In a couple of months we’ll be popping our sparkling wines again to celebrate the end of yet another year. Unless you live in Italy, chances are slim you will be drinking Franciacorta. In 2019 Italy was responsible for 88,7% of sales in terms of volume. It’s those other Italian bubbles, Prosecco, that are all the rage internationally. And yet, Franciacorta was traditionally always hailed as the “quality” spumante from Italy. I remember during my sommelier training that it was introduced as the Italian “Champagne”.
Such comparison is problematic in several ways. First of all, it creates expectations : people will want their Franciacorta to smell and taste the same as Champagne. Not great for building your own identity. Secondly, it puts these wines in direct competition with Champagne. And as Champagne is still the reference in sparkling wine for many people : “why buy Franciacorta if you can get the “real deal” for the same price?” Indeed, the better Franciacortas are sold in Europe in the same price range as most big brand Champagnes, which is between 30 and 40€.
The comparison with Champagne is not too far-fetched, however. Both are made with the same method : the second fermentation in bottle, called “metodo classico” in Italy. Also, most Franciacorta is mostly made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the main grapes for Champagne production. Pinot Blanc is also allowed and a new grape, Erbamat, is allowed since 2017 to add freshness, but neither of those are often used.
The Consorzio of Franciacorta, who represents the producers and who is also responsible for the marketing, realizes that Franciacorta needs to get rid of its eternal comparison with Champagne. In 2020 they launched a marketing campaign under the slogan : “Very Italian, very Franciacorta”. The true essence of Franciacorta is “that of an Italian lifestyle par excellence, recognized all over the world”. Franciacorta is also recognized as a “Destination Partner” of Michelin. The Italian version of the restaurant guide will be presented in Franciacorta for the coming three years. The Consorzio even ordered research into the history of Franciacorta, which resulted in a book that is freely available on their website, and for which wine critic Kerin O’Keefe wrote the English resume. It is argued in the book that mention was made in the 16th century already of a sparkling wine in the Franciacorta area. Or as Kerin O’Keefe describes it, “wines that weren’t entirely still”. While the research was undoubtedly well conducted, it is quite a stretch to link modern day Franciacorta to those “lively” wines from centuries ago, as they were by no means produced in the same way as they are now. In fact the history of Franciacorta as we know it, dates to the 1960s with Guido Berlucchi being credited for producing the first Metodo Classico Franciacorta in 1961, the year that is still mentioned on their flagship sparkler.
What does all this give in the glass?
I tried a series of Franciacorta to get a better idea of the flavor profile and the quality. I also wanted to see if the comparison with Champagne is actually relevant or not.
One of the things that came out pretty clearly was the difference in profile between the cheaper Franciacortas (roughly under 20€) and the more expensive ones (aften above 30€). The cheaper Franciacortas were often relatively simple. Pleasant and uncomplicated, fresh and fruity, but not really reflecting the characteristics of a “metodo classico” sparkling wine. Much more character and complexity was found in the premium bottles.
When it comes to the aroma and flavor profile, it is hard to pin Franciacorta down on a few characteristics. But what came out quite clearly is that there is more to Franciacorta than being a Champagne imitation. In fact most Franciacortas had a fruit profile that was riper than the classic apple and pear fruit that is to be found in Champagne. Apricots were often found in the nose, as well as flowery aromas in the entry level wines. In the more expensive ones, there would often be strong toast aromas and sometimes wood, something that is still relatively rare in Champagne.
In terms of quality, the results were rather mixed. The cheaper Franciacortas were rather simple, although not necessarily unpleasant. But even in the more expensive range there were bottles that just did not convince. Some of them displayed an outspoken bitterness in the finish, bringing the wine out of balance.
So based on the bottles I had, it is difficult to come to a clear conclusion. Complex wines with character featured next to uncomplicated, not unforgettable bubbles. As a Champagne lover, I feel there is more consistency in the quality of Champagne than there is in Franciacorta. The good thing, however, is that the top performers were shining. These were attractive wines with a lot of character and a clear identity of their own.
These are my favorite ones :
Terre dei Trici 2015 Pas Dosé, Cascina San Pietro
100% Chardonnay. No dosage. Very attractive nose with apricot, peach and obvious toast aromas. The ripe fruit and the toast give a creamy touch to this sparkling wine, which is kept fresh by the lavish and very refined bubbles. The finish is rather dry, giving way only here that there was no dosage. Highly recommended, especially if you consider the price. At just over 20€ you get an exciting sparkler.
Dosaggio Zero 2015, Arcari + Danesi
This is mostly Chardonnay, which spent at least 30 months on the fine lees. No dosage. Gorgeous nose with plenty of minerality and delicate flower and citrus aromas. This a sparkling wine that is all about elegance and structure. Not a fruit bomb, but finesse, with very refined bubbles that create tension and make you grab your glass for more. This retails just above 30€. If you can get this Franciacorta, then you must give it a try. You will not regret it!
Museum Release 2007 Saten Brut, Ricci Curbastro
This is a Saten, the traditional term used in Franciacorta for a 100% Chardonnay. The Museum Release spends at least 65 months on the fine lees. The nose is expressive with ripe apple, a hint of apricot, strong toast aromas and even a hint of spicy wood, even though the technical note does not mention any wood being used. The bubbles are sumptuous and dynamic. At 40-45€ this is not cheap, but it is a sparkling wine that gives alot of everything and makes a big impression. It probably also is the one in this selection that will seduce Champagne drinkers the most.
90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay. The color is surprising, as there is an obvious pink hue that gives away that this wine is made of Pinot Noir. There is also a hint of red fruit in the nose. The abundant and fine bubbles make this a refreshing sparkler. At around 20€ this is not especially complex but it’s a satisfying apéritif that goes down all too easily.