September 26, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Bubble battle

By |2018-03-21T18:23:31+01:00December 1st, 2006|Food & Wine Archive|
Who needs France?

Veuve Cliquot? Möet Chandon? Phaugh! You might as well be drinking Coca-Cola… There are Italian spumante twice as worthy!”

Italian bubbly trumps champagne? That’s a bold statement, borderline heresy for some, and if the person speaking were anyone other than Luigi Cotti, I’d smile politely and walk away.

But when it comes to wines, Cotti isn’t simply well informed, he’s an expert.

His family’s wine shop — Enoteca Cotti at Via Solferino, 42 in Milan — is old-school establishment. Among the premier wine stores in Italy, it has been serving vinous wonders to the Milanese for a century. With Christmas and New Year’s around the corner, I’ve come for a few bottles of toast-worthy champagne. But when I mention the more well known French champagnes, he looks at me as if I’d suggested peeing in the tastevin.

“Surely you’re not saying Prosecco is better than champagne?” I venture. Cotti might. He’s known for being cheerfully chauvinistic when it comes to Italian wines, but this time he’s dead serious.

“Be careful!” he warns me with the wag of a finger. “Prosecco is something else entirely!” I’m soon learning the vagaries of the “Charmat” method, with which Proseccos are produced. The prosecco grapes — exclusive DOC’s of Valdobbiadene and Conigliano — are fermented together in a single large steel vat for a maximum of six months before being bottled and sold to the public. The key with prosecco is to capture the freshness of the grape, and so with only a few exceptions, there are no long fermenting periods, and the wine is usually consumed the same year it’s produced.

The “Champenois” method is microsurgery by comparison. To make champagne, vintners bottle the harvest immediately, sediment and all, capping individual bottles with a metal bottle cap that comes equipped with a specially-designed plastic lip.

Initially, the bottles are kept lying flat so that the sediment can distribute taste evenly throughout the wine. Then they are inserted into a “pupitre,” a wooden stand filled with dozens of elliptical holes that make it possible to turn the bottles and increase their angle of incline little by little, one month after the next, until the bottles finally reach vertical. The process of shaking and turning is known as remuage (or riddling, in English), and must be done once every three or four days for a maximum of six to eight weeks.

This way, all the sediment settles into the plastic lip inside the cap.

In the final steps, the top of the neck is frozen, producing an interior pressure that blows the cap off, taking the sediment with it. Many maisons then add a few drops of their own secret flavors — vanilla, cognac or the remains of choice vintages — and voilà, le champagne!

Despite technological advancement, this method remains highly labor-intensive, usually requiring hand-turning of the bottles and constant oversight. This explains why champagne is so hard to make and thus so expensive.

“The best Italian vintners work their chardonnay and pinot noir grapes using the same method,” continues Cotti, “only they can’t call it ‘champenois,’ since that’s a protected name specific to one region in France. Instead, they call it the ‘metodo tradizionale’ or ‘metodo classico,’ which you will always find written on their labels.

You’re suggesting that the best metodo tradizionale or metodo classico bottles are as good as famous champagnes like Veuve Cliquot or Möet Chandon?

“No,” responds Cotti. “I’m telling you they’re better. And they cost less, too.”

Intrigued to say the least, I asked Signor Cotti if he would be willing to walk me around and show me the specific wines he was referring to.

Here’s a list of the Italian bubblies Cotti came up with as champagne-beaters:

From the Franciacorta region: Fratelli Berlucchi (make sure you identify a wine with the “Fratelli” label; otherwise you’ll end up with a bottle of the much more commercially available “Berlucchi”); he also mentions Bellavista and Lantieri. Cotti thinks so highly of Fratelli Berlucchi, he gave them advertising space — with 10 other wines — along his storefront.

From the Trentino region: Methius and two Ferrari vintages: either the Ferrari “Perle” or “Giulio Ferrari.” (Ferrari produces a number of different vintages using the “metodo tradizionale,” but these two are considered a cut above the rest.)

From the Piedmont region: Contratto’s “For England.” (It is interesting to note that the “For England” is the oldest metodo tradizionale in Italy, first produced in 1867.)

With the exception of the “Giulio Ferrari,” which was listed at €71 in Cotti’s store, all of these wines were priced between €18 and €24, far less than the €35 to €45 price range that accompanies the more famous and commonly available French champagnes.

I picked up a bottle of the Lantieri and the Ferrari “Perle” with the specific intent of putting them to a taste test against a bottle of Veuve Cliquot come the holidays. As for the champagne, I had to go to a grocery store. Perhaps Signor Cotti has a point.

About the Author:

Aaron Maines is a freelance writer, editor and translator based in Milan. He has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times and The Guardian. He wrote "Foodbox," the magazine's gourmet column, from September 2006 through December 2007.