Every memorable event for Italians – birthdays, weddings, graduations – is celebrated with Spumante, the champagne of Italy. And New Year is no exception. Both the wine and the glass you drink it from are important so here’s your New Year’s guide to Italy’s favourite toast!
Most countries celebrate the advent of a new year with some type of sparkling wine ‘toast’. So where did toasting start? The tradition was widespread among ancient peoples, according to Paul Dickson in his book Toasts: ‘The ancient Hebrews, Persians and Egyptians were toasters, as were the Saxons, Huns and other tribes’. The ancient Greeks are said to have used toasting as a way to show diners that the wine was not poisoned, with the toaster-master taking the first sip. Attila, King of Huns in 4th century BC was recorded as using toasts to celebrate victories against the Roman Empire and the Romans themselves were committed toast-makers who had to praise senate and emperor with a toast by law. In fact, we owe the word ‘toast’ to the Romans, due to their practice of adding toasted bread to their wines to compensate for their high acidity – the Latin word ‘tostus’ means to dry or scorch.
In Italy, toasting is just one of many typical New Year traditions. Eating lentils and cotechino – a large spiced pork meat sausage – at midnight, kissing under the mistletoe, wearing red underwear, throwing old things out of the window, fireworks, dressing in something new, lighting candles before midnight – one green for wealth, one white and one red for luck in love and good health (also the colours of our flag.) Another ritual we have is touching the neck and behind the ears with any drops of wine spilled during a toast. This is said to attract wealth.
But the one ritual that is never missing, wherever you are in Italy, is to toast at midnight on the 31st December with Spumante. To find out how it should be done, let’s turn first to the Renaissance guide Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior by Florentine Giovanni Della Casa, published in Venice in 1558. This still relevant guide explores subjects such as dress, table manners, and conversation – and gives insights into how to make a toast. Galateo says:
- toasts shall always be made standing up
- the wine shall be served to all drinkers in advance.
On New Year’s Eve (‘vigilia di capodanno’), Galateo allows a deviation from the normal rules for toasting:
- the New Year toast is the only one that can be done at midnight, after dinner. All others should be done before starting to eat
- New Year is the only occasion when it is fine to open a bottle of sparkling wine quietly, avoiding the traditional pop
The Italian ritual has a few small differences from the Anglo Saxon one. We open the bottle noisily on the stroke of midnight – despite Galateo, we believe the bang is important to drive evil spirits away – and then pour out the wine. In non-Italian New Year toasts the bottle is opened and the glasses filled before midnight strikes so that everyone is ready to drink at the crucial moment.
So what is Spumante and which should you drink from the wide range available in Italian shops?
The characteristics of Spumante are a high percentage of carbon dioxide, which produces strong effervescence or ‘perlage’ (i.e. the amount, size and duration of ‘pearls’ or bubbles produced ) along with low alcohol content. Spumante is produced from a complex process of two natural fermentations, the second of which is carried out in closed containers to which sugars and yeasts have been added. This two-stage process allows for greater effervescence, making this wine different from all other sparkling wines.
The difference between Spumante, Champagne (France), Sekt (Germany) or Cava (Spain) lies in the method of production and the grape varieties . Most are made in the same way but the prestige enjoyed by particular sparkling wines comes mainly from the combination of the selected grapes allied to the area of production (terroir) and the process employed. This wine can be produced from three different processes, all are very complex so I will not go into detail, just try to explain the main differences:
Metodo Ancestrale: the least known, this method is used in some wine-growing areas of France and products from the Ancestral Method are also called Pétillant Naturel. It is a natural process, therefore each sparkling wine that results from it is unique in terms of alcohol and flavour characteristics. It is a complex production process whose main characteristic is that at the end of the fermentation, dégorgement is not carried out, i.e. the opening of the bottles which expels the exhausted yeasts and creates a clear wine. The yeasts remain in the bottle and settle on the bottom, giving the wine greater aromatic complexity, with clear hints of bread crust and visible turbidity (cloudiness). The wines produced by this method are also called ‘sur lie’ (on the lees) or ‘col fondo’ (with the bottom), meaning that sediment is present.
Metodo Classico or Champenoise: the normal process used for Champagne. To recognise these wines look at the label, where it will be clearly stated, and the price tag! They are usually the most expensive. The main characteristic of this method is that the second fermentation is done in the bottle and after that the bottle is uncorked and the wine cleaned of all yeasts and topped up with new must and sugars ( ‘liqueur de expedition’). The longer the lees are kept, the more complex the wine will be. The year of production is not mentioned on the label as in normal wines but sometimes the time spent on the lees is indicated. In Italy there are denominations that offer high quality classic method sparkling wines: Trento DOC, Alta Langa DOCG, Franciacorta DOCG, etc. These denominations are similar to Champagne, with their own production specifications.
Metodo Martinotti or Charmat: in this method a steel autoclave is used for the second fermentation (which is also a much shorter process than that used in the methods above – a maximum 6 months). These are cheaper wines with a production process in which the aromas of the first fermentation rather than the second one are enhanced, leading to more standard organoleptic (aroma, taste, texture, colour) characteristics – so a less complex and perhaps less interesting wine, but one which is affordable and enjoyable. The best known example among Italian wines is Prosecco.
At the beginning I noted that the glass you drink Spumante from is also important. In my opinion the ‘flute’ is best. With a thin stem and an elongated shape, it is designed to enhance the play of bubbles, which shows off the beauty of the wine. And Spumante should be a feast for the eyes as well as the palate!
I hope this has made the production of celebration wines sparkling clear! Now it’s time to start the celebration, leave the past behind and make a fresh start. I wish you Buon Anno for 2023 from myself and Rita. Have a wonderful time surrounded by those you love!
Happy New Year!