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Italy’s greatest sparkler rivals Champagne
2014-01-10
By John H. Isacs

Prosecco and Moscato — of course, we all know and adore these charming Italian sparklers. But say the word Franciacorta in China and you’re sure to get more than just a few blank faces.

Long perched on its well-anointed throne of bubbles, Champagne has for centuries remained unchallenged in terms of quality and reputation. But as Bob Dylan titled his third album in 1964, “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” the same can be said of the world of bubbles.

Around the time Dylan released his ground-breaking album, a group of entrepreneurial Italian businessmen and winemakers started making a new style of wine in northern Italy. Fast forward five decades and we now have Italy’s greatest sparkling wine and the world’s only real challenger to Champagne.

Situated in the heart of Lombardy’s Lake District, the Franciacorta region is boarded to the south by Lago d’Iseo and the larger Como and Garda lakes to the north.

Collectively the lakes help moderate the climate while still allowing for extreme diurnal temperature differences. The sunny temperate days and much cooler nights allow for a longer and slower growing season that results in richer and more complex wines.

The soil of Franciacorta is predominantly composed of glacial moraine sediments, which may sound difficult but actually just means the glacial-formed soils are infertile and porous. In other words, these soils are ideal for making quality wines.

Different styles

No one can deny that Franciacorta winemakers have learned and borrowed much from Champagne. They use the traditional or Champagne method to create their sparkling wines and a host of French rather than Italian words to adorn their labels. Instead of Rosato as in most of Italy, its rose and the familiar French terms Extra Brut, Brut and Demi-Sec are also used.

The three permitted varieties in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Sound French? Aging requirements are even more stringent than Champagne, with non-vintage wines required to spend 18 months in contact with the yeast in the bottle as opposed to 16 months for Champagnes.

Vintage and reserve wines require even longer aging while dosage guidelines from Pas Dos, no dosage, to Demi Sec sweet wines are the same as Champagne. Harvesting and many other aspects of winemaking are done by hand.

All these stringent requirements and hands-on winemaking mean that Franciacorta wines are never cheap. Their prices are similar to Champagne, putting them in the upper stratosphere of bubblies.

Champagne is the most northern major wine region in Europe and grapes have a harder time reaching optimal ripeness, leading to more austere and acidic wines.

This is also why they are ideal for making sparkling wines. The base white wine used in Champagne would be overly acidic and lean for many palates but with dosage and the resulting bubbles, these wines become something special. Because of their more sunny and temperate climate, the wines of Franciacorta are riper and richer.

This doesn’t mean they’re better, it just means that have their own style and in blind tastings it’s usually not very difficult to differentiate which wines are Champagne and which are Franciacorta, rather it’s a much bigger challenge to judge which are better. I invite readers to try both and reach their own conclusions.

Personalities

As the largest and most economically dynamic region of Italy, Lombardy has many of Italy’s most successful and entrepreneurial businessmen who are not averse to risk and change. A handful of these men started an Italian wine revolution that continues today.

Over the past 40-50 years, a whole new style of Italian sparkling wines has appeared and most significantly has established itself as one of the world’s great sparkling wines. Seldom in the annuals of wine history does any wine go from zero to world class in a mere half century. The only example I can think of is Marlborough, New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc white wines.

Wines were produced in the area for over a thousand years but the first gentleman to make Champagne-style wines in Franciacorta was Frauro Ziliani, the winemaker for Guido Berlucchi. In 1961 he made the first traditional-method sparkling wine and by 1967 the region had 11 producers and was given DOC status. In 1995 Franciacorda was awarded the prestigious DOCG designation and the winemakers and their wines have been making huge strides ever since. 

Berlucchi may have started the bubbles, but houses like Ca’del Bosco took Franciacorta winemaking to new heights. Bosco’s Cuvee Annamaria continues to be one of the region’s most recognized wines.

The most dynamic and successful man in Franciacorta today is undoubtedly Vittorio Moretti who translated a successful career in construction into a luxury lifestyle empire. Over just a few decades his BellaVista winery has become the Franciacorta leader in terms of quality and recognition.

He also owns another acclaimed Franciacorta winery as well as two additional wineries in other regions of Italy but BellaVista remains his star. From the Cuvee Brut, Vintage Grand Rose and Pas Opere to the very limited edition vintage Victorrio Moretti, the wines consistently exhibit the unique exuberance and beauty of the best of Franciacorta wines.

Moretti also owns Italy’s first Michelin 3-star restaurant — he now owns two 3-star restaurants. He made his first visit to China a few weeks ago and I was privileged to spend some time with him and, of course, drink his wines.

At one of my favorite local haunts, the traditional Shanghai restaurant Jesse (老吉士), we tasted six different BellaVista wines with classic Shanghai dishes. The occasion only reinforced my opinion on how well Franciacorta wines pair with many regional Chinese cuisines.

In several blind tastings in Europe with the biggest names of Champagne, BellaVista and other Franciacorta wines have done remarkably well, more often than not placing first. In the near future I intend to hold the first-ever Franciacorta vs Champagne blind tasting in Shanghai. It portends to be a delicious, fun and illuminating experience.

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