(photo courtesy of Ca’ del Bosco)

Italian sparkling wines mirror the country’s diversity of dialects, cuisines and regions.

Sparkling wines are produced in the north, center, and south, from grapes such as nebbiolo, lambrusco, glera, pinot noir, pinot bianco, chardonnay, barbera, monica, moscato and brachetto. They arrive from dry to sweet with alcohol levels stretching from five to 13 percent, and bottled with atmospheric pressures from that of Champagne to gentle frizzante (about half that of Champagne).

Two methods are employed to make the sparkling wines: Charmat (or tank), where the bubbles are created by initiating the second fermentation in large stainless-steel pressurized tanks (used for inexpensive wines such as Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti, and most Lambruscos). And the traditional method, called metodo classico in Italy, in which the second fermentation takes place in each bottle.

It is the latter method, however, that elevates a select group of Italian sparkling wines into the realm occupied by Champagne. These wines originate from two regions: Lombardy and Trentino-Alto Adige.

Last week, the Italian food and wine publication, Gambero Rosso held its annual New York City tasting for the wine producers receiving its top award of “Three Glasses,” or Tre Bicchieri. My tastings included old friends, so to speak, and a few new wines.

Please note that all the sparkling wines were tasted from a standard 8-ounce wine glass, which reduces the sensation of acidity and bubbliness while increasing the fruit aromas and flavors. (Reserve the flute for toasting occasions, when appearances and celebrations are the focal point.)

In Lombardy, Franciacorta (frahn-chah-COR-tah) is a wine area of 5,400 acres around the city of Brescia. It is overwhelming planted with chardonnay, followed by pinot noir and pinot bianco. Its winemaking rules are similar—and even more restrictive in some aspects—to Champagne’s: Nonvintage Franciacorta must be aged at least 25 months with not fewer than 18 months on its lees (spent yeast cells and microscopic grape particles), and vintage wine must be aged at least 37 months, with not less than 30 months on its lees. This is longer than Champagne’s nonvintage requirements and similar to Champagne’s vintage regulation.

My first sparkling wine was a decades-old favorite, Bellavista. I think it’s not only the best Franciacorta, but one of the best sparkling wines in the marketplace. When I attend VinItaly, a mega press and trade wine show in Verona, Italy, I always make Bellavista my first stop at 10am and my last stop at 4pm. No better way to awaken your palate for a day of tastings, and a grand way to cleanse it of the day’s tannins.

Along with the 2009 Bellavista Franciacorta Pas Opere’ receiving the Tre Bicchieri award, Bellavista was also named Winery of the Year by Gambero Rosso. The 2009 Bellavista Pas Opere’ stands on the shoulders of multiple Tre Bicchieri awards, most recently being the 2006 and 2005.

“Pas Opere”—“Nature” in the Champagne lexicon–designates no more than two grams of sugar per liter of wine.

Made from approximately two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot noir, and aged in oak barrels, the refined herbal and honeyed aromas are amplified on the palate with mouth-filling white fruit, honey and saline flavors. The composition of tiny bubbles, elegant aromas and flavors and a long, lingering finish are superlative. 96 points.  Just arrived in our market. Expect to pay a very reasonable $60 to $65 for this excellent wine.

Ten years after creating Bellavista, the Moretti family established Contadi Castaldi in 1987. Constructed as the flip side of the Bellavista’s 190-acre vineyard estate, Contadi Castaldi is a negociant with long-term contracts with more than 40 vineyard owners, who are supervised by a technical team of agronomists, and enologist who make the wine.

The 2012 Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Zero has no dosage, the sugar (cane or beet) and wine mixture added to champagne after disgorgement that determines its sweetness level. Usually, I find Champagne’s designated Brut Zero or Brut Sauvage as being too acidic and angular for my palate, but Franciacorta in general, and the 2012 Contadi Castaldi Zero is rounder with rich, apple and melon flavors. 91 points.  Will be available in May. Expect to pay about $35 to $40.

