Champagne Flattened by $22 Sparklers From Italy’s Franciacorta

Franciacorta Sparkling Wine
A glass of Franciacorta sparkling wine. Wines from the region have the highest appellation under Italian wine laws, the D.O.C.G. Source: Consorzio Franciacorta via Bloomberg

Don’t dare call the wines of Franciacorta “spumante,” the semi-sweet bubblies from Asti. And don’t confuse them with Champagne, even though Franciacorta sparklers are made with the same methode champenoise. Nor should you try to trace their history back to the Renaissance, the way those Tuscan wine aristocrats flaunt their pedigrees.

On the contrary, the wine makers of Franciacorta, in eastern Lombardy, are proud that they are giovanni-come-latelies to the Italian wine boom. For while wine has been made at local monasteries for centuries, not until the 1960s did it occur to anyone to make sparkling wines in the region.

Led by the experiments of the Guido Berlucchi estate and fueled by explosive investment in the region at that time, sparkling Franciacorta took on a cult interest that soon developed into big business for estates like Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista, and Cavalleri.

While sparkling-wine technology was expensive, advances were quick, and before long Franciacorta was being referred to as the Silicon Valley of Italian wine. By 1995 the wines had achieved a D.O.C.G. appellation, the highest “guaranteed” grade under Italian wine law.

In the past decade the area under cultivation quadrupled, producing 11 million bottles in 2011, with Berlucchi accounting for half the total.

From the beginning Franciacorta adopted the exacting French method of making Champagne, distancing itself from the large bulk processes used to make Italian spumante and prosecco. The same grapes used in making Champagne -- chardonnay and pinot noir (pinot nero in Italian) -- were planted extensively and now cover about 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres).

French Connection

The wineries are so intent on refining their image that instead of using the Italian word “rosato,” they call their pink wines “rose.” They use the same residual sugar levels as the French for Brut, Extra Dry and Demi-Sec. The driest of all receive no sugar water infusion, a style called in French “pas dosage;” in Franciacorta it’s “pas dose.”

Like Champagnes, non-vintage Franciacorta wines spend a minimum of 18 months aging in the bottle, 30 for vintages and 60 for the riservas.

Misguided hubris attempted to push up the prices of the best Franciacortas in the 1990s, though none approach those of most vintage or cuvee prestige Champagnes, which can sell for up to $2,500 a bottle. Excellent quality Franciacortas can be found easily in the U.S. and Europe for under $25.

Osso Buco

Foodwise, they go extremely well with the butter-rich dishes of Lombardy, like saffron-scented risotto alla milanese and well-fatted osso buco. As an accompaniment to the region’s air-cured beef called bresaola and a morsel of Grana Padano or robiola cheese, there is nothing better.

So how do Franciacorta sparklers compare to Champagnes? That isn’t easy to answer, because individual taste in sparkling wines is a huge factor. I, for one, think that the pas dosage method in even the most expensive Champagnes and Franciacortas robs the wines of their fruit, leaving a bone dry taste that the producers would have you believe is “elegance.”

Some, especially the Brits, enjoy decades-old vintage Champagne that begins to show oxidation, which I consider a flaw. Others, including myself, like a little yeastiness in the nose and on the palate, a quality not easily detected in Franciacortas.

But overall, the Franciacortas I recently sampled certainly bested most other Italian sparklers and compared more than favorably with a wide range of Champagnes.

Brothers and Sisters

Fratelli Berlucchi is owned by five siblings, whose Selected Estates Brut Rose 2007 is lush with raspberry-like fruit and just enough dryness to give it ideal balance. The fruit struggles to stay on the palate yet does carry to the finish.

Barone Pizzini Brut non-vintage ($24) was highly effervescent, with great vitality, though not much fruit or any yeastiness. It’s refreshing but little more.

Monte Rossa Prima Cuvee non-vintage ($24) was bone dry with tiny bubbles. I found this the most lackluster of the sampling, despite it being among the priciest.

Montenisa Brut Rose non-vintage had plenty of bubbles and a fine tangy flavor, a little like prosecco but drier and more refined, its rose color and depth coming from pinot nero grapes. The label notes that the wine is “bottled by” Tuscan wine aristocrat Marchese Antinori. Its U.S. price ranges from $32 to $45, making it the most expensive of those I sampled.

Golden Age

Quite golden in color, the 100 percent chardonnay Fratelli Muratori Crespia Novalia Brut ($22) was deliciously dry, very refreshing, with a slight hint of age on the back of the palate, having been kept on the lees for 24 months. It compares very favorably with a fine non-vintage Champagne.

I was most impressed by Contadi Castaldi Rose non-vintage ($22), whose minimalist label covers an impressive sparkler that upon opening foams in the glass, retaining an effervescent head of bubbles long after. There’s a light cherry flavor and bouquet here that makes it very good with food and, with all those bubbles, is sure to make you happy.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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