On a pleasure trip through Franciacorta


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2016)

Deep in the heart of Lombardy not too far from Milan lies one of the most interesting wine regions in Italy, known as Franciacorta. With its gentle green slopes of ancient hills, moraine in origin, the province of Brescia stretches across 20,000 hectares and 19 parishes. It is here that Franciacorta is made, an Italian wine that is exclusively produced with secondary fermentation in the bottle and labelled Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (a label that denotes controlled production methods and guaranteed quality). The Franciacorta denomination is representational of the area, production method and wine. This wonderful region is justifiably regarded as the Champagne of Italy, because as in France, high-quality sparkling wines are produced here using the same variety of grapes in a time-consuming bottle fermentation process. 

Present and future come together in Franciacorta in the finest of ways. This Italian landscape is both fascinating and magical. Its history, just like its wine, is unique. It has developed from something known as the Corti Franche (curtes francae), which were 11th century independent farmsteads belonging to the Clunaic monks who had free-trading rights. The place name ‘Franzacurta’, first appeared in the annals of Brescia parish in 1277 and denotes the area between the Oglio River in the West and the first spur of the Rhaetian Alps in the East, which separate Val Camonica from Val Trompia. In the north, Lago d’Iseo and in the south, Monte Orfano mark the Franciacorta borders. 

Its history was greatly influenced by the presence of large monastic establishments that took on a significant amount of the cultivation, drainage and working of the land. Grapes have always been planted here and vineyards that benefitted from the optimal climatic and pedologic conditions were to be found here from the Roman Era to late antiquity through to the high middle ages. Despite all the highs and lows this region has experienced throughout the centuries, winegrowing has never ceased. 

Today it is predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grapes that are planted and the wine is produced from these varieties. Pinot Bianco is also permitted for up to 50% of the grapes. This wine has a straw-yellow colouring with golden yellow reflexes, a fine and long-lasting perlage, the typical bouquet of a bottle-fermented wine, with overtones reminiscent of crusty bread and yeast enriched by nuances of fine citrus and dried fruit: full-flavoured, fresh, fine and harmonious.

The strict production regulations state that a maximum of 95 quintals of grapes can be picked per hectare in the Franciacorta vineyards and only carefully harvested by hand; a restriction that guarantees top-quality. During picking, the grapes are carefully laid in boxes and taken straight to the wine cellars where the harvest from every single vineyard is processed separately and stored at a temperature of 11 degrees until pressing. When the grapes are pressed gently a must pomace is generated, which is a type of free-run juice used for the production of base wines that are blended in spring and form Cuvées. After accurate tasting, different vintages are sometimes also combined in such a way that they embody the particular characteristics that each independent Franciacorta wine producer would like to bestow upon his wines.

The composite base wines are then bottled in a process known as tirage when the wine is drawn from the barrels into bottles and yeast and sugar are added.  This induces a secondary, slow and natural fermentation process, in which carbon dioxide is produced in the bottle and the pressure rises to 6 to 7 atm. The bottles are sealed with metal lids, stored horizontally in the cellar and remain there for the period of time stipulated for the various different Franciacorta wine varieties. There are strict guidelines here too, because the length of time determines the quality of the wine. The minimum time-lengths are longer than those of all other wines produced using this method. The shortest ageing time for the ‘Franciacorta non millesimato’ for example, is 18 months and for the ‘Franciacorta Riserva’ it’s even as long as 60 months.

As in the Champagne region, after the required ageing process is over, the bottles are laid on the riddling racks, are turned an 1/8 everyday and gradually inclined at more and more of an angle so that the lees can settle in the bottleneck. This process takes 3 to 4 weeks and in contrast to fermentation in large tanks such as in the case of Prosecco, or sparkling wine, time-consuming work done by hand is essential. This, together with the long ageing periods, leads to high overheads. This is why not many wines in the world are produced using the bottle fermentation process: alongside Franciacorta in Italy, these are Altalanga and Trentodoc, with Champagne, Crémants, Cava, Sparkling, and Winzersekt from other countries. After the ageing on the fine yeast, the lees, or yeast sediment, is removed by disgorging. In Franciacorta backfilling only wine or liquer consisting of sugar and the base wine of the same name are used, the amount determines the flavour of the Franciacorta variety (non dosato, extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec oder demi-sec). These special methods guarantee the quality of every single bottle of wine. Here, the traditional art of winemaking is perfectly combined with the most modern technology and the virtuosity of the local winegrowers. 

Even though the craftsmanship in the vines, production methods and processing are identical to those of Champagne, the French Champagne producers are not fond of hearing Franciacorta described as ‘Italian Champagne’. Yet the know-how really does originate from the Champagne region because in the early 1960s, Franco Zilliani, an oenologist from the Guido Berlucchi winery is supposed to have tried a second fermentation process with the still wine produced there and made the first bottles of ‘Pinot di Franciacorta, Methode Champenoise’. He had acquired the necessary knowledge during his time working at ‘Moët & Chandon’. But the yields in the two regions cannot be compared; the Champagne region produces many more bottles and looks back on 300 years of tradition, experience, fame and prestige. By contrast the Franciacorta region has been selling its sparkling wines produced in wine cellars that are predominantly located in the imposing estates that once belonged to the former aristocracy and rich inhabitants of Brescia and Milan, for a good 50 years. The splendid villas and manor houses on the hills that belonged to these people bear witness to the bygone wealth of the so-called weekend refugees, who could afford them. Today there are lots of hotels on Lago d’Iseo, a wine trail and wonderful rustic inns, which offer typical regional cuisine. The town of Erbusco is now adorned with a starred restaurant belonging to Gualtiero Marchesi, one of the best chefs in the world.

Franciacorta Consorzio also has its place in Erbusco. It was founded on 5th March 1990 in Corte Franca, but moved to the heart of the winegrowing area in Erbusco a few years later. To begin with, there were 29 producers who belonged to a consortium, which now comprises about 200 members. Winegrowers and bottle fillers are always on the collaborative search for more innovative, long-term solutions to produce a product of uncontested quality in harmony with nature. As guardian of the Franciacorta method the consortium protects and promotes Franciacorta wine and the area, in Italy and throughout the whole world.

Picture credits © Mattia Pagani

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