Franciacorta is a DOCG appellation from the Province of Brescia in Lombardy, just an hour’s drive from Milan in northern Italy. This hilly region extends from the southern shore of Lake Iseo to the hills of Monticelli Brusati, Omni and Gussago and the suburbs of the city of Brescia. Franciacorta has, over the past two decades, become synonymous with fine Italian sparkling wines, rivaling even Champagne in quality and prestige.
A DOCG in 1995
Wine production in the hills of this region dates as far back as 1277, as evidence by the discovery of grape seed remains and the testimonies of famous classical authors, among them Virgil and Pliny. In the late 1950’s the Berlucchi winery created a sparkling wine following the Champagne method but from grapes grown in the local terroir. They named this wine Franciacorta. The Italian sparkling wine quickly gained popularity, prompting other producers to adapt the style. Franciacorta was granted DOC status in 1967, a title which covered the area’s sparkling and still wines alike. In 1990 a local consortium called the Consorzio per la tutela del Franciacorta was formed. This group outlined codes for self-regulation, lobbying for the reduction of yields, the use of gentler grape-pressing techniques and the phasing out of Pinot Grigio from the local blend. Their efforts contributed significantly to the elevation of the region’s status from DOC to the esteemed DOCG status in 1995. The DOCG Franciacorta covers only the region’s sparkling wines, produced under strict regulations. Another DOC called Terre di Franciacorta was created for still wines of the region.
The Terroir Makes a Franciacorta
The exceptional quality of Franciacorta wines can be attributed to a combination of winemaking talent among the producers of the region and a unique terroir. The hills of Franciacorta enjoy a high degree of thermal amplitude – hot, sunny days are followed by cool nights. This allows the grapes to ripen, while also retaining their characteristic acidity. While the temperature fluctuates between night and day, it remains more or less consistent thanks to the nearby Lake Iseo, which moderates the climate. The proximity of the lake results in milder winters and cool breezes in the summertime. The region also benefits greatly from the presence of several hills and mountains: the Alps generally protect northern Italy from continental influences, while the smaller hills of Franciacorta shelter the vineyards from harsh winds and precipitation.
The Franciacorta wine region is actually a glacial basin with soils of silty, pebbly glacial moraine. This soil is believed to slow the ripening of the grapes, ensuring optimal maturity at harvest. The region is planted with three main varietals. Chardonnay currently covers more than 2,300 hectares of vineyards or around 80% of the total area. The second most widespread grape in Franciacorta is Pinot Noir, vines of which occupy 15% of the total area. And finally, 5% of the area is planted with Pinot Blanc.
Compared to Champagne and Prosecco
While the sparkling wines of Franciacorta are elaborated according to the champenoise method and were originally modeled after the famous wines of Champagne, there are many significant differences between these two regions and the wines that they produce. In both regions, secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. And like Champagne wines, Franciacorta wines consist of a blend of several international grape varietals and several vintages (except in Millesimato and Riserva bottles). Beside the clear differences in geography and terroir, Franciacorta and Champagne differ in two significant ways. While the history of Champagne dates back almost 350 years, that of Franciacorta is more recent, around 50 years. And while Franciacorta produces only around 27,000 hectoliters of wine per year, Champagne produces around 100 times as much.
While Franciacorta and Prosecco are both sparkling wines from Italy, they differ in the method of production. Prosecco wines are made using the Charmat or Martinotti method, by which the wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large, sealed, pressurized tank. This results in sparkling wines that tend to be fruitier and fresher than those of Franciacorta. The champenoise method by which Franciacorta wines are produced allows the wine to age while in contact with the lees, resulting in a drier and more yeasty wine. While Franciacorta is made of a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc, Prosecco is made of a highly acidic grape varietal called Glera.
One Appellation, a Variety of Styles
Wines of DOCG Franciacorta are Italian sparkling wines made in the Champenoise method using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. According to regulations, the grapes must be harvested by hand and the wine aged for a minimum of 18 months. And while the DOCG Franciacorta includes exclusively sparkling wines of this region, the products can be further divided based on the dosage of sugar, the varietal composition of the blend, which vintages they contain and how long they are aged in the bottle before release.
Franciacorta wines can be divided into six main flavor profiles based on the amount of sugar per volume. These categories are:
Pas Dose (Non-Dosed). The driest in the Franciacorta range, with sugar up to 3 grams per liter coming from the natural residue in the wine.
Extra Brut. These wines are very dry, with less than 6 grams of sugar per liter.
Brut. The classic and most versatile Franciacorta, made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. This blend perhaps best expresses the unique terroir of the region. Franciacorta Brut is dry but sweeter than Extra Brut. These wines contain less than 12 grams of sugar per liter.
Extra Dry. A slightly sweeter sparkling wine. These wines are tend to pair very well with food, with 12 to 17 grams per liter of sugar.
Sec (Dry). A sweeter sparkling wine. These wines contain 17 to 32 grams per liter of sugar.
Demi-sec. A sparkling wine with a sweet flavor. These wines tend to pair very well with desserts, with 33 to 50 grams per liter of sugar.
Franciacorta wines can also be categorized by how much of each of the three permitted varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinor Blanc) they contain.
Franciacorta. These are the “classic” sparkling wines of the region, made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir with up to 50% Pinot Blanc also permitted. Secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle and these wines are aged a minimum of 18 months on lees. These wines can come in any of the six dosages listed above. They are characterized by a fine effervescence with hints of bread crust and yeast, along notes of citrus and nuts.
Saten (blanc de blancs). Franciacorta’s answer the “Blanc de Blancs,” Saten wines are made of a blend of only white varietals – Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, in which up to 50% of the latter is permitted. These wines are produced only as Brut. They have a fine, creamy effervescence. On the nose they reveals ripe fruits and white flowers. Franciacorta Saten is especially known for its silky smooth texture from which it gets its name.
Rose. Franciacorta Rose wines contain a minimum of 25% Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc (up to 50%). Maceration of the Pinot Noir gives the wine the desired color. This Pinot Noir wine is used as a base and vinified as a rose, either single-varietal Pinot Noir or with the addition of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Blanc. These wines come in all six dosage styles.
The following two types of Franciacorta wines can be made in any of the three blend styles outlined above:
Millesimato (vintage). “Millesimato” (meaning “vintage” in Italian) indicates that at least 85 % of the wines used to produce this blend come from the same vintage. These wines are produced in vintages marked by exceptional quality. They are further enhanced by a long, careful process of fining the wine, which can be sold only 37 months after harvest. These wines tend to very clearly reflect the climatic conditions and quality of the grapes in a given vintage. They can be made in any of the three “blend” styles and all “dosage” styles except Demi-Sec.
Riserva. Like Franciacorta Millesimato, Franciacorta Riserva wines are made from particularly excellent vintages. However, these wines are kept aging on lees for at least 5 years. They are released after a minimum of 67 months after harvest. These wines are no doubt the most complex in the Franciacorta range, characterized by aromas and flavors that develop during the aging process. Franciacorta Riserva wines can be made in any of the three “blend” styles and all “dosage” styles except Demi-Sec. In other words, one can have a Franciacorta Riserva Extra Brut Rose or a Franciacorta Riserva Brut Saten, but not a Franciacorta Riserva Demi-Sec Rose, for example.
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