Ca’ del Bosco has a grip on my memory: In the mid-1980s, I spent part of a day at the winery with its owner Maurizio Zanella. Towards the end of the tasting, he invited me and my wife to dinner with him and his wife.  Around 8pm, I got in the front passenger’s seat of his green Mercedes-Benz with our wives sitting in the rear seat. Maurizio said the restaurant was in another region, and we would arrive there about 9pm.  After driving on some local roads, Maurizio entered the Autostrada and moved into the left lane. Within seconds I watched the speedometer pass 100 kilometers an hour, then 150, 175, 200, and reaching a crushing speed of 220 kph (135 miles per hour). We arrived on time. And with the exception of flying in an airplane, I’ve never traveled faster.

The vineyard and wines began in 1964 when Zanella’s mother, Annamaria Clementi purchased a five-acre plot Ca’ del Bosc (Piedmontese dialect for “house in the woods”) as a weekend retreat from Milan.

Zanella was an unruly teenager, causing his father to banish him to the country house where he worked with the caretaker, and tended the small vineyard. That experience “qualified” Zanella to go on a wine trip to France with a group of Franciacorta winemakers. After visiting and tasting the wines of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, he returned home with a passion to make wine. Zanella’s small vineyard was extended and his first wines were a white (1972) and red (1975); the first sparkling wine was made in 1976. Three years later, Andre Dubois, formerly the winemaker at Taittinger and Moet & Chandon was hired, bringing the expertise that raised the quality of Ca’ del Bosco sparkling wines to Champagne level.

(Note to exasperated parents: if you have an unruly teenager, you might consider sending him or her on a wine trip to France—cheaper than military boarding school.)

The 2011 Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Dosage Zero Vintage Collection follows a long history of Tre Bicchieri awards for this wine.  It is 65 percent chardonnay, 13 percent pinot bianco and 22 percent pinot noir.  It is dry without being tart, full-bodied, and displays apple, ginger and honeyed flavors. While aged six years, its name “vintage collection” is a message to age it for a few more. You’ll be happy you did. 95 points.  Will be available later this year. Expect to pay a very reasonable $65 to $70 for this excellent wine.

The Ricci Curbastro family traces its history in Franciacorta to the 13th -century when they fled warfare in Florence. In 1967, they were one of the 11 producers who formed the Franciacorta appellation, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).

Expanded from its original six acres, Ricci Curbastro is now an 80-acre estate with 68 acres planted to chardonnay and pinot noir. The 67-year-old Riccardo Ricci Curbastro is the winemaker and director.

Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri award went to the 2012 Ricci Curbastro Franciacorta Extra Brut. With equal parts chardonnay and pinot noir, and aged for four years, it shows pronounced white fruit and lemon meringue aromas and flavors that are immensely appealing. The two grams of sugar in the dosage is all that is needed for this very pleasing sparkler. 91 points.  The wine is expected to arrive in August to September. $50 is the projected price.

The Gatti family from left to right: Laura, Andrinea, Roberto, and Matteo (courtesy of Ferghettina)

Ferghettina (fer-gett-INA) was founded in 1991 when Roberto Gatti purchased a winery and seven-acre vineyard from a friend whose husband had recently died. Instead of buying more vineyards, Gatti signed long-term leases and now controls 445 acres of vineyards spread across nine Franciacorta districts. Today Ferghettina is a full family affair with his two children, Laura and Matteo, who have university degrees in enology, working in the cellar and vineyards, and his wife Andrinea overseeing the office.

They received the Tre Bicchieri award for the 2009 Ferghettina Franciacorta Pas Dos 33 Riserva. The Pas Dos designates this sparkler as having no dosage, or in Champagne terms Brut Zero or Brut Sauvage.  But savage it’s not.

Made only from chardonnay, this blanc de blancs was aged 80 months (!!) on its lees, yielding an enchanting mix of vanilla, ginger and pear aromas and flavors. Its complexity rides on a full body that’s balanced with acidity and lingers with pleasure. This is a very well-made sparkling wine. 93 points. Will be in the market later this year. Retail price will be about $56.

