The Italian Sparkling Wines of Franciacorta
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 02 Mar 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
Franciacorta is the name of a region producing traditional method sparkling wines in the northerly, landlocked region of Lombardy, Italy.
The quality of Franciacorta’s sparkling wines is held in very high regard by wine experts around the globe, but it isn’t all that easy to find on store shelves. According to the region’s marketing body, 17.6 million bottles were produced in 2019, but only 11% were exported.
The vineyards of Franciacorta are planted on a natural amphitheatre formed by receding glaciers from the second and tertiary periods. These rolling hillsides have stony, mineral-rich soils. Franciacorta is situated in the pre-Alps and is generally considered to have a continental climate, however, Lake Iseo, which forms the region’s northern border, has a significant moderating effect on summer and winter temperatures, making this a fairly temperate growing area.
Chardonnay is the star grape in Franciacorta, accounting for roughly 80% of vineyard plantings. It gives elegance, freshness, and pleasing floral, white-fleshed fruit aromas and flavours.
Pinot Nero (the Italian name for Pinot Noir) is the region’s second grape, making up about 15% of plantings. It is prized in the premium vintage and reserve level bottlings for the structure and ageworthy qualities it brings to blends.
Pinot Bianco (AKA Pinot Blanc) is Franciacorta’s third grape variety in importance, bringing a rounded structure and attractive almond nuances. A final grape, Erbamat, is slowly re-emerging in the area. This local grape had almost disappeared but is now being revived in an effort to preserve the region’s biodiversity. Erbamat has very high acidity levels, which can be especially useful in hotter vintages to bring greater freshness to blends.
The sweetness level of sparkling wines is called dosage and is determined by the winemaker at final bottling. In Franciacorta, the different levels are:
- Pas dosé (no added sugar) - these are the driest styles of Franciacorta wines
- Extra Brut (up to 6 g/l sugar) - very dry
- Brut (less than 12 g/l) - generally still perceived as dry, but not quite as austere and are usually rounder on the palate
- Extra Dry (12-17 g/l) - a slight fruitiness on the finish, versatile for food pairing
- Sec or Dry (17-32 g/l) - appears slightly sweet on the palate
- Demi-Sec (33-50 g/l) - medium sweetness level (in comparison to coca cola = 113g/l); good for dessert
There are five different types of Franciacorta sparkling wines:
- Traditional method wines, meaning that they undergo their secondary fermentation in the bottle, just like in Champagne. They are aged for 18 months on their lees
- Can be released for sale 25 months after harvest
- Firm bubbles, citrus, almond, bread crust type aromas, fresh on the palate with firm, persistent bubbles, light body, clean finish
- They can range in sweetness from pas dosé (bone dry) to demi-sec
- This is the Blanc de Blancs category, meaning that only white grapes are used (mainly Chardonnay, but some blend with Pinot Blanc). Both non vintage and vintage Satèn wines exist
- Satèn wines have softer, smoother bubbles than other Franciacorta wines
- They have a silky texture and delicate aromas of white and yellow fruit, white blossoms, and fresh almonds
- Satèn wines must have a Brut dosage
- A minimum of 35% Pinot Nero is required for Franciacorta rosé. Some producers use only Pinot Nero, some blend with Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and potentially a drop of Erbamat
- The high percentage of Pinot Nero gives Franciacorta Rosé quite a lot of body and a rounded structure, along with attractive red berry and red apple aromas. They have firm, persistent bubbles, and bakery-type flavours from extended lees ageing of 24 months or more
- They can be produced to any sweetness style from pas dosé (bone-dry) to demi-sec
- Franciacorta Millesimato are the equivalent of Champagne’s vintage category. This means that rather than blending wines across several growing seasons (as is the case for non-vintage sparkling wines), here, at least 85% of the grapes must come from one harvest.
- Millesimato wines are made in years where the crop is considered to be of very high quality
- They must be aged on lees for at least 30 months, and not released before a minimum of 37 months from the harvest date
- These wines have more marked patisserie-type aromas, finer bubbles, and a creamier texture than NV wines, all of these characteristics come from their long contact with the lees. They also tend to have riper, more intense fruit aromas, reflective of their excellent growing years.
- They can be pas dosé (bone-dry) to extra-dry
- Franciacorta Riserva wines are ultra-premium cuvées made in the very best vintages
- They are aged on their lees for over five years, and often much longer, before release
- This extended ageing period gives them an opulent, rich, layered texture, highly complex aromas, aged notes of honey, roasted nuts, dried fruits, and so forth, with very fine, silky, persistent bubbles
- Like Millesimato, they can range from pas dosé to extra-dry (except for Satèn Riservas which can only be Brut in terms of dosage)