Countdown to New Year’s Eve: Franciacorta

Never heard of Franciacorta? No worries. It’s this week’s featured sparkling wine.

[Franciacorta — pronounced FRAN-sha KOR-tah]

Each week until the end of the year we’ll take a look at different types of sparkling wines – champagne included, of course – so you’ll be able to make a great choice for your New Year’s Eve occasion.

Rather than an exhaustive explanation of champagnes and sparkling wines, this series is meant to provide an overview along with some food-pairing tips. We’ll list a few examples, some classic and some new. Read the descriptions and you’ll be able to find something similar if your wine shop doesn’t happen to stock the wines mentioned here.

Once upon a time there was a small region of farmers and traders who lived alongside Lake Iseo in the Lombardy region of Italy. Guarded by a rim of hills, with a climate tempered by the lake, this was a lovely setting and a plentiful land for those who lived modestly. They grew enough food to eat and enough grapes for wine, as well as a small number of animals for meat and cheese. The lake contributed both fish for eating and cool waters for summer recreation. Picturesque towns dotted the lakeshore, and even grew up on the little islands in the lake. And so it went for hundreds of years.

n the cellar at Villa Crespia
A showcase of terroir in the cellar at Villa Crespia

That’s a rather fanciful way of describing Franciacorta. And there’s a chance it may not be entirely accurate…But that’s how I think of the region: relaxed, happy and nearly invisible to the outside world (meaning me), until its sparkling wines suddenly lit up on my radar in the 21st century.

Actually, by then Franciacorta’s winemakers had been hard at work on improvements for 50 years. They were refining everything from grape selection and vineyard practices to vinification and aging techniques. Their aim was to create Italy’s finest sparkling wine made in the metodo classico (the way sparkling wine is produced in Champagne). Like champagne, Franciacorta’s highly classified (DOCG) sparkling wines are also aged in the bottle. Depending on the category, non-vintage sparkling wines are aged in bottle for 18-24 months minimum, and vintage sparkling wines for at least 30-60 months.

If you are trying Franciacorta brut for the first time, it might seem like a lighter version of a champagne. In fact these sparkling wines are made with two of the major champagne grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir – though pinot blanc is also used in Franciacorta. In addition to brut vintage and non-vintage there are non-dosage and rosé sparkling wines. Another category, Satén, is a proprietary name unique to Franciacorta; Satén brut sparkling wine is made from chardonnay with up to 50% pinot blanc.

When I visited the region a couple years ago, I was surprised to discover how well Franciacorta’s sparkling wines pair with a variety of foods, from polenta and white-sauced pasta to fish to beef dishes. In my experience, the cuisine in this region is a mixture of innovative recipes and fresh, country ingredients. Light herbs and spices abound here – but no heavy red sauce or spicy cuisine. This region is in the central northern part of Italy, an easy drive from Milan.

Gamma61-newRecently, I re-sampled a couple of the Berlucchi wines, some of the most well-known Franciacorta sparklers. The NV Berlucchi ‘61 Brut had very tiny, persistent bubbles. It was light with a bit of fresh yeast and toast on nose, and toasted yeast on the palate. With food, the flavor built and it became toastier. Moderate minerality and acidity came out on the end palate and in the finish. The NV Berlucchi ‘61 Rosé was a medium salmon pink, boasting light notes of toast and strawberry, with toasted lemon on the end palate. Though these wines list for $30-$35, you can find them discounted now, sometimes even in the $20-$25 range.

Quite a few of Franciacorta’s sparkling wines have become available in the US in recent years. Look for the following, among others: Antica Fratta, Barone Pizzini, Bellavista, Berlucchi, Ca’ del Bosco, Contadi Castaldi, Monte Rossa, Montenisa, Ricci Curbastro, Villa Crespia.