During this recent trip to Emilia Romagna, we were tasked with the difficult job of learning more about the local Italian sparkling wine. It’s a trip we started to refer to, happily, as #BolognaBubbles.
During our earliest trips to Italy, our wine consumption focused on Chianti and Sangiovese. It was sort of all we knew of Italian wine. Then, we learned about Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine that is famous the world over. During our tour of Emilia Romagna last year, we became infatuated with Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine. After our time spent drinking Catalan wine and Cava, it might seem that I will drink anything with bubbles in it, and perhaps that is true.
But our friend Helena, over at Yummy Italy, wanted to ensure we learned a little more about Italian sparkling wine.
Our #BolognaBubbles Tour
It is true that there is more to Italian sparkling wines than Prosecco, and even Lambrusco. During our lunch with an Italian winemaker last year, we tried Pignoletto for the first time. Pignoletto is a grape grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. It is used in white wines, both sparkling and not. I was hooked after my first glass.
For this visit, Helena invited us to lunch at a vineyard in the Bologna hills, to explore Pignoletto a little more. It was meant to be casual; we would taste a handful of wines from the immediate vicinity, and the winemaker and his wife would provide a little lunch. It sounded perfect.
We met Alessandro, of the Torricella winery, and his family, along with Giorgio Erioli, another winemaker from the area. Neither Alessandro nor Giorgio spoke English, and my few words of Italian along with my understanding of Spanish, managed to get us only so far. Helena acted as translator, as we officially tried five different bottles of Italian sparkling wine. I say “officially”, because as the afternoon wore on, as the Bologna Bubbles did their work, as the fire on the grill raged behind us, we expanded beyond our initial five bottle tasting.
We sat down at a table loaded with wine glasses as far as the eye could see. We opened the first three bottles. Each was a mix of 50% Pignoletto and 50% Chardonnay. They were unique from each other based on their terroir and microclimates, as well as how the sparkling wine was made.
We dined on tigelle, a local round bread, which was made fresh by Alessandro’s wife and daughter. The family covered the table with cured meats and fresh cheeses, including a local Mortadella, salami, Alessandro’s fresh pancetta, and his home cured guanciale.
The most unique of the meats was something called pesto, which I learned translates to “pressed” or “ground”, and is not limited to the green pesto sauce most people know. This pesto was a fresh pancetta, mixed with lard, garlic, salt and rosemary. It looked like a small bowl of raw pork, which made me cautious. But when spread inside the warm tigelle bread, with parmigiano reggiano cheese, it was smooth and delicious.
We sat around tasting the Italian sparkling wine and enjoying the snacks. And, we talked about wine.
Classical Method of Producing Italian Sparkling Wine
As we’ve been touring the wine regions in Spain, Italy and Portugal, we are becoming a lot more versed in the winemaking lingo. We’ve been on so many wine tours in the last ten months that I feel as though I could open my own winery. Something that I am still a little dense about, though, is how to make sparkling wine.
Briefly, a sparkling wine will go through two fermentation processes. The first turns the grapes into wine. The second adds the bubbles. It’s possible to do this second fermentation in large tanks. The more traditional method, and the one that is called the metodo classico, is when the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. It’s a more delicate process and provides a more sophisticated wine.
During the early stages of our lunch, the conversation was rather technical, as we discussed the different methods of making Italian sparkling wine. Whether the wine was produced in the classical champagne method, the different fermentation processes, and whether each wine we tasted was degorged à la glace, or à la volée. Yeah, technical stuff.
The Ca’ Novina was the most commercial of the Italian sparkling wines we tried. It was darker in color, and fruitier than the others. The two 50% Pignoletto’s included Alessandro’s La Bolla del Mastro, and La Collina’s La Collinetta. The latter bottle, Helena did not plan for our tasting, but Alessandro said we just had to try. These two bottles were lighter in color and more subtle in flavor, with Alessandro’s having a grassier note. Yeah, technical.
We moved on to a 100% Pignoletto from Azienda Vinicola Gradizzolo, and Giorgio’s experiment with an almost extinct local grape called Alionza. If you are keeping track, that’s five Italian sparkling wines, all made in the classical method, all laid out in front of me. I was like a kid in a candy shop.
