Fine Franciacorta Fizz may have an alliterative ring about but it is a bit infra dig for a very serious wine region. This small zone between Milan and Brescia has taken Italy by storm in the last 50 years and become the centre of excellence for sparkling wine made by the traditional method on the peninusula. Other fine wines are made in Trentino on the western side of Lake Garda and there is an outbreak of sparkling Pinot Nero south of Milan in Oltrépo Pavese, not to mention the vast lake of Prosecco within which there is the historic area with quality wines. But for sheer quality and consistency Franciacorta is undoubtedly first in Italy.
This is a remarkable and modern story. The zone is very compact, tucked below Lake Iseo and bounded by the A4 motorway which connects the commercial heart of Italy west to east. The vineyard area of the modern DOCG for sparkling wine is 2,800 hectares. (The tiny but important Barolo DOCG is only 1800 hectares; Champagne is currently around the 34,000ha mark.) It is a beautiful, affluent area with fine villas, small towns and a smart tourist industry around the dramatic lake where the mountains meet the plain. All this was created by the last great kick of the earth’s crust and by glacial activity which created the moderately fertile but very rocky soil with its excellent drainage. The lake also moderates the climate so that winters are less harsh and summers cooler.
50 years ago an enthusiastic wine maker Franco Ziliani persuaded the family estate of Guido Berlucchi to use his Chardonnay (and Pinot Noir from Oltrépo Pavese) to imitate a famous sparkling wine made a few hundred kilometres north in Champagne. It caught on rapidly and from that first launch of 3,000 bottles in 1971 has grown an Italian success story of an industry which now produces 11m bottles of traditional method sparkling wine.
It has been very much an Italian success story. While the method is classico, ie second fermentation in the bottle which will be sold to the consumer – unlike the huge success of tank-fermented Prosecco – and the grapes are very French, principally Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the sales are overwhelmingly Italian, 90% in fact. Thus most top restaurants in Italy will have sparkling wine from this tiny zone and it is admired and drunk by those who love their Italian wine. But the limits to growth are quite severe. Firstly, there simply are not the bottles made to support a huge world-wide expansion and, secondly, having sets the quality sights very high, the bottles are not cheap. So there is no prospect of a Prosecco style tidal wave of bubbles here and at the €20+ price level the name of Champagne is just so much better known. But despite this limit on export levels, it has been a great success which should be put down to the climatic advantages, excellent wine making, a very well organised Consorzio and an attractive style of wine.
The Consorzio is very impressive. The regulations for the DOCG are sensible and strict, there is a good map of the strada del vino, an attractive website, good connections with, for example, Milan fashion week and, now, a Franciacorta app for your iPhone. It reminds me of Bolgheri where there is same strong sense in a new wine region that the producers are not really in competition with each other but can afford to, and must, stand together. While the wine can not claim to be Italian through and through, there is a remarkable clarity of purpose – to produce bottles of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir sparkling wines with substantial ageing times on the lees at a high quality level. There are no non-premium bottles of sparkling wine in Franciacorta.
And the style of wine? The template is very obviously and self consciously Champagne right down to the grape varieties. There are some minor differences, for example, there is a fair bit of Pinot Bianco in the area, probably from the time when there was a lot of confusion of what was Chardonnay and what was the white Pinot. There is no Meunier. The grapes must be picked by hand and are pressed in whole bunches, as with other top quality sparkling wines in the world. This means in turn that the only the best quality juice is used for the top wines. Often the latter part of the pressings are sold on by top producers to others or used for still wines. Temperature controlled fermentation is very much the order of the day. Long ageing of bottles on the lees is required by the disciplinare (18 months on the lees for non-vintage wines and 30 months for vintage wines) and is often exceeded by the best growers. So is this Italian Champagne? Before the Champagne lawyers get too excited the answer is emphatically ‘no’. Despite all the similarities the hall mark of Franciacorta is subtle ripe fruit. The geology is different with richer soils and the climate is of course warmer. The average maximum in the Champagne region in the hottest month of the year is 24 Celsius, in Franciacorta the average maximum in the hottest month touches 30 degrees. That is a big difference. In turn this means that even the standard Brut wines have good ripe fruit and, because they are picked early, balancing acidity. Franciacorta as a region has the earliest picking dates in Italy, despite being in the north. Some vintages have even started in the first week of August, while the middle of August is typical. One grower half joked with me that if the climate continues to warm, they will soon be picking in July. But for the time being the wines are marked by attractive ripe apple, melon and peach fruit from Chardonnay and quite perfumed strawberry and raspberry notes from Pinot Noir. Acidity is always there but it is never the main feature.
That leads to some further reflections on style:
1. Like Champagne, the Franciacorta region is currently gripped by the fashion for pas dosé or zero dosage wines, that is, sparkling wines which are not sweetened in any way before they are sold. Similarly, the standard Brut style which can have up to 12g of residual sugar per litre, is now typically 7-9g only. This is what is politely known as a challenge in Champagne, even following a series of warm years. For many consumers these northern wines are just too dry and acidic to be pleasurable, though the best wines are very exhilarating. In Franciacorta, with reliable ripening, zero dosage is not a problem. Most consumers may prefer something a little sweeter, a bit more rounded, but while being bone dry, the Franciacorta zero dosage wines still have the roundedness of ripe fruit.
2. Long ageing on the lees has a very different effect in Franciacorta than in Champagne. In the latter, the wine develops very attractive biscuit and brioche notes from lees ageing, often reinforced by moderate use of oak barrels for the first fermentation. Hugh Johnson memorably called this the apple pie effect – sharp apple acidity tempered by sugar and freshly baked pastry. In Champagne, especially in vintage bottles which spend a minimum of 36 months on the lees, the brioche effect can be very powerful indeed, with fruit almost an afterthought. By contrast, here in northern Italy, as you go up the quality scale, what intensifies is the quality of fruit. Yes, the wines are kept for three to five years on the lees and refined yeastiness is present in the glass but always as an secondary feature to fruit. At times I wondered whether the years in the bottle on the lees were strictly necessary – but that was a tribute to the quality of the fruit.
3. With reliable vintages year after year, blending in Franciacorta basically means blending grape varieties and vineyards, not across years. There is provision for the use of reserve wines as in Champagne for non-vintage and up to 15% in vintage wines, but basically it is not really practised. Even non-vintage wines are overwhelmingly the wines of one year. It is that ripe fruit again.
In the articles which follow, I will be highlighting the particular aims of the growers Janet and I have had the good fortune to meet during our visit of late March 2012, during bright, sunny and unseasonably warm days. Each of them has something special to offer to the unfolding story of excellent bottle-fermented sparkling wine from Franciacorta.