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Acqui Terme is a charming historic town in the province of Alessandria in Piedmont, Italy. For wine lovers in particular, it offers more than its famous thermal springs, which provide health and well-being. A wine is grown in the area that promises exceptional - and unusual - enjoyment. Its name: Brachetto (d'Acqui).

The province of Alessandria is very extensive and includes five different wine-growing areas: Acquese, Ovadese, Gaviese, Tortonese and Casalese. The names derive from the respective towns, which are located in the easternmost part of the hills of southern Piedmont, stretching from the Langhe to the Tortona area. Alessandria produces a considerable number of varied and high quality wines, making it an important area for viticultural diversity. We have already reported on the Timorasso from Tortonese. Today we are dealing with the Brachetto from the Acquese.

A grape variety makes a career

The name Brachetto may not be used outside of a DOC area. The small but potent lobby of Brachetto d'Acqui has seen to that. This is unusual. If not a unique case, because Brachetto is not a geographical name, but that of a grape variety and accordingly - according to general legal opinion - not "patentable". If someone had the idea of appealing to the cartel authorities, unpleasant quarrels could be expected, which would do more harm than good to the name of this red aromatic wine with the DOCG predicate. So the solution is "alla italiana": live and let live.

From name to quality

Brachetto grape (Photo Massimiliano Navarria% Archive Alexala)

"Who is allowed to use the name Brachetto is an almost inexhaustible subject here," knows Maurizio Gily, agronomist and Slow Food consultant from Piedmont. Yet the confusion was even greater at the beginning. At least four different varieties in different places were identified by varietal experts, all of them called Brachetto. Since marketing could hardly be successful under such circumstances, the winegrowers decided to assign the name only to the best of the Brachetti, which also had the greatest economic importance: the Brachetto d'Acqui. Those who produced the no less interesting Brachetto del Roero were left out and had to change their name. Several winegrowers subsequently switched to producing table wines, which they gave mischievous fantasy names such as Birbet - Piedmontese for rascal, rogue.

Another storm in the wine glass was caused by the similarity of the name between the Brachetto d'Acqui, characterised by more DOCG-restrictive production rules, and the Piemonte Brachetto, which is produced in DOC quality with further interpretation and fewer restrictions. In the end, the system of the quality pyramid was codified. A more recent attempt to unite the two appellations under the name Brachetto d'Acqui failed. This was predictable given the fact that it is almost never possible to expand a production area with a prestigious designation of origin. Neither in Italy nor in France does a winegrower who grows in the production area show any willingness to share the cake or, as the Italian expression goes: allungare il brodo - to extend the soup.

The typical glass for Brachetto as sparkling wine or semi-sparkling wine (Photo Consortium Brachetto d'Acqui)

Now, some producers want to at least accommodate the typologies "passito" and "secco" in the DOC Piemonte, but it seems that the majority of the industrialists do not agree. However, there are three arguments in favour of this. First, both the dry and the passito versions are products with an older tradition than that of the sweet spumante and frizzante versions. Moreover, the Secco and Passito versions still have a lot of potential to develop into excellent wines, even if they would have to wrest some grapes from the Frizzante market to do so. "But they would certainly enhance the already existing DOC in this way," Domenico Botto, a passionate winemaker from Acquese who is already the third generation to run the Cantina Sant'Ubaldo, is convinced. Last but not least, these are "farmer wines" that could then be made by everyone. Although a considerably higher amount of work would be required, especially for the passito, investments in technology would remain manageable - in contrast to the sparkling versions. The dry and passito versions require grapes of high quality and thus particularly careful work in the vineyard, which is less important for the "industrial" brachetto, though never unnecessary. Regardless of further developments, let it be said to the wine lovers and gourmets of this world: the real Brachetto is the one with the "tappo raso", i.e. the smooth cork; in contrast to the more popular, anaemic and short-lived Spumante.

Variety is the trump card

"Bric e Brac" - Brachetto secco from Sant'Ubaldo (Photo Katrin Walter)

But sweet brachetto also find their audience. A whole series of reputable producers give their customers a lot of pleasure with what sparkles in the champagne bowl. Pleasant, sparkling, frothy, cheerful and fragrant, Brachetto d'Acqui is made from the aromatic grape variety of the same name. The secret of its fruitiness lies in the fermentation process in stainless steel tanks at a controlled temperature, which preserves the primary aromas. Fermentation is not carried out completely, but is interrupted at an alcohol content of 5 to 6 percent by volume in order to maintain a pleasant balance between acidity and residual sugar. This is because it can only be called DOCG if it has at least 11.5 percent by volume total alcohol and 5 percent by volume fermented.

