Franciacorta: Italy’s young pretender to the sparkling crown
Autumn season in Franciacorta, Italy.
Nestling quietly in central northern Italy, Lombardy’s idyllic Lake Iseo remains untroubled by the tourist boats of its more famous neighbours: Maggiore, Como, Garda. A relatively quiet backwater it might be, but the wine lands that lie directly to the south are positively effervescent. They are home to a sparkling wine that’s making a real name for itself, cleverly combining innovation with tradition and more than a hint of northern Italian business savvy.
Franciacorta DOCG is becoming a real force to be reckoned with in Italy and internationally – it’s now the country’s largest producer of traditional method sparkling wines. With sales growing by 28% in 2021 compared to the previous year, this equates to over 20 million bottles sold. That’s a real success story for this still modestly sized area of Italy’s hinterland. But we’re still talking boutique: by comparison, Champagne, the world’s leading wine appellation by value, shipped a whopping 320 million bottles that same year.
Climate and soil support a vision of terroir-expressive wines
Much like its French cousin, Franciacorta’s focus on terroir and quality have really allowed it to shine. Moderated by cool air from the Alps in summer, the area’s warm climate also benefits from Lake Iseo’s benign influence which tempers extremes of heat and cold all year. This enables the region’s grapes to reach consistent ripeness and flavour intensity whilst retaining the high acidity that is a hallmark of top-quality sparkling wine.
Soils too play their part. The result of retreating glaciers, they vary across the region increasing the winemakers’ blending choices - the various soils emphasising now citrus and apple, now stone fruit aromas in the base wines. Add the distinct brioche and biscuity aromas from lees ageing and bottle maturing in the traditional method, the méthode champenoise if you will, and this is a recipe for a world-class sparkler.
Founded in 1990, the Franciacorta Consorzio represents the vast majority of local producers (about 200). They have adopted a set of production regulations just as stringent as their French model – low vine densities, maximum yields and hand harvesting ensure quality wines with which to work the critical second fermentation in bottle. Only certain grape varieties are permitted, two of which will be familiar to Champagne lovers: sparkling royalty Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). Also allowed are Pinot Bianco/Blanc (the backbone of Alsace’s sparkling Crémant) and one indigenous grape, Erbamat. Hardly a household name, Erbamat was added to the list in 2017 with the aim of enhancing Franciacorta’s uniqueness as well as mitigating the effects of climate change on early ripening grapes like the classic Champagne varieties, the Consorzio confirms.
A range of styles is made: non-vintage blends in typical house styles, exclusive vintage wines (here termed Millesimato) and rosé wines heady with Pinot Noir. There are also two terms exclusive to the Italian wine lexicon: Riserva – a vintage wine kept longer on its lees, and the unique Saten style - effectively a Blanc de Blancs made with less sugar at second fermentation resulting in a dry style and creamier texture.
Clearly looking to Champagne for inspiration, Franciacorta’s vignerons are keen to maintain a distinctly Italian and regional identity however – “Very Italian, very Franciacorta” as the Consorzio’s marketing folk put it. Whilst the French might provide a model, this is no mere copy. Where Franciacorta most resembles Champagne is in this emphasis on unique terroir together with geographically limited, rigorously maintained standards.
A bit of history and glamour go a long way too
Franciacorta is a relative newcomer. Wine has been produced in the area for centuries, including some semi-sparkling ancestors, but the creation of today’s fully sparkling wines dates back only to the early 1960s. It was then that Franco Ziliani, winemaker to Berlucchi - still one of the major players in the area - applied classic bottle fermentation techniques to the local still wines. Production spread, and Franciacorta received DOC status in 1967 (one of the first in Italy), later promoted to DOCG - Italy’s highest quality classification.
Franciacorta producers clearly understand the importance of brand and image too, unsurprising in an area under 45 minutes from Milan, Italy’s style capitol and business powerhouse. Franciacorta’s Consorzio has set up clever tie-ins with Milan Fashion Week, the prestigious Michelin Guide and even the American Emmy Awards. But it is not just celebrity chic. The area’s artisanal roots are still very much on show through partnerships with the Slow Food Movement and Parmegiano Regiano’s own Consortium, with whom they share core values.
Franciacorta today – from local to international horizons
Today, production is dominated by the original pioneers Berlucchi, together with major players Ca’ Del Bosco and Bellavsita. Each is a classy affair with meticulous production techniques matching a distinctly Italian eye for packaging. Consumer demand has also encouraged many smaller winemakers into the market, as well as increasing focus on artisanal techniques and organic or biodynamic approaches: over 66% of the region’s vineyards are now organic (certified or pending). The Consorzio is leading a number of related initiatives including the Terre della Franciacorta (Lands of Franciacorta) project aiming to enhance the area’s cultural and environmental heritage with an eye to a sustainable local economy and “connecting Franciacorta with other areas both nationally and internationally”.
Domestic sales still account for around 90%, but international sales are on the rise. Neighbouring Switzerland is the largest export market, but the USA and Japan are up there too – interestingly both also top markets for Champagne. The UK market, second strongest globally for Champagne, has yet to really wake up however (still just 3.7% of exports). With average prices starting to nudge up, the UK must be careful not to miss the boat. Just how long Lake Iseo remains a tranquil haven with the Brits on board too remains to be seen.
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