Franciacorta's Golden Hour
Champagne, Cava and …Franciacorta? Most lovers of classic method sparkling wine are familiar with the famed first two in the list, but few know of Franciacorta, Italy’s best-kept secret from the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Like Cava and Champagne, Franciacorta achieves its elegant effervescence thanks to secondary fermentation in the bottle—the “classic method”—and is limited to a specific geographic territory.
Granted, Franciacorta is to Champagne what David is to Goliath. The French region boasts production power that is almost 20 times larger than Franciacorta (5,400 acres of vineyard compared to 80,000 acres in Champagne). The Italian region counts just over 100 producers next to 19,000 vignerons and Champagne houses in France. Franciacorta’s marketing footprint is also stunted by small export numbers. Only 11 percent of its bottles are sold abroad, compared to 40 to 60 percent in other important Italian wine regions.
Yet, this tightly knit community of winemakers drives what is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing wine identities in Europe. Production numbers soared from 2.9 million bottles to 6.7 million bottles in the 10 years starting from 1996.
“In just 50 years we have reached a standard of quality that no one else in the world has been able to achieve,” says Maurizio Zanella, of the Ca’ del Bosco winery and president of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta: “Our acreage is not huge, so the task at hand is to maximize what we have.”
Franciacorta is distinguished by a unique territorial identity that is defined in equal measure by geography and social-economic demographics. In this regard, it is a unique phenomenon in the greater world of wine.
At the heart of Italy’s celebrated Lake District with the petite Lago d’Iseo immediately at its back, and the larger lakes Como and Garda acting as a buffer against the frigid climate of the Italian Alps, Franciacorta occupies an isolated spot of rolling hills, moderate temperatures and calcareous and sandy soils.
Thanks to the imposing mountains to the north and the Pianura Padana plains to the south, Franciacorta experiences dramatic variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures. Sometimes differing by as much as 60˚ Fahrenheit, this huge variance helps achieve balance between ripeness and acidity in the maturing grape clusters. Gentle breezes from the lakes help mitigate humidity and keep the vines aerated and healthy.
Perhaps more interesting however is Franciacorta’s fortuitous position at the center of northern Italy’s main economic corridor. The area including Milan (Italy’s banking capital) and Brescia (the country’s industrial capital) is populated by like-minded entrepreneurs who are characterized by unprecedented unity and a can-do attitude.
The post-war Italian economic miracle has its origins here, and the sparkling wines of Franciacorta are poignantly symbolic of northern Italy’s impressive economic strength. It is no coincidence that when local entrepreneurs banded together to envisage a wine region of their own in the 1960s and 1970s they aspired to Champagne. Thanks to sheer willpower, Franciacorta came to be.
Even the name, “Franciacorta,” reflects the area’s longstanding entrepreneurial spirit. Said to come from the Latin francae curtae, the area was an ancient “tax free” zone along northern Italy’s trade routes. First written mention of the name “Franzacurta” appears in 1277.
Metodo classico in Italian is synonymous with méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionnelle in French. It refers to a specific school of sparkling wine production in which each individual bottle becomes a closed environment for a second alcoholic fermentation. Carbon dioxide becomes trapped within the wine, eventually reaching six bars of atmospheric pressure within the bottle.
The “classic method” results in fine and long-lasting pearls of bubbles. Prosecco and many other more affordable sparkling wines are made using the Charmat method (or metodo Martinotti) in which secondary fermentation occurs in large pressurized tanks instead.
Franciacorta is planted primarily to the Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco varieties. The great majority of acreage, about 85 percent, is dedicated to Chardonnay. Other grapes, such as Pinot Grigio, have been gradually eliminated altogether.
Local Consorzio officials have been very effective in limiting growth in order to keep the focus on quality. Because of limited production numbers, a bottle of Franciacorta wine costs more than Cava on average and is comparable to the pricing in Champagne. High price points have caused some confusion, says Maurizio Zanella, by consumers who are not immediately familiar with the area or its wines.
Franciacorta wines are either nonvintage, released at least 25 months after harvest, or vintage (millesimato). Vintage Franciacorta is released 37 months after the harvest, and like Champagne, must see prolonged contact with yeasts in the bottle for increased depth, persistence and elegance.
Rosé Franciacorta contains at least 15 percent Pinot Nero, while Satèn is a blanc de blancs. This means it must be made entirely from the white grape varieties Chardonnay and/or Pinot Bianco and is produced with 4.5 bars of pressure instead of six for a slightly softer and creamier mouthfeel. Producers have the option of making a Riserva, the fourth category of Franciacorta.
Dosage levels (a general measure of the wine’s sweetness) reflect those of Champagne, with the terms Pas Dosé, Dosage Zéro, Pas Opéré, Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec and Demi-Sec all appearing from time to time.
- 1Location, location
- 2Breaking it Down: Methods and Styles
- 3The Stars of Franciacorta