The act of genius in producing Champagne from a region that is (or at least used to be) absolutely marginal for wine production is hard to match: which is why there are so few successful competitors. Because of climate or choice of grape varieties, other European sparkling wines rarely achieve comparable interest or complexity. New World sparkling wines are usually adjuncts to still wine production. Yet with Champagne unable to meet world demand, we could used some alternatives.
So I was happy to spend a few days in Franciacorta last week, doing research for the second edition of Wine Myths and Reality. Producers of Franciacorta like to stress its independence by talking about Franciacorta, Franciacorta, Franciacorta, referring to the name of the area, the name of the wine, and the production method, but the fact is that Champagne has been the model right from the start. A common impetus in the 1960s was that industrialists who wanted to make sparkling wine along the lines of Champagne created what are now the three major producers–Berlucchi, Bellavista, and Ca’ del Bosco between them account for about half of all Franciacorta production. Grapes are essentially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (there’s a little Pinot Blanc but it’s pretty much fallen out of flavor), and if there are any differences in the production method from Champagne, I have yet to identify them.
Franciacorta is reputed to make wines that are more mineral, more linear, than Champagne. I am a bit puzzled why this should be, as it lies on a line of latitude well south of Champagne. Production is confined to a small region in Lombardy, protected by Lake Iseo and mountains to the north, and an “orphan” mountain to the south. The climate is temperate–it’s the farthest north you can grow olive trees, they are fond of pointing out. Anyway, my tastings suggest that the reputation is only partly correct. Harvest here is the earliest in Italy, starting in the second week of August, not because it’s the warmest place, but because producers need to pick early to keep alcohol levels low; it’s surprising that they can get sufficient ripeness by harvest time.
Because it’s warmer than Champagne, vintage wines are made every year, and there’s a greater proportion of vintage relative to nonvintage. I see a significant difference in style here, in a sense the reverse of what you find with Champagne. It seems to me that nonvintage Franciacorta is softer, and the classic minerality really shows clearly only in the vintage. In nonvintage wines, I was impressed with Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Prestige, which at a million bottles per year is their major production, showing a great sense of smoothness and density. Berlucchi is by far the largest producer, and their 61 Brut Rosé cuvée has terrific freshness for rosé.
The warmer climate means that acidity tends to be lower, so dosage is usually moderate. “In Franciacorta the dosage is not usually indispensable, whereas in Champagne it is necessary,” says winemaker Stefano Capelli at Ca’ del Bosco. There’s a tendency to use dosage at Extra Brut level, especially in vintage wines (although the label most often says Brut), and perhaps that’s partly why that pleasing minerality tends to show in the vintage cuvées. A perfect illustration of why zero dosage is successful in Franciacorta comes from Bellavista’s Pas Opere cuvée, where the ripeness of the fruits gives an impression more like Extra Brut, mineral but dense rather than aggressive.The other major factor affecting style is location. The northern part of the area is mountainous, with limestone terroirs; opening out from Lake Iseo, the valley in the central part forms an amphitheater with sandier soils. Pinot Noir tends to be concentrated in the cooler areas to the north. Most producers have vineyards all over, and blend to achieve their desired style, but a visit to Majolini in the northeast, where the wines come from local vineyards, shows the difference. A strong sense of minerality runs through all the wines.” My wines need time both before disgorgement and for aging afterwards,” Simone Maiolini explains. Vineyards in the north of Franciacorta can be on mountain slopes.
Franciacorta’s descriptions of style mostly follow Champagne, but there is one unique style, Satèn, which is a Blanc de Blancs with lower pressure (4.5 bars instead of the usual 6 bars), designed to bring out creaminess. (Some Champagne producers do this with their Blanc de Blancs also). I have to say that this seems to me to be the antithesis of the reputation for linearity: most Satèn wines show a distinctive style with a broad palate.
Most producers have a nonvintage cuvée that is their largest production, with several vintage cuvées made in relatively small amounts. Producers often refer to Crus when discussing the origins of their top wines, but there are no single vineyard labels as such, and there is agreement that Franciacorta is a young region that needs to establish its identity more firmly before any hierarchy is established. “We need time and experience to define Crus,” says Stefano Capelli. Riserva wines must have five years before disgorgement, and there are some top cuvées that spend longer, but there’s no real equivalent to the late disgorgement cuvées of Champagne.
Franciacorta is a really interesting alternative to Champagne, and although it’s very much a work in progress, here are four wines that illustrate its range.
Ca’ Del Bosco, Cuvée Prestige
This is impressive for a general nonvintage cuvée, giving the impression of a serious wine, with real depth and weight to the palate. There are citrus impressions to the nose but the palate is all stone fruits, with lots of grip and a good sense of underlying structure. Dosage is not at all evident.
Guido Berlucchi, Brut 61 Rosé
This is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. It comes from direct pressing with maceration of the Pinot Noir for a few hours at 4 degrees before fermentation. Showing freshness just short of citrus, in fact it seems fresher and less creamy than the regular Brut 61 cuvée.
Bellavista, Pas Opere 2008
Violets and nuts with chocolate impression on nose. You really see the purity of the fruits on the palate. It’s quite dry but I’m not sure I would pick it out as zero dosage, although it’s clearly into extra brut. Quite a tight mineral impression with faintly lemony notes at the end.
Majolini, Satèn 2010
More mineral impression to nose than you usually find with Satèn. The palate has the smoothness of Satèn, with hints of creaminess mixed with minerality. It’s a very nice balance with the dosage of 7.5 g only just showing, and an unusual sense of fruit purity.