The Sparkling Wines of Italy's Franciacorta
Franciacorta may not have the name recognition (and sales) of Prosecco, but Italy’s Franciacorta region produces Italy’s finest sparkling wines, comparable in quality to many Champagnes and leagues ahead of Prosecco. In this article we review the most important Franciacorta sparkling wines available in the US, and we’re impressed. See our reviews of over 20 wines made by Franciacorta’s best producers.
Franciacorta is made using the methode champenoise and employing the same grape varieties used in Champagne, in contrast to Prosecco, which is made using Italian grapes and the less expensive, Charmat process. It’s a young sparkling producing area—the first bottling of Franciacorta was only in 1957—and relatively small with just 106 producers. Its international visibility is limited by the wine’s popularity in Italy, leaving little for the rest of the world. However, some 20 producers now export Franciacorta, giving those living outside Italy the opportunity to experience this delicious sparkling wine. In this article, we review the wines of seven producers to guide the reader willing to expand their gustatory horizons beyond Champagne.
Franciacorta sparkling wines are made in 19 communes located in the Province of Brescia, Lombardy. The grapes for the wine are grown on hillsides located south of Lake Iseo, which was created by Europe’s last ice age. The Franciacorta growing area lies at the mouth of the Val Camonica, a large valley of the Central Alps. This valley provides the north-south tunnel by which the cool winds of the Dolomites reach Franciacorta, keeping the hillside vineyards cool and fresh. The glaciers that created the valley ending at Lake Iseo left moraines south of the lake and gave the vineyards of Franciacorta its glacial alluvial soils.
Since the first bottling in 1957, the quality of Franciacorta sparkling wines has impressively improved, in good part due to the creation of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta in 1990. The Consorzio has implemented rules delimiting the varieties grown (predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), production methods (hand harvesting, bottle aging requirements), and yields (60 hectoliters/hectare), some of the lowest in the world. In addition, growers changed their trellising from the traditional pergola to Guyot and spurred cordon, reduced yields with low vigor rootstocks, and planted at higher densities (4-5 thousand vines/ha). These measures significantly improved the quality and reputation of the wines and, also, resulted in Franciacorta being given DOCG status in 1995. Maurizio Zanella of Ca’del Bosco is current President of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta.
Of course, Franciacorta is different from Champagne. It’s located further south—45° North vs. Champagne’s 49° North, and it lacks Champagne’s deep limestone soils. As a result its wines tend to be somewhat riper in flavor. But the production methods are similar with the use of the methode champenoise, the employment of reserve wines to blend across vintages, and small scale fermentation of different vineyard plots that the winemaker later blends into the final cuvée. Franciacorta also differs in that most of its producers are also growers (récoltant manipulant) unlike Champagne where the producers are large and mostly purchase grapes and base wines. Franciacorta also differs in terms of size, producing about 10 million bottles annually, a tiny fraction of Champagne’s 300 million.
The Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta is the producer’s association responsible for ensuring quality and promoting the wines of Franciacorta. Maurizio Zanella of Ca’del Bosco is current President of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta.
In our tastings we reviewed all five types of sparkling Franciacorta allowed by DOCG regulations:
- Non-Vintage: Must be aged on the lees at least 18 months.
- Satèn: Non-vintage must be aged at least 24 months; usually 100% Chardonnay. The bottle pressure must be less than 5 atm.
- Rosé: A minimum 25% Pinot Nero is required; the non-vintage rosé must be aged on the lees at least 24 months.
- Millesimato: A vintage wine with at least 85% of the wine coming from the stated vintage; up to 15% can come from reserve wines. Must be aged at least 30 months.
- Riserva: A Millesimato, Satèn or Rosé that spends at least 60 months on the lees in bottle.
The wines we tasted also vary in terms of their sweetness (residual sugar) from pas opéré wines that have up to 3 g/l, Extra Brut up to 6 g/l, and Brut up to 12 g/l. We did not taste sec and demi-sec wines that have higher sugar levels.
In addition to producing wines with Champagne-levels of atmospheric pressure, Franciacorta also makes a crémant style wine called Satèn with lower pressure (4-5 atm), giving it an especially creamy texture.
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