The future for Italian sparkling wines promises to be sweet as long as the wines are dry.
In India, ‘dry’, in the context of alcohol, is often a bad word—like ‘dry day’. Elsewhere, dry is a great word to describe a drink. It is an acquired taste, for sure. No child I ever met took to the taste of whisky or beer when first tried from their father’s or mother’s glasses. They shrank away with faces recoiled in disbelief and disgust, wondering how adults could drink such vile stuff. The adults, for their part, enjoyed the laugh, albeit at the cost of feeding their tots some of the devil’s water. Fair trade, I say.
Anyway, back to ‘dry’. It is used to describe the sensation left behind after sipping a drink where the mouth feels parched, as if all the saliva has been removed and the tongue and the inner walls of the mouth feel almost moisture-free. The sensation is useful because it invites another sip and, thus, keeps us going with the potion at hand. Unlike sweetness, dryness doesn’t cloy nor does it leave us feeling stuffed or satiated. Consequently, one can have several dry drinks over the course of an evening versus enduring even half that number with sweet ones.
Which brings me to certain wine regions of Italy, which are famed for their sweet fizzy stuff. I am talking about the Spumante from the town of Asti and the rosy-hinted red-hued Brachetto wines from the nearby spa town of Acqui. Both these wines are tiny jewels in the crown of red wines of the region of Piedmont and while they have done well, they were always secondary to the big boys (the Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco, or the wines from Barberas of Alba and Asti). But over time, they have found a bigger nemesis out there—a growing dislike for all things sweet. Millennials can be ignorant of a million things, but this thing they have down pat—knowing what’s good for them and, consequently, how to eat and drink better. Sweetness is losing its appeal and if the cola giants of the world have felt the tremors, then surely it is more than just a passing fad.
Reconciled and reworked, the regions of Asti and Acqui have embarked on turning over a new leaf by introducing sparkling wines from their region, which are dry. I say ‘introducing’ although, history has it on record that back in the day, dry sparklers from here were not uncommon. But as times went, sweeter versions were favoured. The Asti Secco DOCG, for example, has been around since the 90s. Brachetto, on the other hand, is evolving to keep up with changing trends, but also with the changing climate, which now places it ideally to produce not just dry sparkling sweet wines, but dry ones and even still wines.
So as the tides turn again, these dry styles are back in vogue. Asti Spumante Secco is the call of the hour, and it allows for wines to be dry, a mere 19g/l of sugar against the staggering 120g/l in the sweet version. Similarly, the red—heady like a bouquet of roses—Brachetto wines will now be seen in a pink, dry avatar.
From my trials of these styles during my recent visit to the region, I think they will grow in sales tremendously. Riding on the tail of the success of Prosecco, the world’s current number one sparkling wine style, they have the historic potential—given how they were the preferred wine of the nobility—of even overtaking it. The knowhow is already there.
Oh, just one caveat: the method of making these wines is often called the Charmat method. This is after the (French) person who patented the method. The creator of the process was, in fact, a Piedmontese pioneer called Federico Martinotti, who not only presided over the Asti region, but also bequeathed this method to us. Only, he was a bit slow in getting it officially registered, thereby leaving the canny Frenchman enough leeway to put his name on it. Not trying to start a war here, but just that when you are in the cellars of the local wineries—Cuvage by Stefano Ricagno was my favourite of the lot by far, for all their dry sparklers—call the winemaking method by the local name. Other laudable producers are Bava, Bersano, Bastieri, Acquesi and Cantine Fontanile.
To conclude: the future for Italian sparkling wines promises to be sweet, as long as the wines are dry!
The writer is a sommelier