Posts tagged ‘lombardia’
You may not realize it, but sparkling wine is produced throughout Italy, from many different varieties. From Campania to Piemonte, from varieties such as Falanghina and Aspirinio to even Nebbiolo, there is a wide variety of bubblies that can be found in various locales in the country. But for world-class quality, there is no question as to which Italian sparkling wine is the finest – the answer is Franciacorta.
What makes Franciacorta so special is the fact that this is a sparkling wine made in the classic method – as in Champagne – where the secondary fermentation is made in the bottle and not in a tank, as with sparklers made according to the Charmat process. Franciacorta can be produced from three varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Pinot Bianco and is it made in many different versions, be it a traditional Brut or a Rosé (minimum 25% Pinot Nero for a Rosé, though most bottlings have a much higher percentage of this variety) to Satén (literally “satin”), a wine produced solely from white grapes. If a Franciacorta bears a vintage on the label, it is known as a Millesimato. Franciacorta was awarded DOC status in 1967 and the DOCG designation in 1995.
The Franciacorta production zone is in the province of Lombardia in northern Italy with vineyards located south of Lago d’Iseo. The plantings are on low-lying hills and are primarily in modern planting systems such as cordon spur or Guyot, the ancient overhead system of pergola, though still present in small numbers, is disappearing.
Franciacorta, by the way, refers to three things: it is the name of the growing area, the name of the production process and the name of the wine. There are only ten such wines in all of Europe and only three of them are sparkling wines made by refermentation in the bottle: Cava from Spain, Champagne and Franciacorta.
As for the production method, there are strict regulations, as the minimum aging on the yeasts in the bottle is 18 months (most special bottlings are aged for a much longer time) and as stated before, secondary fermentation must take place in the bottle. The long aging on the yeasts certainly increases complexity and adds a note of minerality that is found in most examples.
Here is a short list of the finest producers of Franciacorta:
Ca’ del Bosco
As with most sparkling wines, the products are best enjoyed within 2-3 years of disgorgement. Some of the finest bottlings, made from vines with as much as 40 years of age as well as those aged longer on their yeasts, can be enjoyed for 5-7 years after disgorgement and perhaps even as long as a decade. Even the most straightforward examples of Franciacorta have lovely natural acidity and some examples are extremely high in acidity, with the result being wines that edge toward being a bit austere in the mouth.
Given the production methods as well as the overall quality of these wines, there is the inevitable comparison with Champagne. Yet many producers shy away from this assessment. At a recent seminar I moderated in Chicago, Andrea Biatta of Le Marchesine stated, “We are not trying to make Champagne, we are making Franciacorta.” When I asked him about the comparison of the two sparkling wine types, he seemed as he wanted no part in making such an evaluation.
I can understand that, but when I taste a product such as the Le Marchesine Rosé Millesimato, the Pas Dosé (no dosage) from Bellavista, the Cuvée Annamaria Clementi from Ca’ del Bosco or the 2008 Zerodosaggio from Andrea Arici, I can’t help but think of Champagne, both in terms of quality and style.
However you view this, you can’t help but admire the work these producers have done in making Franciacorta one of the world’s great sparkling wines in a period of less than half a century.
On a separate note, I reached a bit of a milestone recently, as there were more than 5000 hits for this blog in October, making this the first time that has happened. I want to thank everyone that stopped by to take a look and read what I wrote – it is greatly appreciated!
Now I’d like to ask all of you for a comment now and then, as I’m interested to read what people think. It doesn’t have to be anything profound, as a simple, “nice post” or “enjoyed it” will suffice. You’ll make a middle-aged wine writer happy and you know what? You’ll feel better about yourself after leaving a brief comment. Try it and you’ll see what I mean!
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.
Given that Italy’s wine industry is based on indigenous varieties, it’s no surprise that many of the country’s finest wines are not very well known. One of the great red wines that few people know much about is Valtellina, from northern Lombardia, not far from the Swiss border.
The wines here are made from the Nebbiolo grape, the same variety that is the source of the famous offerings of Barolo and Barbaresco from the neighboring region of Piemonte. In Valtellina, the Nebbiolo grape is known as Chiavennasca and it is the basis for all the best reds here, most importantly Valtellina Superiore, which must be made from a minimum of 90% Chiavennasca.
Valtellina is an east-west zone (I believe the only east-west wine valley in Italy) and many of the best plantings are 1200-1500 feet above sea level. As this area is located so far north in Italy and is quite cool, it becomes necessary to plant vines at such altitudes to catch as many of the sun’s rays as possible for optimum ripening conditions. This however, makes things a bit difficult, especially for work in the vineyards. Plantings run every which way and are often shored up by rock walls, to prevent erosion. This is extreme viticulture at one of its most extreme sitings and it assures that big corporations will not be investing in this area anytime soon; rather is it the small families that are the producers of wines from Valtellina.
The most common wine here is Valtellina Superiore with the best bottlings named for five districts. The districts are: Grumello, Valgella, Sassella (named for the rocks in the soil), Maroggia and Inferno, this last zone named for the summertime heat in the vineyard which can get as hot as you-know-where.
These Nebbiolo-based wines do not have the sheer power of Barolo or Barbaresco, but do offer excellent richness and complexity. Think of these wines are more subdued than their Piemontese cousins, often with a distinct spiciness. The wines are gently rustic and feature flavors of cherry, dried brown herbs and notes of rosemary and thyme backed by good acidity and firm, but not overpowering tannins.
The best producers of Valtellina include:
- Ar Pe. Pe.
- Nino Negri
- Aldo Rainoldi
- Conti Sertoli Salis
- Mamete Prevostini
The greatest red wine of Valtellina is a Valtellina Superiore known as Sforzato (also known as Sfurzat or Sufrsat). The word sforzato is loosely translated as “forced” and it refers to the appassimento process used to produce this wine. This is the same process used to produce Amarone from Valpolicella; it concerns the initial steps in which newly harvested grapes are placed on mats or in boxes in special humidity-controlled rooms and natually dried for a period of about three months. The grapes lose a large percentage of their water, shriveling up to very small berries, almost like raisins; thus some of the flavors are “forced” in the wine with this process.
These are remarkable wines, among the best of Italy, with great power and distcintive spice. They generally age for 10-12 years (a few even longer) and tend to need very rich game or red meat to accompany them. Among the best examples of Sforzato are the “Ca’Rizzieri” from Rainoldi, the “Feudo del Conte” from Sertoli Salis, the “Roncho del Picchio” from Fay and the amazing “5 Stelle” from Nino Negri.
A few final words on Valtellina regarding foods to accompany these wines. The most famous cheese of the area is Bitto, a D.O.P. cheese that is aged for periods from 70 days to 10 years! As you can imagine, the longest-aged examples are quite powerful, making them fine partners for a Sforzato.
One of the area’s signature dishes is pizzocheri, which became one of my favorite regional foods from anywhere in Italy on my recent trip. A number of ingredients make up this dish; at the center is a pasta made with a local rye grain known as grano saraceno, a medium-width pasta much like fettucine that is cooked with casera, a local cow’s milk cheese and a cabbage known as verza. This cabbage has an exotic blend of swetness along with earthy, lightly bitter flavors. It’s unlike any other pasta dish I’ve tried in Italy and its complexities and flavors perfectly accompany the earthiness and spice of a Valtellina Superiore from Grumello or Sassella.