Most Franciacorta is consumed domestically in Italy but this wine style offers value for money compared with champagne. For publication in week starting 9 July 2018.
In recent years the world has gone wild for Prosecco, the sparkling wine made in the region of northern Italy with the same name. But Italy produces another, many say vastly better, sparkling wine. It comes from the Franciacorta region of Lombardy in the country’s central north.
Franciacorta refers both to the region and the name of the wine. It is made the same way as champagne. In France this process is known as “methode champenoise” or the “traditional method”. In Lombardy locals prefer to call their style the “Franciacorta method”.
In both case the wine gets its bubbles via secondary fermentation in the bottle. During fermentation the CO2 created when yeast eats sugar to produce alcohol is absorbed in the wine instead of escaping as it does for still wine. This creates the fine “bead” people associate with quality sparkling made in the traditional method. Both of these styles are usually drier than Prosecco with a less fruity but more yeasty character.
Depending on the style, Franciacorta spends a minimum number of months ageing on the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation – known as “sur lees”. This ageing makes a wine more complex and gives it unique flavours that in a quality wine verge on the sublime.
Prosecco is made with the Glera grape, a white variety that has been grown in the Veneto and Friuli regions for hundreds of years. It has high acidity, which makes it good for bubbly, but the resulting wines can be one dimensional.
Franciacorta is made from the same combination of grapes grown in the Champagne region: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc.
The major difference between franciacorta and champagne is the fact the Franciacorta region is warmer than Champagne. Franciacorta grapes tend to be riper, producing a wine with less acidity and minerality than Champagne, but restrained elegance and elegant flavours. The time spent on lees is about the same.
Non-vintage franciacorta cannot be released until at least 25 months after harvest, and wines must spend 18 months in contact with the lees. Vintage franciacorta must spend 30 months on lees, but in practice it is often three years or more.
Just as the Champagne region produces blanc de blancs – wine made with 100 per cent Chardonnay – so Franciacorta offers a similar delight, known as “saten”. The name refers to the idea of silk, and the aim is to create a wine that is soft and creamy. A “saten” must contain a minimum of 50 per cent Chardonnay but it is often 100 per cent.
This “saten” style of franciacorta represents about a fifth of all bottles produced.
A Millesimato is the product of a single vintage. It must be aged for a minimum of 30 months on its lees and cannot be released until at least 37 months after harvest. A Riserva represents the pinnacle of the pyramid. It must spend at least 60 months ageing on its lees.
About 85 per cent of the vines in Franciacorta are planted to Chardonnay, with 10-12 per cent Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir in France) and the balance Pinot Blanco. Since last year a fourth grape will be permitted in the blend: Erbamat. This it is a late ripening white grape that makes quite neutral, high-acid wines. Up to 10 per cent of Erbamat is permitted in the blend.
Franciacorta’s growing zone, shaped like an amphitheatre, was created by retreating glaciers that left behind mineral-rich soils of morainic origin. The rolling hills benefit from a warm meso-climate, tempered by cooling breezes that flow from the foothills of the Rhaetian Alps in the northeast.
When the region was granted DOC status in 1967 there were 11 producers and about 100 hectares of vines. From 1996 to 2006 sales of Franciacorta grew from 2.9 million to 6.7 million bottles. Increased planting in recent years means the number of hectares had grown to almost 3,000 by early this year, with annual production averaging about 17.5 million bottles. Output in 2017 was down about 40 per cent because frost damaged vines. Frost is the most common problem in Franciacorta compared with hail in Champagne.
The region’s maximum potential production would be about 25 million bottles, small compared with an average of 300 million a year in Champagne. To put Franciacorta into perspective, that 25 million bottles is about what the Moet & Chandon house alone produces each year.
Franciacorta became a DOCG in 1995, the first sparkling wine region in Italy to get that status of guaranteed quality. The Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta was formed in 1990. It represents almost all producers and is responsible for setting codes of practice and promoting self-regulation. One of these related to a gradual reduction in yields and choice of grapes (yields per hectare in Franciacorta are less than half those in Champagne). The consorzio oversaw the replacement of Pinot Grigio with the current trio of grapes. By late last year the number of growers had risen to 190, and almost all of them make wine.
Franciacorta is popular in Italy. Four in five bottles are sold domestically. Of the balance, Japan takes 60 per cent of all exports because the Japanese believe Franciacorta pairs superbly with foods like sushi. Other markets include Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom and China.
Tom Harrow (left) of Honest Grapes, a London-based wine company, is UK brand ambassador for Franciacorta. He said about 70 per cent of the region was organic as of this year, and the consorzio intended to get to 100 per cent by 2022. It currently has the highest percentage of organic producers in the country.
Harrow noted that in Franciacorta producers interpreted the concept of ageing widely, so labels that said three years of lees ageing might actually have had a lot longer. “If it says 36 months on lees, it usually means at least [three years].”
A tasting in London of a range of franciacorta last week was a revelation. Vintage wines from 2010 to 2013 represent excellent value compared with vintage champagne. It seems franciacorta is a sparkling wine gem waiting to be discovered by the world.