When the conversation turns to Champagne and sparkling wines in general and Italy is mentioned, you'll probably hear a snort of derision from someone because everyone immediately thinks of Prosecco. Though there are some very good bottles of Prosecco Superiore from the Conegliano area of Valdobbiadene thirty miles north of Venice, there is also a vast quantity of very cheap tasteless stuff, much of it sold into the UK market which consumes about one third of the 550 million bottles of Prosecco produced in the most recent year. That’s already enough about Prosecco for this article.
The problem is that very few people seem to know about the really excellent spumante produced further west in the province of Brescia in Lombardia, in the area south of Lago d’Iseo. This wine producing area is called Franciacorta and like many other non Italians I was initially a bit dismissive of anything pretending to be Champagne that was not from that revered zone around Rheims in France. However, I was wrong. Champagne, as a protected brand name, has such a hold on popular imagination that it is difficult not to be a snob about it. James Bond went from drinking Dom Perignon in the 1960s to Bollinger in the 1970s but unfortunately he never ordered a vintage Franciacorta Ca’del Bosco Riserva Annamaria Clementi.
But the fact is that Franciacorta is very good sparkling wine. It is made in exactly the same way as Champagne with first and second fermentations, aging on the lees for mandatory periods, remuage, dégorgement and then dosage and corking.
(Note that Prosecco is not made in the metodo classico but employs a cheaper way of creating bubbles called the Charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in a pressurized stainless steel tank instead of in bottle. This is much less labor intensive and much cheaper and results in less complex flavors).
Franciacorta is a very small area at about 7,000 acres compared to Champagne at over 75,000 acres and Champagne is about to grow further thanks to strong prices and commercial pressure. The Franciacorta DOCG rules, introduced in 1995, have been instrumental in making spumante from this area a quality product. For example they require 50% longer maturation periods on the lees than Champagne does for both non vintage and vintage spumante so there are no corners being cut here. On the contrary, Franciacorta standards are the highest despite what the slightly sniffy official Champagne website would have you believe. Some information about the history of the Franciacorta would be helpful at this juncture and in fact it’s a great story as well.
In 1955 Guido Berlucchi, a country gentleman and landowner in this area, engaged a young oenologist called Franco Ziliani to improve his uninspiring table wine Pinot del Castello. Ziliani had much bolder ideas however. He was a well-traveled oenologist by the standard of those times and after having visited Champagne he had a hunch that the Franciacorta area had the potential to make great sparkling wine in the manner of Champagne. He convinced Berlucchi to embark on this project and after a few years of indifferent results they produced 3,000 bottles of Pinot di Franciacorta in 1961.
The following year when these bottles were opened, the results met all their expectations. Franciacorta was born and in 1962 a Rosé followed, inspired by Berlucchi’s friend Max who was a lover of pink Champagnes, and that too was a success. Franco Ziliani is still in Franciacorta today, a legend in the area and remains part of the Berlucchi family enterprise.
Though Ziliani’s hunch proved better perhaps than even he could have imagined, the Franciacorta growing area has significant differences to that of Champagne. The soils are rich in sand and silt with good permeability and full of the morainic mineral debris from long ago glaciers which, according to Mattia Vezzola the winemaker at the Bellavista estate, “ensures that Franciacorta is never too high in alcohol”. The climate here in summer is clearly warmer than Champagne but the presence of the lake and more importantly the Alps not far to the north provide cooling breezes especially at night, creating the optimal diurnal range necessary to keep the grapes healthy. This is particularly important for producers who practice organic viticulture and in the Franciacorta today well over 50% of vines are farmed organically.
Vezzola goes on to say that “Franciacorta is more digestible than sparklers made in cooler climates, they offer great freshness in the mouth but without the aggressive acidity that goes right to the stomach”.
We agree wholeheartedly with that comment and perhaps it’s an aspect of getting older, but there are a lot of non vintage Champagnes with searing levels of acidity that are hard to drink on an empty stomach.
