The Gancia Cellars: Birthplace Of Italian Sparkling Wines
Travelers headed to the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwest Italy can visit the birthplace of Italian sparkling wine, where two resourceful brothers realized their dream and changed the history of enology.
Here, they can learn the story behind the Gancia brand and its remarkable heritage spanning over 170 years.
Sparkling wines have long been associated with festive occasions— big and small—milestone birthday and anniversary celebrations, engagement and wedding celebrations, as well as informal get-togethers among friends. But they have never been as popular as they are today— as a before-dinner aperitif, enjoyed throughout a meal, and sipped after dinner.
Another fundamental shift: Italian sparkling wines now dominate this market segment, having overtaken French Champagne. The range of the best known and most popular Italian sparkling wines internationally includes: Prosecco, Asti Spumante, Lambrusco, Trentodoc, and Franciacorta.
In terms of volume, sales of Prosecco lead the pack with an estimated market share comprising 27% of all sparkling wines produced worldwide (Allied Market Research, 2021).
To learn more about this “Made in Italy” tradition that has made its mark around the globe, Forbes.com spoke to Paola Visconti, marketing manager at Gancia:
When did sparkling wines first make their appearance in Italy?
Paola Visconti: The official Italian history of industrialization acknowledges the “Spumante Italiano” as making its first appearance in 1865, the year in which Carlo Gancia, after years of intense studies and experimentations, received a license by Royal Decree (the equivalent of a patent) for his sparkling wine made exclusively of Moscato grapes grown in southern Piedmont.
How did Carlo Gancia become the nominal “father” of Italian sparkling wines?
PV: Even before the (1861) unification of Italy, the founder of our company was attracted by his father’s work as a winemaker and the realization that even from simple grapes, one can produce high-quality wine.
His passion led him to study pharmacy and chemistry in Turin. In 1848, he left Turin to go to Reims, France, the capital of Champagne production, where he studied and learned the technique of making Champagne, called the Champenois Method. In 1850, he returned to
Piedmont, and, with his brother Edoardo founded their own winery which they named “Fratelli Gancia.”
They focused on producing a wine like Champagne but using the Moscato grapes grown in abundance in Northern Italy. For 15 years, the brothers toiled to perfect the wine. The first experiments were satisfying, but the Muscat sparkling wine often showed instability, and the production process was marred by many obstacles.
The Muscat grape differed from the Pinot used in Champagne in that the Muscat contained a higher sugar content. This higher sugar content would cause excessive pressure in the bottle and lead the bottle to shatter into a thousand pieces.
Carlo persisted and learned as he went, modifying the process. Finally, after nearly a decade, he found the solution was to eliminate the syrups that the Champagne producers added at the end of the processing to create their Pinot-based wine. By 1865, Carlo had perfected his sparkling wine, and the “First Italian Sparkling Wine” was born. The Gancia Moscato Champagne was exported abroad by 1866.
Why did the Gancia brothers put down roots in Chivasso?
PV: The Gancia brothers based the company in Chivasso (now about 35 minutes outside of Turin by car) because it had a railway by which products could be exported to reach the rest of the world. It was in Chivasso that Carlo Gancia started his experimentation.
In 1854, the Gancia brothers began looking for locations appropriate for larger-scale wine production, located close to the raw materials they needed and to the railways. They wound up renting two premises in Piedmont, which they turned into wine cellars for their productions: one in Santo Stefano Belbo near a train station, and the other in Canelli.
A few years later, these locations developed into full-scale operations, and soon Gancia wines were departing the rail station for destinations far and wide.
When were the vineyards of Piedmont recognized by UNESCO?
PV: In 2014, the vineyard landscapes of Piemonte-Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the region’s long history of viticulture and wine-making. It was during the Roman Empire that Pliny the Elder and the Greek geographer
Strabo mentioned Piedmont as one of the most favorable areas for the cultivation of grapes in Italy.
The UNESCO designation consists of six components: The Langa of Barolo, The Castle of Grinzane Cavour, The Hills of Barbaresco, Nizza Monferrato and Barbera, Canelli and Asti Spumante, and The Monferrato of Infernot. The “Canelli and Asti Spumante” area is where Gancia’s winery, with its underground caves, can be found.
Where are the Gancia vineyards? Can travelers visit the historic cellars?
PV: Today, Casa Gancia has no vineyards of its own but relies on its longstanding relationships with some 200 growers to select and acquire grapes from different territories (for instance, Alta Langa and Asti DOCG territories).
The UNESCO recognition has increased the number of national and international tourists in the territory, expanding and strengthening the reputation of the Gancia brand worldwide. Visitors are welcome to tour our historic Gancia “Underground Cathedral” (the reverent name for the cave). Reservations can be made in advance by sending a request to: [email protected]
One last question: Can you explain the “growth spurt” in Italian sparkling wines?
PV: Prosecco has driven sparkling wine growth in recent years, in part, thanks to the success of the aperitivo moment. The popularity of spritz cocktails has gradually turned some consumers on to higher-end, straight Prosecco enthusiasts and, from there, to other quality sparkling wines.
The new Prosecco Rosé, in its second year, also helped drive growth.
In general, consumers are becoming more informed and more curious. Additionally, they, especially younger ones, are looking for a lighter, more drinkable style with less barrel fermentation and lower alcohol content. These bubbly drinks offer not only versatility but also deliver quality at affordable prices.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.