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Franciacorta Fizzes. Part I

Text and photographs © 2014, Tom Cannavan

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

The word 'phenomenal' is applied fairly liberally, from the latest teenage pop star, to a goal scored by a footballer in a big match. Whether these are truly phenomenal (definition: exceptional, extraordinary) is a moot point, but an undoubted phenomenon of the past 10 years has been the soaring popularity of Italy's most famous sparkling wine, Prosecco. Figures released recently showed that 307 million bottles were sold globally in 2013. For the first time that exceeded the sales of Champagne, which sold 304 million bottles.

Bottle neck The success of Prosecco is easy to understand in many ways: it's low price is a major factor that gives it mass market appeal, especially with consumers who would baulk at paying £25 for a bottle of Champagne. But it's not just about price: just like Pinot Grigio which has become such a pub and wine bar favourite, Prosecco's style is generally easy and approachable. What it lacks in 'seriousness', it makes up for in fun and freshness.

But the fact is that the vast majority of Prosecco cannot compare with Champagne in terms of complexity, ageing potential or the ability to express its terroir. There is, however, another Italian sparkling wine that is considered by many to be the finest and most complex in Italy: Franciacorta. Unlike Prosecco, Franciacorta enjoys long secondary fermentation in bottle rather tank, it is aged for many years before release, and it is based on the two great grapes of Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

My first encounter with Franciacorta was in a restaurant in Puglia around 10 or 11 years ago. Franciacorta was basically unknown and rare as hen's teeth in the UK at that time. Poured with great ceremony into a large wine glass rather than a flute, it was a revelation: rich, biscuity and complex, with deep and powerful flavours. It was pretty clear even then that Franciacorta could compete on quality with the world's best 'traditional method' sparkling wines.

History, geography, climate & soils

Franciacorta's history of making sparkling wine goes back only to the 1960s. The Berlucchi estate made the first sparkling wine, one story suggesting that it was all a mistake: the incorrect order was delivered from a plant nursery, and finding themselves with a vineyard full of Chardonnay when they thought they'd bought Nebbiolo, they decided the best thing to do with it was make a sparkling wine. Whatever the truth of its origins, the style found almost immediate success. Franciacorta today is still a relatively small region with 2,700 hectares under vine and around 100 producers, but there has been considerable investment from Milanese industrialists and from outside the region, and it's vineyard area has doubled in size in the past 10 years. Franciacorta was granted DOCG status - Italy's highest designation - in 1995.

Franciacorta map Franciacorta lies in Lombardy, sandwiched between Piedmont to the west and the Veneto to the east. It is a compact area, formed basically as a large amphitheatre with Lake Iseo forming its northern boundary and chains of hills that extend from the Lake to the east and west of the region. The lake moderates the climate, whilst the hills protect the region from winds and, to a certain extent, frost. Soils here are mostly morainic, laid down by glaciers that formed the lakes and valleys. But over 60 different soil types have been identified, some rich in minerals and fossils.

The climate is generally sunny and warm, moderated and influenced by the 25 kilometre long body of water in Lake Iseo. Each morning of my Spring visit was covered in a cool mist.

Grapes and wine styles

Don't tell a Franciacorta winemaker that he or she uses the 'Champagne Method'. Even the more diplomatic 'Traditional Method' will get a frosty response. Enshrined into legislation is that these wines are made by the Franciacorta Method. A very powerful magnifying glass would be needed to spot the difference, but the winemakers are keen to point out that they have a region, a wine and a method all with the same name. It is perhaps no coincidence that the same trinity of place, wine and method nomenclature applies in Champagne.

The Franciacorta Method limits varieties to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc (though less and less of the latter is being used). It also regulates yields, harvesting times and conditions and many other aspects of winemaking. Secondary fermentation must take place in bottle, with minimum ageing times as follows:

Franciacorta Brut
Franciacorta Satèn & Rosé
Vintage Franciacorta
Franciacorta Riserva
    18 months
24 months
30 months
60 months

Satèn is the only term that may be unfamiliar to a Champagne lover. It refers to Blanc des Blancs wines, bottled at a slightly lower pressure (lower than 5 bar) to give a satiny mouth-feel. Vintage wines can have up to 15% of reserve wines from earlier vintages, and Riservas can be bottled as any style (including Satèn and Rosé) but with that long period on the lees. Zero dosage styles appeared to be very popular during my series of visits.

Pssst.... whisper it

This may be a top secret, as the information had to be prised from one reluctant winemaker, but there is work going on to introduce a fourth grape variety into the Franciacorta DOCG. The variety is called Erbamat, indigenous to the Lombardy region and with naturally low alcohol, plenty of acidity and low phenolics. It's introduction is being supported both from a marketing perspective - to make Franciacorta more distinctive - but the flavours and aromas are also regarded as potentially very interesting for sparkling wine production.

the wines

Franciacorta enjoys a significantly warmer and sunnier overall climate than Champagne. The grapes harvested for the base wine are riper, with more potential alcohol. In Champagne, grapes are regularly picked at just 10% or 10.5% potential alcohol, whereas the Franciacorta winemakers I met quoted between 11.5% and 12.5% potential alcohol for their harvest. That gives these wines a richer, rounder character than Champagne typically, and sometime a slightly more phenolic character too. But the quality is remarkably high and remarkably consistent, with a beautiful fruit character as well as authentically biscuity autolysis and good levels of acidity.