Chardonnay is by far the dominant grape in Franciacorta accounting for 80% of vineyard acreage with Pinot Noir in second place at 15%. Pinot Blanc makes up the remaining 5%. The most recently permitted grape, Erbamat, which is native to the area, is being tried in small quantities and may be helpful in increasing acidity levels where necessary.
At the bottom of this article after the tasting notes there is a helpful categorization, courtesy of the official Franciacorta website, which explains for each type of Franciacorta spumante what the rules are governing the grape varieties and ageing period on the lees during secondary fermentation in bottle. There is also information right at the end on the difference between the various dosages, which are the mixtures of base wine and sugar after disgorging.
Dosage zero results in the driest wine and is rising in popularity all the time as the best way of showcasing the fruit and minerality of these wines. Even the very small amount of sugar in Brut or Extra Brut wines helps to soften acidity which is probably why these remain the two most popular styles for Champagne, but Dosage zero may be the best way forward for Franciacorta which has no need of having its acidity softened. Dosage zero Franciacorta spumante is also more food friendly and pares very well for example with the classic Lombardia risotto made with the local luganega sausage and Grana Padano cheese.
Just as important, when talking of drinking Franciacorta as a dinner wine, many of them can be found at prices that are similar to comparable still wines, something that cannot be said of Champagne.
In the final analysis a consumer’s choice of sparkling wine should be based on personal preference as for any other wine, but Champagne is a luxury brand first and foremost and most people in the world order it only because it says Champagne on the label. But that doesn’t make your average bottle of non vintage Champagne qualitatively any better than a comparable bottle of Franciacorta spumante. The best way to become better informed is of course to buy a bottle of Franciacorta for yourself and decide how good it is. Of the 18 million bottles produced annually only about 11% are exported so it may be a little harder to find than Champagne, which produces about 300 million bottles in an average year.
For our tasting below we selected two different Franciacorta spumante, both Brut, but both with low enough dosage to qualify as Extra Brut.
Contadi Castaldi Brut, Franciacorta
Grape Varieties: 80% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Blanc
Age of Vines: average 20 years
First Ageing: 7 months, partly in steel, partly in barrique
Ageing on the lees: 20-26 months
Dosage: 6 grams per liter (just low enough to qualify instead as Extra Brut)
US Availability: Saratoga Wine Exchange, NY ($19)
UK Availability: Tannico UK (£21)
Straw yellow with greenish tinges. Fresh but slightly restrained nose, some pleasant yeasty notes also reflected on the palate. Quite a soft wine with just enough acidity. Not particularly complex but actually much better the second day. Still fresh with hints of apple and biscuit. This is a very easy drinking wine and at 14 Euros in Italy it represents a very good price to quality ratio. We will happily drink this at any time and it's perfect in a hot summer wherever you are.
Bellavista Gran Cuvée Alma Brut, Franciacorta
Grape Varieties: 79% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, 1% Pinot Blanc
Age of Vines: average 25 years
First Ageing: 7 months, mostly in steel
Ageing on the lees: 30 months
Dosage: 5 grams per liter (low enough to qualify instead as Extra Brut)
US Availability: Saratoga Wine Exchange, NY ($24)
UK Availability: North & South Wines, London (£28)
Vinification: The different parcels of wine at Bellavista are all vinified separately. 15% of the wines used in the final blend are fermented and then matured for seven months in small oak barrels. These wines are then blended with the “reserve wines", which come from between six and nine earlier vintages. Once blended the wine is bottled and the second fermentation takes place in bottle. It is then left to age on the lees for 30 months before release. The contribution of the reserve wines ensures Bellavista’s consistent signature style in every bottle. This process of blending is similar to that used in Champagne and known there as assemblage.
Very light color. Surprisingly strong bead in the glass, lots of fizz here. Again, quite subtle on the nose but this time with pear and some tropical fruit notes in the background. Much fuller flavor however, perhaps as a result of the higher Pinot Noir content instead of the neutral Pinot Blanc. Good depth and sufficient acidity. Attractive round mouthful with flavors of yeast and vanilla. This also improved the second day, after being capped properly with a stopper to retain the fizz, with noticeably more acidity and more pronounced flavor.
