The Spago

I decided to include this wine in my selection, not only for the usual, trivial but not negligible reason that it is an excellent wine but also for its old-fashioned flair, with its traditional tie string. Lo Spago, as the twine tie method is called, has become almost a denomination.

Winemakers used the binding with twine to hold the cork of sparkling wines before the current wire „cage“ was invented.

Before Prosecco’s commercial fortunes, in the Valdobbiadene hills, the hand-tied corks were the norm, as nobody even dreamed of spending money for Champagne’s disposable wire cages.

The problem of keeping bubbles inside the bottle occurred as soon as the method to make sparkling wine was discovered. The XVII century saw a rise in the consumption of French wine; due to the increased demand, the French authority allowed the transportation of bottled wine, which until then only traveled in casks. The new rule helped winemakers commercially but posed a new problem: please welcome the in-bottle refermentation!

The increase in demand caused the speedup of cellar procedures; hence winemakers bottled wine in autumn as atmospheric temperatures dropped; the colder weather caused fermentation to stop in the wine before all sugars converted into alcohol. Bottled in this state, the wine became a literal time-bomb. As spring approached and warmer climates settled in, the dormant yeast, waking up, began to generate carbon dioxide. In cellars began a catastrophic series of concatenated events: the pressure generated in the bottle by the carbon dioxide would at best push the cork out of its seat, and at worst, explode. In a cellar, a bottle exploding would trigger a chain reaction: the nearby bottles would crack, while those also under pressure would explode due to the shock of the neighbor’s breakages. Winemakers were running the risk of either being hurt financially or physically. What to do? Here comes the sparkle, let’s turn a disaster into a superstar.

According to legend, Dom Perignon, at the end of the seventeenth century, realized that the wine he produced, his miraculously bubbly creation, could no longer be capped with corks made of wood, tow, and wax seal. The pressure developed inside the bottle was such that any form of closure, as said, blew up. The next step was to understand that stoppers needed to be made with something different, possibly something with a level of elasticity, like, ahem… cork! However, the vitality of the bubbles was still unstoppable. Soon knotted hemp cords harnessed corks in the attempt to contain the explosive strength of the sparkle in sparkling wine.

Isn’t that a wonderful story? I can just picture the musty cellars coming to life, the restless corks crackling with joy, the sparkles pushing to see the light, and desperate, ingenious winemakers running around, trying to lock up these happy and explosive bubbles. Now winemakers know precisely how many atmospheres, how much pressure, how much fermentation, but at the time, making wine carried some serious occupational hazard!

Over time and the laborious ligatures with strings, metal wires were added to help the cords. Even this type of closure soon proved expensive, besides involving complex craftmanship. Not least, opening a bottle of Champagne involved a set of tools bordering on armed equipment.

We all know that the evolution of the living is based on survival. After various ingenious attempts and technological upgrades, we arrive at the current „cage,“ also thanks to the exploding popularity of Champagne.

Nowadays, the pressure level calls for the use of the cage: both Champagne, with its 6.5 atmospheres of pressure, and Proseccos with 4, necessarily require the cage, while a sparkling wine like the Fii by Bastia, with its 2.5 atmospheres, is perfectly happy with the traditional twine binding.

String binding is made only by hand and falls within the sphere of that unknown craftsmanship in which Italy is very rich. Lo Spago, the Twine, was the type of traditional binding used in Valdobbiadene, particularly until Prosecco was a local and niche production.

Until the 80s, all Valdobbiadene’s production was classified as Frizzante, the sparkling wine with the lower pressure level: bottles were all tied by hand, and indeed Prosecco was Italy’s best-kept secret. The current Prosecco, with its Book of Rules, Crus, and international classification as a Quality Sparkling Wine, that is, with more explosive bubbles, is a child of the ’80s. But unlike other 80’s byproducts, we all love the sparkles.

Very much like with CDs and Vynil, we love the tech-enhanced one, but our heart goes out to the previous version, the less bubbly one.

Fii by Bastia represents this romantic streak well: it is the first wine bottled by Michele Rebuli in the 90s, a firstborn created even before Valdobbiadene was DOCG. Its label does not contain the words Valdobbiadene, nor Prosecco, despite being 100% Glera; it comes from a vineyard plot still classified by its ancient name, Fìi, located in Saccol, next to the noble Cartizze. It’s a Frizzante, with thinner bubbles and considerably less sparkle than Prosecco; it is a Spago, tied by hand, bottle by bottle, by Michele Rebuli’s mother. When I met her, Mrs. Rebuli, with great poise and grace, told me about the time when that was the only bottling method in Valdobbiadene, and that they all did it, almost as a pastime.

A Spago bottle tells the story of a century-old tradition and is the expression of a community: indeed a unique community, set on small secluded set of hills, who turned a simple wine tied by hand into an international superstar. The hand-knotting of that cord is normal and an everyday activity as knitting with friends sitting on a bench in the sun. All that before stress-relieving needlework.

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