Many of us are fairly familiar with the sparkling styles of wine in the world from France’s Champagne and Crémant, to Spain’s Cava and Italy’s better-known sparkling classics like Moscato D’Asti and Prosecco. But when it comes to Franciacorta, it’s a wine and region that remains largely unknown and under the radar across much of the globe. Much of that may be due to its relatively young heritage, which began in the 1960s. Others may argue that its limited export quantities have kept it from finding a seat at the table in markets like the US. (Only a little more than 10 percent of these wines makes it out of the country each year.)
But while the sparkling DOCG is fairly young in age, it’s worth noting that, historically, the region of Franciacorta has been producing wine for centuries. With its location along the Italian A4 highway, which was once a main thoroughfare for the Roman Empire, the region most likely got its name from Benedictine and Cistercian monks who arrived from Cluny, France and began to govern the area in as early as 1100. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that a few pioneering producers--including Guido Berlucchi--funneled the region’s ideal climate, soils, and unique grape production into a sparkling format that rapidly caught on within he region.
In 1995, Franciacorta was the first Italian wine made exclusively by secondary fermentation in the bottle to obtain the DOCG status. In the same year, “Franciacorta” was also recognized as an official method of production. In much the same way Champagne is in France--or as some locals refer to it, the trans-Alpine sparkling region--the bottle label bears solely the denomination Franciacorta as a single term that defines the growing area, the production method, and the wine itself.
As in other sparkling wine regions, the wines of Franciacorta are produced in several varieties from the classic brut to the trademarked Satèn, which is a silkier blanc de blancs version that is a bottled at slightly fewer atmospheres than other Franciacorta styles. Satèn is as unique as the region itself with a delightful savoriness and fruity freshness delivered in a soft, supple texture.
But it wasn’t until a recent visit to the almost mythical wine region hosted by the Consorzio Franciacorta that the beauty of Franciacorta’s authentically pure and pristine wines began to glimmer and sparkle, like fine little bubbles in a glass. Among the many tidbits I learned about the area--which were best illustrated with each sip from a glass--these are the main points I took away from he experience:
When it comes to Franciacorta, don’t compare it to the “C word”:
Despite the undeniable temptation to compare it to the world famous French region for sparkling wine, suggesting that Franciacorta is the “Champagne of Italy,” is almost a slap in the face to both regions whose history and fro what have followed very different paths. Sure, both regions use the same classic method of second fermentation in bottle to yield sparkling wine. And they both undergo a specified regiment of aging before release. But in truth, these wines are really very different.
Though arguably comparable in quality to Champagne, Franciacorta has more than 200 wineries on 5,400 acres, compared with 19,000 vignerons and Champagne houses on 80,000 acres in France.
But for what Franciacorta lacks in volume, it makes up for in quality. By law, producers are held to exceptionally high growing, harvesting and production standards including requirements for gentler grape-pressing techniques, minimal sulphur and dosage allowances, and a strict set of aging periods for different styles ranging from extra brut to demi-sec, most of which are extended significantly by individual producers based on proprietary preferences.
Glass for glass, what Champagne and Franciacorta represent are two different things. The former tends to reveal more of the autolytic process of aging, showing off characteristics of brioche, bread dough, toast, and sometimes, nuttiness. The latter, despite its similar aging requirements--offers significantly more pronounced elements of fruit such as green apple, pear, and quince as well as aromas of yellow and flowers, and perceptible minerality.
Many of these differences could be attributed to stylistic decisions during the production process, but really, most of it has to do with the region, climate, and soils in which these wines are grown. It’s more accurate to say that Champagne is a style of wine that is conceived as a sparkling wine, while Franciacorta is a wine that happens to sparkle.