Though the focus of my visit and tastings was sparkling wines, the region does produce still white and red wines, designated not as Franciacorta but as DOC Curtefranca. Whites are made from the same varieties as sparkling Franciacorta, reds from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, as well as from Barbera and Nebbiolo.

BIONDELLI

Joska Mini-driving, tweed-wearing Joska Biondelli (right) speaks impeccable English (and with an impeccable English accent) thanks to several years spent working as a head-hunter in the City of London. The Biondelli family has been in Franciacorta for generations. Joska's grandfather bought the estate as a countryside retreat, having made his fortune in the silk trade, though it began with a very small wine production for family use. It was Joska's father, Carlottavio, who decided to take wine more seriously, changing from red wine production to Franciacorta in 2000.

The 10-hectare estate completed its conversion to organic farming last year. Today the produce 30,000 bottles, though they have vineyards and cellar space to double that, which is "the size we wish to be," according to Joska. "It's why we had to focus on quality to make this a viable business." The new cellars have a special pneumatic press, popular for aromatic varieties, which tilts on hydraulic legs to move must quickly and by gravity. "The bladder inside the press also squeezes against all surfaces of the press, not against one end like most presses," explains Joska, "These are important details because they press whole bunches and we do not want stems to be crushed. The tilt allows fast turnaround of the press too, because we harvest whole vineyards in one day, and don't like to have grapes sitting around."

Built 11 metres underground, the cellar was a big investment but it maintains a natural temperature and humidity that is perfect for sparkling wine production. Joska likes to disgorge on demand: "I don't like oxidised flavours, so I don't want to sell a wine that was disgorged a year ago." He becomes quite animated on the subject: "Personally, I think the idea that a wine should be cellared for 10 years is crap. I bottle when the wine is ready to drink." Joska also says that in Franciacorta he can normally rely on an impeccable quality of grapes arriving at the winery. "We have to do very little. We don't need to over-complicate. For example, we pick ripe at 12.5% potential alcohol, use only 0.12.mg per litre of sulphur and don't use barriques."

For the moment Biondelli produce only a Brut and a Satèn, but a vintage wine will be released from Christmas this year, to be followed by a rosé and, in the longer term, a Riserva.

for tasting notes on 2 wines from Biondelli

BARONE PIZZINI

Silvano In the north of the region near the lake I was greeted at Barone Pizzini by Silvano Brescianini (right), CEO of the company and native of Franciacorta, whose grandfather made wines long before the region found fame with its sparkling wines. Trained as a sommelier, then a chef, his high-flying career took him to Michelin-starred restaurants and on to top New York restaurants, before returning to Italy to become a partner in Barone Pizzini in 1991. After his business partner was killed in a car accident in 1994, he became owner of the estate.

Once again, Silvano cites the lake as the biggest influence on this terroir, mitigating against frost in winter and cooling in summer. That helps greatly I'm sure in allowing the estate to be farmed organically, which all 47 hectares have been since 1998. "Today organic farming is growing fast in the region," Silvano tells me, "and we are working a couple of vineyards biodynamically in association with university of Milan to see what's possible." He shrugs, and looks around him, "Though I suspect we may have just too much rain in the region for biodynamics to work."

The estate is planted 70% to Chardonnay and 27% to Pinot Noir, and Silvano runs through the tightly-defined rules for Franciacorta production that cover everything from harvesting (not just setting maximum yields, but no mechanisation is allowed) and the maximum size of crates into which the grapes must be gathered. Managing it all within the added strictures of organic certification must be a challenge, but Silvano is clearly committed to environmental principles. "I switched to organics because I did not want to drink poison," he says, and when a new winery was built seven years ago it was planned with maximum environmental efficiency, to conserve water, and built 12 metres underground to save energy on cooling and heating. "We want to be totally transparent, so every year we put the whole analysis of our wines - their organic credentials - on our web site for everyone to see."

Fermentation is 70% in stainless steel, plus 30% in barrels. "Barriques are important," Silvano tells me, "as they allow small separate fermentations, with battonage, to extract flavour and sweetness for the base wines." The company produces 250,000 bottles per annum.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from Barone Pizzini

VILLA FRANCIACORTA

Villa My next stop was at Villa, based near a hamlet of the same name that is in one of the most northerly and easterly zones of Franciacorta - 2º cooler on average than vineyards further south. In the 1960s Alessandro Bianchi retired to the village, and established the wine estate on its limestone soils. The terraced vineyards above the winery (right) were some of the steepest I saw on my visit. Producing wine since the 1960s, but sparkling wines only since 1978, this is an estate operation that does not buy grapes for its 250,000 bottle production.

Villa produces only vintage Franciacorta wines, that is with at least 85% of each wine coming from a single harvest. The estate is dominated by Chardonnay, and any new plantings will be of Chardonnay in favour of Pinot Blanc. All fertilisers are organic, cover crops are sown between rows and biological pest controls are used.

I toured the cellars, built into the hillside beneath the terraces. Wines are soft-pressed and fermented in stainless steel, though there is some barrel fermentation for some cuvées, but never constituting more than 30% of the final blend. Like many other estates they work with a selected Franciacorta yeast for fermentation, but they are working with the university of Florence to develop a specific yeast for use in the Villa Franciacorta wines.

Vinification of each plot is done separately, the estate's philosophy being to "express the terroir: our plots are planted according to soil, exposition and age of vineyard." At Villa all remuage (riddling) is done by hand.

for tasting notes on 10 wines from Villa Franciacorta


Go to part II: six more Franciacorta estates profiled.