An exploration of wine

Brachetto d’Acqui: red, sweet, sparkling, different

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Acqui Terme hot spring, home of Brachetto d'Acqui
Brachetto d’Acqui is named after the pretty town with hot springs, of Acqui Terme

In the beautiful spa town of Acqui Terme, at the Enoteca Regionale “Terme e Vino” in the 16th century town hall, we were introduced to the sweet, sparkling, pale red wines of Brachetto d’Acqui, as well as the newly-created Acqui Rosé DOCG for both sparkling and still, pale-pink, dry wines.

Consorzio President Paolo Ricanio welcomed us then sommelier Martina Doglio Cotto and Consorzio VP Roberto Morosinotto – also winemaker at Bersano – took us through the history, viticulture and winemaking. A walkaround format presented the wines to taste.

The Brachetto d’Acqui production area spans 26 municipalities but represents only around 1,200Ha, cultivated by 850 growers who provide grapes to sparkling wine producers for around €1,100 / tonne. Over 2M bottles of Brachetto are produced annually. For the new Acqui Rosé DOCG, launched with the 2017 vintage, only 2-300,000 bottles have been made while it establishes itself.

8-900,000 bottles are exported to the US, while the UK is much lower as a result of sparkling taxation driving their price point too high for consumer acceptance. There is a relatively broad range of sweetness levels and styles made.

Either way, for me, this is perhaps the most idiosyncratic style of wine made in the Asti region,whose sweetness on the one hand and pale red colour on the other must make this one of the more challenged styles of sparkling wine from a commercial perspective. Nevertheless, when handled by a good producer, its rose-scented style can be attractive.

History

Acqui Terme hot spring water
The sulfurous hot springs of Acqui were known in Roman times – here looking somewhat demonic!

Vinum acquense was recognised in Roman times for the wines from the spa town of Acqui – allegedly Cesar and Mark Anthony sent cases to Cleopatra. In the 19th century, Brachetto was drier and fortified but was transformed into a sparkling style in the early 20th century, perhaps reflecting the bubbling, sparkling style of the local spa water.

The Brachetto style was first officially documented in 1922, as elegant and aromatic with a deep rose colour and sweet character, though post-Phylloxera, much land fell out of production. The renaissance of the style began in the 1950s.

In the vineyard

The growing area spreads between Asti and Alessandria provinces. Like much of Asti and the Langhe, bedrock is made up of 50M year old tropical seabeds, with soils containing significant proportions of limestone and fossils. There are also some notable salt pans. Marls, clays, limestone and sandstone are the ranges of underlying sub-soils and bedrock.

Climate is influenced by both mountain cool breezes and moderating sea breezes, with intermediate altitude between 220-500m, giving significant diurnal variations. Winters are nevertheless cold enough to have regular snow and occasionally hard frosts below -15°C.

In the winery

Brachetto is aromatic, with rose-like terpene content – primarily from geraniol – and  naturally high sugar levels. Its aromatic specificity and intensity in the Acqui area was the basis of achieving DOCG over DOC. Terpene preservation is key to winemaking, as these are susceptible to oxidation, therefore cool fermentation and oxygen exclusion are important.

Roberto explained that, in pressing, geraniol gives a wild-rose aroma to the must. To preserve that, a lot of chilling systems are used. Grapes are generally picked in late August to the first 2 weeks of September, depending on vintage, though 30 years ago October was more normal. Picking is manual for berry selection,with harvest date based on maturity of sugars, polyphenols and acidity. Pressing takes place rapidly to preserve terpene levels.

Only Brachetto grapes are used, and are generally destemmed and pressed, then first-press must chilled to 7-8°C in cooled fermentation tanks. Cold-maceration for 7-8 days extracts the aromatics and colour, with fermentation suppressed. Some fermentation to not more than 4% ABV may take place, before separation from the skins.

The part-fermented must is then stored at 0°C until needed. Full fermentation to make the sweet Brachetto d’Acqui is then done whenever required, using a low-temperature, sealed-tank method, similar to Asti, followed by rapid chill-filtration.

Styles can be sparkling or ‘frizzante’ or ‘passito’. 6-8% ABV and 90-100 g/L RS are typical for the spumante Brachetto d’Acqui, with around 5 bars of pressure. The frizzante Brachetto has no more than 2.5 bar with 5% ABV and 130-140 g/L RS. In all cases, Brachetto is high in colloidal materials, so tends to leave a very persistent rim mousse.

