Tucked away in a quiet corner of Lombardy is an attractive, stately city, untouched by major tourism and unhyped by the guide books. Brescia is the de facto capital of Franciacorta, a sub-region specialising in the production of sparkling wine. Brescia was also the location for this year’s superb European Wine Bloggers Conference, a friendly and passionate gaggle of enthusiasts, marketeers and wine producers.
Like many of my fellow delegates, I wasn’t previously familiar with Franciacorta wines – exports are growing but still small, and the region was not awarded the prestigious DOCG status until 1995. Permitted grape varieties have a familiar ring about them – Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (AKA Noir) are the major players – but there is a potential USP as Pinot Bianco can contribute up to 50% of the blend. The typical style is dry, with red fruit aromas from the Pinot and good texture and elegance from the Chardonnay.
There are a number of parallels to be drawn to Champagne, and the idea of opulence and grandeur is definitely something the Franciacortans seek to emulate. Immaculately uniformed staff greeted us at every table of the EWBC Franciacorta tasting, and the bottle labels and marketing leaflets abound with classic styling. Most of the 37 Franciacorta producers exhibiting at the EWBC tasting were showcasing a brut, and the Saten (“silk”) style specific to the region. Saten is a chardonnay-dominated, creamy, soft-textured wine with fine mousse and restrained perlage.
The Franciacorta DOCG regulations seem to almost deliberately trump those of areas like Champagne and Cava in a number of areas, and maturation time on the lees (dead yeast cells) is one of them. The average non-vintage champagne is only required to spend 15 months on the lees, but here 36 to 48 months is quite common – and indeed 24 months is the minimum permitted under the complex DOCG rules. Vintage Franciacortas (“Millesimato” or “Reserva”) are also popular, and have even more stringent requirements from the DOCG (Reservas must spend 60 months on their lees, and a further 7 in bottle before being released to market).
Standards are high in Franciacorta – yields are kept low and most producers are small and quality-focused. However, trying to differentiate one wine from another isn’t easy. For me, most interest lay in the blends which included Pinot Bianco. This can add elegance, a hint of vanilla spice and a wonderful mineral finish to the bubbles – something which is quite distinctive, unlike the competent but sometimes amorphous champagne-style blends. Other points of interest were those producers showing “pas dosé” wines (ie: with no added sugar, or dosage, after the second fermentation) which allowed a much more interesting character to emerge from the Chardonnay. Majolini stood out, with a 100% Chardonnay Ultra brut (4gr dosage) which approached the austerity and steeliness of a premier cru Chablis – but with bubbles. Of course, the fruit here is much riper, with an attractive floral and green apple character. This relatively lean style relies on that ripeness, and might well produce something akin to battery acid if attempted in the cooler Champagne climate.
Other producers who impressed were Ca’ Del Bosco, with the complex, savoury brut reserva 2003 (“Annamaria Clementi”), and Fratelli Berlucchi with a refined, fresh and mineral Pas Dosé . Brut Rosé is another popular style in the region, with most examples emphasising the raspberry/strawberry fruit character from Pinot Nero and attaining a very pale salmon pink hue from minimal skin contact. Solive’s Rosé, 100% Pinot Nero, is worth mentioning for its notable fruit purity and finesse.
There’s no doubt that Franciacorta has what it takes to become one of the world’s leading sparkling wine regions. Consistency here seems greater than in Cava, and ambitions are definitely some way ahead of most Prosecco producers. But the issue is defining character – what can Franciacorta offer that isn’t already available from a good independent champagne house, or even a Cremant de Bourgogne? These are, after all, not cheap wines. The answer, I think, is to emphasise the exoticism and refinement that Pinot Bianco adds, and to take advantage of the excellent ripening conditions to explore a greater range of drier styles.