June 19th, 2024/ BY Michaela Morris

Alta Langa – Raising Italy’s Bubble Bar

photo credits: Michaela Morris

The Italians have great affection for bubbles, particularly Champagne.

According to the Comité Champagne, Italy is consistently one of its top five export markets. Stats aside, I have experienced this empirically. When I started traveling to Piedmont in the early 2000s, visits to Barolo estates often started, and/or ended with Champagne.

However, 20 years later, proud producers are popping home-grown sparklers – not Franciacorta or TrentoDOC, but Alta Langa. This piemontese denomination was officially established as a DOC in 2002 with inaugural bottles launched in 2006. Shortly after, in 2011, it was elevated to DOCG. 

Though not historic in name like Barolo, Alta Langa’s origins date back over 200 years. In fact, Piedmont boasts Italy’s first traditional method sparkling wines thanks to the Sambuy counts who modeled their bubbles after the prestigious examples of France. Subsequently, pioneer Carlo Gancia brought back his learnings from Champagne and set up shop in Canelli in the mid-1800s. While his first examples featured Moscato, the company eventually championed Pinot Nero.

But it wasn’t until 1990 that a group of seven prominent producers – including Gancia – banded together to launch the “Spumante Project.” The 10-year trial represented a collective focus to develop traditional method sparkling based on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from dedicated sites.  “There hasn’t been anything else like this in Italy,” asserts Paolo Rossino, Director of the Consorzio Alta Langa.

From the original experimental 20 hectares, the denomination has grown to 440 hectares, with a projected maximum of 600 hectares. Despite its name – Alta Langa – the production area expands well beyond the Langhe hills and covers 149 communes in the southern Piedmont provinces of Cuneo, Asti and Alessandria. Plantings, however, are restricted by a minimum altitude of 250 metres – one of the few denominations in Italy with such a stipulation. In practise, the estimated average elevation of Alta Langa vineyards is 450 metres. Moreover, at least one producer – the Vite Colte cooperative – has set an even higher minimum of 500 metres.

“Quality was always the vision,” says Roberto Bruno, Managing Director at Fontanafredda – another of the original seven. All the wines must hail from a single vintage and require a minimum of 30 months on the lees with an additional 6 months for Riserva. Following a recent vote among producers, the latter will eventually see an increase to 60 months.

The commitment to quality has brought smaller producers into the fold as well. “Initially we felt that the denomination was just for big companies,” admits Alberto Cane at Marcalberto, whose family eventually embraced the appellation in 2013.  Today there are more than 70 wineries producing Alta Langa.

In 2023, 2 million bottles of Alta Langa were sold and 3.2 million produced. This is a drop in the bucket compared to Champagne’s 300-plus million, however it represents a substantial increase in a relatively short time. Most – 90% – is consumed in Italy. “The problem with Alta Langa is the competition from Champagne, as prices are similar,” explains producer Marco Capra. That said, he has expanded his production from a mere 5000 bottles to 60,000 due to local demand.

After enjoying the occasional glass here and there, I was finally able to taste a critical mass – 36 wines blind. Most were either dominated by or exclusively Pinot Noir and almost two-thirds sported either a low (extra brut) or no dosage. Generally malolactic fermentation is blocked to preserve acidity, and, for the same reason, grapes tend to be picked very early – in late August. The resulting wines can be austere, and some were shy in the classic nuances associated with traditional method sparklers. In particular, the rosés struck me as somewhat superficial.

Conversely, those that stood out tended to see longer on the lees than the denomination’s minimum, with somewhere between 42 to 72 being the sweet spot. Above all, it is clear that a serious commitment to traditional method sparkling wine as well as experience count.

Highly recommended

Marcalberto Extra Brut 2020                           

After a long tenure at Gancia, Piero Cane started making his own sparkling wine. His sons, Marco and Alberto now work alongside him and have built the winery beyond a hobby. Still relatively modest in dimension, attention is solidly on traditional method and the family has invested in a Coquard “marmonnier” press from Champagne. With 36 months on the lees, this Pinot Noir dominant Extra Brut is subtly scented with anise and white blossom. It builds with intensity on the palate where citrus and marzipan join in. A standout for its exquisite finesse of bubbles, freshness of acidity and intriguing salty tang to finish.

Alberto Cane with the Coquard press at Marcalberto

Deltetto ‘570m’ Blanc de Noirs Riserva Brut Nature 2019                      

Since Antonio Deltetto’s passion for sparkling wines was born over 40 years ago, this estate has rigorously honed its spumante skill. Vinified in used French oak barriques, the Blanc de Noirs Riserva wears its 42-month lees ageing on its sleeve. It wafts with buttered toast, nougat and hints of beeswax. Ample lively bubbles carry flavours of orange and melon. With structure, complexity and oodles of stage presence, this is one to drink with dinner.

Enrico Serafino ‘Zero’ Pas Dosé 2018                              

Made exclusively from Pinot Noir grown in vineyards between 450 to 550 metres and a full five years on the lees, this opens seductively with brioche and baked pear. A deft execution of sprightliness allied with flavour concentration and definition. Frothy, frisky bubbles meet a firm spine in this appetizing and sophisticated sparkler. An early adopter of Alta Langa, the Enrico Serafino estate has been owned by the Kraus family since 2015.

