Christine Austin enjoys a taste of Franciacorta, which is said to be unlike any other Italian sparkling wine
It was only when I climbed the vineyard-covered hill owned by Elisabetta Abrami that I began to understand Franciacorta. Glinting blue in the distance was Lago d’Iseo, a long finger of a lake stretching away from me, surrounded by steep-sided hills. I was at the southern end of the lake, standing on top of a smaller mound, one of a chain of glacial moraines that create a kind of amphitheatre, enclosing an ‘audience’ of vines. Just 40 miles east of Milan in northeast Italy, this is the home of Italy’s prestigious Franciacorta sparkling wine and its location is important.
The lake acts as a climate moderator, smoothing out the cold northern Italian winters, and in warmer weather it provides a morning breeze that blows across the lake and meets the vines head-on. The hills to the south protect the valley from southern winds, so Franciacorta is in a pocket with a warm, stable climate and fresh breezes – the perfect place to grow grapes.
They have been growing grapes for centuries here. Already documented by Roman writers in 200 BC, by the 12th century the region of Franciacorta was mapped out and its red and white wines noted for their quality. The name of the region is odd, possibly derived from ‘Franchae Curtes’ meaning the region was free of tax, because it came under the rule of Benedictine monks, although there are several other explanations.
And while the region of Franciacorta still makes still red and white wines now under the DOC Curtefranca , the real star of the area is a premium sparkling wine, developed as recently as the 1960s.
Franciacorta is unlike any other Italian sparkling wine. Made from Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Chardonnay with an occasional splash of Pinot Bianco, the wine is made using the traditional ‘in-bottle’ second fermentation method and it has the ability to age and develop complex, balanced flavours. It would be so easy to describe Franciacorta as the place where champagne grapes are grown and made into sparkling wine using the same techniques as champagne, but both regions are fiercely protective of their methods and names. So Franciacorta describes the region, the method and the wine. Unlike most wine regions where it has taken several hundreds of years to develop a particular wine and its surrounding rules and regulations, Franciacorta has gone from zero to world class in just over 50 years. It was thought of in 1955 at the historic Berlucchi Estate by Guido Berlucchi and developed by oenologist Franco Ziliani who worked out how to produce a wine with just enough fizz to be sparkling in the glass, without causing the bottles to explode. He could have asked the Champenoise how to do it, but probably learnt a lot more as he worked on his own wines. By 1961 Ziliani had 3,000 bottles of Pinot di Franciacorta and local producers were keen to follow his example. Over the intervening years this group of winemakers has worked together to set out some of the most stringent rules and regulations for Franciacorta. Grape varieties, training methods, yields, hand picked grapes, gentle pressing, minimum aging parameters and styles are all laid down in legislation. There is even a move to reintroduce a historic grape variety from the edge of extinction that will perfectly define this wine in this region. Most of the terms used for Franciacorta are familiar, such as Brut and Extra Brut but Satèn is unique to the region. This is a lower-fizz style of wine, like a Crémant, and is made only from white grapes.
The style of Franciacorta is defined by the climate. Somewhat warmer than Champagne, the grapes for Franciacorta acquire a touch more fruit and softness as they ripen so while they retain good clean acidity, there is not as much need for an extra ‘dosage’ of sugar during the final process. This gives the wine a harmonious finish, while allowing clean acidity to shine through. The wine is able to age perfectly. During my visit to Ca’ del Bosco, one of the larger producers in the region, a bottle of top cuvée Annamaria Clementi 1979 was brought from the cellar, still on its lees and disgorged by hand. It was quite remarkable for its lemon-zest vivacity, backed by rounded, spiced apple and fresh-baked pastry notes.
There are over 100 producers of Franciacorta and under 3,000 hectares of vines, making this region tiny compared with Prosecco, Asti and Champagne. The overall quality is high and there seems to be a general move towards organic production, although this isn’t part of the legislation. Here in Yorkshire several local retailers are now stocking Franciacorta and it is starting to appear on wine lists. These are some of my favourites.
Berlucchi: Now run by the family of Franco Ziliani, the oenologist who started the whole Franciacorta revolution, this historic estate is in its second year of organic production. Majestic has just listed Cuvée Imperiale Brut (£22.49, down to £14.98 on multibuy) made from 90 per cent Chardonnay and 10 per cent Pinot Noir. Aged for 18 months on lees it has ripe pear and apple aromas with a clean, lemony palate.
Ca’ del Bosco: The helicopter pad, the well-placed artworks and bizarrely, the first grape-washing machine I have seen, demonstrate Ca’ del Bosco is well-funded and well-run. The wines are elegant and complex, in particular vintage Collection Dosage Zéro and Cuvée Annamaria Clementi. Find these wines at Le Langhe in York (01904 622584).
Elisabetta Abrami: Formerly in the alloy wheels business, Elisabetta sold up and now runs a small estate with passion and precision. Her wines are not yet in the UK but should be. I loved her Rosé Brut, distinctive for its pale colour, red fruit flavours and lightly spiced finish.
Ferghettina: Picked out from a regional tasting, I enjoyed the wines from this medium-sized estate. Grown on calcareous soil, the Extra Brut has lively, clean freshness with nutty, creamy flavours. Halifax Wine Co £26.50. Wines from this estate are also stocked by Penistone Wine Cellars and Ake and Humphries.
Barone Pizzini: Now 100 per cent organic and making elegant, minerally wines, I particularly liked 2010 Satèn Franciacorta for its silky texture and harmonious fruit. Find it at www.vintageroots.co.uk, at £23.