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95-point Italian trad-method fizz - July 2020

The sole July 2020 panel tasting is:

Let's be very clear, here. We're talking traditional method. Which is to say (apols to those already up-to-speed here) the same method of production as Champagne. You know: you make a wine, then put it in a bottle with some sugar and yeast, leave it a while to taste like biscuits, then use some witchcraft to get all the yeast out. This isn't tank (aka Charmat) method fare here ... which is what Italy has become all too well-known for in the UK. By which we mean, to be even clearer... Prosecco (the UK drinks over one-third of all Prosecco ... more than Italy does). There's nothing wrong with Prosecco, but, well, it's not trad method. Which means little or none of that complexity, ageworthiness, biscuity-thing and deeper interest.

Trad method fizz that isn't Champagne is a frustrating topic, speaking as a wine merchant. It's very hard to break the spell of Reims and Epernay. The wine world has moved well beyond believing that the only good Pinot Noir or Chardonay are from Burgundy, the only good Cab Sauv and Merlot from Bordeaux, the only good Malbec from Cahors, the only good Sauvi Blanc from the Loire. And so on.

But there is distance to travel with rivals to Champagne.

That's not - for one second - a question of quality. It's all about history, marketing, market power and the imagery of Champagne. When a well-priced, top-rated Champagne emerges from a Decanter review, it sells. It really sells. It's this one, in fact. Quite how well the Italian wines that follow below will sell, it will be interesting to see. On their sheer quality and pricing, they should absolutely fly. It's all about this perception thing, the (frankly curious) belief that "fizz isn't proper unless it's Champagne".

The panel review focuses on trad method fizz from everywhere in Italy. There are samples from Sicily and Puglia; red fizz (Lambrusco) also makes the frame (and does surprisingly well).

As you might expect, the top wines all come from the cooler far north - from Piemonte, Lombardia and Trentino - and are not only Champagne-method, but also the Champagne grape varieties (principally Pinot Noir and Chardonnay)... 

map from Decanter (www.decanter.com)

Now, had you asked me which Italian region would definitively top a panel review of trad-method fizzes, I would not have hesitated. Franciacorta (number 2 on that map), I would have told you. Franciacorta has become the standard bearer of Italian trad method, its flagship, its benchmark. It's become very trendy for those eschewing Champagne and wanting to be a bit different (and it is very good).

But I would have been wrong. Franciacorta actually only provides six of the 44, 90+point wines (Highly Recommended or better) revealed by the review (95 wines were tasted)It was outgunned by Trento(doc) (14 such wines - number 1 on map) and Alta Langa (13 wines, map number 4).

It is the latter - Alta Langa - which really steals the show. And that's because the (only) two 95+point wines - the Outstandings - are both from Alta Langa.

Guess what? We offer them both and one - because we can make it so - is stunning value and is not to be missed. Read on... 

 

Alta Langa

First, a short(ish) bit on Alta Langa. Because, frankly, despite all of our experience and studies, we knew little of Alta Langa. And, equally frankly, almost everyone I've mentioned it to - apart from people who live there - has given me a blank look.

  • There's a great site here from/by the Alta Langa consortium with a lot more detail; but generally...
  • We're talking that whole (broad) same area as Barolo and Barbaresco, close to Asti and Alba, in Piemonte;
  • What was a 'mere' DOC for sparkling wines was upgraded to the higher status of a DOCG in 2011;
  • It's tiny. Champagne's vineyard area is some 34,000 hectares - that's 340 km(or 340 grid squares on a OS map if that helps). Alta Langa, by contrast, has just 106 hectares - 10 grid squares - of vineyard. Which is but 0.3% of Champagne;
  • There are a mere 80 or so growers and 40 or so producers; compare that with ~19,000 growers in Champagne;
  • Wines must be sparkling (white or rosé) of a minimum of 90% Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (combined). The vast majority use nothing else;
  • This is an appellation of altitude, aspect and exposure. No grapes are to be grown below 250m ASL; flat and valley land is ruled out by the DOCG regs. Generally, the better wines are being grown as high as 700m ASL;

  • The idea being that a greater level of ripeness than is typical in Champagne can be achieved given the lower latitude and greater sunshine. To keep the all-important acidity, however, up the slopes we go;
  • Like Franciacorta (but even more so), the winemaking regulations drive a very high quality product; you'd have to say they are way tougher than Champagne. All wines must be vintage (millesimato); no NV wines are permitted. Minimum time of tirage/lees ageing for all wines is 30 months (36 months for Riserva wines). That compares with 15 months and 36 months respectively for NV and vintage Champagne;
  • I'd also say that the almost total absence of Pinot Meunier is a good thing. It's an integral part of most NV Champagnes, but it seldom improves them. It adds a bit of fruit, maybe, but at the cost of freshness; it's an easy grape to grow, dodges frost and is (frankly) a makeweight. Doubt that? It's seldom found in the super-cuvees of the Grandes Marques...

