Wednesday, June 9, 2021

A Short History of Franciacorta in the U.S. (Part 2)

According to information from the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta, next year, 2022, will be the 40th Anniversary of the first official importation, in 1982, of Franciacorta Sparkling Wine into the U.S. However, it appears that a single sparkling wine from Franciacorta made its appearance in California at least as early as 1979, which was likely a rare exception.  

Franciacorta remains under-the-radar even to many wine lovers. As I wrote back in 2013, "Franciacorta may be the best sparkling wine that many people know nothing about." Part of the issue is that only a relatively small amount of Franciacorta is imported into the U.S., but wine lovers should still be aware of this quality sparkling wine, seeking it our at their favorite wine shops. For most basic information about Franciacorta, please read yesterday's article, Franciacorta: A Sparkling Treasure of Lombardy.

Let's explore some of the early history of Franciacorta in the U.S., noting that even from its start in the U.S., its high quality was already being recognized. 

The first U.S. newspaper reference I found concerning Franciacorta was back in 1977, however it was about Franciacorta still wines. The Sunday News (NJ), October 16, 1977, printed an advertisement for Wine & Spirit’s World, noting they were selling an “exquisite red wine, Franciacorta Rosso DOC 1973 and 1974." It also continued, “There is evidence Franciacorta always had an ancient tradition of grape cultivation and wine growing stemming from the Middles Ages settlement of Benedictine Monks whose abbeys were surrounded by vineyards.” Next, it was mentioned that the “Franciacorta Rosso DOC is made in Oakwood casks on the Longhi-DeCarli estate. Originally used only by the family, this great wine is now offered to you exclusively through Wine World…” A 24 ounce bottle sold for $2.99, with a case price of $32.50.  

The Villager (NY), November 24, 1977, published an ad for Crossroad, a wine shop which was offering for sale the Pinot Di Nigoline Cantine del Baroni Monti Della Corte, from the Franciacorta DOC,  which is supposed to be “One of Italy’s finest white wine. Soft, scented, Meursault-like,” and sold for $2.99 a bottle. 

Some other quick mentions were in other newspapers. The Modesto Bee (CA), July 28, 1978, had an ad which mentioned the 1975 Franciacorta Rosso, which usually sold for $3.75, and was on sale for $2.99. The Chicago Tribune (IL), March 4, 1979, in an article on the best wine values, around $5, referenced the Longhi do Carli’s Franciacorta 1975. The Press and Sun-Bulletin (NY), April 12, 1979, ran an ad for the Spirit Shoppe, which sold Franciacorta Bianco, 24 ounce bottle for $3.49, and Franciacorta Rosso, 24 ounce bottle for $3.49. 

The first sparkling wine from Franciacorta? The San Francisco Examiner (CA), October 26, 1979, had a discussion with Al Malatesta, co-ownr of the Iron Gate restaurant, and who stated they had introduced many new Italian wines into the area, including the rare Pinot De Franciacorta from Lombardy. Back in 1961, this was the first sparkling wine produced in Franciacorta, by the Berlucchi winery. A year later, the San Francisco Examiner (CA), December 12, 1980, discussing the Iron Gate restaurant again, noted “Their Pinot Di Franciacorta from Lombardy is a fine rare Italian white wine.”It's fascinating that they didn't refer to it as a sparkling wine.  

As the 1980s began, Franciacorta still wines continued to be mentioned briefly. The Boston Globe, May 8, 1980, in an ad for “Martignetti IS an Italian Wine Festival” listed only two wines from Lombardy the 1975 Francia Corta Red and White, 24 ounce bottles for $3.99.  

The Journal News (NY), August 7, 1980, printed an ad for Wines & Spirits in Suffern, New York, offering the 1978 Franciacorta Pinot Bianco,Semi dry, with a nice touch of fruit,”a 25 ounce bottle for $4.39. 

In the Daily Register (NJ), November 4, 1981, there was an article on the wines of Italy, which briefly mentioned that “Franciacorta Rosso and Pinot are two well-known wines from... Lombardy."

Besides the references to the Pinot De Franciacorta, the first American newspaper references to Franciacorta Sparkling Wine occurred in 1982.

The Daily Register (NJ), June 2, 1982, described the annual Italian Barrel Tasting, held by the Les Amis du Vin, at the Tavern-On-The-Green restaurant in New York City. The article mentioned, “A Franciacorta Pinot Spumante Dosage Zero Ca’ del Bosco and a Brut from the same producer were served as aperitifs before the dinner. These two sparkling wines were clean and crisp on the palate but they lacked a little elegance. Both are made in the Champagne method. The Dosage Zero, as the name implies, has no dosage (touch of sweet syrup) added to the wine so it is extremely dry—drier than Brut.”   

