Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Franciacorta: A Sparkling Treasure of Lombardy (Part 1)

Have you ever enjoyed Franciacorta Sparkling Wine, Italian bubbly from the Lombardy region? Unfortunately, despite its high-quality, many people are still not familiar with it, partially because only a relative small amount is currently imported into the U.S. However, it's well worth seeking out, and you can likely find it near you if you try. 

In short, Franciacorta is Italian Sparkling Wine, made in the méthode traditionnelle, and produced in the province of Brescia in Lombardy. It's a small, hilly region and its history extends back thousands of years. Wine was produced in this region for at least a couple thousand years, and ancient Romans, such as Virgil and Pliny the Elder, wrote about them. 

Though "Francia" is the Italian term for "France," the name of the region does not apparently derive from this definition. Though there is some disagreement, the name likely derives from the Latin term "curtes francae," which referred to small communities of Benedictine monks who lived near Lake Iseo, and were excused from paying taxes because of their help to the community. 

For most of the region's history, still wines were produced, and it was not until the 1960s that sparkling wines started being created. Guido Berlucchi, who owned a winery in Franciacorta, hired Franco Ziliani, a young enologist, to assist with his winery. Franco was full of enthusiasm and ideas, and desired to produce a sparkling wine. Guido allowed him to do so, and in 1961, they produced their first bubbly, Pinot di Franciacorta, which was also the first time that the term "Franciacorta" appeared on a wine label. 

The sparkling wine soon became popular, and other local producers started creating their own too, trying to join this new trend. In 1967, the region was awarded DOC status, though that was probably more for their still wines, though by 1983, the DOC rules were revised and referenced sparkling wine. In 1990, 29 wineries, which made still and sparkling wines, formed the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta, a voluntary organization to help promote their wines. 

Five years later, the sparkling wines of Franciacorta received great recognition, being awarded DOCG status, while the still wines were still under a DOC status called Terre de Franciacorta. The regulations in Franciacorta are amongst the strictest in Italy and have been tightened at least five times in the past 25 years. In 2008, the DOC name was changed to Curtefranca, to further set apart Franciacorta as a special sparkling wine. Today, the Consorzio has over 200 members (growers, wineries and bottlers), which includes 121 wineries, covering 98% of all producers in the region. 

Currently, there are about 7978 acres of vineyards in the Franciacorta region, with 7170 dedicated to the Franciacorta DOCG, leaving 808 acres for the Curtefranca DOC. The region produced about 17.6 million bottles in 2019, and only 11% were exported. Their wine industry has shown steady, incremental growth, until 2020, which was due to the pandemic. Of their production, about 77% is Brut, Rose is about 13%, and Saten is about 9%. 

The #1 import market For Franciacorta is Switzerland, which constitutes about 23.4% of imports, while #2 is Japan with 12.19%. Germany is #3 with 11.9% while the U.S. is #4 with 9.2%. That means, the U.S. receives roughly 178 thousand bottles, a mere drop in the bucket compared to all of the other Sparkling wine produced in the U.S. or imported here. 

Franciacorta is produced in the méthode traditionnelle, similar to Champagne, and is produced from almost exclusively three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco. About 82% of their vineyards grow Chardonnay, with 16% growing Pinot Nero and only 3% growing Pinot Bianco. 

However, some producers have started working with Erbamat, a grape indigenous to the Brescia region which was first mentioned in written documents around 1564. Since 2017, Franciacorta Sparkling Wines have been permitted to add up to 10% Erbamat to their wines. About 12 wineries are currently working with Erbamat, which is a slow ripening grape that produces high acidity. There are no other grapes at this time which might be permuted in Franciacorta in the near future. 

Franciacorta is produced in a number of styles that are listed in the DOCG regulations, including:
--Franciacorta: Produced with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and up to 50% Pinot Bianco. The NV must spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees. 
--Franciacorta Saten: Essentially a blanc de blancs, which is usually predominantly Chardonnay but can contain up to 50% Pinot Bianco. Must spend a minimum of 24 months on the lees. Made to be more food friendly.
--Rosé: It requires at least 35% Pinot Noir and the rest can be Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco. Must spend a minimum of 24 months on the lees. 
--Millesimato: This is a vintage wine, and must consist of at least 85% wine from a single growing year. It cannot be released until at least 37 months after harvest. Must spend a minimum of 30 months on the lees. 
--Riserva: This is also a vintage wine, and can be a Satèn or Rosé as well. It must have matured sur lie for a minimum of 60 months. 

All of these styles will possess a specific dosage level, just like a Champagne, including: Dosage Zero (aka Brut Nature), Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec/Dry or Demi-sec. Unlike in Champagne, the date of disgorgement must be placed on a Franciacorta label. Some of the aging requirements for Franciacorta are also a bit longer than Champagne. 

One of the most important aspects of the Franciacorta region, which causes it to stand apart from many other regions which produce sparkling wine, is the climate. Franciacorta has an alpine climate rather than a continental one, which means their vineyards produce riper grapes so there is much less need to add sugar to the bubbly.

Thus, when you drink Franciacorta, the sweetness you perceive is often due much more to the fruit rather than added sugars. That is a significant difference which often doesn't receive sufficient attention. There seem to be few discussions on sugar levels in sparkling wine, despite the importance of that topic. It should also be mentioned that the alpine climate is affected in part by the moderating influence of Lake Iseo. Thus, the terroir of Franciacorta plays a strong role in the ultimate product, in the taste of its sparkling wine.

Another important consideration in the Franciacorta region is the diversity of its soils, over 60 different types. Its morainic soils, caused by ancient glacial action, are stony, with larger stones located in the northern part and much smaller stones to the south. These stony soils don't retain water well, which force grape vines to become stressed as they have to seek deeper to find water. That struggle leads to better grapes, and it is often said that the worst soils make the best wines. About 71% of Franciacorta vineyards are organic and the rest are moving in that direction too. 

Franciacorta is very food friendly and unlike some other sparkling wines, works very well throughout an entire meal, especially due to its freshness and fruit flavors. You can find good Franciacorta for around $30-$40, though you can also find high end bottlings costing $200 or more. 

This region has undergone such an amazing transformation in only about 50 years, starting from nearly scratch to become a high quality producer of sparkling wine, which can compete with the best anywhere in the world. The next time you're out shopping for bubbly, consider Franciacorta.

To Be Continued.....

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