Discover Franciacorta Italy’s Most Serious Sparkler & A Most Worthy Holiday Wine

Early on in my wine career the Champagne started flowing. I knew I would have a long love affair with this fine, elegant, and expensive sparkling wine. I just didn’t know how many opportunities would present themself for indulgence, and for over-indulgence. This is true for many sommeliers, as we drink it ourselves at the end of shifts, and at after-parties and super-late dinners. Why? Because it is uplifting and thirst quenching after hours on our feet, constantly talking and moving. It gives a boost of energy while having the immediate effect of intoxication as the CO2 bubbles mainstream the alcohol directly to the bloodstream. There is no need to wait for the wine to work its way through the stomach lining.

So when I discovered that Italy had a serious sparkling wine, not the ubiquitous fun fizzy Asti, and beyond the slightly more serious Prosecco, I was immediately intrigued. When I tasted my first few Franciacorta’s I could tell these were very serious wines on par with the best Champagne.

Franciacorta the Region

The region of Franciacorta is nestled between the city of Brescia and Lake Iseo in Lombardy, where the foothills of the Alps meet the flat Po River Valley. In 1277 it was known as “curtes francae,” a tax and trade-free zone. The region was recognized for its ability to ripen Chardonnay early on, and that grape today is the mainstay of Franciacorta wines. Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero (Noir) add to the mix, and a new high acid grape, Erbamat, was recently approved to help with global warming. Franciacorta is a DOCG, or Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita, Italy’s highest quality tier. Only sparkling wines from the area’s best estates qualify for the DOCG.

The Making of Franciacorta, the Wine

Franciacorta is fully sparkling, with second fermentation in bottle as required by the Champagne method they adopted. As with Champagne, labeling terms such as Brut or Rose are used, and the wines are named after their regions, not grapes. Both use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But that is where the similarities to Champagne end. With warm Po Valley air during the day and cool Alpine downdrafts at night, along with rocky, glacial soils that provide natural drainage and warmth to the roots at night, grapes get riper than they ever would in Champagne, but not too ripe not to retain their critical high acidity. Sunny and windy conditions are ideal for organic farming. Nearly 70% of the producers here are certified or in process of getting certified, making Franciacorta one of the regions with the highest levels of organic farming in Italy. Maurizio Zannella (@maurizio_zanella), founder of Ca’ del Bosco and known as the “king of Franciacorta” says, “It is fundamental to pursue the organic certification in order to safeguard our territory and to obtain wines more and more healthy using the minimum of sulfites.”

The little bit of extra ripeness attained here influences many producers to use well-used, neutral oak casks for the first fermentation, producing a rounder, more vinous base wine due to light oxidation as the wine “breathes” through the porous wood. The most famous Champagne house to do this is Krug. Its wines are deemed some of the most serious, and most bold in flavor profile due to starting with this more characterful base wine.

Many producers here also refrain from the typical Champagne method of adding sugar to balance out the extreme acidity, at bottling, called “dosage”. The category to seek is “Zero Dosaggio.” While not consumer-friendly in the US market, where the slightly sweet “Extra Dry” category of Champagne is much more popular, and even the highest quality tiers of Prosecco are noticeably sweet, these serious, bone dry wines are a huge plus for sommeliers, especially those working with complex, nuanced multi-course menus.

In addition – and this is the biggest distinguishing factor – the Franciacorta DOCG requires a minimum aging on the lees – the yeast sediment leftover in the bottle after the second fermentation – for 18 months for non-vintage wines, 6 months longer than Champagne non-vintage. Both require 30 months on the lees for vintage wines (called Millesimato here), and Franciacorta has a unique “Riserva” level that requires 60 months on the lees. This is five years on the lees, only outdone by the “disgorge to order” or “late-disgorged” programs offered in Champagne. It is possible there to have a bottle disgorged from your birth year or wedding anniversary year. I haven’t asked in Franciacorta yet, as they don’t have the long history of Champagne production, but the Riserva we reviewed for this article was disgorged in the summer of 2020 and it is from the 2011 vintage!

This period of lees aging provides two things. First, autolytic character, that trademark yeasty, toasty, nutty bakeshop flavor that only the more serious sparkling wines have. Certain wines here even have a note of tar or petrol from this extended aging, along with a note of iodine or chalk perhaps from the mineral-rich glacial soil.

Second, the longer the wine is in contact with the lees, the finer the bead, or bubble. With such a fine, lasting mousse, the wines are very elegant and serve to lift up and showcase even the most delicate tastes and textures in the dish.

In fact, the Franciacorta producers created a Blanc de Blancs, or Chardonnay/Pinot Bianco blend category called Saten, which requires 24 months on the lees. It was designed in Champagne’s Cremant style, with less than 5 atmospheres of pressure, so it is softer in texture. Master Taster and Food and Wine Educator Giammario Villa, Franciacorta California Brand Ambassador (@giammariovilla), says the name comes from “Satinato” (“frosted”), together with the word “Seta” (Italian for “silk”) and the idea of a soft texture and smooth feeling.”  The term was registered as a brand and may not be used anywhere else in the world. Rose also requires 24 months on the lees.

