Italy’s sparkling new breed of old varieties

When Gianluca Viberti was in winemaking school, aged 18, he listened to a lecture given by a visiting Champagne producer. “You guys here have beautiful red wines,” said the producer. “But we have Champagne.” He then posed a question: “Do you know the difference between Champagne and Barolo?” The answer, he said, was that you could drink Champagne 24 hours a day, where you couldn’t with Barolo.

“Damn,” thought Viberti to himself. “That’s true.” And he decided that, one day, he would make his own sparkling wine. The opportunity came in 2010 when he moved into his own winery, 460 Casina Bric in Barolo, and started experimenting with sparkling Nebbiolo.

“If you look back at our Piedmont history, they’d already produced a spumante with Nebbiolo back in the eighteenth century,” he says. “I started experimenting in 2010 and 2011 and then I put it on the market in 2013.” He began with the Charmat method (which, as he points out, should be called the ‘Martinotti method’), and says he will launch his first metodo classico in 2018. “The interest is growing like crazy,” he says. “We are taking part in tastings almost every day. As soon as you say ‘sparkling Nebbiolo’, people say, ‘wow, let’s taste it.’”

Viberti says there are now between 15 and 20 wineries making sparkling Nebbiolo and that international interest is growing, particularly off the back of interest in Barolo.

The wines are part of a fast-growing trend in Italy: sparkling wines from autochthonous varieties.

Two trends converge
Think of ‘sparkling’ and ‘Italy’, and ‘Prosecco’ is usually the word that springs to mind. Prosecco is barnstorming the world, on track to sell 412m bottles by 2020, according to Vinexpo CEO Guillaume Deglise. But Italians themselves are moving in a whole new direction.

“If you look at Italy and the domestic market, you see two trends,” said Francesco Zonin, vice president of Zonin1821. “First, we are going back to local consumption.” In the 1990s, he explained, it was common to see people drinking Nero d’Avola in Milan, or Chianti Classico in Veneto. “Now people are going back to a local appellation.” The second trend is that sparkling wine is moving away from being a celebration-only drink, to taking its place at the table. “The two things are converging, so now you see Sangiovese Spumante, Verdicchio Spumante, and Ribolla, either in Charmat or metodo classico.” Zonin1821, which is not only Italy’s largest family-owned wine company but also a Prosecco producer, is itself soon to launch two new sparkling wines. One is a Falanghina from Masseria Altemura in Puglia, and the other is a Blanc de Noir from Sicily that’s 100% Nero d’Avola.

Future proofing
Andrea Leonardi, the operational director for Bertani, says that his company is also focusing on autochthonous varieties. “Italy can do something very interesting for our future,” he says. But he also says that the winemaking of the past decade has led to “the abuse of technology” and that Italians need to rediscover their old techniques, such as soft extraction.

The grape Ribolla Gialla, once used in blending to provide acidity, is a particular focus of attention. “It’s close to Glera,” he says. “It’s a variety with high acidity and it’s not really expressive in aromatics. If you want to develop aromatics, you have to work with the skins and maceration. It works very well with the traditional method, and spends 24 months on the lees.” Bertani also make a sparkling Verdicchio, a grape that has been used for sparkling winemaking in the past. Another promising grape is the once rare Passerina grape from the Marche region. “It’s very easy to drink,” says Leonardi, adding that there are new plantings of the grape emerging, and it’s seen a jump of 30% in sales in the past few years.

“We are coming back to what we have, not just following trends,” says Leonardi. “Throughout Italy there are so many unique grapes. Everyone is trying to find a different path to attain a great wine, starting from the raw material that we have.”

Or, as Viberti says, “We should work on what we have and what is exclusive to our area. We don’t need any more copies.”
Felicity Carter