If I ask you to think about sparkling wine, Champagne will most likely be the first to come to mind. If I ask you to think about sparkling wine from Italy, you will most likely think Prosecco. But, I am here to encourage you to think about Franciacorta, not just when talking about Italian sparkling wine, but when thinking about sparkling wine in general.
Franciacorta is a hidden gem located in Lombardy, just a short drive from Milano, in northern Italy. The first sparkling wines in the area were produced in 1961 and Franciacorta became the fifth DOC in Italy in 1967.
Franciacorta is a small region with 2,800 hectares, compared to Champagne, which has 35,000 hectares. A valley surrounded by mountains, Franciacorta, consisting of 19 communes, is made up of stony hills and calcareous soils.
The diurnal shifts in the temperature, which varies at least 18 degrees between the maximum and minimum temperatures, enable the grapes to ripen while maintaining their acidity and freshness. The climate results in more consistent vintages than not.
There are no cooperatives in Franciacorta and it is the most self-imposed regulated region in Italy. Franciacorta has changed the rules seven times, each time raising the bar even higher for the region. The process is controlled from the vineyard through production. At 9.5 tons per hectare, they have the lowest yields for any sparkling wine area.
Franciacorta produces non-vintage (or multi-vintage), which allows them to blend different years and must be kept on the lees for at least 18 months. Vintage wines must stay on the lees for 37 months and reserve wines must spend five years on the lees. There is also Saten, a blanc de blanc that is always a vintage wine, and Blanc de Noir, 100 percent pinot noir that is always a vintage wine.
Franciacorta is an area that has developed quickly over the past 50 years. One of the dominant producers in the region is Ca’ del Bosco, the “house in the forest.” Ca’ del Bosco President Maurizio Zanella is one of the leaders in Franciacorta, establishing the region as a world-class region for sparkling wine.
Zanella was raised in Milan and his family bought 5 acres for a weekend house in mid-1960s in Franciacorta, which was inhabited by monks and noble families; wine was produced for the families.
In 1969-1970, there was a student revolution in Europe, and Zanella, who was not a good student, was kicked out of school and his parents “exiled him to the farm,” he said.
Shortly after, someone came by from the agricultural department and offered him a study trip to France. He was 17, but he was intrigued. He was traveling with his neighbors, 50- and 60-year-old men of noble descent who had vineyards. It was this trip that turned him on to wine.
Their first stop was Romanee-Conti in Burgundy where he watched them doing their own grafting, whereas in Italy they would go to the nursery. He saw them use a horse and plow instead of a tractor, which allowed for narrower rows and therefore higher yields. He saw the use of small barrels but his companions thought small barrels was impractical as bigger barrels contained more wine. When they tasted the wines, they tasted the white wine last.
They traveled to Champagne where they saw the cellars. While his companions mocked the French way of doing things, Zanella took notes. He returned to Franciacorta, thinking, “If they can do it, I can do it better.”
His father gave him financial support and he built the first cellar by himself. Today, Ca’ del Bosco is an organic winery. They use no outside additives, including the sugar for the dosage, which is made naturally from the juice within the winery. 2016 marks the 45th vintage of Ca’ del Bosco.
At a recent tasting at Pebble Beach Food and Wine, not only did I meet Maurizio Zanella, but I also had the privilege to do a vertical tasting of the Ca’ del Bosco Cuvee Annamarie Clementi, the prestige bottle that is named after Zanella’s mother, who supported him over the years. The Annamarie Clementi spends nine to 10 years on the lees before being released to the market, and we tasted eight vintages, six which were disgorged one month prior to tasting and in their natural form with no liqueur de tirage.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 2007 (55 percent chardonnay, 25 percent pinot bianco, 20 percent pinot nero) – Notes of green apple and yeast, this wine is unabashed with long, pure, piercing acid and linearity on the palate. On the nose, it is fatter and richer on the mid-palate, asking to be paired with food.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 2006 (55 percent chardonnay, 25 percent pinot bianco, 20 percent pinot nero) – Yeasty with notes of stone fruit, this wine is fresh with bright acidity that dances on the palate.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 2001 (55 percent chardonnay, 25 percent pinot bianco, 20 percent pinot nero) – Fifteen years old and this wine is still very youthful and fresh.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 1999 (60 percent chardonnay, 20 percent pinot bianco, 20 percent pinot nero) – The 1999 was a little yeastier with aromas of macerated citrus peel.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 1996 (55 percent chardonnay, 25 percent pinot bianco, 20 percent pinot nero) – Still so fresh, the 1996 has depth and is a wine to just enjoy.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 1995 (55 percent chardonnay, 25 percent pinot bianco, 20 percent pinot nero) – Complex and rich with gorgeous notes of tropical fruit and brioche, balanced by a tart acidity, I loved this 22-year-old wine.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 1989 (35 percent chardonnay, 35 percent pinot bianco, 30 percent pinot nero) – The more this wine opened in the glass, the more exquisite it became. Like the 1995, it is balanced between freshness and rich complexity.
— Cuvee Annamaria Clementi 1985 (35 percent chardonnay, 35 percent pinot bianco, 30 percent pinot nero) – Another standout, this 32-year-old wine is mature with complex aromas of mushroom and earth but it still has bubbles!
Tasting older vintages of Franciacorta demonstrated that it is a world class region for sparkling wine. Next time you are selecting a sparkling wine to enjoy, try Ca’ del Bosco, or another wine from Franciacorta. It is not about comparing these wines to other sparkling wines in the world but to enjoy them for their own personality and own characteristics. Franciacorta is an alternative in quality, as well as an alternative in price, when you are selecting a sparkling wine.