Fontanafredda ‘Vigna Gatinera’ Blanc de Noir Pas Dosé – 72 mesi 2016*

One of the largest producers of Alta Langa, Fontanafredda crafted its first traditional method wine in 1996. The aim is to make bubble to accompany a meal rather than for the aperitivo. This special single vineyard bottling is divided into four lots with each aged successfully an additional 12 months on the lees, starting with 72 months. It is savoury, tangy and quite vinous. Scents of berry scone meet flavours of dried mango. As soft creamy bubbles melt, the resolute backbone takes hold.

Ettore Germano Riserva Blanc de Blanc Pas Dosé 2016*

Sergio Germano was an early believer in Alta Langa and now crafts three bottlings. This 100% Chardonnay comes from a high, east facing bank reaching over 550 metres above the Tanaro river. Partially fermented in wood and left en tirage for 65 months, it is beautifully understated yet enduring in its enticing nuances of honey, elderflower and toasted hazelnut. Mellow rather than frisky bubbles bring a satin-like texture to the palate. Impressive length and rebounding flavours.

Gancia Riserva Cuvée 60 Mesi Brut 2013

The most historical name in Piemontese bubbly, Gancia was sold to Russian Standard Vodka the same year Alta Langa was elevated to DOCG. The cool, underground, 19th century cellar outfitted with Marmonier press continues to produce an extensive range of traditional method sparklers. A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay partially fermented in barriques, this 60-month aged Brut is precise, intense and demonstrates tempting aromas of lemon and buttery pastry. Bubbles fill mouth confidently and persistently yet graciously. Despite its age, vibrancy prevails, and the deliciously nutty finish is long and savoury.


Contratto Millesimato Pas Dosé 2020

Another one of the Spumante Project’s original seven, Contratto has specialized in traditional method sparkling for over 100 years. The estate has changed ownership over the years and was purchased in 2011 by La Spinetta’s Giorgio Rivetti – an avid Champagne aficionado. Despite seeing just the minimum 30 months of ageing, it exudes toasted nuts, coffee wafer and grilled herbs. Rich in style with a slightly oily texture weighing down the bubbles, this is complex nonetheless. Made to pair with a meal.

Rizzi Pas Dosé 2020               

This top Barbaresco house produced its first sparkler in 2007 when patriarch Ernesto Dellapiana convinced his son and winemaker Enrico that it was the future. One of the few estates that favours Chardonnay over Pinot Noir, the family draws on plantings of the former dating back to the 70s and 80s. While the 2020 is relatively straightforward to begin, it demonstrates lovely freshness, concentrated lemon and just a trace of dough. Balanced and elegant with soft tingly bubbles and lingering pear, this makes for a classy aperitivo.

Réva Solonoir Brut 2020      

As the name suggests, Solonoir is crafted exclusively from Pinot Noir. Fresh and youthful, it is the palest of onion skin in hue. Discreet aromas of rose, nougat and honey hint at what is to come. Tiny yet energetic, ample bubbles cleanse the mouth. There is persistence and charisma here. A serious sparkler, which is not surprising. Réva’s owner Miroslav Lekes is a huge fan of Champagne and offers an excellent list at the estate’s Michelin star restaurant FRE.

Marco Capra ‘Seitremenda’ Extra Brut 2019* 

Like Marcalberto, Marco Capra is based in the commune of Santo Stefano Belbo, best known for Moscato production. Marco’s success with Alta Langa has shaped the focus here. More fruity than autolytic in character, Seitremenda puts a mix of ripe peach, apple and citrus at the fore. This fills the mouth with frothy bubbles while remaining light on its feet. Finishes on a pleasant almond note. 

Vite Colte ‘Seicento’ Pas Dosé 2019*              

After dedicated experiments, the Vite Colte cooperative’s first ever commercial zero dosage hails from a few choice vineyards reaching a minimum of 600 metres. It is dominated by Pinot Noir and spends 42 months on lees. I tried this at the end of 2023, a few months prior to its official release in February and it was still very tightly wound and stern. Nevertheless, suggestions of candied lemon peel and baking bread were promising. Shored up by a steely backbone and brisk acidity, the palate is lean and vertical with tense bubbles. Another few months in the bottle should serve it well.

Abrigo Fratelli ‘Sivà’ Brut 2019

A portmanteau of owners’ first names – Silvia and Valter, Sivà is crafted from 100% Chardonnay. The couple planted this interloper in the early 90s and started experimenting with sparkling a few years later.  With 35 months on the lees, the 2019 is very praline to begin. A soft mousse delivers waves of baked apple and apricot. Full and rich though not overly heavy, it melts slowly across the palate finishing with a savoury twist. Despite its Brut designation, this sees a modest dosage of 4g/l.

Cocchi Blanc de Noirs Pas Dosé 2018              

A historic reference for Vermouth di Torino, Cocchi is also a longtime sparkling producer and joined the Spumante Project in 1997. Bright yet reserved, Cocchi’s zero dosage bottling is more mineral than fruity or floral. Small fine bubbles amplify the brisk, linear acidity and lift the core of stone fruit and flint. Admirable elegance though not yet forthcoming in complexity.

Tosti1820 Riserva Giulio I 100 Mesi Extra Brut 2012                          

The faintest kiss of pink to the hue divulges its Pinot Noir foundations. Accents of honeysuckle and candied citrus zest are folded into warm pie crust. The mousse is light and airy against the mature fruit palate. This has none of the austerity of younger examples and is best enjoyed now.

*wines not tasted blind.

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