Franciacorta, Italy’s answer to Champagne?

Nestled in the lake district at the foot of the Alps, the small appellation of Franciacorta is a gem waiting to be discovered.  Located about 70km east of Milan on the south shore of Lake Iseo, Franciacorta consists of 19 villages in an amphitheater-like area rich in mineral deposits from the glacial era.

In the last few years, Franciacorta has become more famous within Italy and in international markets as a source of quality traditional method sparkling wines – many of them rivaling Champagne.

The land

Franciacorta enjoys a mostly continental climate, moderated by the influence of Lake Iseo and the mountain ranges to the north that protect it from the cold, northernly winds. With a lower temperature than Champagne, it generally produces more consistent vintages, with wines with a softer acidity that allow for lower levels of dosage, including many fresh, zero-dosage wines.

The region’s climate also makes it easier to adopt organic viticulture, with over 35% of the producers being certified organic.

Grape Varieties

Franciacorta is made primarily from 3 grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), and Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), though the local variety Erbamat was recently added to the list of approved varieties, particularly as it adds freshness and acidity to the blend. 

Chardonnay accounts for roughly 80% of the plantings, which offers a stone and tropical fruit profile, and adds richness and elegance to the wines.  Pinot Nero provides structure and body, while Pinot Bianco lends soft floral and citrus aromas.

Styles

Sweetness levels in Franciacorta follow the Champagne model, with most wines made in the Zero-dosage or Brut styles (1-12 gr. of Residual sugar).  Saten is a unique style, consisting of 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs made with a lower pressure (5 atm) in a Brut style.

The minimum aging requirement for non-vintage Franciacorta is 18 months on the lees, the longest in the world for traditional method sparkling wines (For reference, non-vintage Champagne is only 12 months)

So, what does Franciacorta taste like?

It is hard to describe a region in general terms, but I’d say that compared to Champagne (the reference point for most sparkling wine drinkers), the wines are slightly richer, with fruit notes closer to ripe pears, white peaches, and golden apples, well complemented by secondary notes of baked break, almonds and brioche.  Structurally, in general it would have a fuller body, more moderate acidity and made in a dry or nearly dry style with lower levels of residual sugar.

Recommended producers

Berlucchi. This historic producer is credited with creating the modern sparkling wines of Franciacorta in the 1960s. Led today by the Ziliani family (descendants of former head winemaker Franco Ziliani), Berlucchi is also the largest and best-known producer by volume.

We were warmed greeted by Cristina Ziliani, Franco’s daughter and responsible for sales and marketing at the winery, who led us through a walk in the nearby vineyards and a visit to the underground caves, which include one of the original 1961 bottles.

Wine: Berlucchi ’61 Brut.  Fragrant aromas of yellow apple, white peach, brioche and crushed rocks. A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir and aged on its lees for 24 months. Elegant and focused, with bright acidity and elegant perlage. 6 g/l of residual sugar.

The original 1961 cuvee, Berlucchi

Monte Rossa. Founded in 1972 by Emanuele Rabotti and his family, Monte Rossa is located in the heart of Franciacorta, on top of the hill overlooking Bornato and with views of Monte Alto and the Bronzone mountains.

The beautiful estate includes a 13th-century tower, a 15th-century country house, a traditional “infernotto” where the historical vintages are matured, and spectacular gardens with centuries-old olive groves, herbs, and rose beds.

Wine: Cabochon Brut. Complex and very expressive nose with an intriguing smokiness alongside rich creamy notes and loads of sweet spices. Long, autolytic finish with baked bread, graphite and apple and ripe pineapple flavors. 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, aged on its lees for 45 months.

Barone Pizzini

One of the historical wineries in the area, Barone Pizzini boasts the title of the first organic Franciacorta, and is a leader in sustainability and a pioneer in the rediscovery of the native Erbamat grape variety. The estate has 30 vineyards located in different areas of the region, extending over a 60-hectare area at an altitude of 300m.

Wine: 2013 Naturae.  Notes of citrus, baked bread and lemon peel, alongside an elegant palate with mineral and juicy tangerine and green apple notes.  60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir with no added dosage.  The purest expression of Franciacorta terroir.

Franciacorta vineyards with Lake Iseo in the background

If you’re looking for a Champagne-like experience without having to settle for an “entry-level” bottle, Franciacorta is a great option. Franciacorta overdelivers in finesse, quality and longevity at every price point. Though Franciacortas are by no means inexpensive (in the US the average price is around $30/bottle), it produces premium, complex wines at a lower price.

If you go

The closest major airport is Milano Malpensa (MXP), about a 90-minute drive from Franciacorta. Though you can make it a day trip, I’d recommend staying in the area at least two nights to truly get a sense of the place and allow for a leisurely visit to wine country and enjoy the sophisticated local cuisine, which includes delicious bounty from the nearby lakes. The city of Bergamo, 30 min. to the east, is another good option as a base to explore the region.

With Cristina Ziliani at Berlucchi
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