Let’s pop over to Veneto, Italy, where our sparkling wine sponsor, La Marca Prosecco, is made. It’s the land of vineyards, rolling hills and sprezzatura, which sounds delicious, but really just means “effortless style.” Like sprezzatura, La Marca is a classic, delicious, and effortless wine because it goes with everything from aperitivo — appetizer — to zeppole — or an Italian pastry that translates to “donut hole” in English. Try America’s most loved sparkling wine, La Marca Prosecco, and the other bubblies we talk about. Follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores Italy’s answer to sparkling wine: Franciacorta. Franciacorta is a relatively new category, inspired by the Champagne and Prosecco coming out of nearby regions. So what makes this Italian sparkling wine different from others on the market? Tune in to learn more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and beets taste like dirt. They taste like nothing else but dirt. And if beets are in anything, that thing tastes like dirt.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you doing? We’re on this bubbly kick here at “Wine 101.” We’re going to talk today about a wine called Franciacorta. Some people may not know about this wine, but it’s a sparkling wine. It’s delicious. It’s in Italy, and we have to talk about it.
OK, wine lovers. You got Champagne; we all know it. Prosecco; we all know it, right? I’ve done an episode on both. At some point, I want to go deeper into Champagne. But if you want to get a nice overview of those wine regions, go ahead and check those episodes out. But the thing is, there’s so much more sparkling wine in the world than just those two. It’s just that those two are very popular in our market right now. But there are other bubblies just sitting there from around the world, just like, “Hey, what’s up? I’m here, too.” And at some point, we’re going to talk about other sparkling wines available outside of Champagne in France. But for today, we’re going to talk about sparkling wine in Ital . And we’re not going to talk about Prosecco. We’ve already done that.
There’s a region in the northern-central part of Italy. It’s called Lombardia — or Lombardy. This region is home to Milan, the largest metropolitan area in Italy. If you’re flying into northern Italy to go anywhere, you’re flying into Milan. Lombardia is highly populated, about 10 million people. It’s one-sixth of the country’s population. This is a very famous place. How do I say this? Pliny the Elder is from here. Virgil is from here. Caravaggio is from here. Alessandra Volta is from here. So for a long time, this has been an epicenter of creativity and a metropolitan life. Even before metropolitan lives existed, it was a very privileged and wealthy area. Some of our favorite foods from Italy are from Lombardia; Grana Padano the cheese, Taleggio the cheese, Gorgonzola the cheese, Provolone the cheese, Marscapone the cheese, panettone the cake, torrone the candy, and mostarda the dessert.
If you were to drive east from Milan, you would end up in a province called Brescia. In this province, it’s very hilly. And about an hour from Milan is a region within Lombardia. It’s not a province, really, and it’s not a town. It’s an area. It’s called Franciacorta. And the word “Franciacorta” comes from the Latin term that I will butcher, frncae curtes. Curtes, meaning “communes,” and frncae, meaning “exempt from taxes” or “exempt from duties.” So you have a region that is named for the fact that the privileged people in this area do not have to pay taxes. So they just named it that: the commune of not paying taxes. Like many highly populated Italian wine regions throughout history, there has been wine being made here for a very, very long time, I think all the way back to the 8th century A.D. And the reason why I keep that brief is because Franciacorta is not known for that. Ancient history is important for this area. But for our purpose in understanding the wines here, what’s important to understand is that, at some point, this area, Franciacorta, becomes a DOC, part of the appellation system of Italy. What they do here for a long time is they make Bordeaux-style and Burgundian- style wines from international varieties, and they polish it with a good amount of oak to replicate the vibes over there. I believe that that’s part of the culture of the area.
In the late ’40s and early 1950s, something very unique happened in the Franciacorta region with a winemaker, and it changed the game for Franciacorta forever. In the 1940s, Guido Berlucchi was a winemaker that was having an issue with a specific kind of wine he was making. It was called his Pinot di Castello. I believe that means it was a Pinot Bianco. I guess he was not happy with the results he was getting. So what he decided to do was hire a wine consultant. That’s what you do. And he hires a man by the name of Franco Ziliani. And Franco Ziliani looks at the whole thing and says, “What if we made the wine sparkling?” Whoa. Because at this point, all the wines being made in this region were still wines. There is some documentation from the 13th century that some sparkling wine was being made. Not sure what that’s about, but since then, it wasn’t really a part of this region.
It was this collaboration that pioneered what would become the sparkling wines of Franciacorta. So in 1955, the pair of them opened a winery, the Berlucchi winery, because Berlucchi had all the resources. And they embarked on an experiment. Let’s try to make sparkling wine from the varieties we have, and make it so that we may one day be at the level of or a competitor of Champagne. I don’t think that was a major focus, but that eventually became a focus. And it wasn’t easy. It took a long time for them to figure out the formula. And it wasn’t until 1961 that the first Franciacorta was released into Franciacorta or Lombardia or Milan. They made 3,000 bottles of what was now called Pinot di Franciacorta, and it’s no longer Pinot di Castello. And that was it. That’s how Franciacorta got started.
