Franciacorta – and the Meraviglioso of Bellavista
By Michael Godel, with contributions by Treve Ring
Where can you find snow-capped Rhaetian Alps, double morainic amphitheatres, glacial lakes, ancient vineyards and one of the best kept sparkling wine secrets on the planet? In north-eastern Italy’s Lombardy region, where the traditional method sparkling wine of chardonnay, pinot nero and pinot bianco come together masterfully to create Franciacorta.
In the wake of sparkling bubbling up to the top in global tastes, Franciacorta is well situated. As carefully and timelessly crafted as Champagne, but for much less money (and increasingly less stuffiness), Franciacorta is primed for pouring. No country has as many fizz appellations as Italy, with its optional “maybe spumante” clauses cluttering up for than 100 of the country’s DOC’s. The irony is that until 1995, there was no método classico (traditional method) style appellation recognized. It was that year that the DOCG classification was applied exclusively to the sparkling wines of Franciacorta, and since then, many others have followed along the same path: Oltrepo Pavese has had a método classico DOCG since 2007 and special Crusaé designation for its pinot nero-based sparkling. And Alta Langa DOCG was initiated in Piemonte in 2008, for método classico wines made from grapes grown above 250m. In 2009, the Talento Decree was enacted, allowing any producers throughout Italy to identify themselves as método classico, no matter where their grapes were grown.
The month of November was a wonderful time to visit Lombardy and the cellars of Franciacorta. Before the snows of winter and at a time when the vintage’s base wines rest comfortably in the caves of the region’s 110 wineries, you can take an early morning walk through a chardonnay block and note the gentle south-east slope engulfed by fog thick as porridge in the greater provincial Brescia. On sunny days, summon up a cool, crisp stroll through courageous pinot noir up on a hill above the village of Erbusco, with the Oglio River to the west, Lago Iseo to the north and the snow-capped Dolomite Mountains rising in the distance.
For Franciacorta DOCG, the wines much be grown and produced in this relatively small region, encompassing only 18,000 HA and vineyard land covering 1500HA, distributed amongst approximately 200 growers. Geologically the zone is a function of glacial activity, depositing a large quantity of minerals and providing excellent drainage in soil structure. Chardonnay, pinot nero and pinot bianco grow well here, sheltered by the moronic heights and aided by the moderating effects of the lake, affording a much milder winter than most sub-alpine regions. Winds prevent autumnal fogs and humidity, helping fend off diseases. Temperatures at ripening are much higher as compared to Champagne, affording base wines with greater sugar levels, and resulting in rounder, riper finished wines.
DOCG Franciacorta regulations stipulate that chardonnay and/or pinot nero, with the use of pinot bianco (up to 50%) is allowed, with secondary fermentation in the bottle and a minimum of 18 months on the lees, and bottle pressure between 5-6 atmospheres. For Millesimato (vintage), a minimum of 85% must come from a single year, and spend 30 months on the lees, and for Reserva, 60 months on the lees is required. For Franciacorta Rosé, pinot nero must make up 25% of cuvée. There is also a special style called Franciacorta Satèn, where a majority of chardonnay (pinot bianco is also allowed) spends 24 months on the lees and bottled with a lower bottle pressure, less than 5 atmospheres. This silkier, softer textured Franciacorta is said to be more “feminine” and produced exclusively as a Brut style.
Bellavista winemaker Mattia Vezzola was the inventor of the Satèn style, and now has created one of the most fantastical Franciacorta of all. The new elaboration is some kind of fantastical Meraviglioso.
perfino il tuo dolore
potrà guarire poi
Newly appointed President of the Consorzio Franciacorta and Bellavista Winery proprietor Vittorio Moretti has recently bottled something no self-respecting vigneron on this fizz fermenting planet has ever had the enterprise or perspicaciousness with which to follow through. Moretti and his enologist/chef du cave partner of 30 years Mattia Vezzola gathered the wines of six great vintages (1984, 1988, 1991, 1995, 2001 and 2002) spread across three decades together in one singular, bold, ultra-elegant and exacting impossible cuvée, Meraviglioso.
Their playful and calculated wine pays respectful homage to a wine region immortalized, like warriors in stone, by classic authors; Pliny, Columella and Virgil. In the 16th century Lombardian physician Gerolamo Conforti encouraged a healthy lifestyle and widespread consumption, defining Franciacorta bubbles as “mordaci” or, lively and bubbly.
Franciacorta producers have the historic sparkling traditions of Champagne to compete against on a crowded global market. However, they have progression, innovation and resolution on their side. Meraviglioso adheres and abides to Franciacorta’a past. It also revises the scripture and reinvents the future.
The historic concept directs the winemaker to make wine that is fresh with acidity on the palate, but not felt in the stomach. Wines that are easy to digest. Wines to drink for all of eternity. Between 6.7 and 7.5 TA is the number on the base wines. This differs from Champagne in alcohol because the Champenoise reach a maximum level which is the minimum for Franciacorta and acidity is exactly the obvious. Everyone these days talks about terroir, which is important, but they seemed to have forgotten about genes.
The area’s modern era dates back to 1961, with 11 producers, 29 hectares of vineyards and a production of 2000 hectolitres of Pinot di Franciacorta. DOC status was granted in 1967, with nine pioneering agriculturalists in the mix. In 1990 the creation of the consortium for the protection of Franciacorta wines was accomplished with 29 producers as members. Now, after nearly 50 years of officially recognized production Franciacorta is poised to become the next big thing. As mentioned in the introduction, fizz is in demand worldwide, and compared to other high quality traditional method sparkling wines, Franciacorta is well positioned. But pinot noir also has a role to play. Chardonnay and its essential Blanc de Blancs sparkling oeuvre has managed bubble expectation and dominated output since time immemorial but the sweeping cloud of global warming is changing everything.
A portal into the Franciacorta compass dial only 15 years ago sees chardonnay picked on average around August 15. Cyclical weather patterns notwithstanding, temperature increases of nearly five degrees Celsius mean that in order to maintain freshness and protect necessary acidity, grapes are picked two weeks earlier. Short of washing this planet clean as the bible says or continuing to hot wire reality, something has to give.
Even while chardonnay’s phenolic journey is finding its way to completion, some things can’t help but get lost in accelerated heat unit translation. Any winemaker worth their weight in viniculture excellence knows that the real future lies in the embrace of complex behaviour inherent within the later ripening condition of thin-skinned pinot noir. Chardonnay will not be abandoned any time soon but ripping up some of the dominant vineyard holdings and switching to pinot noir is in the cards.
On my late November trip the epiphanies came fast and furious when Franciacorta opened its arms to receive journalists from around the globe. My WineAlign colleague Treve Ring and I were introduced to Bellavista Vino and Contadi Castaldi pours at L’Albereta Relais & Chateaux and it was for me an initiation into a personal paradigm shift, in a dream that had just recently begun. Tasting the range on premises at Contadi Castaldi from Blanc de Blancs through Blanc de Noirs and into pinot nero aided in clarifying the varietal shift. A Bellavista horizontal tasting of 1987’s in 750 mL, magnum, jeroboam (3L) and methuselah (6L), along with a salmanzar (9L) bottle from 1989 made for a rarest of opportunities, tasting chance of a lifetime. These various formats were last tasted in 1991 and 1998. This was the third and last chance.
Treve and I tasted a number of Franciacorta examples during our visit and we have also been able to sample imports in British Columbia and Ontario. Click on any of the wines listed below to read our notes on these wines.