Italy is renowned throughout the world for its culinary art of fine food and drink. Italy’s most famous bubbly, Prosecco, has grown dramatically in popularity over the past few decades, outselling Champagne by a few million bottles and earning fame as an “everyday” sparkling wine. However, it seems the tables are turning on one of Italy’s most famous wines, with imports from Italy falling by 7% this year after a decade of growth. The decline in the popularity of Prosecco is down to many factors but one advantage of this trend is that new interesting wines from Italy are emerging and becoming more readily available in the UK, and this can only be a good thing for our palates!
Having worked in the Champagne trade I had become a bit of a sparkling wine snob, never being a fan of Prosecco or even some of the other options out there until I came across Franciacorta. I was first introduced by a Sommelier friend of mine on Park Lane who ran a cheeky blind tasting to see whether I really was the Champagne expert I claimed to be, and although I still hold that title it was a tough call!
Franciacorta is a sparkling wine from the Province of Brescia in the Lombardy region of Italy. It is produced from grapes grown within the boundaries of the territory of Franciacorta, on the hills located between the southern shore of Lake Iseo and the city of Brescia. I was lucky enough to visit this region recently, after many years of intrigue, to sample what makes Franciacorta so special and why it is one of Italy’s hidden gems.
The still wines from this area have ancient traditions, documented in books as “Franzacurta” as far back as in 1277. The wine was not called Franciacorta until 1957, when Guido Berlucchi released a white wine named Pinot di Franciacorta, however this wine was still and not the wine we know today. An ambitious young winemaker working for Berlucchi, Franco Ziliani, was permitted by the house to pursue an ambition of producing a fine sparkling wine, so in 1961 he produced for release 3,000 bottles of a sparkling wine, also sold under the name Pinot di Franciacorta. Instant interest allowed the following vintage production to grow and grow making Berlucchi one of the largest producers of Franciacorta in the region today. Following this, the wine was awarded DOC status in 1967, but the designation then also included red and white still wines. Since 1995 the DOCG classification has applied exclusively to the sparkling wines of the area making the production as regulated as that of Champagne. From this the region became the only DOC to specify that its sparkling wines must be made by metodo classico, the same method used to make Champagne, and since August 2003, Franciacorta has been the only Italian wine not obliged to declare its DOCG appellation on the label, in the same manner that Champagne is permitted to exclude from labels its AOC. Now I understood why I was so confused by this wine and why it was so like my beloved Champagne, but with it’s own personality and appeal.
On my trip of the region, which is not far from Milan at all, I got to taste Franciacorta from small, medium and large growers, and much like Champagne they all differ in quality and house style. Back in 1961, just 11 producers collectively cultivating 29 hectares of vineyards, began producing 2,000 hectoliters (266,666 bottles) of sparkling ‘Pinot di Franciacorta’. Today over 2,800 hectares of vineyards are producing Franciacorta DOCG (82% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Nero and 4% Pinot Bianco). In 2016 17.4 million bottles were sold worldwide, of which 2 million were sold abroad; leading export markets were Japan, which accounted for 22% of the total, followed by Switzerland and the USA, which absorbed almost 14%. However, barely any of this wine makes it to the UK, something that hopefully with the decline in Prosecco popularity will change.
As the method suggests, Franciacorta is made in a similar way to Champagne but the Franciacorta method is regulated by strict, rigorous rules intended to guarantee wines of the finest quality. This is the principle followed by the Franciacorta Consortium and its producers who use only prestigious varieties, harvested by hand, followed by fermentation in bottle and slow aging on the flavour-enhancing lees for no less than 18 months, 30 for vintage expressions, and a full 60 for the Reserves. Franciacorta is composed of Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Noir) and Pinot Bianco (Blanc) grapes, with the latter permitted up to a maximum of 50%. The bunches after harvest are carefully laid in hampers and brought to the winery, where the grapes picked in each vineyard are processed separately: the grapes are pressed very gently, to guarantee the extraction of the best quality juice, which is indispensable to the quality of the base wines. Through metodo classico the resulting sparkling wine, after fermentation in the bottle, produces several different styles all recognized by the DOCG classification. The non-vintage is traditionally at least 18 months on lees, whilst the new Satèn and Rose Non-Vintages are at least 24 months. The vintages and reserve categories are anywhere between 30 months to 60 months on lees in the bottle, which gives them their unique characteristics and enriches their biscuity aromatic complexity.