There are two other important areas in Italy for metodo classico spumante that we will cover at a future date because they are also very good and have slightly different characteristics. The Oltrepò Pavese DOC area just south of Milan and the Trento DOC area in Trentino.
Categories, Rules and Nomenclature for Franciacorta spumante (from the official Franciacorta website):
Blend: Chardonnay, Pinot nero, Pinot bianco (permitted up to a maximum proportion of 50%)
Characteristics: Secondary fermentation in the bottle with at least 18 months of ageing on the lees; processing and maturation continue for at least 25 months after the harvest.
Tasting Notes: Straw yellow with golden tints, fine and persistent effervescence, characteristic bouquet of fermentation in the bottle, hints of bread crust and yeast enriched with delicate notes of citrus and nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, dried figs). Savoury, fresh, fine and harmonious.
Dosages: Pas Dosé, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec or Dry, Demi-Sec.
Blend: Chardonnay (prevalent) and Pinot Blanc up to a maximum of 50%.
Characteristic: The softness of the taste is the result of a careful selection of the base wines and low bottle pressure of below 5 atmospheres. Produced exclusively as a Brut type.
Tasting Notes: Fine and persistent, almost creamy effervescence. Pale yellow colour that can also be deep, with greenish tones. Nuanced but distinct fragrance of ripe fruit accompanied by delicate notes of white flowers, dried fruit and toast (almond and hazelnut). Its pleasant flavour and freshness harmonise with an innate softness that recalls the delicate sensation of silk.
Blend: Chardonnay, Pinot bianco (max 50%), Pinot nero (min 35%), Erbamat (max 10%).
Characteristics: The Pinot Noir grapes ferment in contact with the skins for long enough to give the wine the desired colouring. It is produced with Pinot Noir base wine, vinified in rosé that can either be pure (100%) or from a blend of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Blanc base wines.
Tasting notes: The presence of Pinot Noir gives this Franciacorta a particular body and vigour, in addition to the typical aromas of the grape.
Dosages: Pas Dosé, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec or Dry, Demi-Sec.
Franciacorta, Franciacorta Satèn and Franciacorta Rosé can acquire more personality, complexity and sophistication with longer maturation and ageing periods, as is the case for Franciacorta Millesimato and Franciacorta Riserva. Franciacorta Millesimato
Characteristics: The word “millesimo” (vintage) indicates that all the wine comes from a single year (minimum 85%). The Millesimato is produced when the year’s production is of particularly high quality and is enhanced by a longer period of fining than that used for the non-vintage Franciacorta. It can only be sold at least 37 months after the harvest.
Tasting notes: Vintage Franciacortas have sensory and taste characteristics that clearly reflect the climatic conditions of the year and the quality of the grapes from that particular vintage.
Dosages: Pas Dosé, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, ad eccezione dei Satèn Millesimato, declinati solo nella tipologia Brut.
Characteristics: Franciacorta Riserva is made from particularly excellent Vintage wines, and in order for them to fully unlock the potential of their fragrances and tastes they must remain on the lees for many years. The Regulations demand at least five years, so the Franciacorta Riserva is only released on the market at least 67 months (five and a half years) after the harvest.
Tasting notes: Complex and developed notes resulting from its extended ageing in the bottle.
Dosages: Pas Dosé, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, except for Satèn Riserva, which is made only as Brut wine.
The different types of Franciacorta are characterised by the different doses of liquor added after disgorgement, which gives them their own original and distinctive personalities.
Pas dosé (‘Dosage zero’, with sugar up to 3 g/l from the natural residue in the wine) - the driest in the Franciacorta range;
Extra Brut (sugar up to 6 g/l) - very dry;
Brut (sugar less than 12 g/l) - dry but a little softer than Extra Brut, it’s certainly the most versatile type of Franciacorta;
Extra Dry (sugar 12-17 g/l) - soft, with a slightly higher dosage than the classic Brut, making it a suitable pairing for a wide variety of foods;
Sec or Dry (sugar 17-32 g/l) - less dry and slightly sweet;
Demi-Sec (sugar 33-50 g/l) – has a sweetish flavor due to the relatively high dose of sugar, meaning it goes well with desserts.