Italians love Champagne. They enjoy an age-old custom of beginning a meal with a conversation and an apertivo. Very often this apertivo takes the shape of an effervescent wine. It has come about that the sparkling wines from Italy’s premier bubbly zone, Franciacorta, emerged from a passion for true French Champagne. We are speaking of the “Champagne Method,” the metodo classico, the labor-intensive, costly way to put bubbles in the bottle, not through tank fermentation but by secondary fermentation within the bottle itself. Franciacorta DOCG fits in well with Italy’s habit of starting things with a sparkle.
We know precisely when Franciacorta sparkling wines came into existence. Recently Franco Ziliani told us in a dreamy, poetic fashion about his historic, prophetic meeting in 1957 with Count Guido Berlucchi.
The butler ushered me into the drawing room of Palazzo Lana Berlucchi. Everything testified to an understated refinement. The notes of “Georgia on My Mind” wafted in the air, played by Guido Berlucchi on the piano. I was entranced by the elegance of his appearance, by the effortless sureness of his touch on the keys. My gaze wandered around the venerable walls, over the family portraits, the valuable furnishings. After closing the piano, the Count greeted me warmly and began to ask me, the freshly minted oenologist that I was at that time, about techniques for solving instability problems with his wine. I answered his questions forthrightly and then, as I was taking my leave, I dared the question: “And what if we were to also produce a sparkling wine in the French method?”
The Tradition of Tank Fermentation In Italy
Northwestern Italy is the world leader in the production of sparkling wines of low pressure; fizzy, crackling, frizzante wines. Such wines undergo their secondary fermentation in pressurized tanks called autoclaves. Examples include Moscato d’Asti and Lambrusco. This technique was developed by Professor Martinotti in Torino and patented by the Frenchman Eugene Charmat. Tank fermentation makes it possible to produce sparkling wines at a moderate cost for the consumer. The foremost Charmat Method sparkler is Prosecco, made from Glera grapes grown on the hillsides of a delimited area of Veneto and Friuli in Northeastern Italy.
The tradition for Italian sparkling wines made in what Franco Ziliano called the “French method” dates back to the 1850’s. None can match what was to come in Franciacorta.
Franciacorta, A New Tradition
References to Franciacorta or “Franzacurta” date back to 1277. Virgil and Pliny the Elder praised the still wines of the area in the era of the Ancient Romans. A manual about sparkling wine dating from 1570 was written by Girolamo Conforto, a doctor from Brescia, close to Franciacorta, but it would take another 400 years for the wines of Franciacorta to reach their lofty heights. Franciacorta now signifies only sparklers, made in the metodo classico. Non-sparkling wines, made from such grapes as Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Merlot, Nebbiolo and others, are designated as DOC Terre di Franciacorta or Curtefranca.
Franciacorta’s soil is glacial moraine with limestone and a chalky subsoil, ideal for Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Noir. Lake Iseo provides reflected sunlight and moderates the temperature. DOC for Franciacorta was granted in 1967 and modified in 1984. DOCG status was earned in 1995. This bountiful zone in Lombardia, between Bergamo and Brescia, is a center for finance and entrepreneurial spirit. Making Franciacorta wines is expensive and requires research. The DOCG has established a minimum refinement of 18 months in the bottle and a total of 25 months of aging before release. Vintage dated wines (millesimato) spend 30 months in the bottle and cannot be sold until 37 months from the vintage. Wineries need a lot of space to store bottles of the wine still in production.
We think of Franciacorta as an area not shackled by tradition, possessing a revolutionary spirit and high standards. You will not find “spumante,” the term for “sparkling,” on a bottle of Franciacorta. Look for words like Brut, Extra Dry. The language is French. Satèn designates a creamy Crémant style with finer bubbles and lower atmospheric pressure. Pas Dosé or Pas Operé indicates a bone-dry version, even drier and more pure than a Brut.
There are over 50 growers and producers in Franciacorta today. In 1961 Franco Ziliani of Berlucchi released the first Franciacorta, 3,000 bottles. Today Franciacorta DOCG has reached over 12,000,000 bottles – and each year the quality improves. This is not a vast amount of sparkling wine. Prosecco and true French Champagne produce many times more.
Total vineyard area extends only 2,200 hectares (5,400 acres). Permitted varietals include 85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Bianco.
The top 3 producers of Franciacorta DOCG account for about half of the zone’s total volume. They are available throughout the U.S.A.
Berlucchi is the #1 metodo classico winery in Italy. It is a family affair for the Ziliani’s: Franco Ziliani is the founder. Son Arturo is the wine maker. Son Paolo runs sales. Daughter Christina heads public relations. Trendsetters and benchmarks, Berlucchi also makes a still white called Bianco Imperiale. Today Berlucchi sells 4.5 million bottles of Franciacorta DOCG, much of it within Italy.
Cá del Bosco
When Maurizio Zanella founded Cá del Bosco in 1968 he hired Andre du Bois, winemaker at Dom Perignon, to assist him. Ever flamboyant and innovative, Zanella has received over 20 Tre Bicchieri awards, an achievement equaled only by Angelo Gaja. Maurizio has studied at the University of Enology of Bordeaux. Cá del Bosco is equally well known for its top-quality still wines, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and, more recently, Carmenère. Today Santa Margherita owns 60% of Cá del Bosco, in partnership with Maurizio Zanella.
Kudos go to two men at Bellavista, proprietor and industrialist Vittorio Moretti, who produced his first sparkling wine in 1984, and Mattia Vezzola, his talented enologist, considered the master of sparkling wines in Italy. Since Vezzola joined Bellavista in 1981 the two have worked vigorously to keep standards high, utilizing the benefits of technology and adding biodynamic elements to the vineyards.
We tasted these wines recently. We feel that Franciacorta DOCG sparklers share a lot of the characteristics of Champagne, but that they are clearly different. They reflect their terroir. They are riper, less yeasty, fruitier, food-friendly and aromatic. Like Champagne, they are ideal for toasting and for imparting happiness.
I. Cá del Bosco Cuvee Prestige Brut NV: A classic, harmonious Franciacorta, reflecting the fresh, crisp house style of Cá del Bosco. Mostly Chardonnay. Lemon peel, dried apricot, pineapples, toasted nuts, orange peel, the crust of a fresh baguette. Dry but with notes of sweet fruit. Bubbles are fine and plentiful.
II. Bellavista Brut NV: Elegant Chardonnay with a lush mouthfeel, a trademark of Bellavista. Refined, you feel the yeast, but it is integrated with nuances of pears and apples. Toasted bread and cashews. Persistent perlage. Rich, creamy, mouth filling yet not heavy. A lingering but cleansing finish.
III. Berlucchi Cuvee 61 Brut NV: 75% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir. Straw yellow with greenish glints, a persistent floral, fruity bouquet with subtle fragrances of yeast and fresh-baked bread. Rich with good body, crisp acidity. Tiny bubbles make it very easy to drink.
IV. Berlucchi Cuvee 61 Rose NV: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir. Pale, lively, young pink. Complex, fragrant, with emphatic notes of wild, forest, red berries and ripe apricots and peaches, warm, full bodied, velvety, harmonious, smooth with a long finish. A perfect summer party starter.
The level of all Franciacorta DOCG wines is very high. They are worth the search. Almost all of Italy’s wineries make sparkling wines. Much of it is not available commercially. Another zone to search out is Trentino. Did I hear you say “Ferrari”? All in all, the preeminent zone for sparkling wines in Italy is Franciacorta DOCG.