This writer wasn't fully impressed with the Franciacorta but it was only one person's take. The Daily Record (NJ), August 4, 1982, detailed the experiences of another writer at that same tasting, and he wrote, “Our aperitifs were the two finest sparklers I have ever tasted from Italy. Ca’del Bosco Franciacorta Pinot Dosage Zero and Franciacorta Brut.”

There was a brief mention in the Daily News (NY), April 17, 1983, “At Altri Tempi, the unique and chic Neapolitan restaurant, Norman Mailer quaffed bubbly from Lina Wertmuller’s own vineyard, Paderno Franciacorta in Lombardy.”

One of the first lengthier articles that deal with Franciacorta was in the Daily Times (NY), October 5, 1983, in an article titled, “It’s Time to Look for the Wines of Lombardy.” A number of wine producers from Lombardy had come to the U.S. to showcase their wines at the Italian Wine Center in New York City. The article initially stated, “Once of Brescia’s three areas given DOC status is Franciacorta, whose vineyards cover a natural amphitheater sloping down to Lake Iseo."

The writer tasted three wines from Fratelli Berlucchi, and all were “distinct winners.” The wines included the 1980 Franciacorta Pinot Spumante DOC Metodo Champenois, the 1982 Franciacorta Pinot Bianco DOC and the 1980 Franciacorta Rosso DOC. As for the sparkling wine, “The first sniff, the first taste of the dry spumante was a delight. Made primarily of Pinot Bianco, with some Pinot Grigio and Pinot Nero, the Berlucchi spumante displays classic fruitiness in bouquet and flavor, along with a fresh tasting quality. It’s finely pearled mousse is long lasting as is its pleasing finish. It should be on retailers’ shelves by late fall, selling for about $8.”

The writer than stated, “The Pinot Bianco, a 100 percent varietal, is well balanced, smooth drinking yet crisp, with a lively aftertaste of fresh young apples.” And continued, “The Rosso is particularly interesting, produced from an unusual blend of Cabernet Franca, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Merlot. Its aged in oak for two years, in bottle, between six months and a year…It makes an immediate impact as a well balanced, medium bodied wine, with elements of complexity at a young age. The wine is full of character but not overly fruity. It certainly is a memorable wine, a wine of elegance. It is available at retail for about $5.99.”

The Star-Gazette (NY), June 19, 1984, referenced the La Camelia Ristorante, in New York City, which may have the city’s finest Italian wine list, including 10 methode champenoise wines by the glass. One of the writer’s favorites was the Ca’Del Bosco Franciacorta Pinot.

In a wine review, the Central New Jersey Home News (NJ), November 2, 1986, discussed the Ca’Del Bosco Dosage Zero, which is produced by Maurizio Zanella in the Franciacorta DOC. This winery made about 150,000 bottles annually, using only estate grown grapes. The writer noted the winery “is considered one of the finest producers in Italy of less-pressurized wines.” The wine sold for $22.50 per bottle. There was also a brief review of Bellavista Franciacorta Brut ($18), which had some similarities to the other Franciacorta, made from Pinot and Chardonnay, but a  dosage was added.

The Los Angeles Times (CA), December 26, 1986, briefly stated that the 1982 Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Rosso ($22), “ more delicious the longer it breathed.”

In an article on sparkling wine around the world, the Shreveport Journal (LA), January 2, 1987, stated, “The Berlucchi label on a sparkling wine is a sign of quality. Since the northern Italian company brought its prices into line with competitors from other countries, the wines are reasonably priced. Look for the Cuvee Imperiale Brut. Ca’ del Bosco, from Franciacorta, may be the best of all the Italian sparklers, particularly the Dosage Zero, which, as its name implies, is anything but sweet. Ca’ del Bosco prices are high, though—starting at about $20—and if there is French Champagne to be had at the same price, it’s a tough call.” High praise for Franciacorta. 

Ca’ del Bosco continued to receive raves. The San Francisco Examiner (CA), January 14, 1987, in a wine review of the NV Cremant, Franciacorta, Ca’ del Bosco ($28), noted, “Anyone skeptical about the future of Italian Champagne method sparklers should try this wine. It is concentrated, complex and toasty (like a top-of-the-line Champagne), with a terrific finish.” The Rocky Mount Telegram (NC), September 2, 1987, stated, “Ca’ del Bosco’s sparkling Franciacorta is rich but dry, appetizingly crisp and a fine opening shot for a great dinner.”