Other than geraniol, linalool, nerol and terpineol provide floral notes, with esters like 2-phenyl acetate, isoamyl acetate and 2-phenyl ethanol giving fruit tones. Some animal character comes from muskone. During fermentation, geraniol is released from its glycoside, but some is converted into citronellol too. Fortunately, linalool levels are relatively low, unlike in Moscato as these tends to give bitterness when fermented dry, so dry-fermented Brachetto is possible.

The new Rosé category simply has shorter maceration, in the press, for pink colour, then is fermented to dryness – either under pressure for sparkling, or without to deliver the still style. Lighter geraniol extraction gives a more delicate rose note.

When questioned by another attendee, they explained that maceration is kept short to avoid the aromatics dominating the flavour in a dry wine, resulting in a paler colour, almost as a by-product. Further, they claim that colour-stability is better in the paler wine.

However, its pale and dry style does seem to be more driven by the commercial realities of current trends in rosé consumption generally, following the Provençale model,and especially in sparkling rosés. There’s nothing wrong in that, but it felt like the Consorzio didn’t want to admit to it – perhaps for the implication that the sweet and deep rose colour of their core, Brachetto d’Acqui style is out of fashion?

For the sparkling Rosé, the fully-dry wine is finished with the addition of dosage, typically with a blend of Brachetto must, to give from Brut to Extra-Dry styles. 6-8 g/L comes from the must, so additional sugar would be needed for any styles needing higher final sweetness.

Brachetto d’Acqui wines

Acqui Terme Enoteca Regionale cellar with a Brachetto d'Acqui and Acqui Rose reception
The cellar Enoteca in Acqui Terme, for an aperitif after our walkaround Brachetto tasting

In quality terms, none of the wines quite stepped up to the exceptional level, however Gallo’s Brachetto d’Acqui Frizzante 2017 showed classic rose and Turkish delight aromatics, with the musk character too, and brisk enough acidity to hold the 148 g/L RS in check. Likewise, Tre Secoli and Bastieri’s wines brought finesse to the aromatics. Tre Secoli’s Acqui Rosé Brut 2017 showed the potential for this category as well.

Gallo, Brachetto d’Acqui Frizzante 2017 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
Shorter, 2-day maceration at 25-28°C to give more stable colour. 2 bar pressure. 148 g/L RS. 5% ABV.
A: Pale purple-rose
N: Markedly aromatic rose, Turkish delight and slightly stewed raspberries. Touch of musk, for sure
P: Ripe, Turkish delight and stewed raspberries. Brisk acidity. Rich. Floral rose finish

Ivaldi Dario, Susbel Brachetto d’Acqui 2017 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
6.5% ABV.
A: Pale rose-purple
N: Musky-spicy. Jammy raspberry and some dried rose tones. Hint of brett sweat??
P: Crisp acidity to balance the richness. Ripe, stewed raspberry. Rose finish. Fair length

Tre Secoli, Brachetto d’Acqui 2017 (15.5/ 20; 89 / 100)
Just bottled. 5% ABV.
A: Pale ruby-rose
N: Musk and rose petals. Some ripe, scented strawberry
P: Intense sweet, cooked wild strawberry fruit, but with crisp, balancing acidity. Pure and elegant, with a medium-long, scented rose finish

Bastieri, Brachetto d’Acqui Extra Dry2017 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
12% ABV.
A: Pale salmon, with a fairly lively bead
N: Strawberry and flint. Some nutty touches
P: Fairly fine mousse. Flinty-stony and dry. Some rich strawberry scent. Medium-long

Acqui Rosé and other style wines

Tre Secoli, Acqui Rosé Brut 2017 (15 /20; 87 / 100)
10 g/L RS. 13% ABV.
A: Pale pink with some salmon tones
N: Marked ripe strawberry fruit. Cherry compote and some floral overtones
P: Dry, flinty-smoky. Chalky texture more than peach and strawberry fruit. Moderately-fine, fully-sparkling mousse. Moderate length

Gallo, Diverso 2016 (15 / 20; 86 / 100)
Still, dry, red wine. Brachetto grapes harvested a week later for sugar and deeper colour. 7-10 days on skins. 12 months in stainless steel then 1 year in bottle. 2017 will be labelled as Acqui. 13% ABV.
A: Medium purple
N: Marked floral rose character. Some red cherry and touches of strawberry
P: Juicy red cherry fruit. Floral rose overtones. Light-moderate, slightly chewy tannins. Bright not brisk acidity. Fair length

Botto, Convento Cappuccini Acqui 2017 (14.5 / 20; 85 / 100)
Still, dry, red wine. 13.5% ABV.
A: Pale ruby-purple
N: Animally brett notes. Some rose and cherry
P: Crisp, cranberry and red cherry. Some dried herb. Fair length. Delicate tannins