About midway between the major Italian cities of Milan and Venice sits the wine region of Franciacorta, famous for its high-end sparkling. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone, because its wines have only been appearing on export markets in the past 15-20 years.
The governing body, the Consorzio del Franciacorta, was only created in 1990, and the region has only had the prestigious DOCG status, applicable only to sparkling wine, since 1995. This is the first Italian DOCG where the denomination is not necessarily included on the label.
It was only in the 1960s that the region’s real promise was identified. Guido Berlucchi, widely regarded as the godfather of Franciacorta, was experiencing problems with his white wine, which was showing instability in the bottle. The suggestion was made to do a refermentation in bottle, rather in the style of champagne. And so a new Italian wine style was born, in a manner not dissimilar to the creation of Super Tuscans by the Antinori family.
When it comes to sparkling wines the Franciacorta region has some natural affinities with Champagne: rolling hills, mineral-rich chalky soils, warm days and cool nights during summer. Franciacorta benefits from the moderating influence of the nearby Lake Iseo during summer.
Estates range in size from companies producing 700,000 bottles annually to family concerns of no more than 70,000. Production from the nearly 3,000 hectares under vine is about 14 million bottles a year. To put that figure in perspective, the output of the largest champagne house, Moet et Chandon, was more than 28 million bottles in 2012, according to the drinks business magazine.
While the production method is the same as in Champagne, and the grapes of the DOCG predominantly the same (82 percent chardonnay and 14 percent pinot noir), style comparisons with the Champagne region should be avoided. These are wines of great subtlety, notable for their very fine bead and lack of “gassiness,” and overall vinous character. They are very food friendly.
The wines come in several styles, from the brut, with a minimum 18 months of lees-aging, up to a reserva which requires a minimum of 60 months on lees.
There’s a vintage (millesimato) category and the very fine saten style – a blanc de blancs with a minimum of 24 months of lees-aging. White grape-only sparkling wines, mostly chardonnay-based, are often regarded as the thoroughbreds of sparkling wines and champagnes. Aging on lees gives wines complexity.
Bellavista Saten may be the best known of these. It made an early appearance in Asia at the former Bela Vista boutique hotel in Macau in the mid-1990s, and at about $75 is also one of the most expensive. The majority come in at $30-50, putting them in a similar price range to English sparklers.
La Valle Saten 2009 has crisp green apple on the nose but a slightly savory, herbal finish, a similar finish to that of the soft and minerally La Montina 2009. The Enrico Gatti Saten 2009 is soft and stylishly salty, and the Il Mosnel Saten 2009 produces a similar sense in the mouth.
One of the best of the 2009 vintage is Barone Pizzini Saten, from a large, 120 hectare property in the process of converting from certified organic to biodynamic vineyard practices. It is a very edgy wine with a taut, tense minerality and a dry, crisp finish. San Cristoforo Brut is already a tightly structured wine with lemony yeastiness on the nose, while the Stefano Cola Millesimato 2007 – 100 percent chardonnay – is ripe and intense with supreme elegance and precision. Only 5,000 bottles are made.
Prosecco is probably the best-known Italian sparkling wine and sales of this have officially overtaken champagne on the sparkling-mad British market. But comparisons cannot be made between prosecco and franciacorta.
If prosecco is easy and accessible, even for those beginning their wine journey, franciacorta demands quiet consideration. It has great aging potential because of its tight structures and generous acidity. Aging helps to put some flesh on the mineral bones, we could say.
To give an overall idea of quality in the world of sparkling wine, it is probably fair to say that the top three are currently champagne, English sparklings – and franciacorta.