Italy is a wine-lover’s utopia. You can pop the cork on an Italian sparkling wine to add a little Italian flair to your holiday parties.
What I’m trying to say is that if you’re planning an Italy-centric party of any kind, here’s the reference you need for the drink menu.
Italian Sparkling Wines
Prosecco || creative commons photo by Nick Webb
Let’s start with the obvious – bubbly.
You may know that “Champagne” can only legally be called that if it comes from the eponymous region of France. Italy has its own sparkling wines, however, for which the names are similarly restricted by geography.
Just as there is excellent wine produced in all 20 regions of Italy, there is sparkling wine made all over the country as well. The most famous Italian bubbly options are listed here, not to ignore the fine sparklers available in other places but because in many cases they’re nigh unto impossible to find outside their home regions. The wines listed here are at least made in large enough quantities and exported beyond Italy, so you’ll be able to add them to your kitchen pretty easily.
- Asti – If you’re old enough to have any conscious memory prior to the 1980s, then this name may sound familiar to you. “Asti Spumante” became wildly popular in the United States and elsewhere in the years after World War II, but the stuff sold outside Italy was almost universally cloyingly sweet and poor quality. In other words, it may be why so many people recoil when they hear the word “Asti” today. But the real thing, usually called simply “Asti,” is an excellent sweet sparkling wine (perfect as a dessert wine) that comes from Piedmont.
- Prosecco – Probably the best-known Italian sparkling wine these days is Prosecco. It comes from Veneto, and although it’s technically a dry wine it is usually noticeably sweeter than Champagne (though not as sweet as Cava). Prosecco is most often sparkling, but there are also semi-sparkling (called “frizzante” in Italian) and even non-sparkling versions. It’s a favorite summer drink for its lightness, though it’s perfect year-round, and is the basis for many cocktails made with sparkling wine (see below).
- Lambrusco – This is a favorite of mine ever since I had a light, fruity, red Lambrusco with my family’s Thanksgiving meal one year. (It tasted like cranberries!) But not all Lambrusco is sweet – or even red. Most Lambrusco, which comes from both Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, is red and dry. Lambrusco and Asti suffered a similar fate, in that for awhile in the 1970s and 1980s the only Lambrusco most people had ever had outside Italy was sickeningly sweet and best avoided. If that sounds familiar, I encourage you to give a real Lambrusco a try.
- Franciacorta – The only sparkling wine on this list made by the exact same method as Champagne is Franciacorta, which comes from Lombardy. This method, known as “metodo classico” in Italy and “méthode champenoise” in France, involves allowing the wine to ferment (which is where the bubbles come from) in wine bottles rather than in vats before bottling. This method is costlier for producers (and, therefore, the wines cost more to buy), and usually these wines have finer bubbles – and more of them. So, yes, a nice bottle of Franciacorta is likely to cost more than a nice bottle of Prosecco, but probably still not as much as Champagne.
Festive Italian Cocktails
Spritz || creative commons photo by Philippe Roos
As mentioned above, Prosecco is the perfect sparkling wine with which to create any number of bubbly cocktails. Because Prosecco has a slightly sweet flavor profile, it goes really well with many cocktail recipes.
You’ll want to find a good Prosecco, something you’d happily drink on its own, but you don’t need to spend more for a Franciacorta since you’ll be mixing it with other flavors. Here are a few fizzy drinks you can try this holiday season – or whenever, really.
May I suggest tonight?
- Bellini – This Italian classic, born in Venice, was made for Prosecco. Pour a puree of white peaches in a wine flute and top with Prosecco. If you can’t find white peach nectar, you can use regular peach nectar, but the drink won’t have that signature pale pink color (it always looks like the color of grapefruit to me).
- Spritz – The Spritz is, to me, a summer drink. It’s meant for sitting in a sunny piazza nibbling on nuts or chips before having dinner. I love it so much, though, that I’m including it here as a perfectly acceptable festive and bubbly cocktail for the winter. Plus, the color reminds me of sunsets, which is never a bad thing. This is another cocktail that comes from Venice, so it was also made for Prosecco. Combine the amaro of your choice (I prefer Aperol) with Prosecco and a little bit of soda water and serve over ice with an orange wedge.
- Sbagliato – The word “sbagliato” means “wrong” or “mistaken,” and this drink is a riff on the classic Negroni in which Prosecco replaces the gin. Combine sweet vermouth with Campari (again, I prefer Aperol here, though I know that’s yet another “sbagliato” ingredient to add to this cocktail), pour into a wine flute, and top with Prosecco.
Warm Italian Drinks
Caffé Corretto || creative commons photo by Takumi Yoshida
For those times when you really don’t want to be drinking something cold, Italy offers some fine options for beverages that are both warm and warming.
- Vin Brûlé – Italy’s version of mulled wine has a French name (don’t ask) that means, literally, “burned wine.” In Italy, it’s often cooked long enough that the alcohol is actually cooked off – but not only do you not have to do that, you can also add extra booze if you want (brandy or cognac are always good candidates). Vin brûlé is a forgiving enough recipe that, in so far as there are recipes, you can absolutely futz with them until you get something you like. Ingredients can include lemons, oranges, cloves, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, ginger root, nutmeg, star anise, peppercorns, apples, and even bay leaves – and that’s in addition to a (relatively inexpensive) fruity red wine and sugar. This is the kind of thing to make in large quantities for parties.
- Caffé Corretto – Remember how “sbagliato” means “wrong?” Well, “corretto” means “corrected.” And “caffé corretto” – corrected coffee – is a shot of espresso with a shot of the liquor of your choice. (As if regular Italian coffee is “sbagliato” somehow. Oh, Italy.) Grappa and sambuca are the most common additions, but you can add whatever you like.
- Cioccolata Calda – Italian hot chocolate, “cioccolata calda,” is reason enough to visit Italy in winter if you ask me – and this one requires no alcohol whatsoever to make me love it so. It’s got the consistency of pudding, almost, so that it’s the kind of drink you’ll probably need to eat (at least a portion of) with a spoon. In Italian bars, there are machines on countertops that stir the mixture constantly so it doesn’t form that weird chocolate skin on top or burn on the bottom, so if you’re making this at home – don’t stop stirring.