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Franciacorta must forge fresh path in UK

Franciacorta was warned not to compete with either Champagne or Prosecco during a debate to discuss its best route forward in the UK market.

The event, which took place at the Italian embassy in London, marked the first major UK initiative from the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, Italy’s highest quality wine classification) following its decision to open a designated Franciacorta office in this key target market.

The move marks an export push for the northern Italian region, which is aiming to double its sales abroad in the next five years. Although 2012 saw Franciacorta sales reach nearly 14m bottles, an increase of 25% on the previous year, exports accounted for just 8% of this total.

By far the region’s biggest foreign market is Japan, which represents 28% of total exports. Other strong markets for Franciacorta include Germany, Switzerland and the US, with sales in the latter growing rapidly. The UK currently imports 19 different producers.

Taking part in the debate were Maurizio Zanella, President of the Franciacorta consorzio; Jane Parkinson from The Wine Gang; Simon Cassina, a sommelier from the D&D restaurant group; and William Baber, director of the Tasting Rooms independent merchant in Bath.

“Franciacorta is in a great position to do really well,” said Parkinson, highlighting the UK’s position as the world’s largest importer of sparkling wine, as well as the “incredibly popular” status of Italian wine in this market.

However, she added, “the quality of the competition has increased significantly in recent years; there are so many more wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – even Cava.”

Despite Franciacorta’s high quality positioning and price tag, Parkinson stressed: “Champagne is not your competitor. It’s so far ahead and has such a connection with this market.” Instead, she suggested, “Franciacorta’s main competition is something like England, where the quality of sparkling wine has increased hugely in recent years, especially for those using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”

As for Franciacorta’s fellow northern Italian sparkling DOCG Prosecco, Parkinson said: “Don’t even go there; don’t mention it in the same breath when you’re talking about Franciacorta. It’s on a different level in every way.”

For Baber, the product requires very different positioning to the mass market appeal experience by Prosecco – and even Champagne. “Your market really is the connoisseur,” he observed. “Initially I can only see it to the converted so initially you have to convert the people who are interested.

Baber also encouraged Franciacorta producers to build recognition in the UK through entering awards, which he described as “a massive selling point”.

Above all, the panel urged the region to ally itself with the dramatic renaissance in the UK’s culinary scene. “British food and drink in the last 10-15 years has changed out of all recognition,” Baber assured producers.

Echoing this sentiment, Parkinson stressed: “For me, the best way to market Franciacorta going forward is to have a very sound campaign matching it with food.

“Here in the UK we love Italian food and Franciacorta is such a complex wine that you can find styles to match every course in a meal – that’s one thing Champagne hasn’t really captured yet.”

Zanella confirmed that food already played an important role in the success of Franciacorta elsewhere. Around 70% of sales in both Italy and Japan are concentrated in the on-trade, while the DOCG has a partnership with Slow Food Italia.

“The reason for our success in Japan is that restaurants are run by professional chefs who have been working in Italian restaurants for many years,” he remarked. “There’s a concentration in Japan of Italian high end restaurants who don’t even think about putting Prosecco or Champagne on their list, but will have two, three or four Franciacorta.”

However, Zanella argued: “It’s difficult to replicate that in the UK,” highlighting the dominance of Champagne in this market. “Restaurants are contaminated by a product that has been here for 300 years”, he joked.

By contrast, Franciacorta’s modern winemaking era began in 1961, when it focused its attention on sparkling wine production. From 11 producers with 29 hectares at that time, the region today has 105 members working across 2,800ha of vineyard and was awarded DOCG status in 1995. Of this vineyard area, 82% is given over to Chardonnay, with the rest occupied by the DOCG’s other two permitted grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc.

Franciacorta production is carried out according to the traditional method, with a secondary fermentation in bottle. The end result falls into one of five stylistic categories, each of which carries regulations on the proportion of individual grape varieties permitted, minimum lees and maturation time periods and atmospheric pressure levels. In addition to the standard Franciacorta style, there is satèn – equivalent to blanc de blancs – as well as rosé, vintage and riserva.

As with Champagne, there is a variety of sweetness options, ranging from zero dosage of 0-3g/l sugar through to demi-sec at 32-50g/l. The standard brut style can be anything up to 12g/l.

For more information about Franciacorta’s history, geography and production, visit the consorzio website.

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