Franciacorta is a small wine-producing area in Lombardy, northern Italy. It is famous for its high-quality sparkling wines, which are made very much in the image of Champagne. The Franciacorta wine region is located in the Brescia province, in the hills immediately south-east of the foot of Lake Iseo. Roughly square in shape, it stretches eastwards for 15 miles (25km) from the Oglio River (which flows out from the lake) until reaching the Mella River valley and the western suburbs of Brescia city.
Although relatively unknown in global terms, Franciacorta is widely regarded as Italy's finest sparkling wine. Due respect is still paid to the traditional and better-known classics Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco, but these lighter-hearted styles are aimed at straightforward enjoyment rather than complexity or finesse.
As a high-quality sparkling wine made in the méthode Champenoise from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (with limited amounts of Pinot Blanc), Franciacorta is clearly Italy's answer to Champagne. The wine comes in both non-vintage and vintage forms, and the standard white is complemented by a rosé version (for which the base wine must be at least 25% Pinot Noir). There is even a blanc de blancs equivalent called Franciacorta Satèn, made exclusively from Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco. Tasting notes for Franciacorta Brut wines sound remarkably like those of their Champagne equivalents, with frequent references to biscuit, brioche, lemon and lees.
There are two clear differences between the Franciacorta and Champagne, however: history and scale. Franciacorta's history dates back just 50 years; Champagne's closer to 350. Franciacorta's annual production is around 27,000 hectoliters; Champagne's is closer to 2,700,00 h/L (100 times as much). The largest, most famous Champagne houses were founded in the 18th Century, and some now produce ten times more wine each year than all Franciacorta producers combined.
The Franciacorta sparkling style, and the DOCG title under which it is sold, are both relatively recent additions to Italy's wine portfolio. The first sparkling wine to bear the name Franciacorta was created by the Berlucchi winery in the late 1950s. The wine, which was a conscious attempt at emulating Champagne, was very well received. Other producers soon followed suit, and the style developed quickly. The Franciacorta DOC title was created in 1967, to cover the area's sparkling wines and their non-sparkling counterparts.
Franciacorta's sparkling wines were promoted to DOCG status (the highest level of Italian wine classification) in 1995. This was largely the result of hard work and lobbying by the local consortium, the Consorzio per la tutela del Franciacorta. The Consorzio campaigned for lower yields, gentler grape-pressing techniques and to progressively eliminate Pinot Grigio from the wines, all in the name of increasing quality.
All Franciacorta wine is bottle-aged on its lees, to increase its complexity and flavor integration. The ageing period is 18 months for the non-vintage wines, 24 months for the rosé and satèn, 30 months for the vintage-marked millesimato and an impressive 30 months for the riserva wines.
The rigorous production methods described above (coupled with small production volumes) go some way to justifying the relatively high price tag of Franciacorta wines, some of which command prices in the hundreds of dollars.
One of the key reasons for Franciacorta's success – other than its quality-driven producers – is its own particular combination of climate and soil types. Warm, sunny, summer days are followed by cool nights here, creating ample opportunity for the grapes to ripen, while retaining the acidity that is so vital to the production of sparkling wines. Although marked by fluctuations between day and night, temperatures remain relatively consistent throughout the growing season, thanks to the temperature-moderating effects of Lake Iseo.
Topography is also key here, both the macro-topography of the Alps (which protect northern Italy from continental influences of Central Europe) and the local, rolling hills that shelter the vineyards. The gravely, stony soils are well drained and rich in minerals – ideal for high-quality viticulture. They were formed, just like the topography, by glacial activity.
The sparkling wines' promotion to DOCG status in 1995 left the question of how to label the still wines, which would no longer have the right to be labeled as 'Franciacorta'. These were given their own 'Terre di Franciacorta' title, which was subsequently changed to 'Curtefranca' in July 2008 (see Curtefranca). The names Franciacorta and Curtefranca are said to mean 'Court of the Franks', in reference to the fortified courts established here by the Frankish empire in the 8th Century.
Franciacorta is not Lombardy's only sparkling DOCG wine; 60 miles (100km) to the south-west, near the border with Piedmont, the vineyards produce Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico.