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Franciacorta Fizzes. Part II

Text and photographs © 2014, Tom Cannavan

This feature is in two parts. There is a link to part I at the bottom of the page.

MAJOLINI

Majolini Majolini (pronounced My-o-lee-nee) is one of the most interesting visits in Franciacorta, Simone Maiolini (right) and his team having aligned the winery closely with local artists and the fashion industry, so a fascinating exhibition of artworks and installations is arranged around the cellar.

The Majolini/Maiolini discrepancy is explained immediately: Majolini is the estate, named after the Majolina grape variety that grows on the property. It is an extremely rare but historic and indigenous red wine variety, from which they produce around 300 magnums "in perfect years." There are fewer than 1,000 plants in Italy, of which Majolini has 500. The Maiolini family has been in the area since the 15th century, and believes the family name was taken from the grape variety. Simone's grandfather started producing wine but his children did not continue. Winemaking was revived by his uncle in 1981, "this time not as a hobby, but as a business."

It is a beautiful estate. Sitting above the valley, its 26 hectares of vineyard are divided into 28 plots. Simone explains that the limestone soils here are high in minerals and give a lot of acidity. "We couldn't release a wine after 18 months on the lees - that acidity means they need significantly more." He also picks early - he thinks maybe the earliest in Franciacorta - and with those soils and some vineyards at 400 metres elevation, potential alcohol at picking can be as low as 9.5%, ranging up to 11.5%. Simone trained under a winemaker from Champagne Jacquesson and says "I have a little bit of Champagne in my soul."

Each plot is harvested according to its own characters, and each is vinified separately. The estate is in the first year of conversion to organic farming and Simone expects they will start to label as organic in another three or four years, after certification. The cellars, built in 1997 and greatly extended in 2004, really are worth a visit for that excellent art collection - as well as to taste the wines of course.

for tasting notes on 8 wines from Majolini

BELLAVISTA

Mattia One of the big names of Franciacorta (and one of fewer than a handful of estates whose production reaches one million bottles), Bellavista takes its name from the hill on which it sits, surround by 190 hectares of vineyard divided into 107 plots, each of which is vinified separately. Started by construction company owner Vittorio Moretti, I met up with long-time winemaker Mattia Vezzola (right) to taste through the wines.

"Bellavista was planned from the beginning, only using fruit from its own estate vineyards, so that we could maintain the quality of our own production," Mattia tells me. "Our harvest is late," he continues, "and fully ripe. We are not looking for high acidity, but for fully developed flavours. Pressing is very soft, but the result of every pressing is tasted, so the best and most powerful wines go to barrel, the rest to stainless steel." Indeed every wine in the Bellavista portfolio has some barrel component, with their 1600-barrel cellar certainly the biggest I saw on my tour. "But the barrels are mostly very old - 20 years old often - the purpose is micro oxygenation not flavour or aroma," says Mattia.

Bellavista is a class act, and the barrel regime is one component of a bigger, global picture for the company. "The barrels are a huge investment in terms of labour and maintenance, but they are essential for the style and longevity of the wines we make." Wines are matured in one kilometre of tunnels beneath the winery and vineyards, with all riddling by hand and every wine being aged on the lees for a minimum of four years - even the entry level Brut.

Mattia tells me he has 3,500 hectolitres of reserves - 500,000 bottles - and as well as the 100 different plots from which he makes the blend each year, he will use 20 or so reserve wines too. He sums up recent notable reserve Chardonnays in his cellar, describing 2007 as "rounded and powerful but with soft buttery notes," 2010 as "Much tighter and more 'vertical' with higher acidity, " whilst 2008 is "nutty and fine, but higher acid too. An interesting blending component."

for tasting notes on 4 wines from Bellavista

VILLA CRESPIA

Villa Crespia Michela Muratori of the owning family met me at Crespia's large, modern winery. Michela is sales and marketing manager and our first stop was at the vineyards above the winery. Crespia is not farmed organically, but under a system they call "Simbiotico", cultivated with a lot of attention to the organic content of the soil, adding lots of organic material and encouraging an independent environment in which strong plants need less intervention with treatments. "The ideal is that we make no treatments, but of course that is hardly ever possible. But we do as little as possible, with very low sulphur in all wines and one zero sulphur cuvée," says Michela.