“Franciacorta is a great wine with accidentally some bubbles,” says Zanella. As such, Franciacorta is best served in a wider, rounder sparkling wine glass, such as my absolute favorite, the Jamesse Prestige from Philippe Jamesse, Head Sommelier at the Michelin-starred Domaine Les Crayeres in Champagne, or in a white wine glass, just not a flute.

In Milan, about an hour away, and at top restaurants around the world, Franciacorta is served with the most exquisite menus. Sommeliers embrace it not only for its uncanny ability to lift up and enhance the experience of the dish, thereby enhancing the guest experience, but because it is rare by comparison to Champagne.

Franciacorta Pairings

Ca’ del Bosco recommends the following pairings:

Dosaggio Zero – Ideal as an aperitif or with sushi, shellfish (especially oysters) or seafood

Extra Brut – Excellent with soft and rich cheeses, cream sauces, fried vegetables, fish or poultry

Brut – Perfect for the whole meal and superb with clams, lobster with butter.

Saten – Baked pasta, subtly flavored risottos and fish-based dishes.

Rose – Best with charcuterie, mushroom-based dishes, shrimp, salmon or tuna tartare, and grilled meats like lamb, pork and veal.

For pairing at home, try it with a cheese plate with Robiola, Parmigiano Reggiano or Taleggio, along with salumi, Sopressata or Sausage. It is delicious with Fritto Misto as well. Saten and Foie Gras is a flavor and textural paradise.

Bellavista and Ca’ del Bosco are the top two imported brands in the USA and have been for more than a quarter of a century. These iconic producers set the bar for quality, style, and finesse. Smaller producers are more often represented these days by top importers and easier to find, such as Monte Rossa, Vigna Dorata, and Ricci Curbastro, all reviewed here. Seek them out and be open to a new experience! Ca’ del Bosco’s Zanella says, “The future of Franciacorta is to show its own identity, to present its niche production of 25 million bottles. Niche is its power.”

Catherine Fallis – Planet Grape Wine Review

nv Monte Rossa Flamingo Brut Rose Franciacorta  92 points
12.5%, $38
Delicate and dry with a fine, lingering effervescence and notes of pink grapefruit, mandarin, raspberry, wild strawberry, peach tart, almond sliver and biscotti.

nv Vigna Dorata Brut Franciacorta  92 points
12.5%, $28
Light, tart, subtle, and dry with a fine, persisting effervescence and notes of tangerine, egg custard, almond cookie, gingerbread, lilac and lily.

2016 Ricci Curbastro Brut Saten Franciacorta  93 points
12.5%, $34
Delicate, tangy and dry with a fine, lasting effervescence and notes of apricot, peach, dried mango, egg custard, chalk and button mushroom.

nv Bellavista Grande Cuvee Alma Brut Franciacorta  92 points
12.5%, $38
Very elegant, flavorful and dry with lasting, fine, lasting effervescence and notes of lemon curd, apple tart, grilled peach, almond croissant, rising bread and sea salt.

2015 Bellavista La Scala Brut Franciacorta  94 points
12.5%,  $50
Very delicate, elegant and dry with fine, lasting effervescence and notes of lemon wafer, apricot jam, wildflower honey and cream.

2016 Bellavista Brut Rose Franciacorta  94 points
12.5%, $65
Light and dry with a fine, lasting effervescence and notes of lemon gelato, raspberry jam cookie, mandarin pith and marzipan.

2015 Bellavista Brut Saten Franciacorta  95 points
12.5%, $60
Elegant, tangy, silky and dry Blanc de Blancs with very fine, lasting effervescence and notes of lemon, pink grapefruit, mandarin, candied ginger, biscotti and violet.

nv Ca’ del Bosco Cuvee Prestige Extra Brut Franciacorta  93 points
12.5%,  $42
Pithy, flavorful and very dry with a fine, lingering effervescence and notes of lemon curd, creme fraiche, almond sliver and mushroom cream sauce.

2015 Ca’ del Bosco Vintage Collection Dosage Zero Franciacorta  94 points
12.5%, $72
Elegant, creamy and bone dry with a very fine and lingering effervescence and notes of lemon wafer, dried pineapple, marzipan, biscotti and dried chamomile flowers.

2015 Ca’ del Bosco Brut Saten Franciacorta  95 points
12.5%, $72
Very silky, delicate and dry Blanc de Blancs with a superfine and lingering effervescense and notes of lemon tart, almond croissant, ginger wafer, mushroom and petrol.

2011 Ca’ del Bosco Annamaria Clementi Riserva Dosage Zero Franciacorta  97 points
13%, $112
Disgorged and bottled in summer 2020, this very serious, silky, expressive, tart and dry wine has a superfine, lingering effervescence and notes of lemon cake, creme brulee, candied ginger, oyster shell, game, chalk and iodine. A force of nature. //