Brachetto d'Acqui can be used in many different ways. As a sparkling wine, well chilled, it is suitable in some cases as an aperitif with spicy appetizers. Refreshing and thirst-quenching long drinks are created in combination with fruit juices. It is also used in sweet cuisine. It harmonises well with fruit that is not too sour and can always surprise when it succeeds in emphasising its strawberry and raspberry flavour. It even goes well with dried fruits and nuts. Traditionally, it goes with desserts at the end of a meal or in the afternoon with pasticceria secca (dry pastry) or pastries such as panettone and shortbread.

Between legends and pleasure

The brachetto has had a chequered history. Like a comet, it has appeared several times over the centuries. As an ancient delicacy, it already appears in the era of the Roman Empire, when some writers describe the habits of Gallia Cisalpina and speak of the sweet and aromatic "Vinum acquense", the wine from the Acqui area, highly prized by the patricians. This is probably the passito version, to which they attributed astonishing aphrodisiac powers. Julius Caesar and later also Marcus Antonius gave Cleopatra some wineskins as a gift. The empress had her lovers sip the wine to kindle the desired ardour. At least that is what the legend says.

Whether that "Vinum acquense" can actually be regarded as the forefather of the modern brachetto may be doubted insofar as no further traces are to be found in historical evidence in the following 1800 years.

A renaissance in the 19th century did not last long, as ultra-dry white wines became fashionable shortly afterwards. Brachetto ended up in cuvées with other red wines and, before its recognition as a DOC in 1969, was the classic rustic red sparkling wine served at the end of the meal with housewife-style ciambelle (biscuit rings). Since its DOCG consecration, it has been offered mainly sparkling and effervescent: Light ruby to rosé, with a scent of roses, violets, geraniums, peach blossoms, raspberries, strawberries and musk.

In the years that followed, Brachetto established itself as a typical women's wine. "In the bourgeoisie in the Piedmont countryside, it is good manners to serve the ladies this low-alcohol wine on sultry Sunday summer afternoons," says winemaker Botto.

Sparkling inside and out

The "Edicola della Fontana della Bollente" fountain with thermal water in the centre of Acqui Terme(Photo Michael Zerban% COD Düsseldorf)

Acqui Terme, a town of more than 20,000 inhabitants in the south of the province of Alessandria, has always been a place of sensual pleasure and is therefore suitable as the eponym of the DOCG: even for the Romans, the "acquae statiellae" were a bubbling pleasure from the outside, just like the sparkling brachetto from the inside. A tradition worth preserving. Thus, in 1992, the Consortium for the Protection of Brachetto d'Acqui was founded with 16 producers, 17 cooperatives and 28 bottling plants in Acqui Terme. Four years later, the wine receives DOCG status and thus a higher commercial value. Today, 26 municipalities in the provinces of Alessandria and Asti belong to the production area. On about 1,300 hectares, 900 winegrowers produce 6 million bottles of Brachetto per year in two versions; more often with a smooth cork, mousse, frizzante as well as sparkling wine in a tank fermentation process with mushroom cork. In addition, the territory around Acqui and Asti, also called the "territory of the aromatics", produces a significant proportion of Italy's light sweet wines: Moscato d'Asti, Moscato d'Asti Spumante, Brachetto d'Acqui, Brachetto d'Acqui Spumante, Piemonte DOC Brachetto, Piemonte DOC Brachetto Spumante.

--- no regulations available
*1 in general, the following may be indicated on the label of a Vino da Tavola (VdT): the number of the lot, the designation "Vino da Tavola", the content in hl, l, cl or ml, the data of the bottler, the place of bottling, the place of vinification if different from that of bottling, the alcoholic strength and if artificial carbon dioxide has been added to the wine, this must also be indicated on the label.

Tastes change

The DOCG recognition does not allow the winegrowers to remain at a standstill. They continue to develop Brachetto by pressing the grape dry again. In this case, it is advisable to enjoy it only after two to three years of bottle maturity. Initially acidic, with strong aromas and scents of wild strawberries, almond blossom and elderberry, this wine develops aromas of elderberry jelly, blackcurrants, small dark fruits in alcohol, nutmeg and wild oregano; the tannins become velvety.

The production quantities of these dry Brachetti are very small. Hardly more than 500 to 2,500 bottles are produced annually per vineyard. It is difficult to find it on the market. You have to come to Acqui Terme, this wonderful town so rich in history and healing water, the water that still bubbles today in the Edicola della Fontana della Bollente, the healing water fountain in the historic centre of the town.

The Brachetto wines in the Wein-Plus wine guide

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