The word “spumante” — which means “foaming” in Italian — is a general term used for almost any type of sparkling wine made in Italy. It is something of a catchall phrase and as such encompasses wines that are dry, sweet, and semi-sweet at a wide variety of price points. Most wines that fit within this broad category also have more specific names that identify their geographic origins or the grapes that they were made from.
Italy is well regarded as the world’s largest producer of sparkling wines, which means that the number of spumante varieties can be quite staggering. Most are classified based on sweetness and overall mouth feel. A spumante that is very dry, for instance, will typically be labeled secco, while one that is sweet will be called dolce. Varieties right in the middle are usually labeled semi-secco.
Growing region is another distinguishing characteristic. Grapes grown in the Piedmont region are typically labeled “moscato,” for instance, while those from Veneto carry the “prosecco” name. The Emilia region gives rise to the popular lambrusco. In most cases, these names apply to wines made from any grape grown in this region, which can lead to significant quality differences. Less expensive bottles tend to be made from blends or less desirable grape varietals, while those made from more in-demand crops command a higher price — but not always. A lot depends on how the product was made, the expertise of the winemaker, and the prestige of the vineyard.
How It’s Made
There are two primary ways to make spumante. The first, known as the methode champenoise, is a traditional double fermentation approach that depends on the intentional addition of fresh yeasts and sugars part way through the maturation process. All wines go through an initial fermentation, which is where they become alcoholic. Sparkling wines typically require a second fermentation, as well. Under the methode champenoise, winemakers bottle the drink at about the halfway point, add more sugar and yeast, then let the bottles age before they are shipped out to shops or sold to consumers. The yeasts will emit carbon dioxide gas as they are broken down, which is trapped in the bottle until it is eventually opened.
The charmat method is much simpler. Here, the second fermentation happens in large barrels. Modern vineyards often use metal vessels for this stage that come with special pressure adapters and temperature controls, thought he same result can often also be achieved by using more traditional wooden barrels. The advantage of metal is usually in controlling the bubble flow and quantity, as fewer are able to escape.
How to Drink It
Spumante is typically served on its own either before or after a meal. It may also be enjoyed in the afternoon, often alongside cheeses, crackers, or other light snacks. Italians often drink it from regular wine glasses, though finer varieties and more expensive bottles are often served up in fluted glasses much as champagne would be. The narrower the opening to the flute, the more concentrated the bubbles become and, some believe, the more concentrated the taste.
This wine can also serve as the basis for a number of different cocktails. The bellini is one of the most popular, and typically involves a mixture of prosecco and peach nectar. It is believed to have originated in Venice, but has become something of a standard on cocktail menus around the world. The fizzy beverage can also be mixed with a variety of juices, flavored syrups, and liqueurs to create a range of innovative and creative drinks.
Where to Find It
Arguably, the best place to find Italian sparkling wines is in Italy, though the export market is quite broad. Wine shops and specialty distributors in most countries stock a range of wines that fall within the spumante category, though identifying specific varieties, manufacturing processes, and vineyards can take a bit of work depending on location. Most distributors are able to source a wide range of spumantes for interested customers, which makes it worth it to ask.
Restaurants and bars throughout the world often stock Italian sparkling wines as well. These can often be purchased by the glass or by the bottle for enjoyment alongside a meal.
Comparisons to Champagne
It can be easy to confuse spumante with its better known French cousin, champagne — and many people incorrectly use the “champagne” label to describe any sort of sparkling wine. In fact, only wines that are grown and produced in the Champagne region of southern France can bear that name. There may not be a great deal of taste difference between products made in Italy and those produced across the border in France, but this is one instance where naming and proper word choice really does matter.
Most scholars believe that the Italians and the French began producing sparkling wines at about the same time, though there is some evidence that spumantes may have actually predated champagnes. According to some scholars, this style of wine became popular in Ancient Roman times when winemakers unintentionally let barrels get too cold during the mountainous winters. Very cold conditions will halt fermentation. When things warmed up again in the spring, the second fermentation process began, and barrels began exploding in storage thanks to the carbon dioxide bubbles being formed. There are a number of references to sparkling or “bubbly” alcoholic drinks in ancient texts, which many believes supports these claims.