In the 1960s, Italy bore itself a new sparkling wine region. Very cool. And in 1967, it became a DOC, or part of the appellation system of Italy. And I sometimes compare this to the Meritage movement in California, where there was a moment in the late ’80s and the early ’90s where they had this term called Meritage. I think it’s still around. It’s not used as much in California, but it was a term used for wines that were specifically a Bordeaux blend. So, we were trying to replicate or at least do the blending similar to Bordeaux with our varieties in the way that wine is made in California, but called it Meritage, giving a nod to the Bordeaux region. As Franciacorta developed after 1967, it became a DOCG In 1995, which just means there’s more rules in place for the wine. We’ll get into that in a second. Franciacorta was modeled closely after Champagne. But the thing is, they took the structure of the requirements in Champagne, but applied them to their region, and it ended up a little bit different. There’s something about Franciacorta that makes it its own. And I’m going to get to that in a second.
So let’s talk about Franciacorta. It is a traditional-method Champagne. There is a second fermentation in bottle, unlike Prosecco, which is a Charmat method. Again, go check those episodes out for all those details. Where Champagne makes wine from two reds and one white, Franciacorta makes wines with two whites and one red. They employ the Chardonnay variety, just like they do in Champagne. They employ the Pinot Noir variety, just like they do in Champagne, but here they call it Pinot Nero. And instead of Pinot Meunier, the red variety that makes up the third of the trio in Champagne, they use a grape called Pinot Bianco, or Pinot Blanc in France. OK, so there’s a sparkling wine region in northern central Italy called Franciacorta, and they make sparkling wines that are similar to the way Champagne does their thing.
So what is it about Franciacorta that’s different from that besides the varieties? Well, the flavor. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay add the roundness and the depth and stuff like that. Pinot Bianco comes in with the verve and the backbone of the base wine that will eventually be fermented. But the climate here is different from that of Champagne. The summers during the growing season are warm days and cool nights. What that does is it brings a little bit more depth in the resulting wines because there’s just a little bit more residual sugar left over after the fermentation process. What that does is that allows the winemakers to lower the liqueur de triage — we have an episode on that — that goes in to help the second fermentation start. That’s a lower sugar content than they do in other places like Champagne. And the result is a sparkling wine that has less atmospheric pressure than those of Champagne. Where Champagne has, I think, six bars, Franciacorta has five or maybe four. That’s technical stuff. But you’ll notice when you’re drinking Franciacorta, the pressure is softer.
Franciacorta, just like Champagne, has a very diverse flavor and texture profile, depending on the varieties they are using in any given winery. But there is this sort of sunny, honeyed depth to Franciacorta. There is brioche, and you get some of that yeastiness to it. But there’s a little bit more warmth in Franciacorta wines. It’s not as angular as you would get in Champagne. I mean, they can get angular, but in a very calm, different way. And we’ll talk about that in a second. Because whereas in France, they have the term blanc de blancs — which is sparkling wine made from white wine grapes only, which is basically Chardonnay — in Franciacorta, they don’t call it blanc de blancs. They have a really cool word for their sparkling wines they make only from white grapes, satèn. This means “silk” in Italian. And believe me when I tell you, these are some of the silkiest sparkling wines from Chardonnay you’re going to have. They’re soft. They’re calm, but they’re powerful. And, yes, they are silky. When you have a lower atmosphere of pressure, even one or two bars, you’re going to start noticing a softness. And that’s what’s so cool about these wines. I believe the satèn one might even have a lower atmospheric pressure than the other ones, but I’m not really sure. That’s really not important because you’re going to just enjoy the wine, and that’s what’s important.
But what’s really cool is this zero dosage category in sparkling wine, which has become really popular over the past 10 years — brut nature. That’s all in the sparkling wine episode as well. Champagne is famous for it, but they can’t do the zero dosage every year because of their climate. But because of the climate of Franciacorta, they can do a zero dosage every year — a sharp, zero dosage wine with a low atmosphere of pressure resulting in nice, soft bubbles. And just before the sharpness takes over your palate, a softness comes in, even though there’s no dosage, and just cleans it all up. That’s what these wines are doing. They’re absolutely wonderful.
Now the good thing is, Franciacorta is not going to be as expensive as Champagne. Yes, it can get very expensive. There are three or four very famous wineries that are going to be on the market, and you’re going to see them. When you start looking for Franciacorta, there’s Ca’ Del Bosco, there’s Bellavista. You’re going to find the ones that everyone knows, and you’re going to pay about $40 to $80 and it goes up from there.
But the thing is, this is traditional-method, fermentation-in-bottle wine. It’s a sparkling wine region making wine in the traditional method. It’s awesome. It’s doing the same thing that Champagne is doing, but it’s just science. They’re making this sparkling wine and the regimes are close to Champagne, but they are their own. I mean, they have their own minimum density, a way of training their own vines, max yields, they have fractional pressing. The lees aging is its own, where it’s 18 months for non-vintage, 30 months for vintage, and 60 months for reserva. And that’s where things differ from Champagne as well because Italy loves its reserva. Oh, and for satèn, it’s 24 months on the lees.
So that’s really it. And the thing is, if you’re listening to this saying, “What are you talking about? This is wild,” go out there and grab some. They’re really great wines, and they’re great with food. All Italian wine is good for food. I mean, Italian wine and food are the same thing. Italian wine is food. Italian food is food. And if an Italian wine region is making wine, it’s going with the local food, and it means it’s built for food, always. So go out there and have fun with Franciacorta, because now you can pop a bottle and know everything about it. I’ll talk to you next week. More sparkling, of course.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.