family is called Lambrusco as well as the wine and there's various varieties in that family, the most famous being Grasparossa di Castelvetro.

The Etruscans came to Tuscany from Asia Minor, attempting to escape famine, and enjoyed quite a golden-age there from the 8th to 5th century BCE. They spread their civilization into Lazio and Umbria to form Etruria, and they would expand further into Campania to the south, Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy to the north, and even the island of Sardinia.

Etruscan art
Not much is known about them because a lot of their shit simply didn't survive. There's not enough scripts to really know what their daily lives were even like. We do know that their government was a Chiefdom, a vastly different way of conducting your business in Italy back then, and that they valued monogamy and military. They'd eventually be beaten down into submission and conquered by the Roman Republic in the 3rd century BCE.

But their Lambrusco did survive and it thrives in Emilia-Romagna, the culinary capital of Italy and the cured meat capital of the world. Emilia-Romagna doesn't have a world-renowned wine, like Tuscany has Chianti or Piedmont has Barolo, for the same reason that it's so incredible for food: the land is so giving and fertile and, simply put, wine hates that noise. Grapes have to struggle to produce good wine. Lambrusco is a high-yield grape anyways so it was originally thought that if you have no choice but to go with quantity over quality then you should go all out, right?

Lambrusco became a hit in the United States in the 1970's and 1980's. It was sweet, cheap and chuggable. Because of that, most people cringe and think of Riuniti when Lambrusco is brought up. But that's no longer the case! Lambrusco is AWESOME and comes super dry to super sweet and everywhere in between. A quality Lambrusco is going to have strawberry, dark cherry, earthiness and even some bitterness. Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile is semi-sweet and amazing with pizza. Becco Rosso Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro is super dry and the perfect partner with antipasto.

Sparkling wine map of Europe

In the northeastern part of the country, by Slovenia and Austria, is the Veneto region where the city of Trieste's surrounding areas had its own special grape that was thought to have originated in the nearby village of Prosecco.

Roman author Pliny the Elder, clearly a drinker since I've mentioned him half a billion times in the history of this blog, mentioned his love of wine from Trieste in his Natural History encyclopedia. He called the wine Pucinem. In 1593 some English dude that traveled a lot, Fynes Moryso, wrote down the first mention of a certain name change: "Here growed the wine Pucinum, now called Prosecho, much celebrated by Pliny." From then on until recently both the wine and the grape would be called Prosecco, but now the grape is officially Glera.

Priest and poet Aureliano Acanti in 1754 wrote "And now I would like to wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet." The Glera grape had spread through the Veneto and was now in the neighboring region of Friuli as well, but it wasn't for another 60 years or so that it would get all glam-rock with sparkles.

Charmat autoclaves
The carbonation method used for both Prosecco and the first wine discussed, Lambrusco, is called Metodo Charmat-Martinotti in Italy and method charmat in France. It's also known as the tank method, the bulk method, and cuve close. It was Federico Martinotti, the director of the Research Institute for the Wine of Asti, that first patented the method in 1895. Then in 1910 a French guy named Eugene Charmat patented the equipment. Thus, Charmat-Martinotti. It wasn't until recently that, through technology, the School of Oenology in Veneto turned it into an exact science and perfected it.

Just like the traditional method, a base wine is made and blended. Rather than going into bottles it goes into massive, pressurized stainless-steel tanks where sugar and yeast are added. The wine referments, and the carbon dioxide stays dissolved because of the pressurization of the tank. The lees is filtered, a dosage for the desired sweetness/dryness level is added, and the wine is bottled.

Sparkling wine is made this way all over the world but mostly in Italy. If the winery using this method wants a bit of a champagne profile they'll let the lees sit in the tank longer before it's filtered out. Prosecco wants a young, clean, crisp and malic wine so it's filtered right away. It can have quite a bit of sugar added to its dosage or it can be dry as a bone.

So here's the cool thing about Moscato: it's friggin old. Some even believe it may be the oldest vitis vinifera grape ON THE PLANET. Moscato is the Italian name for Muscat, an entire grape family containing 500 different members, red and white. The Moscato you're thinking about, and I'm going to be talking about, is Muscat Blanc À Petits Grains... AKA Moscato Bianco, AKA Moscato CanelliThrough ancient descriptions and modern tracking it's believed, not proven, to go as far back as 3000 BCE with the Egyptians. We do, however, know that the Greeks used it as an ingredient in their beer. Regardless of when and where this grape first appeared in history, it eventually found itself in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. There it particularly took hold in the towns of Asti and Alba.

Carlo Gancia
The very first sparkling Asti was made by the mysterious Carlo Gancia in 1870 using metodo classico (the Italian name for the traditional method). He did this in the town of Canelli and the grape he used was Moscato Bianco, which became known locally as Moscato Canelli. It gained popularity quickly and didn't take long for other wineries to hop on board and make their own. It was called Asti Spumante, spumante meaning "froth" or "fully sparkling".

