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Of the under-appreciated categories in wine, Italian sparklers might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Sure, Prosecco has always been quite popular and people are starting to realize that not all Lambrusco is sticky sweet, but it's easy to miss out on some really compelling wines if they are only thought of as simple aperitifs. There's a whole crop of growers that are not only making sparkling wines from organically grown grapes, but also with more natural winemaking techniques: using indigenous yeasts for fermentation, not adding any sulphites or foreign sugars, and even fermenting bubbles in the bottle rather than in bulk. These wines are so much more than an inexpensive bottle to share at a party (though I certainly wouldn't mind seeing them at any I attend); they are expressive, contemplative, and utterly delicious. I assembled a list of some of our favorite natural Italian bubbles, all organically farmed, made with unusual care, and all worthy of your attention.
Azienda Agricola Giol is an estate whose wines we have been delighted to sell for a number of years. Dedicated to organic agriculture since 1987 and making a line of wines without the addition of sulphites since 2009. The Prosecco sur lie is fermented in bottle, unfined, unfiltered, and made without additional sulfites. Secondary fermentation in the bottle lends a slight toasty note and deep savory character, but since the wine is fermented dry, it is still crisp and refreshing, resulting in a Prosecco as well suited to food as it is an apertif.
Az. Agr. Costadila was founded in 2006 by Ernesto Cattel as a model farm, producing not only organically farmed wines but also practicing polyculture to spur interest in the area for more sustainable agriculture. The domain uses techniques notable in the world of Prosecco production: they grow not only the productive Glera grape but also Bianchietta and Verdiso, varieties known for bright acidity and vibrant fruit profiles. They ferment exclusively with native yeast, triggering the secondary fermentation in bottle with must from passito grapes, and rejecting fining, filtration, or added sulphites. All of this added effort is so that each cuvee can more fully express their particular terroir, shown through the practice of bottling based on the altitude of the vineyards.
Angiolino Maule, founder of La Biancara in Gambellara, has made an addictive sparkler from Garganega, the white grape of Soave. It is fermented to dryness in stainless steel tanks with native yeast and then refermented in bottle with grape must (as opposed to sugar). The farming here is conducted with the best interest of the land in mind; the grass is cut by hand, compost and nitrogen fixing plants enrich the soil, artificial treatments are shunned in favor of tisanes, herbal treatments, and if needed low doses of copper and sulphur. The wines are never fined or filtered and sulphur dioxide is only added in vintages that absolutely demand it.
Corte Pagieri is a new producer for us at Chambers and I couldn't be more excited about their rosato. It is produced from the grape Lambrusco di Sorbara, a common but very delicately colored type of Lambrusco. The small 3 hectare estate is certified organic and all fermentations occur not only with native yeast but the secondary fermentation also occurs in bottle, highly unusual for Lambrusco. No charmant tanks here! Warm summer temperatures trigger the second fermentation naturally consuming any remaining sugar resulting in a dry wine that is then rested for an additional year before release.
Vignetto Saetti, founded by Luciano Saetti and operated as a family affair, produces Lambruscos of unusual character from old vines of Salamino di Santa Croce, a variety of Lambrusco with a much deeper color than Sorbara but no less elegance. The farm is certified organic and has not used SO2 since 2007. The grapes are hand-harvested and rigorously selected, fermented dry in stainless steel tank by indigenous yeast with the secondary fermentation triggered by must from passito grapes, and allowed to ferment back to dryness in the bottle. Finally the wine is riddled and disgorged by hand. All this care results in a stunning, dry lambrusco, naturally made and absolutely perfect for rich foods.
