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Franciacorta - Italian bubbles

From the December 2015 issue.
Franciacorta - Italian bubbles

Even if you haven’t heard of Franciacorta, chances are you already love it. Made with the same grape varieties and produced in the same method as Champagne, Franciacorta is Italy’s answer to luxurious bubbly.

By Avery Affholter, Enoteca Sileno’s Wine Educator

The history of Franciacorta’s success is relatively recent; and its style and extremely limited production give it an allure all its own. Comparisons to Champagne make it easier to explain to the uninitiated, but Franciacorta’s style is 100 per cent Italian. Straight to the point, the differences between the two sparklers are not vast. The method of production in Italian is metodo classico, which is interchangeable with méthode traditionnelle or champenoise in French; which means the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation within the bottle. The resulting sparkling wine is characterised by a fine, persistent, effervescent bead. Other sparkling wines such as

Prosecco get their characteristic bubbles from the Charmat method – when the secondary fermentation occurs in large tanks, rather than in the bottle.
Some consider Franciacorta to be a richer style of sparkling wine compared to Champagne, and this is due to the location of Franciacorta being a bit more southerly than the area of Champagne. Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco, the varieties of grapes used in each style, tend to produce a less acidic profile in the Franciacorta vineyards, than those grown in Champagne.

The area of Franciacorta is a collection of rolling hills situated between the diminutive Lago d’Iseo and the larger and more famous Garda and Como lakes, in the eastern reaches of Lombardy. The area is protected from, but also nurtured by the harsh climate of the nearby Alps. Lake breezes aerate the maturing grape vines, and despite reaching high temperatures during summer days, the nights are dramatically cooler thanks to the proximate high altitude weather systems.

Franciacorta’s production is dwarfed by Champagne’s, which makes its value all the more extraordinary. Franciacorta only exports between 11 and 15 per cent of what it produces, whereas France exports about 50 percent of its Champagne. Overall production in Franciacorta comes from about 100 producers growing grapes over a total of about 6700 acres, which are bound by the most rigorous production code in Europe. Despite these modest numbers and stricter rules for production (Champagne has about 19,000 houses over 80,000 acres), Franciacorta’s growth skyrocketed from 2.9 million bottles in 1996 to 6.7 million over just 10 years.

The success of this fine sparkling wine is owed to the entrepreneurial spirit and persistence of a small community of growers and vignaioli. Starting in the 1950s, the first iterations of Franciacorta were largely experimental still wines that winemaker Guido Berlucchi called Pinot del Castello. Those early versions were lacking in stability and clarity, and Signor Berlucchi knew he needed the expertise of an oenologist to improve his results.

In 1954 Berlucchi met with a young and enthusiastic wine technician called Franco Ziliani to seek his help for improving his Pinot del Castello. Ziliani, a Champagne enthusiast, saw an opportunity to begin producing a wine that could rival the great French bubbly. The rest, as they say, is history and the first Franciacorta wine labelled as such was bottled in 1961.

It is no coincidence that the geographical location of Franciacorta played a significant role in the ascendancy of this small wine-growing area. As a close neighbour of banking and commercial hubs Milan and Brescia, Franciacorta is located in the heart of Italy’s most prosperous and economically robust region. Proximity to these centres of wealth has also elevated Franciacorta’s reputation for tourism and gastronomy.

The typical characteristics of Franciacorta are primary fruit aromas of peach, apricot, nectarine and citrus, then secondary floral and spice aromas, in addition to the typical yeasty quality of metodo classico wine. It’s dry with a very fine persistent bead, and can often display mineral qualities on the finish. Drink Franciacorta with aged goat’s cheese drizzled with honey, roasted or barbecued quail, butternut pumpkin ravioli with brown butter and sage, or a more traditional match like raw oysters or caviar.

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