La vera storia dello Champagne italiano


If I ask you to think about great Italian sparkling wines, you will surely immediately think of Franciacorta, the most demanding palates of Trento DOC, and the most curious and passionate people who love to experiment, of the countless alternative and fun bubbles you can find all over Italy.

Close your eyes now and think of Italian Champagne (the term was allowed in the past), the real one that rests and refines for many years at a constant and natural temperature of 55.4°F, at the perfect natural humidity, in a labyrinth of tunnels dug into the rock that intertwine, chase each other, meet and then separate. There is only one name that comes to mind here: Contratto 1867

An important page of Italian history has been written In Canelli, Alta Langa, or rather a whole chapter, let me  correct myself, let’s make it a book on which the word END has not been printed quite yet! And it is an intense and passionate story indeed, written by many, many hands, starting with the 400 who took turns in over three years to dig with pickaxes the 16,404 square feet that now house this historic Cellar. And just like Michelangelo and Bernini, who clearly saw the figures trapped in a block of marble, and managed to free them by shaping the matter, I like to think that in the same way Giuseppe Contratto managed to have a crystal vision of what the hill of Canelli was hiding.

And this is how this visionary man created an imposing underground cathedral, a true work of art that today is a UNESCO heritage site.  A monument to courage, tenacity and the desire to create something great, which goes far beyond the intrinsic aesthetic value as its ultimate end, and is born and nourished by a very precise idea: the awareness that in Italy one could make Champagne as good or even better than the French cousins. The premises were all there and Giuseppe knew better, only the perfect cellar was missing, or rather it was already there and he “simply” carved it out of the rock.

This is how this great all-Italian adventure begun, at the end of the nineteenth century, and that proudly bears the word Champagne on the label, producing in 1919 the very first Vintage Traditional Method of the Bel Paese, and since 1920 an exclusive low-dosage line for the English Royal Family. Exquisitely refined and elegant, chosen by the great people of the world, even by the Vatican, the bubbles of Contratto have cheered the tables, parties and toasts all over the world for decades. Here in the silence of the Cathedral, while Fabio goes on with this fantastic story, I see the glittering images of an age now far away; everything suddenly comes to life around me and I find myself in the festive and mundane atmosphere of “The Great Gatsby” with Leonardo di Caprio approaching and smiling at me with his beautiful cup of Champagne that should have certainly been signed by Contratto 1867!

Drifting in between dream and reality, we find ourselves in front of the wonderful advertising poster, representing a joyful woman hovering suspended in the air, and holding a giant cup overflowing with Champagne. It is Art Deco from the 1920’s, and the space-time vortex that opens here takes me to the time when artists had started representing “…private subjects that are much more heroic than the public ones. The spectacle of fashionable life and the thousands of beings […] of a great city. […] The life of our city […] full of poetic and wonderful ideas: we are wrapped up in them, we are immersed in them as if in a wonderful atmosphere, but we don’t realize it”. (Charles Baudelaire)

It is the mood of the paintings of a great artist, tremendously non-conformist and exquisitely bohemian: it is the mood of Toulouse-Lautrec‘s café-chantants where Champagne flowed freely and invigorating. This is how I like to imagine the wonderful tasting rooms of Contratto, full of bold men and joyful women with their glasses overflowing with vibrant bubbles. This is the mood of those futuristic posters, both Toulouse-Lautrec and Contratto, in which it is clear that in advertising, knowing how to communicate in order to solicit is more important than representation. I suppose this is why the image was chosen for the labels of today’s Metodo Classico line, because this is the mood of Contratto 1867.

Let’s go back to our story now, which unfortunately was abruptly interrupted by the Second World War that put the global economy to the test, especially in those sectors where exports were significant. The company almost completely set aside its true Champagne soul, shifting its main production to still wines. Giuseppe Contratto’s dream seems to fade away, in the meantime Franciacorta was rising fast and steals the scene from Alta Langa… but it just can’t end like this, you must be thinking!

Absolutely not, on this we all agree, especially Giorgio Rivetti who in 2011 took over Contratto and immediately started working with his dream-team to dust off Giuseppe’s great dream and bring the company back to its original and sparkling splendor made of millions of bubbles. The choices are clear and unequivocal: only classic method, only vintage bottles, and only zero -dosage. No shortcuts on the road to excellence therefore, and only one objective: to bring back  Alta Langa and this great signature to its well- deserved notoriety in the Italian sparkling wine scene and more.

Will they succeed? I am sure they will. They will succeed because, together with the company, Rivetti has bought a great love story that continues in the devoted and expert hands of Mauro Ferrero. Historical memory and deus ex machina of this Cahedral, he has been working for Contratto since 1978 when he began his training as a champagne maker. The remuage of the 150,000 bottles that are produced each year is done strictly by hand by him; each of the 2 million bottles that are resting at this time in the cellar has been rotated 18 times with the millimetric precision that allows a complete rotation at the rate of 300 bottles per minute!

How about their Champagne, pardon their Traditional Method, forgive the Freudian slip (everyone knows that no sparkling wine producer outside of Champagne may use the term “Champagne method” since 1982)! The fine, complex and intense aromatic bouquet is truly  the one of the greatest sparkling bottles, consecrated by the wonderful oxidative note that enriches the nose with delicate nuances of chestnut honey. It is the unmistakable signature that I have found starting with Vintage 2014 to the Riserva Special Cuvée 2010, passing through the oustanding Blanc de Noir “For England”.

Textbook taste-olfactory consistency, sharp but never extreme freshness, perfect balance that only time can grant to great bottles, and the creamy caress of the bubbles in solution that seduces and conquers in a total and definitive way. At a blind tasting this is with no a shadow of a doubt Champagne.

This is the story of Contratto 1867, a story of courage, pride and love that risked being forgotten. Spread the word with your friends then, spread this beautiful all-Italian story!  Rediscover it by uncorking and toasting with these bubbles that have nothing to envy to the undisputed supremacy of our French cousins, and moreover they have an incredible value for money! Even more in this particular historical moment, let’s start again from Italy, let’s start again from Alta Langa! Let’s start from Contract 1867!

And last but not least, include this wonderful Cathedral to sparkling wine among your next tourist destinations! UNESCO never goes wrong after all!