The Handbook
The Handbook

There are more reasons than usual for us to crave an uplifting glass of bubbly this festive season: a winter general election, London house prices, the thought of returning home for YET ANOTHER festive family discussion about Brexit… But with all this political and economic turmoil, Champagne is definitely off my Christmas shopping list as I save my pennies to sit out whatever madness awaits us in 2020.

Never fear: there are plenty of bubbly alternatives that are as good, if not better, than champagne, and which won’t break the bank.

In search of a Christmas haul to get me through til New Year’s Day, I made the trip to the home of a true legend in sparkling wine – Casa Martini in Pessione, Italy.

This is where Alessandro Martini and Luigi Rossi concocted their classic vermouth which first launched in 1863. From 1901, it saw the production of a range of high-quality sparkling wines, the most famous of which is Martini Asti.

Asti Spumante had a heyday in the seventies and eighties, gaining a reputation as a cheaper, less classy version of Champagne – which led to unfair dismissal by wine snobs. But, as with Riesling (which suffered gravely from association with the ubiquitous Blue Nun in the same era), Asti is now making a well-deserved comeback, perhaps helped along by the recent boom in Prosecco.

A whopping forty per cent of Asti sold worldwide is made by Martini, and after spending the afternoon with Martini’s master blender Beppe Musso, I can almost taste the love and dedication that has been poured into every bottle.

Beppe has spent twenty-six years learning his craft, and says he cannot imagine working anywhere else. He swings between scientist and philosopher, as he takes us through the unexpectedly wide variety of sparkling wines he produces every day.

“It’s not an industry, but an art,” he says when I ask about the role of Martini to the economy of the surrounding area, which includes the beautiful city of Turin. Workers who are as serious about their beverages as you might expect from Italians, often stay in post for many years, as there is so much to learn about the complex process of making wines, vermouths and spirits “The Martini Way.”

We ease ourselves into the tasting session with brand new product Martini Dolce 0.0%. This no-alcohol wine was originally developed for the Arab market, where even the 0.2% of alcohol you might find in must (freshly crushed grape juice) would be too much. So instead Martini uses grape juice concentrate, adding the all-important bubbles by carbonating it rather than fermenting it. Natural flavours are added to give the delicate soft drink its sweet perfume-y notes of apples, pear and bread. It’s a perfect alternative for when you’ve overdone it at last night’s office party, but still want to make the most of bubbly season. It’s just £6.00 from Ocado. But you can’t beat a classic, and Martini Asti (£9.00 from Ocado) is still an absolute winner. It’s the same soft gold colour as Christmas candlelight, and as sweet as a nursery nativity play. Do as the Italians do and enjoy its complex notes of melon, peach and wild sage along with a generous slice of Panettone cake.

If you want a modern spin on this eighties favourite, try the newly launched Martini Asti Ice (£9.49 from Ocado). This was launched in time for summer drinking, and is specially designed to be enjoyed over ice. But sip one next to a roaring fire watching White Christmas and you won’t wish away the winter for a minute. Pair with a cheeseboard for full indulgence.

Martini Prosecco (£12.99) is just as versatile and easy-drinking as we have come to expect from the Italian classic. Floral and fruity, you can enjoy it in basically any context – though don’t forget that strong flavours will overpower its delicate sensibilities, so best enjoy it before the Christmas dinner. And after. And maybe whilst cooking.
For a slightly more refreshing twist on Britain’s favourite sparkling wine, try Martini Collezione Speciale Prosecco (£8.99.) This livens up the delicate floral notes with hints of fresh green apple and lime, exotic fruit flavours and a lasting finish. It’s perfect for nibbles around the tree.
As Beppe leaves our tasting session to tend to his vats of deliciously fermenting grapes, a colleague turns to ask me which of the wines I enjoyed most. Beppe suddenly stops in his tracks with a serious look in his eyes. “I never ask my guests, ‘Which is your favourite?’ We have a range of wines because people are different. Scores are for technicians.”
Mischievously referring to the handsome actor with a home on nearby Lake Como, whose face adorns the Martini museum of posters through the ages, Beppe says,
“You may say George Clooney is the best man in the world – but that may not be true for my wife. The best wine in the world is what you consider the best. It’s a matter of beauty and pleasure.”

So, out of respect to Beppe, and in the spirit of beauty and pleasure, I won’t share my favourite, so as not to sway my readers. Suffice it to say, I have ordered it in bulk.

Now it’s just the Christmas shopping left to do. But maybe a quick glass of fizz first…