I attended a tasting a couple of weeks ago, led by Peter McCombie MW, who argued valiantly in favour of the quality of Franciacorta, while recognising the difficulty of persuading customers to pay the prices the wines demand. The eight wines we tasted demonstrated the consistently high standard of Franciacorta wines, but I am still not sure that the area can compete with Champagne in terms of quality at such prices - a problem English sparkling wine also faces.
where is it?Franciacorta is in the north of Italy, in the middle of the Italian lakes. The nearest lake is Iseo, which has a cooling influence. The area also has the Alps to the north and other surrounding hills to provide protection from the warm air blowing from the south. Franciacorta, an undulating valley, was formed by glaciers, and as a result the region has glacial moraine soil, an important factor on the styles of wine produced. The more superficial soils produce floral wines, while the deeper soils on the slopes provide dried fruits and vegetal, nutty, complex aromas.
what is it?Franciacorta is a small, tight-knit community all dedicated to producing high-quality wines. The wines of Franciacorta are always sparkling, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, and, less commonly, Pinot Bianco. (There is a separate DOC for still wines, Corta Francia, using the same grapes.) The method used is the same as Champagne - a first fermentation to produce a still wine, followed by a second fermentation in the bottle which generates yeasty, bready aromas as well as the bubbles. Ageing requirements vary, but are generally stricter and higher than any sparkling wine appellation other than Champagne. A major difference between Franciacorta and Champagne is that the wines don't have Champagne's searingly high acidity, making the wines softer and more approachable.
Montenisa Dosaggio Zero NV"Dosaggio Zero" means that the wine has received no dosage - the traditional top-up of sugar and wine at the last phase of a sparkling wine's life, which gives the wine some sweetness. A wine without the dosage is bone dry, which I think takes away the point of the best sparkling wine; it's a very fashionable style at the moment, however, reflecting the historically increasing dryness of Champagne. In partnership with the super-Tuscan producers Antinori, this wine is 100% Chardonnay, with thirty months ageing on its lees. There are subtle, biscuity notes of autolysis (the yeasty aromas that come from the second fermentation in the bottle), with apples and lemons. The wine is dry, fresh, with an acidity less sharp than a Champagne equivalent, and a gripping cinnamon finish.
Contadi Castaldi Dosaggio Zero 2009A different exampe of the non dosage style from the first wine: vintage, with some malolactic fermentation, longer on its lees (36-40 months), and 50% Chardonnay and Pinot Nero. From a hot vintage, these variants produce a much toastier wine, richer and more powerful, with inviting autoylsis aromas and buttery flavours from the MLF.
Villa Crespia - Muratori SatènSatèn could well be the style of wine that gets people hooked on Franciacorta. 100% Chardonnay and slightly less sparkling, it's a delicate, inviting style of wine and the best examples of Franciacorta I'd previously tasted have been Satèn - the word means satin, which is a good description of the style. This wine was a bit disappointing, however, perhaps trying too hard to be a little different. There is spontaneous, partially completed malolactic fermentation; the use of selected yeasts for, apparently, both first and second fermentations; and some oak. The result is a wine that's very biscuity and buttery with citrus fruits, but finishes short after that.
Il Mosnel Rosé 2008Sparkling rosé is, at its best, some of the greatest wine to be had, and this is a fine example. Rosé in Franciacorta is made differently from Champagne: there is a brief maceration on the skins to give the wine its colour, whereas in Champagne the colour comes from added red wine. This wine has a pale salmon, Provençal colour, with a combination of finesse and complexity: toast, savoury, cranberry, dry, refeshing, with a high yet not dominant acidity. I felt this was the best example of what Franciacorta, with its lower, softer acidity, has to offer.
Berlucchi Guido Rosé NVThe tasting ended where Franciacorta started. One of the three big producers, Berlucchi was the first to produce and market sparkling wine. This wine is 70% Pinot Nero - called "rosé of one night," to describe the length of skin contact - with 15g/L of residual sugar. It's a rich, fruity, slightly sweet wine that's very satisfying and would be great with spicy food, but one I would find difficult to have more than one glass of.
Franciacorta is a region to follow: of the eight wines we tasted, two were excellent and the other six were all of a high standard. I still think the region has a lot to learn, but that's not surprising given it's so young. What's important to remember is that the area has more in common with Champagne than fellow Italian sparkling wine regions Asti and Prosecco. This makes it a difficult area to market, but it's one well worth experimenting with if you like sparkling wine.