The Italian city of Milan has a sexy, stylish image. It's a center of fashion and design, opera (the famed La Scala) and fast cars (the annual Italian Grand Prix) -- and the sparkling wine called Franciacorta celebrates all that.
Franciacorta -- the official bubbly for Milan Fashion Week -- comes from east of the city, in an area that has long been a place for the wealthy Milanese to vacation. It's a sparkling wine made in the traditional method, like Champagne, with the second fermentation (which produces the bubbles) occurring in the bottle in which the wine is sold, unlike the less-expensive prosecco, which is made in a vat and bottled under pressure. At its best, Franciacorta can rival the more famous wines of Champagne, and it's generally a little less expensive. If you haven't heard of Franciacorta, that's not surprising. Ninety percent or more of Franciacorta never leaves Italy.
The quality of Franciacorta is particularly impressive when you consider that the area's sparkling wine industry has been around for only about 50 years. Franciacorta has made still wines since the 16th century, mostly red and much of it mediocre. The first Franciacorta sparkling wine was made in 1961 by Franco Ziliani and Guido Berlucchi. Ziliani had studied oenology in Piedmont, home of Barolo and Barbaresco. But he loved Champagne and wanted to make something similar. Their legacy is the Berlucchi winery, where the nonvintage wines bear the number '61 on the label, commemorating the first wine.
The biggest difference between Franciacorta and Champagne is that the former has a warmer climate, resulting in wines that are a little riper. I tasted some of the base wines used to make the sparkling blends at Contadi Castaldi. In Champagne, such base wines are searingly acidic and not very appealing, but the Franciacorta base wines were drinkable. The finished wines tend to be a little rounder, but they have ample acidity.
There's also a slight difference in the grapes. Although both places use pinot noir and chardonnay, Franciacorta allows pinot bianco (also known as pinot blanc), although it's less common than it used to be. There are about 7,500 acres of grapes planted in Franciacorta, and no new planting has been allowed for about three years. The consorzio -- the organization representing growers and producers -- is being careful not to allow supply to outstrip the demand.
Despite Franciacorta's very Italian identity, the labels carry a lot of French terms, such as brut, rosé, pas dosé (which means no dosage of added sugar). But there is a type of Franciacorta with a unique name: Saten, which accounts for about 12 percent of Franciacorta production. Saten is made from all white grapes, usually chardonnay. The wine also has lower pressure in the bottle, so it's less fizzy, giving it a smoother texture.
Maurizio Zanella, president of the grower and vintner organization, acknowledges that Franciacorta is still a work in progress. In the future, he'd like to see a classification to further delineate the sub-areas in the region -- for example, hillsides vs. lower-altitude sites. He also hopes that the European Union, which has the final authority on such things, will review the boundaries of the entire Franciacorta region.
Zanella, who also is president of wine producer Ca' del Bosco, cautions that rules alone don't guarantee a great wine.
"You must create a culture. This culture takes time," he says. "We are in the process of being a reality. We are still in the dream."
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Zanella's Ca' del Bosco, which produced its first sparkling wine in 1976, is one of Franciacorta's top estates. The non-vintage Cuvee Prestige ($40) is very fresh, with fine texture, while the 2008 Brut ($70) is creamier and more complex, with citrus, apple and notes of brioche. The 2004 Cuvee Annamaria ($90) displays a great combination of racy and rich, with a lot of complexity. Zanella's family sold Ca' del Bosco in 1994 to the family that owns Santa Margherita, of pinot grigio fame, but the winery still is very much a reflection of his vision.
The Antinoris, better known for their Tuscan wineries, operate Montenisa under a long-term lease. The non-vintage Montenisa Brut ($35) is rich, with some yeasty notes and minerality. The non-vintage Rosé ($40) is even easier to like, with its elegant, pretty fruit.
There's big money behind a few other Franciacorta wineries. The Moretti family, which made its fortune in construction and other industries, owns Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi. Lo Sparviere, whose wines aren't available in California, is part of Agricole Gussalli Beretta, owned by the family that's better known for guns.
The Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi wines are very good and, in some cases, well-priced. The non-vintage Bellavista Cuvee Brut ($35) is fresh and citrusy, with some mineral and a fine texture, while the 2007 Bellavista Gran Cuvee ($44) is fuller and richer, yet still very fresh.
While Bellavista is a more traditional producer, Contadi Castaldi has positioned itself as more innovative and is targeting younger consumers. Its non-vintage brut and rosé (both $24) offer a lot of flavor for the price. (Considering that rosé Champagne is usually more expensive than brut, this rosé is a particularly good value.) The 2008 Rosé ($34) is richer and weightier than the non-vintage, with a floral note.
At the pioneering Berlucchi, more than a dozen wines are produced, but only two are exported to the United States. The non-vintage '61 Brut ($35) is fresh and bright, with citrus, mineral and some weight, while the non-vintage '61 Rosé ($40) is more delicate and elegant.
Organic viticulture has been gaining adherents in Franciacorta. At Barone Pizzini, estate director Silvano Brescianini says he started farming organically about 15 years ago. Now others are entering the fray, and about 15 percent of the acreage is organically farmed or moving in that direction. "We are happy and proud about this," he says.
His wines show the attention to detail, like the lively, fresh non-vintage Brut ($45) and the 2009 Rosé ($53), which has a deeper color than most, along with red berry, hints of smoke and grapefruit and nice weight.
The Biatta family moved to Franciacorta in the late 1970s to produce sparkling wine and founded Le Marchesine. The first wine was made in 1981. Unlike many Franciacorta wineries, Le Marchesine exports a fairly extensive number of wines. The non-vintage Brut ($30) is an excellent buy with its racy fruit and touch of minerality. The 2009 Saten ($40) has a smoother texture, and the 2009 Blanc de Noir ($49) pairs delicate fruit with nice weight and elegance. The 2007 Secolo Novo Giovanni Biatta Brut Nature ($66) is mouth-filling, with racy fruit, some rich yeastiness and a mineral note.
Il Mosnel is one of the pioneering sparkling producers of Franciacorta. It does a great job with zero dosage bubbly, a style of wine that's popular in Franciacorta but not exported much to the States. The non-vintage
Pas Dosé ($32) is very fresh and finely textured. The wines aren't currently in California but should start arriving in the next couple of months.