Oltrepò Pavese, literally ‘across the Pò, in the province of Pavia’ is a viticultural area which stretches for 13,500 hectares in a southerly direction from the left bank of the river Pò, in a shape reminiscent of a bunch of grapes. The southern tip of the bunch touches the border with the Ligurian Appenines. To the west is Piemonte and to the east Emilia-Romagna. The area is regulated by two overlapping sets of disciplinare, Oltrepò Pavese DOC, which covers a range of a dozen red and white varieties and Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG.

The Metodo Classico norms are divided into two categories, the basic Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico, and the Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Nero Metodo Classico. The former prescribes a minimum 75% Pinot Nero supplemented by Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio. The latter, which is the category of the wines in the notes below, raises the Pinot Nero to 85%. In both cases the wines age on the lees for 15 months for non-vintage and a minimum 24 months for vintage wines, although many producers go well beyond the required minimum for their vintage releases. The rather clumsily named Cruasè (Cru+pAvESE) is a collective brand owned by the producers’ Consorzio for Metodo Classico Rosé wines made from 100% Pinot Nero with an obligatory 24 months on the lees. Created in 2009, it is still seen on labels, but has failed to achieve widespread use.

Pinot Nero

Pinot Nero was introduced into the area south of the Po in the second half of the 19th century, in the wave of post-phylloxera replanting. Today Oltrepò Pavese grows nearly 3,000 hectares of the variety (2,865 hectares, to be precise) which makes it by far the biggest producer of the grape in Italy and the third biggest in Europe after Burgundy and Champagne. Having said that, it is not the most widely planted variety in the Oltrepò Pavese - there is considerably more Croatina and Barbera under the DOC. It is difficult to establish the amount of the total planting of Pinot Nero dedicated to the production of Metodo Classico, since producers have the option of producing both a sparkling wine and a still one from the same vineyards. What is clear is that production of both Pinot Nero DOC (still) and Pinot Nero DOCG (sparkling) is increasing.

Climate, topography and soils

The climate is basically continental, although spring and summer temperatures vary considerably according to elevation and aspect. Night / day temperature variation in the summer months is a feature of the area as as whole. Vines are located on the slopes of valley sides and rounded plateaus averaging around 300 metres above sea level in four main valleys running north to south. Soils are extremely varied and tend to overlap, but five main types with different geological origins are described in the official protocols: (1) alluvial conglomerates, (2) sandstone, (3) clay, (4) calcareous marl with varying percentages of limestone, and (5) chalk. Pinot Nero is planted across the whole of the denomination, but the highest concentration is in the centre-west of the DOC, on a complex mix of marl soils. Simplifying, but giving a useful overview, Attila Science’ et al in the Atlante geologico dei vini d’Italia (2019) found Metodo Classico wines from clay soils to have finesse but lacking in length and complexity (these areas in the north of the DOC are more widely planted to red varieties). Wines from marl soils with greater clay components were characterised by ripe fruit and aromatic complexity, lower acidity and softer textures. More calcareous soils had greater freshness and complexity, red fruit and mineral intensity, while sandstone soils were associated with lighter wines with more sour fruit but great length and firm acid structure. All these characteristics were present in the wines in the tasting below, but not necessarily associated with specific growing areas.

Growth of Metodo Classico

Traditionally the Oltrepò Pavese has always been known as the source of red wines, associated amongst other things with the frizzante styles influenced by the neighbouring Emilia. The majority of the production used to slot into the category of good ordinary (but sometimes just ordinary), for local consumption. The prestige wines of the small number of better known estates were still Pinot Neros. Until 2007, when it acquired DOCG status and its own disciplinare, Metodo Classico was subsumed under the umbrella DOC of the Oltrepò and it was only after that date that it began to show as a force in its own right.

Production has grown significantly in the last ten years to the current annual figure of 500,000 bottles. Output is predicted to increase to 750,000 in the next two years, with the potential to reach the one million mark in the mid-term. Around 40 wineries currently have an established production of Metodo Classico.

It is interesting to trace the increasing visibility of the Metodo Classico over the past 20 years through the pages of Gambero Rosso’s Vini d’Italia. In the 2003 edition, the Gambero reviewed 24 producers and mentioned 244 wines (bear in mind that the guide lists previous vintages as well as current ones, so the total is swollen by duplication). Only 20 Metodo Classico wines are listed, which is the equivalent of just 8% of the total. Only seven of the 24 producers had a Metodo Classico in their lists and the only ones which could be said to specialise in the style were Monsupello and Zonin’s Tenuta del Bosco. Red wines from the local Barbera and Croatina in various styles and combinations predominated. No Metodo Classico was awarded more than due-bicchieri.

By 2013, ten years later, 19 of the 23 producers reviewed had a Metodo Classico in their list, but Metodo Classico still only represented 18% of the wines mentioned. Interestingly, a number of producers in the Guide at that time were making sparkling wines by the vat re-fermented Martinotti method, however the reputation of Metodo Classico was definitely on the up, and in that year three wines got the top tre-bicchieri award. Another ten years on and the landscape has changed radically. In the current 2023 Guide, the number of producers listed has gone up to 30 and many of the new entries are Metodo Classico specialists. Of these 30 producers, only four do not make a Metodo Classico, which now accounts for 39% of the wines reviewed. Interestingly although the presence of Metodo Classico has increased significantly, the perception of the quality has remained the same as in 2013, with just three wines awarded the top rating.

In December 2022, the members of the producers’ Consorzio voted a number of modifications to the current disciplinare, which indicate the extent to which Metodo Classico has become a top priority for the future of the area. The first is the proposal (which needs to pass the scrutiny of the Ministry of Agricultre and is not a fait accompli) to change the name of the DOCG to the more impactful “Oltrepò Metodo Classico”. The second, less controversial, is the increase in the minimum period of lees ageing to 24 months for non-vintage, 36 months for vintage and 48 months for a newly created Riserva category (as a measure of comparison, Trento Riserva spends 36 months on the lees, Franciacorta 60 months).