Italy makes a wide variety of sparkling wines that are wonderful values and great tasting wines suitable for the holidays. In the last article, we discussed the sparkling wines of Asti in the Piemonte (Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante). I would like to continue to explore the sparkling wines of Italy. The first region one encounters when heading east from the Piemonte is the region of Lombardia.
Lombardia is a landlocked region surrounded by mountains. Lakes Garda, Iseo and Como temper the climate. Lombardia is Italy’s largest and most populated region. It is most famous for its leading city, Milan, a sleek urban center that is one of the world’s fashion capitals. Although very little wine is made here, Lombardia makes one of the finest sparkling wines in Italy. It is called Franciacorta. This region also produces its share of nice white wines and some very good and under-appreciated red wines, but a discussion of those will be for another day.
Franciacorta wines are made using the méthode champenoise style. That is to say, they are made in the same way Champagne is made; by allowing the secondary fermentation to take place in the bottle. And like Champagne, the wines of Franciacorta are made from the international varieties of Pinot Noir (known as Pinot Nero in Italy), Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc (know as Pinot Bianco). Although these grapes are certainly not native to the area, they have been there at least since Napoleonic times and probably before. We know they have been there at least since Phylloxera destroyed the vineyards in Franciacorta the end of the 19th century. At that time, the vines were replanted with today’s varietals.
In another similarity to Champagne, the producers often use French descriptors like Rosé to describe the wines instead of the commensurate Italian word like Rosato. When labeling the wines for their level of residual sugar (which tells the consumer how sweet the wines will be), the same designations used in Champagne are used. From driest to sweetest they are: Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec and Demi–Sec. Not much Franciacorta is made, only 1/6 the amount of Prosecco for example. Occasionally a consumer will also see a wine labeled as Satèn. These wines are not made in the méthode champenoise style. Often a bit less expensive, Satèn’s are made exclusively from white grapes and typically they are a bit less bubbly and less costly.
The question arises that in a wine tradition rich country like Italy, how did a wine, modeled after the French, with seemingly no ties to the history or culture of the area emerge? The answer has more in common with the emergence of modern wine regions around the world such as the Napa Valley than it does with Italy.
The industry really only dates back to the 1960’s with most producers having been there only 20 or 25 years. Franciacorta is a relatively modern wine by Italian standards becoming DOC in 1967 and a DOCG in 1995. In the 1960’s, Franco Ziliani, an enologist working for the Berlucchi Estate made sparkling wine out of Pinot Noir Grapes. It proved to be a worthwhile endeavor but also had impeccable timing. The economy in the region of Lombardia based upon textiles and industry was exploding. There was a lot of capital created that was available for other development. There were more than a few families who lived in the area with lots of extra cash that were attracted by the prestige and fame of owning a winery. Producing Sparkling wines is a capital intensive project that when done correctly adds much prestige to the names on its labels.
To some extent that has been a curse as well as an advantage. The wines are very good but perhaps a bit sterile in nature. Sometimes they can be over priced, as the producers want to sell their wines on image as much as quality. This is a phenomenon that is true with most luxury goods around the globe. The reasons for this have to do with who the producers are and Franciacorta’s short history. Some existing estates like Berlucchi grew in size. In addition, newer wineries such as Bellavista and Ca’ del Bosco began investing heavily in the area. The Bellevista winery in particular is the epitome of this nouveau riche style of a newer and larger modern winery. The owner Vittorio Moretti made his money in the construction business before diversifying into winemaking. This is not to say they make bad wine. They do not, just that the industry here stands out from most of Italy.
So what separates these wines from Champagne? First of all, they are from Italy. That may seem obvious but I think it is important to respect the geographic names in areas like Champagne and refer to other wines as sparkling wines. Franciacorta will likely never have the same panache as a wine from Champagne. That is not to say anything one way or another about the quality of the wine.
Secondly, Franciacorta’s tend to be a bit crisper, a livelier feel to them albeit less round and full bodied. In the worst cases they are formulaic attempts to copy Champagne. Like a modern subdivision of McMansions that has no charm and although all the individual parts are present, it has no soul. On the other hand, when done well, these wines are intriguing wines that offer an alternative to their French counterparts. They also work wonderfully with food. The wines are crisp and quite aromatic.
The wines produced are certainly some of the best sparkling wines in Italy. For some, they never quite live up to their reputation. For others, they are the benchmark in Italian sparkling wines. Like many luxury goods, there is a fine line between marketing hype and well-deserved reputation. Since this is a subjective point of view, there is no wrong answer. Personally, I am a fan of these wines when they can be found at a reasonable price. The NV wines should cost around $35, a point competitive with the lower level NV Champagnes. The vintage wines are very good. The vintage Bruts are usually available for $45. In particular, the vintage dated Bellavista Pas Opere is quite good. This should cost around $50 or $60 and is more than competitive with the Champagnes out there at this price point.
This is an area with lots of new money and very little wine tradition. It will take some time for these wines to develop a personality and the quality that its producers are seeking. In the meantime, the better producers to seek out would include Bellavista, Ca’ del Bosco, and Cavelleri. Now don’t expect a wine that is as good as the very best of the best Champagnes. But you will find a wine that is equal, dollar for dollar (or Euro for Euro) as its more famous rivals. Personally I have not been a fan of the Satèn styles that I have tried, however your mileage may vary. The nice thing about them is they are not too expensive often just slightly north of $20. These are wines certainly to be tried and enjoyed. It is often fun to bring something interesting and that no one had never heard of, especially when the wine inside the bottle performs. The future could be bright for this region. If the leading wineries choose to, they have the resources and the raw materials to produce wines that instead of being compared to Champagne, will be recognized on their own.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.