Without getting into the technical details any more than I already have, what amazed me was how different each of the five wines were. Not only from Champagne to Prosecco, but from each other, even though they were using the same grapes and were grown within a few kilometers of each other. That is the part of wine tasting that always fascinates me.
Becoming Friends Over Bottles (And Bottles)
of Italian Sparkling Wine
Alessandro looks like he could be Bradley Cooper’s father, or at least older brother. They have the same eyes, the same smile. I mentioned this to Eric, and it ultimately made its way to Alessandro. Although he didn’t know Bradley Cooper, we pulled up photos, and mentioned that he is normally on the list of the sexiest men alive. That certainly broke the ice.
From that point on, we were great friends, even if his wife was a little less trusting of me. Immediately, he started talking about the next time we would come to his house. He started opening up bottles of rare wine. One of which was a rare Barbera from the 2008 harvest, and bottled in 2009. He only made 1,000 bottles, which were never sold or even labeled. Instead, he only brings it out for friends.
He couldn’t wait to show off his roasted ribs and proudly presented them to Eric and I as soon as he removed them from the oven. Alessandro cooked the ribs in rosemary, salt and his own white wine. Apparently, that’s what made the ribs so good. If he used anyone elses wine, they would not have been as good. Of course.
The wine continued to be poured. Alessandro grilled fresh sausages.
At first, Alessandro was attempting to be polite, by pouring for me, then Helena, then Eric and then for Giorgio. Giorgio was not pleased with the pecking order. By the time we were drinking the third bottle, he would lift his glass up and stretch his arm across the table, to ensure that Alessandro poured his glass, just after mine.
Watching the interaction between the two winemakers, even if I didn’t speak the language, was mesmerizing. I could understand some of it, and Helena translated some of it, but you could tell it was intense. Analyzing the aromas, the flavors, dissecting each detail of the others bottles, as well as the bottles of their friends.
Alessandro produced more rare wines, the certificates he was awarded for two of his wines, and two award winning bottles for us to take back with us to Bologna. Giorgio was honored when one of the rare bottles Alessandro shared with us was one he had yet to try. It was a bottle that if he were to sell it, would have to retail for about $150. So instead of getting into that exclusive market, he only keeps it for friends.
After all of the food was eaten, we each had at least seven glasses in front of us, in various stages of emptiness. Each time we finished a glass, Alessandro would refill it. As I was trying to be professional and not end up trashed, I always tried to leave a little in each glass.
Touring an Italian Sparkling Wine Cellar
Alessandro suggested we grab one of our empty glasses, to go to his cellar. In all of the wine tours that we have been on, and there have been a lot, we’ve never been fortunate enough to taste the wine directly from the tank. Alessandro was in the process of working on his recent vintages, one of which will be bottled in the next couple weeks. He wanted us to taste.
We walked around the small, but very functional cellar, with Alessandro pouring tastes from each of the large, towering vessels. We tasted Pignoletto, Merlot, Cabernet, and more. Between the five of us, we only had three glasses, but that was not a problem. We passed the glasses from one friend to another, sticking our noses in deep, to breathe in the aromas of the fresh wines.
Alessandro displayed such a pride in his wines, made even more remarkable by the fact that this is his side business. It is one step up from a hobby. Now that he has won some awards for his wines, he may be taking things a step further.
While standing in the cellar, Alessandro and Helena started talking schedules, about how we could return to the vineyard one more time before we leave Emilia Romagna. To me, that was the best way to end a day. Having so much fun, despite the language barriers, that our new friend wants to ensure we return. When we got back into the car, Helena said “Okay, so let’s get this scheduled”.
Taking a #BolognaBubbles Tour
Many people assume that we have these Anthony Bourdain style travel experiences solely because we are bloggers. In some instances, that is true. I do enjoy writing at the bottom of a post how to replicate our experiences, either at luxury hotels or by seeking out great street eats.
This was not the type of experience where, as a tourist, you can roll up in your rental car, and taste Alessandro’s or Giorgio’s wines. This was a particularly unique experience, and one that does not come around very often.
It is why I have come to love working with Helena. She is not a tour guide, bringing out large groups for cookie cutter tours. Helena is a facilitator of experiences. She sends us out on these unique excursions, in this case to explore Italian sparkling wine from a very specific region and produced in a very specific way.
As a tourist, it is possible to have an experience like this. Just ask Helena to set up a Yummy Italy wine tasting and see what sort of experience transpires.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now.
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