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Not the Predictable Italian Bubbly
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Dec 18, 2012
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Italy’s contributions to the sparkling wine genre are significant:  Asti and Prosecco are both true originals.  But neither wine fills the niche that Champagne does: a noble, dry bubbly with character.  No wonder, then, that sparkling wine connoisseurs in Italy applaud Franciacorta.

Franciacorta is a DOCG sparkling wine from the region of Lombardy in Italy’s northwest.  The Franciacorta zone is small, only about one-tenth the size of Champagne; it borders the prosperous city of Brescia and the fairly large Lake Iseo, which is a major climatic influence on the area.

Although it is not well known in the U.S., Franciacorta is Italy’s most prestigious wine zone for the production of dry, classic-method sparkling wines.  It is a relatively new wine, the first Franciacorta sparkling wine having emerged only in 1961.  As recently as 1990, producers formed a consortium to tighten production criteria and began organized promotion of their wines.  In 1995, the DOC zone of Franciacorta earned DOCG status exclusively for its sparkling wines.

Chardonnay is the major grape variety, followed by Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco in lesser amounts.  The wines all become bubbly via a second fermentation in the bottle, and they age on the lees of this second fermentation for 18 months minimum (for non-vintage wines) to 24 months minimum for vintage-dated wines and 30 months minimum for Franciacorta Riserva.  Most wines are Brut.

I recently blind-sampled several Franciacorta wines which were all vintage-dated. (Unlike in Champagne, the vintage year need comprise only 85 percent of the wine.)  Compared to the charming, fruity wines in a recent tasting of Prosecco, these were all dry, authoritative bubblies, with classic flavors of toast, nuttiness, honey and cream.  To contrast Franciacorta with Prosecco is comparing apples and oranges, of course, as both the grape varieties and the production methods differ for the two wines.  But the comparison establishes the personality of Franciacorta:  It is a serious sparkling wine more than a crowd-pleasing aperitif.

My favorite wine of those I sampled is this Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Rosé 2007.  It’s a 65-35 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, aged 30 to 36 months on its lees.  It is a gorgeous pink-gold in color, and has a delicate aroma suggesting red fruits with a chalky, mineral note.  In your mouth the wine is dry and crisp but not austere, thanks to its lovely fruitiness.  But its flavors are more than just fruity; a lacy minerality runs through the wine and I can imagine, in the Pinot Noir flavors, notes of underbrush and black olive notes as well as fruitiness.  The wine’s bubbles are delicate and persistent, and the wine finishes in a soft flush of red fruit flavor.

This is an immensely appealing rosé that’s delicious alone but also great with turkey, ham, a fritatta at brunch, and soft cheeses such as Brie.  I would drink it over the next two to three years rather than age it.

91 Points