During the second World War it was popular with the American soldiers. The sweetness and quaffability was pretty appealing and goddamn delicious. So when they went back home the demand for Asti skyrocketed. Twitter was blowing up with the #Asti hashtag. Look it up, I'm not lying. It became a struggle to keep up with demand so many producers went over to the Charmat method. Most of what was exported was garbage, and it gained a reputation for being such, but it slowly got better. When it was granted DOCG status in 1993 the Spumante was dropped from the name and it would become just Asti. The Gancia brand is still around, producing Asti and Prosecco.

A vineyard in Asti
Asti uses partial fermentation so it's not fermented to completion like Prosecco. At a certain point, when it's at the sugar/alcohol level that the winemaker desires, the tank is chilled enough to stop fermentation and the yeast is removed. This leaves sugar that the yeast hasn't converted to alcohol yet and gives the wine its sweetness. The cool thing about this is that they can just leave it chilled in the tank for months until it needs to be bottled. Bottling once a year is too long of a wait because you want your Asti as new and as fresh as it can be. It doesn't age well and the shelf life really isn't all that long, so it's bottled by demand.

There are three different levels: Asti is fully sparkling with 7-9% alcohol. Moscato d'Asti is frizzante, meaning it's kinda fizzy rather than fully sparkling, and it only has 5% alcohol. Moscato is still, can be from anywhere because that's the name of the grape, and has 5-8% alcohol. They are all semi-sweet to sweet and have the unmistakable flavors and aromas of peaches and apricots. It actually kind of disturbs me when wine from Moscato gets slammed. It's just fun, yummy, easy to drink and low in alcohol so you can drink more of it. I ask you, dear reader: What's wrong with that?

Brachetto d'Acqui is also sweet and also gets its sparkle through partial fermentation... but it's red. The wine region of Acqui, named for the city of Acqui Terme, is right up against Asti to the southeast and part of it even overlaps into Asti. Nobody knows where the Brachetto grape came from but there's some evidence it may have been France. Even so, rumor has it that Julius Caesar and Marc Antony gave a bunch of Acqui wine from the Brachetto grape to Cleopatra as gifts. Because of its sweetness, its strawberry profile, and being a great pair with chocolate, it's the perfect wine for Valentine's Day. My favorite is the $18-20 Rosa Regale.

United Vacations

In what state would you think the United State's of America's first sparkling wine was produced? I mean, the obvious answer would have to be California. Some people may guess Texas or Virginia. Those are all wrong. It was Ohio.

Nicholas Longworth
Meet Nicholas Longworth, AKA The Father of the American Wine Industry. This guy's daddy was a rich hot-shot merchant in Newark, New Jersery and was loyal to the King during the Revolutionary War. When the war ended in 1783, the same year Nicholas was born, his father was punished by being stripped of everything he had and becoming just another poor dude with no food and tattered shoes. Nicholas grew up in poverty and a target of mockery for his father's allegiance.

Because of this, he was an ambitious 5'1" son of a bitch. Nothing gets things done like a good chip on your shoulder and a Napoleon complex. He was a hard worker, becoming an apprentice to a shoemaker as a child and then moving from Newark to South Carolina to work as a banker. When he was only 19 years old he decided to head west for bigger opportunities. He ended up settling in Cincinnati, Ohio two years later where he studied law for only six months, passed the bar, and opened up his own practice. Rather than use his earnings on stuff and things, he invested it in real estate. His properties turned an even bigger profit and Longworth found himself a very wealthy man.

But he didn't forget where he came from and he would be one of the greatest philanthropists of all time. He'd give away anywhere from 300 to 800 loaves of bread a week and built apartment buildings to rent out below cost to families in poverty. When he retired from law at the age of 36 he devoted his life to three things: helping the poor, making wine, and turning a profit on his other properties to fund it all.

Nick actually supported the Temperance Movement. Hard liquor like gin and whiskey was a societal problem among the poor and downtrodden, and it irked him to see people drinking themselves into stupors and death. So, he looked for an alternative that was healthier with less alcohol. He felt that Cincinnati was a great place to grow grapes for wine and that Catawba would be the grape to do it with. Attempting viticulture in new places and using non-traditional grapes weren't necessarily new epiphanies but what he was doing with it was: he would make America's first sparkling wine.

Catawba is a hybrid of vitis labrusca and vitis vinifera. Most grapes used for wine are from the vitis vinifera species while table grapes, jams and grape juice are from vitis labrusca. Labrusca, native to America, tends to bring a certain musky profile (also known as "foxy") when made into wine and Catawba retained that characteristic. But that didn't stop Longworth from making killer stuff with it.