Other Franciacorta Sparkling Wines got positive reviews as well. The San Francisco Examiner (CA), November 18, 1987, in a wine recommendation, mentioned, “The Italian sparkler is the 1982 Franciacorta Brut from Bella Vista at $18.95. Very light and dry. Delicate and graceful.”

Locally, the Boston Globe, August 24, 1988, printed a lengthy article titled, “Italy’s sparkling wines can rival Champagne.” The article began by stating these sparkling wines can rival Champagne "in quality, character and price when skillful winemakers lavish capital, labor and time on selected lots of chardonnay and white, gray and black pinots.” The writer continued, “I first came across a Ca’del Bosco sparkling wine a couple of years ago, and was amazed by its elegance and intensity of flavor, so I followed its trail.” 

This led the writer to visiting the winery in Lombardy, and he continued, “Ca-del Bosco is dialect for ‘house in the woods. In 1968, there was only forest. Enter the Zanella family, amply equipped with financial daring, imagination and astral goals. The first wine was made in 1973. Most of the planned 136 acres have been planted. Current production is 30,000 cases annually; the goal is, at most, 38,000.” Their young winemaker was Brian Larky, from California, and 9 of their wines are currently imported, including four sparkling, two still whites, and three still reds.

As for the Sparkling Wines, his reviews included, “Cremant: 3.5 atmospheres. Made from half chardonnay, half piniot bianco. Lovely bouquet. Light and delicate, almost ethereal. $35” and “Brut: This and the two following are fully sparkling, and made from chardonnay, pinot bianco and pinot nero. Full, dry, elegant and substantial. $30.” The other two sparklers included, “Dosage Zero: Totally dry. Toasty and intense, full-bodied, long finish. $28.” and “Rose. Attractive color. Dry, with restrained fruitiness. Creamy texture. Very long finish. $31.”

The article also discussed the sparkling wines of Bellavista, a neighbor of Ca’del Bosco in Franciacorta,  which "likewise produces medal-worthy wines at an outstanding facility." They produce about 17,000 cases annually, which includes five varieties of sparkling wines and five types of still wines. The writer mentioned, “They are, like Ca’del Boso, necessarily expensive because of costs of materials, labor, time, capital investment and profits for the several tiers of firms involved in the passage of the wine from Italian soil to your glass. The Cuvee Brut is $22, the Gran Cuvee Brut $31.” The reviews continued, “Cuvee Brut: From pinot bianco and chardonnay. Fine, yeasty nose. Elegant: very well made,” “Gran Cuvee Brut 1984: Chardonnay 80 percent, pinot nero 20 percent. Weightier wine. Quite dry and stylish,” and “Gran Cuvee Pas Opere 1983: Totally dry (no sugar dosage added. Similar proportion of chardonnay and pinot nero. Austere, forceful, beautifully made—it would have to be, with no sugar to fill in defects.” 

Another lengthy article was presented in the San Francisco Examiner (CA), February 7, 1990, starting, “Most of Italy’s sparkling wines, and virtually all of its best ones, are produced in the northern half of the country.” It was then noted that Italy produced about 20 million cases of bubbly each year,  about 10% of the world’s production; ranks, placing them 5th of the worldwide producers of sparkling wine. Only their 20 million cases, only about 2.5 million are made through the metodo classic

The article then gave 10 recommendations, which included, “Bellavista, Brut, Franciacorta, $26. Bellavista is a first-rate champagne-method producer in the Franciacorta zone. Its wines are a bit lighter, crisper and more subtle in style than those of the other great Franciacorta producer, Ca’de; Bosco. This is an excellent Brut: fruity and crisp in style, with moderate yeast flavors.” 

Another recommendation was the “Bellavista, 1982 Gran Cuvee, Pas Opere, Franciacorta, $38. This is Bellavista’s prestige cuvee—a blend with no dosage, and with considerable complexity and elegance. It is medium-bodied (for an Italian sparkler), crisp and long on the palate, and is now at its peak of development.” As for Ca’del Bosco, it was said to be, “Arguably, Italy’s top producer of spumante, Ca’del Bosco’s sparkling wines are rich and complex in style.” Their Ca’del Bosco, Dosage Zero ($31) is “among the best of its type.

Today, Italy is the #1 producer of Sparkling wines in the world, producing about 660 million bottles annually. The ranking continues: France #2 at 550 million bottles, Germany #3 at 350 million bottles, Spain #4, at 260 million bottles, and the U.S. #5 at 162 million bottles. As for Franciacorta, only about 11% of their production is exported, and Italian Prosecco is by far the greatest sparkling export of Italy. I hope you can look beyond Prosecco, seek out Franciacorta, and understand the marvels of this high0-quality sparkling wine. 

To Be Continued....

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