Uncovering Sparkling Wines from Piedmont. What is Alta Langa DOCG?
Updated: Feb 9
In my previous articles I already mentioned that Piemonte is way not only Barolo (although don't stay away from trying it, of course!). A self-sufficient wine region with world's best reds and whites, sweets and sparklings. And when it comes to Italian sparkling wines, they even came up with frizzante (semi-sparkling) and spumante (the Alta Langa DOCG we're going to talk about now).
I'm going to take you on an imaginary journey to a boutique wine region in Asti province. This is the first sparkling wine from Italy that is made using the metodo classico process. To make it clear, but don't report me to Champagne authorities, this spumante is Italy's champagne :)
Alta Langa Basics - varieties, rules, climate, geography of the appellation
The Alta Langa appellation covers only metodo classico sparkling wines, which is basically 'spumante' in Italian. Here, even though we're in Asti province, you won't find the classical aromatic white varieties like Moscato d'Asti. Actually Alta Langa wines can contain the traditional champagne varieties plus 15% of local grapes, besides the aromatic Moscato:
- Pinot Noir
- 15% of other native grapes from Piedmont, except those that are aromatic.
Because of the location (Canelli town is surrounded by the famous Moscato wine region) some people are concerned whether spumante is a sweet wine. Alta Langa produces sparkling wines from Brut Nature (which is zero dosage, so no added sugar) to extra dry (up to 17 g of sugar per liter). So, to answer the question, the level of sweetness is totally up to your choice, but mainly you'll find Pas Dosage (0 sugar) wines here.
Quick facts to feel like a PRO when it comes to sparkling wines from Canelli:
Fermentation: 2nd fermentation in bottle is obligatory
Sugar: Brut Nature to Extra Dry
Ageing on lees: from 30 months for Spumante to 36 months for Riserva
Alcohol: min 11,5%
Blend or Vintage: sparkling wines of Alta Langa DOCG are always vintage wines, which means there is no blending with wines from previous years.
So why do they blend in Champagne you'd ask? Because climate in Piedmont is moderate, there is no too bad year to say it in a simpler way. There is more stability in the way the wine tastes, so stability in production is achieved easier than in Champagne.
As for the terroir - the soil here is white coloured, a combination of marl, some sand and limestone. The minimum elevation of vineyards in Alta Langa is 250 m.
How Metodo Classico Sparkling Wine is Made?
Metodo Classico is a very expensive and time consuming way of making sparkling wine.
There are two ways of doing sparkling wine - metodo classico (champenoise method) or tank method (also called Martinotti - Charmat). The classical method is characterised by the presence of the second fermentation in bottle. It is the method that is used for making champagne, and also for the Italian sparkling wines from Piemonte.
Metodo Classico is a very expensive and time consuming way of making sparkling wine. After the second fermentation the wine will age on lees (dead yeast cells that 'died' during the 2nd fermentation) for minimum 30 months. And then comes remuage, disgorgement and many more...
As for the tank method, Marinotti-Charmat, the second fermentation happens in the tank (which is much cheaper). This is the way that Prosecco and Asti DOCG sparkling wines are made. The base wine obtained after the first fermentation is placed to autoclave - sealed pressurized tank with a mixture of yeast and sugar for the second fermentation to happen. Then the wine will be bottled under pressure to keep the CO2.
Below I will describe in detail the Metodo Classico or Champenoise method, that is used to make Alta Langa DOCG sparkling wines from Canelli.
4 g of sugar is needed per each atmosphere pressure in sparkling wine
Step 1 - getting the base wine
The Chardonnay and Pinot Nero are harvested in the middle of August. Grapes are pressed to get the juice (must), sugar with yeast are added and the alcoholic fermentation happens. In the middle of June (next year) the still (base) wine is ready and is bottled. When closing it with the crown cap they add 24 g of sugar. 4 g of sugar is needed per each atmosphere pressure in sparkling wine. So at the end of the day the wine will have 6 atmospheres.
Step 2 - sparkling wine is ageing on lees (autolysis)
The bottles are closed with a crown cap and left on stack for at least 4 years (5 years for Alta Langa Riserva). After 2 months the yeast dies, from now on it's called autholysis, which means a process when the wine rests in contact with dead yeast cells.
The dead cells start to release amino-acids, proteins, and as a result - flavours like pastry, crust bread, croissant and CO2 gas. The bubble in the beginning is big, and the longer we leave the bottle on stack the smaller bubbles we'll get. So the more the wine rests on lees the more gentle bubbles will shape in it.
bottles are turned on the pupitre for 18 days clock-wise and pushed into the rack to achieve almost vertical position
Step 3 - riddling the wine on rack (or remuage on pupitres)
After 4 years of resting the bottle is shaken and put on pupitre. The bottle is left for 10 days without anyone touching it, because the sediment has to settle at the neck. After 10 days bottles are marked on the bottom to remember the position.
And the remuage (riddling) starts. The bottles are turned on the pupitre for 18 days clock-wise and pushed into the rack to achieve almost vertical position.
