Debunked Assumptions from Franciacorta
As many of you know, if you followed my emails from Italy, that I recently spent a week in Franciacorta. Well, really only 4 ½ days, but even that small amount of time was enough to open my mind to a world I will admit I knew almost nothing about before I went there. Before my flight to Franciacorta, all I could tell you was that it is in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy and they have been making sparkling wine since the 1960s, even though still wines have been made there since the 1270s. But besides that, I just had assumptions.
And those debunked assumptions are what I will be talking about in this first installation of highlights from my trip to Franciacorta. The first assumption I had was on the size of Franciacorta, the second was their identity. Given that Franciacorta (The wine style) was created the 1960s, I thought the amount of wineries, and production for that matter, would be on the smaller side. And given that it was Franco Ziliani who came back to Franciacorta wanting to make a wine in the same way he saw Champagne being made, I also had the assumption that Franciacorta wanted to be just like Champagne. 4 ½ days later, and the saying about what happens when you assume something came true.
Assumption 1: The Franciacorta Consortium is a small group of farmers
A Consortium has one goal; to make sure the products that carry the mark of the Consortium are to the standards that allow quality wines to represent it. These Consortiums also set up press trips like the one I went on and put on events and tastings all for the purpose of helping promote their wines. Now given that Franciacorta has only been making sparkling wine for 59 years and that the Consortium itself was established in 1990, when I was told of the Consortium of Franciacorta, I assumed it was a group of small winemakers who collected their money to make this press trip happen. What I came to find out is that there are over 100 members and when it comes to the wineries, or should I say the owners of the wineries, of Franciacorta, they are as diverse as what you’ll find here in California if you go up North.
Let me first start with the Consortium as a whole. As I mentioned it is a group that was established in 1990, and at the moment has over 116 members. In the region of Franciacorta, there are over 3,000 hectares (7,410 acres) of vines, where as in 1972 there were 100 hectares (247 acres). And these vines aren’t all in one area or aren’t all in close proximity to a winery. A winery can have vines on the other side of the region on a random plot of land, something I would see once in a while when I was being driven around. We could come upon a traffic circle, get around it and on the right or left hand side not a half-mile down the road would be a plot of land, 10-20 rows of vines and a stake in the ground identifying who those grapes belonged to. No fencing, no signs warning trespassers, just a plot of land with vines on it. And there are wineries of all sizes!
For example, the Big Dog of the group; Bella Vista, has over 200 hectares (494 acres) of vines helping them make over a million bottles of wine a year. While a winery like Ronco Calino has 10 hectares (24.7 acres) and makes around 70,000 bottles a year. Now does this make one better than the other? No, but it just gives you an idea that not everything in Franciacorta is the same. Another example of the diversity inside the Franciacorta Consortium would be looking at a winery like Berlucchi and a winery like Ferghettina. Even though it is the Zilianis who now run Berlucchi, the Berlucchi name itself carries history of Lords and Counts. While the Gatti family (Ferghettina) 2 generations ago were sharecroppers. Now these families that 70 years ago would have nothing in common have a bond and a common goal.
Assumption 2: They are trying to be like Champagne.
When Franco Ziliani talked to Guido Berlucchi in the 1950s about the possibility of making Classic method wines in Franciacorta, it was crazy. Those Tres-Alpine winemakers had been doing it for much longer, and Franciacorta was a still wine region. But the two men worked together and made the region of Franciacorta what is it today. And while Franco Ziliani was inspired by what he saw when he was in Champagne, while like in Champagne, Franciacorta gives its name to their sparkling wine and they predominantly use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to make the wines, talking to the winemakers now, you can see they aren’t trying to be Champagne, they’re trying to be Franciacorta.
Two important points I believe need to be brought up when talking about the differences between Franciacorta and Champagne are grapes and soil. Now I’m usually not the type to go into a whole lot of technical details, but these two points are important to the process of wine making, especially when talking about how Franciacorta does differ from Champagne. As I mentioned, like Champagne, Franciacorta uses Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. But there is one grape that is more prominent in Franciacorta than in Champagne, a grape that adds floral and elegant characteristics to a wine when used; Pinot Blanc. Not every Franciacorta producers makes their wines with Pinot Blanc, but those who do find it to give them, using the words of Giulio Barzano of Mosnel, “Classic elements of the area.” Allowing the wine to stand up on its own, with its own flavor profile. Soil also plays a big role in how Franciacorta is its own wine. In Champagne there is predominantly lime stone soil. While in Franciacorta there is sand, clay and rock soils. With a Morainic soil base, this leads to six different soils types to be found in Franciacorta, also rocks the size of a smartphone to be found all over the vineyards. And since many of the producers have grapes all over the region, they are able to have different characteristics in the same grape depending on what soil it has been growing in.
There is also the ideas of the winemakers themselves that let you know that they aren’t chasing to be Champagne. Whether it was Lorenzo Gatti (of Gatti Enrico), Mattia Vezzola (Bella Vista), Andrea Biatta (Le Marchesine) or anyone from the 11 wineries I saw while there, they all had respect for Champagne and said the biggest difference was this; Champagne is a sparkling wine, Franciacorta is a wine that happens to be sparkling. Giulio Barzano said it best; “If you’re looking for a (sparkling) wine for a celebration, go with Champagne. But if you’re looking for a (sparkling) wine that will pair with your meals, drink Franciacorta.” And there is proof of some of this in their wines with looks alone. When you pop a bottle of Franciacorta and pour it into a glass and compare that to many of the other sparkling wine styles out there, not just Champagne, the amount of bubbles is actually pretty mild. Even in the etched glasses that are made to produce those bubbles, you’ll get a single string of beads going, maybe a few of them. Where in wines like Cava or Prosecco (A No-No word in Franciacorta), it can look like tadpoles being born and springing to the surface.
It is funny what can happen in 4 ½ days, mainly how much you can learn in such a short time. And while I know there are things that I wasn’t able to write down, or wasn’t able to absorb totally in my whirlwind trip, I promise you all this; we will all learn something from my 4 day adventure. Whether you just read this first entry or the others that will follow, your knowledge on Franciacorta will grow. And once we start carrying these lovely sparkling wines in the store (Trying Sam and Kevin on just a few more before we make our final decisions as to which ones to carry), your taste buds will grow to like them as well.