Franciacorta Wines: Quality Italian Bubbly to Celebrate the New Year – or Any Time of Year 

Italy offers discriminating wine lovers an astonishing array of super sparkling wines with which to celebrate the New Year or just to enjoy any time of year for that matter. One doesn’t need a special occasion to enjoy a festive sparkling wine. Any excuse will work like “it’s Saturday, let’s celebrate” or in answer to “what wine should I serve with these seafood appetizers?”

Italy produces a variety of sparkling wines such as Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti, Asti Spumanti and red sparkling wines like Lambrusco and Brachetto d’Acqui, just to name a few. However, Italy’s best but probably least well-known wine – at least in the U.S. - is Franciacorta.

Franciacorta is Italy’s closed rival to Champagne and is generally regarded as Italy’s finest sparkling wine. The best Franciacorta wines can go nose-to-nose with some of the best Champagne wines.

The Franciacorta wines share many similarities with Champagnes. Franciacorta, like Champagne, is both a geographic area as well as a sparkling wine.  Awarded the coveted DOCG designation in 1995, Franciacorta is located east of Milan in north-central Italy and extends between Brescia, Lake Garda and Trento, south of Lake Iseo. It is a small area with relatively low production when compared to the Champagne region of France. The Franciacorta region is only about one-tenth the size of the wine growing area of Champagne and its total annual output of about 13 million bottles is minor compared to Champagne’s annual production of some 320 million bottles.

The sparkling Franciacorta wines are produced by the classic method of Champagne, called methode champenoise, in which a second fermentation takes place in the bottles. After the initial fermentation, the wines are bottled with some yeast and sugar, which initiates a second fermentation. The bottles are then stored with the necks turned downward and periodically rotated to facilitate separation of the yeasts from the wine. After anywhere from 18 to 35 months, the yeast cells are disgorged and wine from a previous vintage is added to offset the loss from disgorgement.  The bottles are recorked and then stored to let the wine further age in the bottle before being released for sale.

Franciacorta wines utilize the same grape varieties as Champagne, which are Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc (Pinot Bianco in Italian) and Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero in Italian). Also as in Champagne, the wines are categorized according to the amount of residual sugar, or sweetness of the wine. Moving from the driest to the sweetest, the individual categories are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec and Demi-Sec.

Bellavista Franciacorta Gran Cuvee Saten NVFranciacorta also include a designation called Saten. It is similar to Blanc de Blanc Champagne in that it is made exclusively from white grapes.  This Franciacorta wine is also produced in a slightly different fashion and is unique for its lower bottle pressure. Consequently, the wine is softer and creamier with somewhat finer bubbles.  It is only produced in the Brut format.

There are some very large producers in Franciacorta, like Bellavista, Contadi Castaldi, Guido Berlucchi and Ca del Bosco, with large property holdings and production facilities. Their sparkling wines are widely exported and generally available in the U.S.  However, the typical Franciacorta producer is considerably smaller, with the average being perhaps just five acres under vine, or less. These wines are typically consumed locally and seldom distributed outside of Italy.         

While not always easy to find, some of the most readily available Franciacorta wines in U.S. markets include, in alphabetical order, the following:

Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Brut NV (about $30)

Founded in 1968, the Ca’ del Bosco winery has state-of-the-art vinification and aging facilities and is generally regarded as one of Italy’s best producers of sparkling wines.

Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Brut NV (about $28)

Thirty months of secondary fermentation provide this bubbly with bright, fruit flavors and good texture.

Bellavista Franciacorta Cuvee Brut NV (about $50)

Bellavista is arguably Italy’s finest producer of sparkling wine. Its vintage and non-vintage Franciacorta wines exhibit great elegance and balance. The estate produces a full range of sparkling wines and it’s Cuvee Brut, a predominantly Chardonnay sparkler with an elegant, lush mouth feel, is one of the estate’s best sparkling wines.  

Bellavista Franciacorta Gran Cuvée Satèn NV (about $65)

Made exclusively from barrel-fermented Chardonnay, this sparkling wine is marked with peach and honey aromas and a soft, creamy and ample mouth feel. Simply delicious.

 Montenisa Franciacorta Brut NV (about $32)

Montenisa Brut is the result of a careful selection of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and a small quantity of Pinot Nero grapes.  The first fermentation takes place partly in stainless steel vats and partly in barriques, and the second in the bottles, where the wine ages in contact with the yeasts for at least 30 months. This is a good sparkling wine at a good price. 

Quattro Mani Franciacorta Brut NV (about $22)

“Quattro Mani,” which means “four hands” is a label created to display the talents of a quartet of celebrated Italian winemakers. This inexpensive sparkler is made by Franciacorta pioneer Mario Falcetti and it pairs well with appetizers, soups, and cheese

Ronco Calino Franciacorta Brut NV (about $30)

This elegant cuvee of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero is initially fermented partly in stainless steel and partly in French oak barrels. The second fermentation in the bottle stretches over 30 months. A good balance of flavors and acidity make it an ideal partner with aperitifs, pasta dishes and delicate fish dishes.

 

©Richard Marcis
December 21, 2011

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