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David James: Franciacorta – a well-kept secret

If you think that Italy’s finest contribution to the world of sparkling wines is Prosecco, think

again! Representing a much smaller annual production than Italy’s best-known sparkling

export - Prosecco - Franciacorta is truly Italy’s answer to Champagne. Like Champagne,

Franciacorta is a traditional method sparkling wine made in exactly the same way as its

better-known and highly-prized French counterpart. Franciacorta is also made from the

same grape varieties as in Champagne (more or less). The grapes are hand picked then

gently pressed to create free-run juice for a base wine. As with all traditional method

sparkling wines, the first fermentation, usually in inert vessels, is followed by a second

fermentation in bottle with maturation on the lees. Currently the principal grape variety

used for Franciacorta is Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco in supporting roles.

In order to retain sufficient acidity in the grape in Franciacorta, Chardonnay is picked at the

height of summer, in late July to early August. However, Erbamat, an historical local white

grape variety reintroduced in 2017 is making a bit of a come-back. Erbamat is a thin-skinned

grape which has naturally very high levels of acidity and which ripens six to eight weeks later

than Chardonnay in this part of Italy. The optimal time to pick Erbamat is during the cooler

months of late September and early October. In Franciacorta, as in other wine producing

areas of the world, oenologists are preparing for the effects of global warming and experts

predict that in the future Erbamat will assume ever-greater importance in the blend of

grape varieties for making Franciacorta. Currently up to a maximum of 10% Erbamat is

permitted in DOCG wines.

For Franciacorta DOCG wines, the release date cannot be less than 25 months from the

harvest, and many wineries age their more prestigious wines for even longer. Remuage

(picture below) and disgorgement are carried out in exactly the same way as in Champagne.

The big difference is the price. For wines of comparable quality, Franciacorta is significantly

cheaper than equivalent wines from Champagne (and premium Cava), especially if

purchased in Italy.

Like Franciacorta - the wine - the place of origin is also a well-kept secret. The wine growing

area of Franciacorta lies in a sub-alpine plateau, south-east of the wildly beautiful Lake Iseo.

Geographically, Lake Iseo itself lies between the much better-known and glitzy Lakes Como

and Garda, both well-trodden holiday destinations and luxury refuges for Hollywood A-

listers. Unlike Como and Garda, Lake Iseo is little-known in Italy and virtually not at all

outside Italy.

The vines of Franciacorta lie in the foothills of the Italian Alps which, unlike Champagne, is a

warm continental climate with mountains providing altitude and protection from cold winds

and Lake Iseo providing a moderating effect on the climate year-round. These climatic

differences between the much more northerly Champagne region and Franciacorta are

apparent in the finished wines. The gently rising slopes reach an altitude of 380m above sea

level and the Hill of Monte Orfano provides shelter ensuring full ripeness of grapes while

retaining acidity. The resulting wine is ‘riper’ than Champagne with moderate alcohol, silky

acidity and primary aromas of peaches, nectarines and floral notes such as jasmine.

Of particular note is the satèn style, unique to Franciacorta. Satèn (‘silk’ in Italian) wines are

always made using the Chardonnay grape and differ from other Franciacorta wines in that

they have less pressure in the bottle (5 bars as opposed to 6 bars for Champagne and non-

satèn Franciacorta). The lower pressure results from adding less sugar to the liqueur de

tirage: 18 – 20 g/L as opposed to 24 g/L for fully sparkling wines. The reduced sugar means

that less carbon dioxide is produced during the second fermentation resulting in a wine with

a gentle, creamy (‘silky’ or ‘satèn’) palate. Franciacorta is also gaining expertise and a

reputation for making zero-dosage sparkling wines, the yellow fruit notes and creamy

texture taking some of the edge off the bone-dry palate.

The history of sparkling Franciacorta, in comparison to other sparkling wine areas of the

world, is a relatively recent one. Franciacorta DOC was first established in 1967, which then

included red and white still wines. Franciacorta was granted DOCG status for sparkling wines

as recently as 1995. In 1967 it was Guido Berlucchi, an eccentric aristocrat who owned

estates in the area in collaboration with oenologist, Franco Ziliani who were responsible for

establishing Franciacorta as an area notable for the production of quality sparkling wines.

Many have since followed their lead and there are now 122 producers of Franciacorta DOCG

sparkling wine.

Franco Ziliani and Guido Berlucchi

The overall production of Franciacorta is small, around 20 – 25 million bottles per year.

Compare that with Champagne producing in the region of 300 million bottles per year and

Cava 245 million, which is partly why Franciacorta is not that easy to find outside Italy. Much

of the annual production of Franciacorta undoubtedly goes to the smart hotels and

restaurants of Milan and Turin, not to mention to some of those Hollywood A-listers who

know a bargain when they see it.

There is some good news for those of us who live outside Italy. The Wine Society carries a

Franciacorta sparkling wine for under £20 per bottle (at the time of writing), made by

Ferghettina which is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Fortnum and Mason have

their own-label Franciacorta, made by Franca Contea which is 100% Chardonnay for around

£26 per bottle. Both are well worth seeking out, but by far the best idea is to travel to the

Franciacorta region yourself, to visit one or more of the many wineries open to the public

and take the tour. Finally, feeling very smug about your discovery, you can ship home from

your chosen estate. Salute!


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