The family made its fortune in the textile business and opened Crespia in 1999, planting 60ha of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. From the outset the plan was to have vineyards in all six of the micro areas identified in Franciacorta. The one around the vineyard is on limestone rich in minerals and is planted to Chardonnay. In each of the six micro zones they have matched vine to terroir and bottle each separately, without blending across zones. "Franciacorta is a small area, but there is a strong difference between each. This is all about expressing Franciacorta, and all the wines sell for much the same price - so far we have not identified any one zone as 'The best'," says Michela. There is skin contact for the pas dosé cuvée, and some barrel fermentation for some cuvées, "But barrels are not an important part of our philosophy."

solar panels One vineyard is covered by a huge area of solar panels (left), a project with the university of Milan to see if the estate can run without having to purchase energy. "We will still have to buy energy at harvest time, but we will be able to sell energy at other times," Michela tells me. Though the solar farm is not solid - there are gaps between panels - I ask if it is affecting the vines beneath: "The vineyard beneath the panels does have a later harvest and slightly smaller yield," she tells me, "but this is the study project in its 3rd year, looking at balancing cost and energy and production, so we still await the final outcome."

Crespia is another big money start-up in Franciacorta (60 million Euros have been invested across four wine estates owned by the family and head-quartered here). The winery was built in 2000, is all gravity fed, and is sized for a one million bottle production. For now grapes from younger vineyards are sold off, and production sits around 300,000 bottles so there is plenty of space. But as Michela says, "It's built in a 12-metre-deep hole and would have been impossible to expand if we had built it any smaller."

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Villa Crespia

LO SPARVIERE

Costantino An estate owned by the Gussalli-Beretta family, undoubtedly best known for their Beretta firearms company, manufacturers of guns for 15 generations and founded in the 1400s just a few miles away in the town of Valtrompia. This is one of three estates they own (with others in Chianti and Abruzzo), where 30 hectares of the 150-hectare estate are planted to vine. Like many it would seem, the vineyards are currently in conversion to organic farming, the entire estate in its second year of conversion.

I was greeted by brand manager for the Beretta estates, Costantino Antonio Gabardi (right) who explained that the vineyards are amongst only around 10% of the region with clay and limestone soils. Planted at 400 metres, Costantino explained that freshening winds blow through the vineyards, especially at night, which means very little treatment is needed for the vines. They can also harvest later than much of the region, because it is particularly cool here. "We believe we are seeing a gradual change to that through global warming," he tells me, "but we still harvest around two weeks later than average, and never before 25th August."

Costantino also tells me Lo Sparviere was one of the first estates to produce Franciacorta, operating since the 1970s on what had previously been a dairy farm. The winery and vineyards lie around an ancient, 16th century manor house that has been beautifully restored by the Beretta family. It is from a carving above a fireplace that the company's name (Lo Sparviere translates as "the sparrow hawk") and logo originates.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from Lo Sparviere

LA MONTINA

Gian Carlo La Montina is a beautiful estate, based around a 16th century house that once belonged to Pope Benedetto Montini. The estate was bought in 1987 by three brothers, Vittorio, Gian Carlo (right) and Alberto Bozza. Gian Carlo had worked for Berlucchi, now Franciacorta's largest producer, but in fact the family has long roots in the Brescia area of Lombardy. The brothers' father and grandfather were both involved with wine in the region, and their grandmother ran a local 'Osteria'.

Modern, guyot-trained vineyards are planted, mostly in accordance with a zonal study begun by the Franciacorta Consorzio in 1992, define the wine suitability of the entire Franciacorta area, that studies and evaluates the soils and landscape of vineyard areas, and what effect that has on quality and productivity.

Only chardonnay is used in La Montina, where production is close to 500,000 bottles annually from their gravity-fed winery. Gian Carlo told me that they always use a proportion of barriques for fermentation and ageing, up to 30 percent in some cuvées. This is also another house that believes in reserve wines, with again up to 30% of any cuvée being reserve wine from previous harvests.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from La Montina

LA VALLE

cellars Sadly, an early flight back to the UK meant I did not have time to visit La Valle, though they were the last stop on my itinerary. However, La Valle was kind enough to send over samples of its six wines for me to taste back in the UK, so the tasting notes are included here.

La Valle is owned by the Pezzola family and takes its name from the winery's main property, La Valle, bought by the family's ancestors in 1890. In 1990 Eugenio and Giulia Pezzola founded the winery exclusively for the production of Franciacorta. In 1993 the first 3,000 bottles of the millésime were produced, and each of the wines in the range has been given a Latin name "reminiscent of the time when wine was the protagonist of incredible feasts."

The wine-cellar beneath an ancient manor house (right) dates back to the 1400s, though in 2010 a new wine cellar ("a model of innovative modern technology") was opened.

for tasting notes on 6 wines from La Valle

Franciacorta - back to 1979

There were opportunities to taste wines from other estates during lunches and dinners, so here are five very interesting wines - including a 1979 Franciacorta from Ca' del Bosco. The bottle was brought straight to the restaurant from the cellar and disgorged 'live' and with great ceremony on the balcony of the restaurant. It was a splendid wine, and the one minute video opposite shows the disgorgement live as it happened.   

for tasting notes from Ferghettina, Ca' del Bosco, Gatti & Berlucchi


Go to part I: Introduction to Franciacorta and three estate profiles.