In the world of sparking wines, Champagne sits up on mountain high lording over all other regions. Sure, you can get delicious sparklers from Prosecco, Cava, Tasmania or in the U.S. but nothing can touch the chalky soils and precision of Champagne, France. If there was a region that could get close, it might just be in northern Italy. No, not Prosecco—the quality level a few notches up from that. Franciacorta (pronounced fran-shee-a-cort-a) is a DOCG (achieved in 1995) near Milan in the Lombary region of Italy.
Franciacorta is giving Champagne a run for its money, and the similarities are uncanny. Paris is a global fashion hub. Milan is a global fashion hub. Champagne is located about an hour of Paris. Franciacorta is located about an hour from Milan. Champagne is drunk by the upper end of society in and around Paris. Franciacorta is drunk by the upper end of society in and around Milan.
But you don't have to be one of the cool kids hanging out with models to sip the good stuff. Franciacorta is very affordable, yet significantly higher in quality than Italy's more well known Prosecco.
The new kid on the block is a few centuries behind Champagne in growth, and only 1/10 the size of planted acres. Champagne's history can be traced back some 300 years whereas Franciacorta's first vintage in 1961 is within our lifetime (or at least anyone over the age of 50). Back then, Enologist Franco Ziliani did work for the Berlucchi estate to help stabilize their wines. Ziliani was able to convince Guido Burlucchi that the region could produce world class sparkling wines made in the same method champenoise as Champagne, France.
Champagne is along the 49th latitude where a cool climate and chalky limestone soils provide the all-important acidic backbone and grapes have difficulty ripening. Without the secondary bottle fermentation, Champagne still wines would be unpleasant to drink.
Franciacorta sits on the 45th latitude on par with Oregon's Willamette valley halfway between the north pole and equator. Grapes have no problem ripening and the result is richer, fleshier wines. Temperatures are moderated by winds coming off Lake Iseo and Lake Garde.
Primary permitted grapes in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier (formerly known as Pinot Meunier). In Franciacorta similarly permitted grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco. Like Champagne, Franciacorta is referred to by the name of the region. A few interesting differentiators to look for on a bottle of Franciacorta are:
Satén - wines labeled Satén are made from only white grapes and are bottled at five atmospheres, which is lower than the standard six atmospheres on standard bottlings.
Rosé - wines must have a minimum of 25% Pinot Nero grapes blended in rather than the saignée method.
Millesimato - Italian word meaning 'vintage'.
Riserva - DOCG rules allow the label to say 'riserva' if the wine aged a minimum of five years on its lees.
Dosato - Known as dosage in Champagne indicates the sweetness level and follows a similar scale as Champagne.
The non-vintage wines of Franciacorta must spend a minimum of 18 months resting on the lees and may not be released until 25 months after harvest. These DOCG requirements separate Franciacorta's small hand-crafted production from the mass-produced Prosecco DOC where the wines can be cheaply made and sometime bland without the addition of additional sugars.
This time of year is all about sparkling wines, and here are a few worth looking for:
il Mosnel Brut Rosé - $20
Like a jazz ensemble you've got your trumpet, your piano, percussion and upright bass. il Mosnel Brut Rosé brings in the low end of the spectrum with a foundation of upright bass and uptempo percussion. Bright notes emulate trumpet notes to round out the rich sound. Franciacorta shows off the best or each end of the spectrum with high high's and low low's.
We serve this during the holiday where turkey is involved. Fresh macerated cherry mouse, white hazelnut and cranberry sorbet show off the region's vibrant acid backbone while fattening out on your palate for a creamy, rich experiences.
Notice the price. For the money, this is a ringer.
2009 Ricci Cubastro Extra Brut - $50
It's been said you don't pay for points, you pay for earthiness in wines. Most winemakers can add or manipulate sugar or acid levels, but you can't add those earthy, mineral wet stone aromas that come from the soil. Cubastro's take on Chardonnay is creamy, rich and yes, earthy. Wine geeks love those characteristics that fall between the tent poles of a wine's structure.
Italy has an unfair advantage for growing white wines as the non-fruit aromas lean toward white flowers and generous crushed river rock. Fans of laser focused Blanc de Blancs from Champagne will find a welcome guest to the party as this extra brut has every bit of focus and every bit of electric acidity in the backbone.
2010 Le Marchesine Satén Millesimato - $30
That word on the label, "Satén" sounds like "satin" when said out loud, and with good reason. Satén might just be the best foot forward for a region who wants to be mentioned in the same sentence with Champagne, but still have its own personality.
The 2010 Le Marchesine Satén is made from Chardonnay grapes and aged on its lees which lends itself favorably to older vintage Champagnes. Roasted almonds, dried tree fruit, orchard fruit and honeysuckle all come out of the glass like a sword wrapped in a pillow. There's razor sharp acidity down the middle, but surrounded by plush creamy palate-massaging richness.
This is one of those buy-some-to-drink-now-put-some-away kind of wines. It's too good not to drink now but with age will grow deeper and wider while keeping it's structure in tact. For $30 a bottle, why wouldn't you?