You might be surprised to learn how much Italians love sparkling wine. Italy is one of the biggest export markets for Champagne and throughout the country, local producers make unique sparkling wines, from Erbaluce di Caluso in Piemonte to Aspirinio di Aversa in Campania; I’ve even tasted a bollicine from Toscana. Then of course, there are the wildly popular sparkling wines from Asti and Prosecco.
So it should come as no surprise that there is an area where local vintners have decided to focus on producing the finest sparkling wines, using the best varieties and sparing no cost with production methods. This sparkling wine is Franciacorta.
The Franciacorta zone is comprised of nineteen communes in the province of Brescia in eastern central Lombardia. Viticulture among the gentle rolling hills of this area date back more than five hundred years, but it was not until the 1960s that local producers transformed Franciacorta into an important territory for sparkling wines. Awarded DOC recognition in 1967, Franciacorta was elevated to DOCG status in 1995. Today there are over 75 producers of Franciacorta, ranging in size from small (100,000 bottles per year) to large (about one million bottles per year).
Only three varieties are allowed in the production of Franciacorta: Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay for white and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) for red. Aging is for several years and the final product cannot be released until 25 months after the vintage of the youngest wine in the cuvée (as with Champagne, the most common bottlings of Franciacorta are non-vintage – or multi-vintage, if you will – Brut.) While most producers age their wines solely in stainless steel, there are a few notable producers such as Bellavista and Enrico Gatti that age at least part of their cuvées in oak barrels.
Along with non-vintage Brut, there are bottlings of Rosé, which must contain a minimum of 15% Pinot Nero, although the finest examples are produced with 50% to 75% of this variety. There is also a type of Franciacorta known as Satèn that can be produced from only white varieties (originally Satèn was 100% Chardonnay, but today, Pinot Bianco is allowed in the cuvée; a few producers such as Bellavista with their Gran Cuvée Satèn still use only Chardonnay for this type of wine.) Also as with Champagne, there are special cuvées that represent the finest sparkling wine a producer can craft. Made from the best vineyards and aged longer on their own yeasts, these bottlings are released later then the regular Brut and other cuvées and can generally age longer than those wines. A few examples include the “Annamaria Clementi” from Ca’ del Bosco, the “Gran Cuvée Pas Operé” from Bellavista and the “Brut Cabochon” from Monte Rossa.
Among the finest producers of Franciacorta are:
- Fratelli Berlucchi
- Guido Berlucchi
- Ca’ del Bosco
- Contadi Castaldi
- Enrico Gatti
- Il Mosnel
- La Montina
- Le Marchesine
- Monte Rossa
- Ricci Curbastro
Perhaps the most important thing that should be noted about Franciacorta is the outstanding quality. The wines are made according to the classic (or Champagne) method, where the wines are aged on their own yeasts in the bottle before being disgorged after a lengthy aging period. This is a costly and time-consuming method, but it is a vital step in assuring complexity and quality. Clearly, the finest examples of Franciacorta can stand alongside the most famous bottlings of Champagne in terms of excellence.
One final note: Many producers of Franciacorta also make red and white table wines, produced from a number of varieties, including Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, Barbera and Cabernet Franc. These still wines are labeled with the Curtefranca designation.