Lo Sparviere is a 16th-century villa adorned with a hawk (lo sparviere) on the coat –of -arms above the fireplace in the main hall. It is also the Franciacorta winery of the Gussalli Beretta family of firearm fame and -fortune. The Berettas planted 63 of their 150 -acres with chardonnay and pinot noir.

Rounding out awards in 2008 and 2007, the 2009 Lo Sparviere Franciacorta Extra Brut created a Tre Bicchieri trifecta with the same honor this year.

Like the prior two vintages, the 2009 Extra Brut is 100-percent chardonnay. The first fermentation is 80 percent in stainless-steel tanks and 20 percent in oak barrels of various sizes. After six months aging, the two cuvees are blended, and the bottled wine completed its second fermentation, and was aged on its lees until disgorged in October 2016. Its three grams of sugar is the mid-point for the Extra Brut designation.

All these steps led to a richly scented and mouth-filling 2009 Extra Brut. You’ll enjoy the fresh bread, cashew and ripe pear aromas, followed by a honey and mildly toasted almond and cashew flavors. Its balancing acidity brings a sunset-length finish. 91 Points.  Will arrive in mid-spring; expect to pay about $33 to $40.

Trentino-Alto Adige is the most northern wine region in Italy. Its sparkling wine area is the DOC province of Trento where only the white grapes chardonnay and pinot blanc, and the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier are permitted for sparkling wines.

For me, the sparkling wines of Trento have a crisper acidity and more minerality than the wines of Franciacorta. In that sense, I find them closer to Champagne.

Ferrari the wine is like Ferrari the car: sleek and desirable. Giulio Ferrari was an enologist, who in 1902, left his teaching position at the San Michele all’ Adige Agrian Institute for a work-study trip to France’s Champagne region.

Realizing the similarity of the Trento area to Champagne, he returned home with chardonnay vines to plant in the Trento’s hillside vineyard. And, with that, he introduced to Italy not only chardonnay, but also the Champagne method of making sparkling wine.

Fifty year later, the childless Ferrari sold the company to Bruno Lunelli, a local wine merchant with five children. Today, the third generation of Lunellis are making what many consider to be the finest Italian sparkling wines.

The Giulio Ferrari bottling is Ferrari’s version of Champagne’s Prestige Cuvee. Ferrari ages the wine for 10 years on its lees (comparable to Champagnes such as Taittinger Comtes de Champagne; Pol Roger Cuvee Winston Churchill, and Piper-Heidsieck Rare), so the most recent vintage is the Tre Bicchieri 2005 Trento Brut Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore.

The wine is pure chardonnay and made from grapes of a single-vineyard, Maso Pianizza at an altitude of 1,650-2,000 feet. Refined white fruit and honeysuckle aromas introduce the elegant texture and supple pastry cream and honeyed flavors. The 2005 Giulio Ferrari Riserva has all the qualities of a great Champagne. Or is it the other way around?  96 points. The wine will be in retail stores in March. Price ranges from $110 to $135.

Cesarini Sforza is a separate wine company operating under the umbrella of a cooperative of more than 800 growers producing various levels of sparkling Trento wines.

The 2009 Cesarini Sforza Trento Extra Brut Tridentum garnered the Tre Bicchieri award for its blanc de blancs made from chardonnay grown in hillside volcanic soil at 1,600 feet above sea level. The 2009 Extra Brut Tridentum displays a mild white fruit aroma and tangy apple and pear flavors riding a steam of acidity and minerality to a pleasing finish. Its 3.5 grams of sugar puts at the mid-point of the extra brut range. 90 points.  And it’s good value at about $35.

Rotari is the prized winery within Gruppo Mezzacorona, a huge agricultural cooperative that reaches from Trentino to Sicily. Named for the Lombard King Rotari, who conquered northern Italy, and took the honorary title “Flavio” in memory of the Roman Empire.

The 2008 Trento Rotari Flavio Riserva joins the 2007 and 2006 Flavios collection of Tre Bicchieri awards. Made from a selection of the winery’s best chardonnay, and aged five years on its lees, the gold-colored sparkler is full-bodied with a creamy baked apple aroma and flavor. 89 points.   The wine will arrive later this year. 

wine photos: John Foy