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How Franciacorta has become the home of eco-friendly, bone dry fizz

The Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardy, near Lake Iseo, has developed a reputation of creating exciting, low dosage sparkling wines with a focus on sustainable production, as Patrick Schmitt MW discovered in a recent visit there.

Franciacorta borders Lake Iseo

If one were seeking a brilliant blueprint for regional brand creation, then Franciacorta provides it. Here is a part of the wine world that, through close co-operation, tight strictures, and a clear focus, has, over the past 30 years, become a name representing quality, regularity and simplicity – not forgetting personality and sustainability. After just a few days in the region, I came away wondering why more wine-producing areas don’t ape Franciacorta.

Starting in 1990 as a collection of just under 30 producers set on building a reputation for traditional-method sparkling wine from Lombardy, the goal was to work within the Franciacorta DOC – which had been awarded for still and sparkling wine styles in 1967 – to create a strictly regulated, bounded regional brand for bottle-fermented sparkling wine, and only that. This aim was achieved five years later, when the Franciacorta DOCG was granted just for fizz, with still wines from the area re-named Terre di Franciacorta, and then, from 2008, Curtefranca.

That meant from 1995, this part of Italy has been devoted to building awareness for fine sparkling wine labelled Franciacorta, with quality ensured by sharing expertise, but also, through the imposition of strict laws, regarding yields, harvesting, pressing, and, importantly, lees-ageing times – which are tougher than the benchmark bottle-fermented fizz region that is Champagne (base-level non-vintage Franciacorta must spend at least 18 months in contact with its lees, compared with 15 for Champagne).

Today there are 122 producers all creating sough-after, high-end sparkling wine branded Franciacorta DOCG. Demand – which surpassed 20 million bottles for the first time in 2021 – is outstripping supply from this bounded region, which is not due to expand. But stricter rules and co-operation among producers don’t in themselves ensure that a regional brand crafts a product with a distinctive nature. And if there’s something appealing about Franciacorta, it’s the unique personality of the sparkling wines, which also have a surprisingly high and consistent base level of quality. In essence, Franciacorta is softer and fruitier than Champagne – and sometimes more floral too – but also drier.

The reasons for this are myriad, and start with the terroir. In brief, this is a Mediterranean climate, cooled in the summer by Alpine air that’s funnelled along the Camonica Valley, home to the River Oglio, which feeds the Lake Iseo – Franciacorta’s northern boundary. Such conditions ensure the grapes are ripe, but never excessively so, while the soils of the region – mostly glacial moraines on top of a limestone substrate, mean that the vines are rooted into a mineral-rich base, which the producers claim gives the wines a salty refreshing tang.

Then there are the grapes. Influenced by the French Benedictine monks from Cluny, who brought with them Burgundian varieties when settling in this area from the 11th century onwards, Franciacorta is a land of mostly Chardonnay, which accounts for 80% of plantings, backed up by 15% Pinot Noir, and 5% Pinot Blanc. There’s also a tiny amount of a newly authorised but ancient variety called Erbamat – which, since 2019, is allowed in a Franciacorta blend up to a maximum of 10%. But it’s the prevalence of fine, pure Chardonnay Franciacorta that accounts for a delicious and distinctive side to the region, along with blanc de blancs that comprise Pinot Blanc, which brings added freshness and florality to the wines, although producers can’t use more than 50% in a cuvée.

The influence of Erbamat is yet to be really seen in finished wines due to limited plantings and its newly authorised state, but those producers who have started to work with it are excited. Although it is low-yielding and relatively disease-prone, it is late-ripening, low in phenolics, and high in malic acid, which are traits that make it ideal for making sparkling wine in a warming climate. Indeed, 2022’s extremely hot and dry conditions saw the grape excel.

But not only is Franciacorta well positioned to produce plenty of first-rate blanc de blancs, with or without the addition of Pinot Blanc – or, indeed, Erbamat – but it also has a unique offering in the DOCG rules. Satèn – meaning ‘silk’ – is a blanc de blancs with a minimum 24 months’ lees-ageing, and a maximum pressure of five bars (compared with six for the standard Brut). The latter stricture is important, as the lower pressure ensures a finer, less aggressive fizz, hence its name, which references the sparkling’s silky texture.

While all Satèn is labelled Brut by law, it can be bottled with an extra-brut dosage, or none at all, which means this sparkling wine style can encompass something smooth, but also very dry. Sugar levels are another defining feature of Franciacorta. Generally lower than Champagne (5-7g/l vs 9-11g/l), the ripe grapes from sun-drenched and relatively low-yielding vineyards by sparkling wine standards, means Franciacorta works with soft and fruity base wines that lend themselves not only to dry fizz, but sugarless cuvées.

Indeed, Franciacorta is becoming an expert in zero-dosage fizz, with an increasing number of pas-dosé bottlings coming on to the market. As someone who likes a standard dosage of around 9g/l in Champagne, I was surprised to find myself favouring the brut natures of Franciacorta – the ripe yellow fruit and creamy texture of the wines suiting a bone-dry state. Benefitting this wine style is not only a warming climate in the region, but also improved winemaking, particularly when it comes to pressing – with gentler extraction regimes ensuring that no bitter or vegetal notes leach into the resulting wines, which are characters that might require a balancing dose of sugar.

Complementing this purity – and perhaps augmenting the balanced, ripe fruit character – is another important facet of Franciacorta: two thirds of the region’s grapes are grown organically (certified and under conversion). That’s huge, and greater than any other major bounded region. While Franciacorta is small compared with Champagne (3,500 hectares vs 34,000ha), its production is double the output of sparkling wine from the UK or Trentodoc, to draw comparisons with two other emerging areas of bottle-fermented fizz, with a much lower proportion of organic wine making. While Franciacorta makes around 20 million bottles annually, around 10m were produced in England and Wales, and the same number in Trentino-Alto Adige.

While much of Franciacorta is organic, the president of the consorzio, Silvano Brescianini, is dreaming of a 100% certification for the DOCG in the near future. However, such hopes have been dashed by last year’s decision by one of the top three producers – Bellavista – to move from organic vineyard management back to conventional. Thankfully for the region’s position as a major source of organic fizz, the other two largest producers, Ca’ del Bosco and Berlucchi, have remained dedicated to organic viticulture.

And much of Franciacorta is also sustainably produced. With lots of small winemaking estates dotted around the beautiful countryside of Lombardy, it’s not unusual to find that operations that are solar powered, while landscapes are cultivated to maximise biodiversity, and rainwater captured for watering – if for flower beds and lawns, rather than vines (irrigation is only authorised in ‘emergencies’, like this year, when the region was hit by drought).

Helping such a drive towards sustainable wine production, with a particular emphasis on soil health, is the consorzio, which promotes the principles of organic and regenerative agriculture, without enforcing their philosophies. But there are incentives for eschewing synthetic inputs, with, for example, payments for ditching herbicides in the DOCG.

Importantly, almost every producer in the area is a member of the consorzio, with just 2% of the output falling outside of this voluntary association – an impressive result considering the average membership for an Italian winemaking consorzio is around 65% of the total in the region.

Not only is Franciacorta focused on long-lees-aged, bottle-fermented fizz, with ripe fruit, creamy-textured bubbles, low sugar levels and organically-grown grapes, but the producers in the region appear, for the most part, united behind the cause to become the go-to place for fine, pure, sustainably-produced and dry sparkling wine.

In other words, if you are looking for something fizzy with great eco-credentials, and a distinctive flavour based on ripe fruit and low sugar levels, then head for Franciacorta.

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