All of which lead to the question:

 

Why drink it? Why not just drink Champagne?

Alta Langa is different to Champagne. It's not better or worse; it's different. The producers I've ben talking with there make this very clear indeed!

If one had to characterise that difference, it's one of fruit and freshness. There is more zing, more sing and more bite, I would argue, than in most Champagne; the fruit flavours are more pronounced and more intense (£ for £). Vintage for vintage, I'd argue (as did a few experts I talked with in writing this, and producers themselves) that Alta Langa tastes fresher and 'less old'; there is less oxidative effect kicking about here than in Champagne (some of which I put down to the way Meunier ages [ie not very well]). There is, to my nose and palate, more lightness, aroma and ripeness about the Alta Langas below.

A feature of many Alta Langa wines is their low sugar correction/dosage. The two high-scorers below are essentially Extra Brut at around 3g/litre (this figure would be unusually low for Champagne). Yet the wines are totally in balance and feature lip-smacking acidity. I put this down to the higher degree of ripeness in the Alta Langas (there's a quite a bit more chemistry to this).

The critic could - at a push - argue there is less complexity about Alta Langa and that its focus on Fruit and Freshness makes it 'all a bit Prosecco'. After tasting the wines below, one can (also at a push) see a germ of that, but the extended lees times fill in any gaps; there's enough secondary flavour (the pastry/brioche/biscuit thing) to make these wines most interesting. 

What is certainly also/most true is that, £ for £it would be very hard to find such good Champagnes. Spend the £23 and £31 of the two wines below on Champagne, and I submit that you would be very unlikely to be drinking such a good wine. 

 

The two top wines

That was quite a pre-amble. Thus, to the two wines that clear 95-points:

The first is our star player.

We're particularly pleased to have this exclusively on direct import and be able to offer it at a tremendous price. We realise that Italian trad-method fizz is something of a leap into the unknown for some; we're seeking to make that leap as un-scary as possible and offer a wine you'll want to return for. Don't mis-read the lower price of this wine - £22.95 -  as any statement of just how very good it is (any more than you would the price of this): were either coming to us via an intermediary importer, it/they would be closer to £28-£29 and one would immediately (but perversely) believe it/them to be a better wine....

It's from Deltetto, equally well known for their still wines. They're a classic Italian, multi-generational family concern; that's them below.

The Alta Langa 2016 is a real bundle of freshness and has tremendous 'bite'; you can see our video tasting of it here. It spends 30 months on its lees/in bottle and does not want for the effects of that development.

As Decanter put it, see their review below and on the product page, "clean, expressive and elegant""fleshy and juicy with tight fruit flavours""very attractive, aromatic red berry fruit fragrance" and "a very attractive youthful drink". It would be easy to read "youthful" as a slight insult, but it does show the versatility of this wne; it drinks beautifully now (especially with food to make the most of the acidity; I'm hell-bent on trying it with some Fife coast fish & chips when I'm allowed to get there...) but will definitely add grace over the coming years (it will improve for longer than the seven years Decanter estimate, for sure)...

(Note also with the Decanter review: we've managed to trim the price since the time of submitting one to Decanter; we faced huge uncertainty over import costs at that moment: to be clear, we are (now) £22.95 on this wine).

We can offer only a dozen or so cases of the other Outstanding panel-topper. It comes from a very small-production, boutique producer: Marcalberto. Only a few thousand bottles of this wine are made every year, hence our tight allowance. Like the Deltetto, it's a pure Pinot:Chardonnay blend and a 2016 vintagewhere it varies is in the creation of its primary/base wine, which spends a few months of slow fermentation in oak barrels before the secondary fermentation stage (Note also an error from Decanter in the review below: in-bottle/lees ageing is 36 months, not the 24 stated; 24 months would be below the Alta Langa regulations!). That in-barrel fermentation of the base wine creates a slightly more complexified wine, with a little more roundness/body/mouthfeel. "Notes of coconut and almonds""round nutty flavours", "oak giving an extra layer of interest", say Decanter.

It's a costlier wine, of course, at £31. But, as a counterpoint, and another (officially) Outstanding wine at that, the Marcalberto is one to be tried. I make the point again: you get way (way) more here for your £31 than you would if buying a Champagne.

 

Delivery and arrival

There will be a short delay in getting these to you. The Deltetto will leave Italy shortly and will be with us by 15th June for immediate sending out to customers. The Marcalberto is already in the UK and will be with us a week earlier, on the 11th.

 

Other Italian fizzes

Also in the frame are two prestigious bottles from Giulio Ferrari of (the) Trento DOC - the amazing Riserva Giulio Ferrari 2007 (still daisy-fresh) - 92 points - and the Perle Bianco Riserva 2010 (the 2011 scores 91 points, but is not yet UK-available, and the 2010 vintage is quite wonderful). The latter wine is 'only' £32, not the £48 shown in Decanter.