Beyond Prosecco: Sip on these forgotten sparkling wines from Italy

Move over, Prosecco. There’s a new bubble in town.

Actually several, since somms and wine geeks are getting increasingly excited about less-familiar sparkling wines from Italy, a range that offers novelty, terrific pairing possibilities and high-quality flavour profiles thanks to artisanal production methods. The two buzziest imports are almost certainly Lambrusco and Franciacorta, which are enjoying a boost as the world wakes up to the idea that there’s more to Italian fizz than just Prosecco.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Prosecco, of course, a wildly popular wine that’s done a remarkable job at market penetration over the past 20 or so years. In going from obscurity to household name, it has eclipsed other Italian wines to the point that people often assume Prosecco is the generic name for fizz in Italy.

In fact, the word(s) you want for that are “spumante,” if you like a robust bubble, or “frizzante,” when you’re looking for something that’s subtly effervescent. As to the varietal and style, like everything in Italy, there’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of options.

That includes the world’s best-known sparkling red: Lambrusco, a wine that generally hails from Emilia-Romagna and has shot up from relative obscurity to somm fave, seemingly overnight. British Columbia’s liquor board, for example, has increased its Lambrusco listings five-fold (from one to five) in the space of a single year and, outside of retail, it’s an even hotter item for wine agents.

Some of the wine’s appeal stems from its food-friendliness (particularly with charcuterie) and some is driven by novelty. Restaurant patrons are keen to try chilled, sparkling reds but to be precise, it’s not exactly new, even to these parts.

“In the 1960s and 1970s it was actually one of the most imported wines in North America, even though it tasted a lot like alcoholic grape juice,” says Haley Mercedes, sommelier and bar manager at Vancouver’s Provence Marinaside. “It was sweet and it was a little cloying and it wasn’t really balanced, but it was fun and interesting and different. And then it fell out of fashion.”

Lambrusco then and now is night and day, says Mercedes, and quality-minded producers are now making serious wine. Styles range from the Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena, which could pass for a dry, light-bodied, sparkling rosé, to wines that could almost pass for a fruity lambic beer, such as the frothy, slightly cloying Chiarli Castelvetro that’s fairly consistently available in Ontario.

There are three DOC, or Controlled Designation of Origin, Lambruscos that tend to show up on Canadian shelves, even though there are over 60 made in Italy. Those are di Sorbara, Grasparossa and Salamino di Santa Croce, named for the regions where they originate. “Typically, the di Sorbara is very pale, bright and delicate and the Grasparossa and Santa Croce are darker, fuller and more brooding—closer to our idea of a red wine,” says Mercedes.

Lambrusco can come from Lombardy as well, but that wealthy, Northern region (home to Milano), is dominated by Franciacorta, a sparkling white, that we’re going to hear a lot more about. One of the top producers, Bellavista, was named 2017 Winery of the Year by the trend-setting publication Gambero Rosso and has been investing more effort in marketing in North America.

Franciacorta tends to be at least twice the price of Prosecco or Lambrusco, but compared with champagne, it’s a steal. “I don’t think it gets the exposure or the recognition that it absolutely deserves, I mean, it’s such beautiful wine,” says Jordan Alessi, wine director for the Chase Hospitality Group in Toronto. “I think people that are in the know love it and buy it, but I think that some sommeliers and retailers feel like they’re going to have a hard time selling something that people don’t understand.”

Then again, the last shipment of Franciacorta sold out almost immediately at Toronto’s Summerhill LCBO, a sign that the circle of “people in the know” is getting bigger. Drinkers have tweaked to the fact that the characteristics found in vintage champagne – rich, toasty and creamy flavours, balanced with light acidity – are also present in Franciacorta, which is produced according to metodo classico (traditional method).

The other factor is the number of wine connoisseurs who prefer to buy from small producers than large ones. As Bellavista brand ambassador Sara Pedrali recently pointed out at a dinner in Toronto, the entire yield of Franciacorta from Lombardia is smaller than the output of one of the giant champagne houses: Moet & Chandon produces more than 20 million bottles per year.

Of course, that means if Franciacorta really takes off, we’ll never be able to get our hands on it again. No need to fret, though, since it’s here now and, if it’s ever driven into scarcity, there’s no end of Brut Spumante, Bonardo, Brachetto and other regional gems just waiting for their moment in the spotlight.