While the debate has long been settled as to the preeminence of Champagne in the field of bubbly, fermented libations, the steadily beating heart of a highly acclaimed wine-producing district tucked away in the eastern reaches of Italy’s northern Lombardy region pulsates with confidence – its indisputable mastery of superbly-crafted, traditional, or champagne-method wines beckoning the uninitiated to pause and rejoice!
Franciacorta, Italy’s prized sparkling wine appellation is located in the Lombardy province of Brescia which lends its name to the provincial capitol. Still wines documented in local Brescia township council records as “Franzacurta” have been produced here since the late 12th century. It was not however, until 1957 when a young winemaker named Franco Ziliani was given free rein to produce a high-quality sparkling wine that the character of Franciacorta as it is known today began to emerge.
The official Italian wine quality, labeling designation of DOC was conferred upon Franciacorta in 1967 for both still and sparkling wines. In 1995 the highest attribution of DOCG was accorded to the district’s sparkling wines only, with the still wine production being rechristened DOC Terra di Franciacorta.
Extending north from the plain of the majestic river Po to the shores of Lake Iseo, and from the river Oglio on the western border to the town of Cellatica in the east, the growing region of Franciacorta is one of glacial origins. Its well-drained, gravelly, moraine soils over mineral-rich limestone allow Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco – the three varietals authorized for production of these wines – to achieve optimal results.
As with Champagne, the sparkling wines of Franciacorta are made in non-vintage, vintage, blanc de blancs and rosé styles. The non-vintage wines must remain at least 18 months on the lees (three months longer than for non-vintage champagnes!) and cannot be released until 25 months after harvest. The vintage wines must remain on the lees for 37 months and cannot be sold until a minimum of 37 months after harvest.
Just as with great vintage champagnes, this extended lees contact results in the toasted, honeyed and often luxuriously textured wines of impressive length and aging potential.
For the rose wines a minimum of 15% Pinot Nero is required with up to 85% Chardonnay and/or Pinot bianco. the Blanc de blancs or Satèn category is restricted to Chardonnay and/or Pinot Bianco exclusively.
I recently tasted a lovely Franciacorta Extra Brut non-vintage from Azienda Agricola Le Marchesine. It is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Bianco and 15% Pinot Noir and spends 24 months on the lees.
Its pale, straw gold color transitioned to a nose offering high-toned pastry notes of marzipan, soft, white flowers, tropical fruits reminiscent of mango and pineapple along with ripe, Tuscan melon. The palate was of medium weight, showed nice texture, cleansing mineral notes and lime zest. The wine’s balanced-but-pronounced acidity would make it an enticing partner to seared scallops or small bites of semi-aged sheep’s milk cheese on rice crackers.
More prominent in the marketplace are producers like Ca’del Bosco or Bellavista whose wines always exhibit great finesse and elegance and can typically be acquired for $35 to $40 per bottle for most cuvees.
With the holidays upon us, if you have never ventured into this realm of stylish sparkling wines make a point to corner your favorite caviste when next you visit your local fine-wine shop and do yourself a tremendous favor!
Granted, hopping a flight to Italy is more compelling but think of the cases of Franciacorta you could amass for the same expenditure!
That said, one day I plan to hike high into the Alps just to gaze back at the spectacular vineyards blanketing the verdant plains of the river Po. I will bring several bottles of delicious Franciacorta in my pack and try to resist the entreaties of my party to open them until we have reached our destination altitude or at least completely exhausted all other pretexts for patience.
If at some point I sense that mutiny is imminent I will uncork the wines and let the bubbles flow. At a certain stage, resistance becomes untenable under this kind of pressure!
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!