We started our tour of this region at the Franciacorta Summer Festival held at the breathtaking Villa Fassati Barba di Passirano. This was a great place to start with many of the producers of Franciacorta in attendance allowing guests to try many different wines all under one roof alongside some incredible local cuisine. Many hours could be wiled away under the dappled sunlight in the grounds of this Villa sipping Franciacorta, but there were wineries to be visited so after a few (many) glasses of Franciacorta we headed off to the first port of call.
We started our Franciacorta education at Berlucchi, the grand father of Franciacorta production. Their vineyards are now totally converted to organic viticulture, covering over 500 hectares, between estate vineyards and those in the hands of trusted, long-term growers, making them the largest producer of Franciacorta in the region. They produce many wines from their house Brut to extremely rare vintages and special reserve wines, they even make quite a remarkable no dosage ’61 Nature 2010 edition. It was amazing to see where it all began and how this house is still at the forefront of Franciacorta production. The tasting allowed us to experience the wines first hand and draw comparisons between the styles and vintages. The 61 Nature 2011 Rose in particular was a firm favorite, made from 100% Pinot Noir, this zero-dosage Franciacorta has a decisive self-confident character, uncompromising quality, and an ultra-glamourous bottle and label.
Up next was Monte Rossa, which started in 1972 when the entrepreneur Paolo Rabotti with the precious help of his wife Paola, took up the way of vine growing. Today the Monte Rossa Company manages 70 hectars of vineyards with different locations of cru on plots with different exposition that contributes to the aromatic richness of their grapes. The house production is 500,000 bottles approx. per year making them a relatively small production house. The winery’s best-known wine and representing Monte Rossa’s calling card is the Prima Cuvée Brut. This wine is obtained using Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grapes with a small percentage of Pinot Bianco. Refined in the bottle for at least 20 months, which is over the time taken by many other houses, this wine is distinguished by its simplicity and pure drinkability, the perfect accompaniment to any meal.
The last winery we visited was one of the largest in the region, Bellavista, which is somewhat of a new kid on the block but which has quickly become a front-runner of Franciacorta production. The vineyards, which are of extraordinary quality, are located on the Bellavista hill, so named for its splendid position, which looks out over Lake Iseo and the entire Po valley, all the way to the foothills of the Alps. Looking to the future, Entrepreneur Vittorio Moretti devoted special attention to the acquisition of new vineyards, which now comprise a total of 198 hectares in the “Franciacorta” wine production area, making Bellavista one of the largest producers in the region. In 1981 Vittorio Moretti met Oenologist Mattia Vezzola, who in that same year joined the company, his role proved pivotal to the definition of the house style, which has become one of the most recognizable bottles from the region. The Bellavista Rose was a very lovely wine, with its bouquet that starts off with faint sensations of white peach and fragrances of wild strawberries, citrus fruit, golden delicious apples, and dog rose, with a lingering hint of toasted bread, a very quaffable wine that is delicate but with character. The iconic Alma Gran Cuvée, the house Brut, with its vibrant orange label and unique bottle shape, has even made its way to the UK and is available at Harvey Nichols, along with the Rose Cuvée.
I might be shot by many of my friends for saying this but I am glad that the UK is becoming more adventurous and moving away from our firm bubbly favourites of Prosecco and Champagne as this makes room for such incredible wines as Franciacorta. Although this wine is not readily available all over the UK, Franciacorta can be found in many top hotels and bars in London and beyond, and sold in such fine establishments as Harvey Nichols, Berry Brothers & Rudd and The Whiskey Exchange for you to enjoy at home. So if you are bored of the same old sparkling and are up for something new live a little and give Franciacorta a go, I certainly was not disappointed.
Bespoke Black Book recommends the Araba Fenice Hotel whilst staying in the area, a charming hotel that over looks Lake Iseo and beyond and is a great hub from which to visit all the vineyards and restaurants in the area: http://www.arabafenicehotel.it/en/
Other recommendations include:
Quattro Terre – https://www.quattroterre.it/locanda/franciacorta/
La Foresta – http://www.forestamontisola.it/home.php
L’Albereta – https://www.albereta.it/en/iseo-restaurants-vistalago-bistro.htm
Another great experience in the area is the cookery class at Restaurant Villa Calini, where you can learn to make traditional and gourmet delights and then eat them! https://www.villacalini.com/en/franciacorta-restaurant