He planted his vines on the hillsides of Mount Adams and used the traditional method of Champagne to make Sparkling Catawba. He found that the second fermentation would eliminate the foxiness and left an outstanding sparkling wine. From the 1830's into the 1850's his Sparkling Catawba was tearing it up like it was the Thneed from The Lorax. The German population of the area especially found it to be of their liking. Longworth inspired other Ohioans to start up vineyards and wineries, and the state supplied one-third of America's wine in 1860. But, unfortunately, the massive success of Sparkling Catawba died with him in 1863 when he was 80 years old.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poet whose works included Paul Revere's Ride, published a poem in 1856 about Longworth's wine titled Ode to Catawba Wine. You can read the poem in its entirety here:

In 1848, fifteen years before the death of Nicholas Longworth, Francis Korbel aimed his gun and took the first shot to start a revolution. He was in his home country of Bohemia, now the greater portion of the Czech Republic. He, like everybody else, was ripshit at the Hapsburg monarchy so they went and did something about it. The revolution would fail and Francis found himself imprisoned... until Nana Korbel saved his ass. His grandmother snuck in some civvies during a visit and Francis just walked right out unnoticed, smoking the sweet cigar of freedom.

The Korbel Brothers
Francis fled the country for America and wound up in San Francisco in 1860. When he got there he started making cigar boxes and he begged his brothers Anton and Joseph back in the old country to come join him. Two years later they formed F. Korbel & Brothers, Inc. and they became the cigar box kings.

In 1872 an opportunity came up to buy some land loaded with timber and they snatched it right up. Everybody and their cousins were moving out to California and wood was in demand for buildings. They brought over Winsel, another brother, from Bohemia to head that operation but he got sick and died, like, immediately so they took it on themselves. The boom didn't last though, and they couldn't sell the timber that remained. So they planted all sorts of crops on the cleared plots to keep the land profitable. They started to discover that they had something special when they began to plant vineyards. The Pinot Noir was particularly extraordinary. You see, this timber land was Sonoma County's Russian River Valley.

At first they sold their grapes to wineries but decided to give it a go themselves. By 1882 they were making a killing and in 1884 they hired Frank Hasek, a winemaker from Prague, to do his best imitation of champagne with a Korbel house style. This was a tall order and not as easy as it seems, especially back then. They didn't want a sparkling wine; they wanted CHAMPAGNE from California. He couldn't just use methode champenoise and everything would magically meet those high expectations. He had to plant the right grapes in the right places, uprooting and trying something or somewhere else if he had to. He had to get multiple systems down where there was none before, and adapt and evolve what he already knew about making champagne to the climate and weather patterns of this new territory. Also, as you learned in Part One, he had to build up vintages to blend together. And then there was the blending to find a consistent Korbel character. It took Hasek ten friggin years and Korbel's "Champagne", the first sparkling wine of California, was released in 1894 to the sound of much appraisal and awards.

Korbel survived prohibition and is still a top-selling maniac. They still use the forbidden "C word" on their label but they put California before it, so it reads California Champagne. Their Brut and Extra-Dry styles are the default New Years Eve celebratory bubbly for most Americans, and they make a ton of other styles too. For what it's worth, brandy as well.

Sparkling wine is made all over the America's in any wine growing region, using the traditional method and the charmat method. Some of the best in the USA come from Napa Valley, California. New Mexico's Gruet is awesome. The Canadian regions of British Columbia and Ontario are selling their bubbly like crazy, and they've found that Nova Scotia's growing conditions are strikingly similar to Champagne's so they're starting to make it happen there too. Brazilian sparkling wine is sweet and chuggable. Argentina makes sparkling Malbec with no maceration so it's white. And it's delicious.

Sparkling Shiraz
The Sparkling Shiraz of Australia, however, ain't white. It's very much red. Sure, they make outstanding champagne-style white's from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but Sparkling Shiraz is unique to Australia.

Shiraz is the same grape as Syrah, a variety native to Rhone Valley, France. It acquired the Shiraz name when it was brought down to South Africa and, contrary to popular belief, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Persian city of Shiraz. It went from South Africa to Australia in 1832, carrying the Shiraz name with it. A recent trend in South Africa has them rejecting the Shiraz name, labeling it Syrah instead.

The Aussie's love their Shiraz and always have. It's their flagship wine so why wouldn't they add some bubblage? But it turns out this isn't a new thing like you, or I, would think. Sparkling Shiraz was first made 126 years ago.

Léon Edmond Mazure was born in Seine et Marne, France in 1860 to a family of vineyard owners. He attended the Christian Brothers College in Burgundy and, at the age of 18, worked on the legendary Clos Vougeot before heading to Spain for more education in viticulture and winemaking. While in Barcelona he decided to hop on a ship heading to New Ireland, an island of Papua New Guinea, because he just needed more excitement in his life, I guess.