The Clime is Right:
Franciacorta features a uniquely moderate climate that is prime for growing sparkling wine grapes. Across the small appellation, the climates ranges from between Alpine and Maritime, but also borderlines on Mediterranean with the moderating effects of Lake Iseo. Warm, sunny, summer days followed by cool nights ripen grapes significantly more than the grapes grown in the cooler, Continental climate of Champagne. These riper Franciacorta grapes retain ideal acidity levels vital for producing DOCG-caliber sparkling wines. As a result, Franciacorta needs little augmentation with sugar to aid fermentation or to round out its acid profile, which is perhaps one of its most alluring qualities.
Supreme Soil Selection:
The whole of Franciacorta is a diverse growing region with more than 60 soils types thanks to the erosion and glacial soil deposits of the nearby mountain ranges. The fertile soil is perfect for growing the three types of grapes used in Franciacorta production: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Bianco. One of the most distinctive soils is the rocky morainic soil, which is said to set Pinot Bianco apart with pronounced florality and ripe fruit character.
Here producers work with a number of vineyard sites throughout the region and vinify wines separately by vineyard and age them for a minimum of six months in steel tanks allowing for a wide range of base wines that serve as a winemaker’s painting palate by which to produce the most expressive completed wine blend. This vast selection of “colors” with which to work, along the strict aging requirements and minimal dosage levels, set Franciacorta wines apart from even the best Champagnes—and often at a much lower price. (More on that later.)
Precious About Production:
While traditional method sparkling wine production requires a certain amount of delicacy from start to finish, Franciacorta’s methods are arguably some of the most precious. Hand-harvested grapes are very gently pressed, often yielding less than 30 percent of the grape must. Wines are fermented first in wooden casks, then in the bottle for a minimum of 18 months. It’s a process that’s even more stringent than Champagne, and as a result, the quality of many Franciacorta wines exceed that of even the most famous Champagnes.
Franciacorta is For Food:
While it’s a widely accepted custom to enjoy wine with food, sparkling wine is typically served as a starting beverage for social events, special occasions, or as an aperitif before a meal. But compared to other styles of sparkling wine, Franciacorta’s more pronounced fruit, floral, and mineral characters, along with its vibrant acidity and complex structure make it a welcome addition to a multi-course meal, from start to finish.
Winemaker Mattia Vezzola of BellaVista touts Franciacorta for its supreme digestibility, a characteristic that makes it an ideal pairing for enjoying exclusively with food. “The finesse of the bubbles is absolutely correlated to the wine’s digestibility and personality,” says Vezzola. “Always in the finish, you find freshness and acidity, which makes you want more. That’s the hallmark of Franciacorta.”
According to Berlucchi winemaker Arturo Ziliani, “If you want something light and fun on the patio, drink Prosecco. If you want a wine for a special occasion, drink Champagne. But if you want to drink a sparkling wine for dinner, drink Franciacorta.”
Franciacorta is Worth a Search:
As previously mentioned, most of the Franciacorta produced is sold within the borders of Italy. Only about 11 percent is exported, the majority of which goes to Japan, followed by the UK and then the US. While total sales of Franciacorta increased by more than 7.5 percent in export markets in 2015, according to the Consorzio Franciacorta, this is a wine that is still relatively hard to come by in the States. Despite its relative scarcity, it’s a style of wine that more and more wine experts are trying to bring into the market. Not only for its quality, but for its value. When you can find it, many brut styles of Franciacorta can run as little as $15-$20. And you can even find vintage Ca Del Bosco Cuvée Annamaria Clementi Rosé for about $150, which is a steal for the quality compared to many vintage, grower-producer Champagnes.
Quality and price are at a sweet spot not only to remain competitive in the sparkling wine category, but to maintain a profile of approachability that Franciacorta producers believe make this style of wine a daily value.
“Our goal is to get a wine to people that they can enjoy not only because it’s sparkling, but that can be an everyday wine at your dinner table,” says Mosnel winemaker Giulio Barzano.
When it comes to sparkling wine that appeals to the senses, exceeds in quality, succeeds in affordability, and plays well with a variety of foods, it’s fair to say that my week in Franciacorta has made sure that there will always be room at the table for the wines that happens to sparkle.