Arcari + Danesi and Solouva are two projects making Franciacorta in a unique manner that is meant to better reflect the terroir of the region. Instead of using the traditional method, which was developed to suit the particular climate of Champagne, they employ a method called Solouva. The grapes are allowed to ripen to phenolic maturity resulting in richer wines that don't require much (or any) dosage. Any sugar that is added (both to trigger the secondary fermentation and any dosage) comes in the form of frozen grape must from the same vineyards as opposed to table sugar or RCGM. The wines see extended elevage in bottle on the order of three years to enhance their texture and integrate the mousse. The results are more opulent wines, in-tune with their terroir rather than champagne look-alikes. -Andy Paynter
Dry Lambrusco rosato still seems to be a bit of a rarity, which is baffling when examples like Corte Paglieri’s rosato are available. A deep bronze-hued ruby, the aromas of the wine practically jump out of the glass showing rhubarb, tart cherries, citrus zest with a deep violet floral tone. The palate is crisp, almost searingly so with out food, with a very delicate bubble and very low tannin, and notes of peaches and juicy strawberries. While not suited to the richest foods, this would be a perfect match for soft cheese, bitter veggies like fiddle head ferns, fatty fish, roast chicken, or pork chops with rhubarb compote. Andy Paynter
Saetti is wine that shows how deeply appealing natural wine can be when made with care; vinified completely without additives including SO2 it is not the least bit funky. It has a deep ruby color with a nose redolent of brambly red berries, dried violets, delicate hints of sweet spices, and a slight meaty tone. The wine is more frothy than it is fully sparkling, with a velvety texture cut by bright acidity with a slight tannic bite. On its own, it shows more overtly floral and quite juicy but, as a good Lambrusco should, it shines with food. Try it with charcuterie, pasta bolognese, pepperoni pizza, or as a match to any rich dish (burgers!). Andy Paynter
Giol’s Sur Lie Prosecco is consistently one of my favorite bottles of bubbles. Its organically farmed, vinified without sulfur, dry, and very refreshing, not to mention the fact that it costs well under 20$. Some people might be put off because the wine is fairly cloudy in the glass due to never being disgorged; but, the nose is bright and lemony with a slight salty note. The palate is bone dry with a refreshing mousse and tart green apple notes. It is lifted and very clean, well suited to food with its slightly bitter finish. Try it with oysters on the half shell, bacalao on toast, olives and cheese, or with eggs for brunch. Andy Paynter
Unfined and unfiltered and so a bit cloudy — this wine is one of only two Proseccos that we know about that’s made with indigenous yeasts — and it's also totally natural in terms farming and all aspects of the winemaking. This has a ton of character (especially considering how bland most Prosecco is) — a little grassy on the nose with pear and apple aromas, and somewhat yeasty. The wine is very dry and actually quite elegant, with a good long finish; it’s really intriguing, perhaps a bit challenging, but the more I taste it the more interesting it becomes.
When confronted with a sparkling wine made from a grape that usually isn't carbonated, I have to say that I am pretty tentative about taking the plunge; but time and again my skepticism proves to be unwarranted. Such was my experience with Garg’n’go, La Biancara’s sparkler made from Garganega, which is frankly delicious. A slightly turbid straw gold in the glass, the nose shows pronounced notes of ripe stone fruit, a yeasty character, preserved orange zest, and pear blossom. The texture is lush and creamy braced by a tight bead and great acidity showing more orchard fruit and a slight tropical note. Refreshing on its own, try Garg’n’go with summer salads, soft and washed-rind cheese, sashimi, or fried fish. Andy Paynter
Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi set out in 2006 to make Franciacorta in a style that paid more attention to the terroir of Lombardi than that of Champagne. Arcari e Danesi Dossagio Zero is the fruit of those efforts. Made from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Blanc, both harvested for ripeness, the wine is powerful on the nose with golden apple, ripe peach, layers of floral notes and a pronounced toasty note. The wine is full, smooth and very dry with a lively mousse, ripe orchard fruit, kiwi, and a mineral undertone. Rich and forward, Zero Dossagio would pair beautifully with washed rind cheese, pear and Gorgonzola salad, soft scrambled eggs, coconut curry, or other assertive dishes. Andy Paynter
Solouva, The side project of Giovanni Arcari with Andrea Rudelli, shows a more opulent side of Franciacorta. The nose shows very ripe fruit with notes of white peach and golden apple alongside guava and passion fruit with a slight brioche note from 3 years on the lees. The palate is fairly dry with good acidity but more than anything it is fleshy with juicy peaches and tropical fruit lifted by an active mousse. A luscious wine to try with grilled peaches and herbed goat cheese, chicken salad, bagels and lox, or rich soups. Andy Paynter