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Wine: Festive sparklers, Italian-style

The country's bubbly north offers taste and touch for the tongue


Posted: December 5, 2012

By John & Helena Baker - For the Post | Comments (0) | Post comment

Wine: Festive sparklers, Italian-style

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The Chateau Bzenec winery, formed in 1994 in south Moravia, produces the famous still white wine Bzenecká lipka.

Prosecco, Asti, Franciacorta, Trento. All these famous Italian sparkling wine denominations can provide the perfect tipple for the upcoming year-end celebrations.  

We start in the Italian northwest with Asti (formerly Asti Spumante), in the region of Piedmont. It was first produced around 1870 by one Carlo Gancia from Canelli. Using the locally available Moscato Bianco grape, he chose the Asti method of continuous in-tank fermentation rather than the far more expensive classical system of two fermentations in bottle as used in Champagne, where he had studied. By filtering out the yeast to halt the fermentation prematurely, he provided the wine with its pleasingly sweet fruity character. With many troops taking a taste for this seductive fizz home after World War II, particularly to the United States, an export boom followed. Unfortunately, the huge amounts of cheaply made bubbles washing across the Atlantic soon gained Asti the reputation of a ghastly substitute for the real McCoy. Despite a sterling effort to go for the higher ground, this prejudice lingered on, even when Asti received the coveted DOCG status and dropped the dreaded Spumante (spew-mante) tag in 1993. Today, though, the quality of the best wines with their low alcohol levels and light, delicate, grapey sweetness is not in doubt and, since 2004, Asti is the largest appellation in Italy by far. Among the best on the Czech market are Martini, Gancia and Terra da Vino.  

Moving on to Lombardy, we find Franciacorta, from the mineral-rich hills to the south of Lake Iseo in the province of Brescia. The protection from the nearby Alps and the water expanse ensure a mild and highly propitious climate for viticulture. Though the still wines from hereabouts were well known to ancient Rome - with Virgil, in particular, singing their praises - the first spumante (which just means sparkling) only arrived on the scene in 1961, produced by an ambitious young vintner at Belluci who was reluctantly given the green light to pursue his dream. To everyone's surprise, this became an instant success, with production going from the initial 3,000 bottles to 100,000 in a few years. The aim was to emulate Champagne, to which end the local regulatory body has worked exceedingly hard to protect the quality chain. The blend has to consist mainly of Chardonnay, with the rest being made up of the three Pinots: Gris and Blanc and the red Noir. The Champagne expert Tom Stevenson declared that Franciacorta is Italy's only world-class sparkling region. Try Berlucci, Ca' del Bosco and La Montina.

The Trento DOC applies only to spumante coming from the north of Lake Garda. It was invented by Giulio Ferrari, who brought Chardonnay grapes here at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, they have remained the mainstay of spumante production in this region, with its pristine setting in the valley of the Adige, cool air and excellent soil. Wines are made by the classical method and all production procedures are strictly controlled: training the vines, pruning, irrigation, harvesting and so on. The 5 million bottles produced annually count among the best sparklers in Italy, but are not cheap. Although no relation to the racing car some of the best still come from Ferrari, alongside those of Cavit and Cassata Monfort.

Coming from around Valdobbiadene, north of Venice, Prosecco is usually vinified to a stark dryness, made from grapes of the same name (aka Glera). Until the 1960s, Prosecco was generally not much different in style to the previously mentioned Asti. Now, with vast improvements in vinification techniques, it has successfully carved a huge niche in the outside world as a relatively cheap but high-quality frothy alternative to Champagne, renowned for its excellent primary aromas, freshness and relative neutrality. Wines are rather low in alcohol (10 percent to 11 percent) and should generally be drunk as young as possible. Top producers available here include Agostinetto, Valdo, Menissio, Sacchetto and Bellenda.

Winery of the month: Chateau Bzenec   

Chateau Bzenec is a winery that takes its name from the elegant Renaissance structure in that south Moravian town, near Hodonín. The company was formed in 1994 and now has 160 hectares producing a total of about 1 million bottles. Over the years, the local vineyards came under the aegis of a series of noble families such as the Žerotíns and Diechtrichsteins who in turn owned the domain.

Production includes several ranges, among them some good sparklers, although the most famous product is the still white wine Bzenecká lipka (named after the 900-year-old lime tree in front of the chateau that reputedly imbues it with its distinct floral scent). This is an inexpensive still wine made using Riesling grapes with a golden hue and honey and lime-flower tones. More recently, Chateau Bzenec has been part of the largest wine producer in the Czech Republic, Bohemia Sekt Group, under the direction of the reputed local vintner Aleksandr Flodr. (See Chateaubzenec.cz)

Wines of the month:

Italian sparkler: Cuvée Prestige  

Producer: Ca' del Bosco, Erbusco, Brescia, Franciacorta, Italy

Handpicked grapes, an elegant effervescence and a lovely mousse to open, followed by a nose ripe with yeastiness and a touch of nuts and apples - almost more Champagne than Champagne. A rounded robust mouth-filling palate evoking brioche and orange marmalade. Altogether a perfectly structured wine. (750 Kč)

Local sekt: Riesling Brut  

Producer: Chateau Bzenec, Bzenec, Moravia

Just to show the local sparklers are not to be ignored, this wine was produced using 100 percent Riesling grapes from the Stará Hora vineyard and made by the classical method after which it spent 24 months maturing in the cellar. It has a very good stream of fine bubbles. The palate is slightly honeyed, backed by a rich fruitiness of apricots and over-ripe pears with a nicely balanced acidity. (180 Kč)


John & Helena Baker can be reached at
features@praguepost.com

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