Of course he hated it there. So he left at the first chance he got... and promptly got his ass shipwrecked... for two weeks. Some Germans eventually came around and they gave everybody a lift to New Britain, another Papua New Guinea island. He got a job working for some other Germans there and, after a year, decided it was time to go back home to France. The layover in Sydney, Australia turned out to be much longer than anticipated because he ended up accepting a job as a winemaker. It was 1884 and he was only 23 years old. The following year he was on his way back from looking at a prospect vineyard with two companions and the car they were in somehow managed to crash into a moving train. Mazure was a very lucky guy to be the only survivor.

Léon Edmond Mazure
In 1888, after several brief stints elsewhere, he was hired as the manager of the Auldana vineyard in Adelaide, South Australia. Auldana's main grape? Shiraz! And Mazure's specialty? Methode champenoise sparkling wine! After one year on the job he had made the first Sparkling Shiraz and named it Sparkling Burgundy. That was the same name used for another short-lived sparkling red made by the Victorian Champagne Company at the beginning of the decade.

Even with the success of his version of Sparkling Burgundy he was more about the traditional champagne style, using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and was the first to produce massive amounts of it in Australia. In 1903 he became partner and managing director of Auldana. He founded his own House, Romalo, in 1919 and retired in the early 1920's. During his career he won first place in wine competitions 98 times, second place 81 times, and third place 12 times. Mazure would die in 1939 at 78 years old. He was a "champagne" genius and Australian wine overall wouldn't be the same without his influences.

Sparkling Burgundy was pretty popular until 1934 when Australia hit an economic depression. It really didn't recover until it was forced to be called Sparkling Shiraz in 1994. Australians gained a taste for it again in the 90's and it's now especially popular at Christmastime. It's available in the United States, although not all that easy to find. I love the stuff and if it's being poured at a trade tasting I make sure that I find my way to that table.

The island of Tasmania was one of the first places in Australia to grow grapevines and now it's producing fantastic sparkling wine from the traditional method. There's more on Tasmania in Part 3.

Italy just called. It misses you. Let's go back there.

There's pretty much no area in Italy that hasn't been making wine since forever. Pliny the Elder, our good old buddy, referred to wine from Franciacorta as Franzacurta. Franciacorta is within Lombardy, which is between Piedmont (Asti) and Veneto (Prosecco). And as long as wine has been made there, it wasn't until 1961 CE that it would make... Franciacorta. Does that make sense? Hold on, it will.

Franco Ziliani
There are two famous Franco Ziliani's in the Italian wine industry. One of them is a wine journalist, who's irrelevant to this article, and the other founded a wine that's considered among the best in the world. Like Carlo Gancia, the latter Ziliani is harder to find information about than it is to find Jimmy Hoffa's body. I can't even find the year he was born. ANYWHERE. I can tell you that he was still alive in 2011 for the 50th anniversary of his opus, but I couldn't tell you if he still is. You have no idea how much that frustrates me.

Regardless, he was a man in love with no other wine but champagne and he became a winemaker for Berlucci with dreams of recreating it in Franciacorta. The soil was right and the climate was right, with Lake Iseo moderating the Continental influences. Berlucci finally granted him permission in 1961 to produce 3,000 bottles, probably because they were sick of him asking at every meeting. He originally made it the exact same way the Champenoise do it, down to the grape varieties, and it would evolve in a vacuum from there.

He named it Pinot di Franciacorta and it was an immediate hit. Berlucci raised the production to 20,000 the next year and soon after to 100,000. It was that good. Other wineries inside and outside of the area started making their own. Because of the wines popularity, its tremendous quality, and the fact that production was spreading outside of the area, the DOC hammer came down in 1967 to protect this new wine revelation. The borders were drawn, the rules were made, and the "Pinot di" was dropped. It was now just Franciacorta. The pride and joy of the region.

Franciacorta was the first Italian wine to require metodo classico. It was also the first Italian wine to require labeling metodo classico. The grapes allowed are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Noir), Pinot Blanc and Pinot Grigio. It can be white or rosé. One of the weird things about Franciacorta is that the bottle aging on the lees can't start until February. That's kind of late but I'm sure they have their reasons. I've noticed that it is extremely popular in any form of wine society. Society of Wine Educators, Guild of Sommeliers, WSET, you name it. They're always pouring that stuff at their events. And why not?

- Joey Casco, CSW

PART 3: SEKT AND THE FUTURE covers Germany, the former Soviet Union, and the up-and-coming prospects of sparkling wine.

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  1. Wine chart Wow, cool post. I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real hard work to make a great article... but I put things off too much and never seem to get started. Thanks though.

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