Franciacorta may not have the popularity of Prosecco yet, but Italy's other sparkling wine could prove to be its more mature cousin, says Roger Jones
Prosecco is now an everyday tipple in pubs and restaurants across the country, so it may come as a surprise to know that in a small region, 100 miles east of Milan, there is an area dedicated to making the finest sparkling wine in Italy, in the same style as Champagne, that is a far cry from the mass-market method of producing Prosecco.
Franciacorta is located in the heart of Lombardy, facing the shores of Lago d'Iseo (a beautiful, large lake), with snow-capped mountains in the background. There are strict guidelines to control the production of Franciacorta, with a minimum of 18 months required in the bottle before disgorgement for non-vintage, and a minimum of 30 months for vintage.
As a huge fan of English sparkling wine, it was a revelation that there was another superstar sparkling wine area evolving in the world, and one achieving equally wonderful prices.
Prosecco or sparkling?
But how does it differ from Prosecco? Simply, Prosecco is produced in large, stainless steel tanks, while sparkling wine (including Champagne, Franciacorta, Cava and Methodé Cap Classique) goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This makes Prosecco a very economical fizzy drink, produced in bulk (150 million bottles every year), while Franciacorta needs years of care and development.
What are the similarities to Champagne?
The grapes used are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, although a percentage of Pinot Bianco (a maximum of 50%) can be used. The ageing process through secondary fermentation is the same, and there are five different categories: non-vintage, satèn, rosé, vintage and riserva.
Franciacorta has 2,800 hectares under vine, with the ratio at 82% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Noir and 4% Pinot Bianco. There are 200 members of the Franciacorta Consortium, from growers to bottlers.
Sales and foreign export
Italy is the beneficiary of 90% of Franciacorta wines, but one of its most popular foreign markets is Japan. There are two reasons for this: first, the quality and attributes of the wine are perfect for Japanese food; and second, there is a high percentage of quality Italian restaurants in Japan.
You will also find that the very best Italian restaurants in Italy often have Japanese apprentices in the kitchen.
Producer profile: Bellavista
Vittorio Moretti is the founder and owner of Bellavista, and he is also the current president of Consorzio Franciacorta. Bellavista is one of the largest wineries in the region and it has a colourful array of Franciacorta wines.
The winery was founded in the early 1970s and the first vintage was produced in 1979. In 1981, Moretti met the young winemaker Mattia Vezzola, and their partnership transformed Bellavista into the world-class winery it is now.
The stony, glacial soils create an ideal environment for growing Chardonnay and Pinot grapes for sparkling wines. Bellavista produces a large range of styles, from its Cuvée Brut (some 850,000 bottles) to the Gran Cuvée Pas Operé (a selection of the best hillside vines) as well as some pretty special releases, such as the Vittorio Moretti Creator's Collection and its unique Nectar SA, a sensual demi-sec.
The UK importer of Bellavista is Liberty Wines.
Bellavista Alma Cuvée Brut
A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco. It's bright, tangy and vibrant with ripe, juicy pears and a touch of fresh vanilla - refreshing and moreish.
Bellavista Gran Cuvée 2010
A clear, bright, sparkling wine with green/gold reflections in the glass. It has a creamy texture and an intense bouquet of ripe white fruit, peaches, citrus flowers and honey.
Bellavista Gran Cuvée 2005
Luscious tarte tatin on the nose, and juicy, honeyed, fresh-baked pastry on the palate. This wine is deep and complex and shouts out for food. A wonderful, aged vintage Champagne style that just lingers on the palate.
This is made from a collection of vintages from 1984, 1988, 1991, 1995, 2001 and 2002. It is vibrant, balanced and fresh with citrus fruit, white peaches and hints of almonds. It is a perfect balance of vintages, producing a world-class multi-vintage sparkling wine. Half of the wine is made from the 2002 vintage before being aged under cork for 12 years.
Vezzola explains: "I wanted this cuvée to tell the story of Bellavista and of the man who created it. I wasn't looking for an exercise in style or to prove some oenological skills. I deeply wanted to create a Franciacorta wine that would present the most intimate and true soul of this company."
Highlights from wineries in Franciacorta
UK importers - Oliveto and Olivo
A beautiful, aged villa surrounded by pristine gardens mark this winery out as a special place. There has been much change here in the past eight years, especially since the launch of the Essence collection, which is made from only vintage wines.
Antica Fratta Essence Brut 2008
Full-bodied, rich and Krug-ist in style, with very fine bubbles. It's focused and vibrant and, despite having such a luxurious feel, has a clean-cut finish.
Antica Fratta Quintessence Extra Brut Riserva 2007
The 72 months on its lees gives this wine an honey and beeswax nose, followed by a complex blend of candied ginger, hazelnut and apple on the palate, and an uplifting vibrancy from the citrus acidity.
Antica Fratta Brut 1998
Stunning - a beautiful, aged Champagne style with plenty of life. It has delicate bubbles and a clean, zippy freshness and gentle honeyed nuances. Worth a trip to Italy to try it.
UK Importer - Milton Sandford Wines
This winery is owned by the Pezzola family and is based in a 15th-century manor next to a monastery in the hillsides of Franciacorta.
La Valle Regium Millesimato 2009
This 100% Chardonnay, produced from a small, enclosed vineyard, evolves in the mouth to give a fine wine with clean, fresh minerality.
La Valle Rosé 2012
Blush-pink with bright summer berry fruits, crunchy, clean flavours and the aroma of fresh-baked croissants.
UK importer - Vintage Roots
This winery, led by general manager Silvano Brescianini, is the first in the area to turn organic. Its cellar is an architectural marvel, with two floors underground. The highlights here included some wonderful aged rosé wines.
Barone Pizzini Rosé 2008
Deep, rich and lively with lots of savoury flavours giving a serious, stylistic wine. This has a higher percentage of Pinot Noir than the following wines.
Barone Pizzini Rosé 2006
This is bright, clean, refreshing and multi-textured, with precise and pristine berries. The flavours linger on the palate, making this is a beautiful wine that can be enjoyed purely by itself.
Barone Pizzini Rosé 2004
The bright flavours jump out of the glass, and it has a delicate mousse. This wine has evolved well and it's perfect to drink now.
UK importers - Berry Bros & Rudd and Fields, Morris & Verdin
This winery is relatively new to the scene, having previously been a grape grower only. Its first own-label vintage release was in 2009 and the estate is now run by Joska Biondelli, who spent some years in London as a headhunter and has evolved this estate into a rather smart enterprise.
Biondelli, Première Dame, 2011
This has gentle fresh-baked croissants on the nose with fabulous depth, lingering toasty flavours and stone fruit. The name is a gentle, tongue in cheek reflection of La Grande Dame.
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