After 18 days the wine is clear, all the sediment in the neck (it forms actually a cork of dead yeast cells)
Step 4 - disgorgement
Disgorgement is the process of eliminating the sediment from the bottle. In the past everything was made by hand, we open the bottle and the pressure takes out the lees and some wine. Then it was necessary to close the bottle - not too quick as the lees would go back and the winemaker would again had to remove it.
But if being too slow, the pressure pulls all the wine out of the bottle, which can make a loss of half a bottle at a time (so painful!!!)
Today the disgorgement is made by a machine. The method of disgorgement used here in Alta Langa is 'a la glace'. Bottles are placed into brine of -28 C, this creates a 4 cm long ice plug in which the sediment is trapped. In a few minutes the bottle is turned upright and the cap is removed.
The CO2 pushes out the lees plug, the bottle is topped with wine (as there is around 5-10 ml loss) and corked.
What do they top the wine with? It's called Liqueur d'expédition - and the producers are allowed to add anything into it, kind of a secret recipe to success.
It can be wines from different vintages, different kind of wines, brandy, cognac, sugar, almost everything is allowed.
In Contratto where I observed all these they just add the same wine of the same year, as they keep it millesimato. Millesimato means keeping the wine vintage, so only wine from the last harvest is allowed.
The wine is then corked, caged, washed, but wineries that do remuage manually don't wash the mark, as they're proud of it. It doesn't mean quality, but it's more of a fascination.
disgorgement date on the back label shows how long the wine has been 'breathing' and therefore, if it's ready to drink
Step 5 - final resting, now with cork
The wine is back to cellar, as it's still 'shy'. The crown cap doesn't allow air contact, so now the wine starts a new life with breathing. That's why it's important to check the disgorgement date on the back label - this shows how long the wine has been 'breathing' and therefore, if it's ready to drink.
This is one of the important characteristics of Alta Langa appellation. The front label shows the harvest year, the back - the disgorgement date.
What is Pas Dosé sparkling wine?
Pas Dosé is a term that guarantees your wine is even drier than Brut! To start the second fermentation sugar with yeast was added to the bottle, but it was exactly the quantity that yeasts can consume creating CO2 gas. So all sugar is gone, and the fermentation stops at a point when all sugar is consumed, so wine is fermented dry.
The Pas Dosé label is allowed when a wine has up to 3 g of sugar left.
But you can't add sugar before bottling (like many producers do with liqueur d'expedition) If you do that, you have to write Extra Brut, Brut, Dry, Extra Dry etc.
In case of Pas Dosé sparkling wine after removing the yeast sediment in disgorgement, the same wine is added to top the bottle with no sugar whatsoever.
After the disgorgement the wine has to rest for at least 2 months with the cork to be ready to enjoy, but actually better to leave it for a year. If you prefer fruity, fresh sparkling wines drink it a year after disgorgement. If you enjoy more complex aromas, dry fruits, dry herbs and flowers, let it age for more years. Alta Langa sparkling wines can be aged up to 15 years - after 15 years the bubbles are gone.
History of the appellation. The UNESCO 'Cathedrals' of Canelli
These cathedrals are part of the UNESCO Heritage since 2014. All of them are located in Canelli, where the Alta Langa appellation was born. There are 4 cathedrals open to visitors - in Contratto, Bosca, Coppo and Gancia wineries.
the historic cellars are home to hundreds of thousands of bottles of spumante wine
These 'Cathedrals' became Italy's 50th UNESCO World Heritage site, and let me explain you why are they called this way. The stone under Canelli town is very 'soft', no machinery could be used, so they are all dug manually down to 40 m depth during tens of years. This is in fact a monument to viticulture - the historic cellars are home to hundreds of thousands of bottles of spumante wine. They age here for many years under constant (and naturally kept) 12 to 14 degrees Celsius.
All started in early 19th century when first classic method sparkling wine (aka champagne) was made in Italy. It happened in Piedmont, as the regions proximity to France influenced the cultivation of French varieties - like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Carlo Gancia was the first to bring champagne production methods directly from Reims.
In 1991 it was finally time to make this champenoise saga official. It was called 'Spumante Project' that allocated 20 ha from the Piemonte DOC area mainly around Canelli for cultivation of Pinot Nero and Chardonnay.
It took some years to double the plantings, and then some more to become the Alta Langa DOC (2002). In 2011 Alta Langa got its' DOCG status.
How Vermouth Production is Related to Metodo Classico Wines
Vermouth was born because before everything was made by hand in metodo classico wineries. During the disgorgement a lot of wine was wasted, being pushed out by the pressure in bottles together with the lees plug. They didn't know what to do with that wine.
So they decided to filter it and use the wine as a base for vermouth. That's why you can always expect a metodo classico sparkling wine producer to have vermouth in their portfolio.
Today of course the producers use base wine that was fermented to be vermouth (Cortese in case of Contratto), as the loss is too little with modern disgorgement techniques to make anything out of it.
The second part of my metodo classico discovery is dedicated to Contratto winery. Find out what did I learn about their sparkling wines and check out my tasting notes for Cuvée Novecento (debut on Vinitaly 2019), Millesimato and For England Rosé.