THE MUCH IMPROVED BUBBLIES FROM FRANCIACORTA

This article originally appeared in the Virtual Gourmet  and was written by Geoff Kalish.


Guido Bellucchi Estate, Franciacorta

About 20 years ago on a visit to northern Italy’s little known Franciacorta area, I was unimpressed by the quality and value of most of the sparklers tasted, especially when compared with that of the Prosecco region, only 100 miles away.

In fact, while Franciacorta sparklers are made by the same process as used in Champagne (i.e., making a base wine, then adding additional yeast and sugar to the bottle to produce carbon dioxide bubbles), our visit revealed many with a strange, somewhat oxidized bouquet and a too sweet taste. Moreover, at that time one could hardly find a bottle of Franciacorta bubbly at more than a handful of U.S. retail outlets.

That’s all changed. Now I’ve found that the bouquet and taste of a number of sparklers from Franciacorta not only outdo those of Prosecco but rival the likes of many bottles of Champagne —and at a very modest price when compared with that of most bottles of Champagne. Today many more shops nationwide are carrying more than a token brand or two of Franciacorta sparklers.

What’s accounted for this change is multifactored: Since the late 1990s the region has witnessed an emphasis on enhanced quality of viticultural and vinicultural practices —especially a movement in the region to produce the wines organically, with the great majority now “certified” organic, as well as an effort to determine the best growing area for different clones of the Chardonnay and Pinot Nero grapes (the predominant varietals used in these wines); decreased sweetness, or even elimination of the dosage (the liquid that’s added to Franciacorta sparklers when, as in the process in Champagne, the wasted yeast from the second fermentation is removed, a process known as “disgorgement”); and of course some savvy marketing — the combination of which has led to the export of over 12% of the annual production.

To evaluate the result of the effort to enhance the quality of these wines a tasting of 15 currently available for consumers to purchase was conducted at New York City’s The Leopard des Artistes by the Wine Media Guild (a U.S.-based organization of professional wine communicators). To be honest, I didn’t love every one of those tasted, finding a few too sweet and others not rising above the quality of good Prosecco. On the other hand, I found a number of the wines outstanding, and the following are my notes on these with my top choice in each of 7 categories.

ZERO DOSAGE

Castel Faglia, Dosaggio Zero, Millesimato 2012 ($23)

This sparkler is made of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Nero grapes and, as the name implies, no additional sugar is added to the wine when it’s disgorged. It shows a straw yellow color, a steady stream of rapidly rising bubbles and a delicate, fruity taste with hints of almonds and cinnamon in its dry finish.

EXTRA BRUT

Il Mosnel, Extra Brut. Vintage 2013 ($52)

Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, this wine was fermented in small oak casks over five months with the second fermentation taking place over 3 years. It has a pale yellow color, very fine bubbles and a refreshing bouquet and taste, with hints of vanilla in its finish. One might be hard pressed to distinguish this wine from a top-tier Champagne.

NON-VINTAGE BRUT

Ca Del Bosco, Cuvee Prestige, Brut NV ($32)

This bubbly is made from 75% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Bianco and 15% Pinot Nero grapes. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks over five months. In making the final blend, a small amount of “reserve” wine from other vintages was added, with the second fermentation taking place over 25 months. Of note, disgorgement takes place in an oxygen-free atmosphere, so that very little sulfur dioxide needs to be added. It shows a bouquet and taste of peaches and brioche and has a very fruity finish with a bit of vibrant acidity.

VINTAGE BRUT

Franciacorta, Bellavista, Millesimato, Brut Vintage 2012 ($45)

Made from 73% Chardonnay and 27% Pinot Nero, this outstanding sparkler underwent primarily stainless-steel tank fermentation, with 30% of the grapes barrel fermented. The second fermentation was conducted over 36 months. It shows a pale straw color and a fine stream of bubbles, with aromas and an elegant taste of ripe apples and brioche, with a long memorable finish, that has notes of almonds and vanilla.

SATĖN (A classification unique to the area in which the blend must be made from only white grapes and have a bottle pressure so as to produce a very “foamy” wine.)

Ricci Curbastro, Saten Millesimato NV, Dossagio Zero ($49)

This 100% Chardonnay wine was fermented in oak and underwent its second fermentation over 48 months. It has a straw yellow color, a bouquet and creamy taste of apples and peaches with hints of fennel and lemon in its smooth finish. This wine makes an excellent mate for grilled salmon, veal or smoky cheeses.

ROSÉ

Guido Berlucchi, Rosé NV ($29)

Made from 60% Pinot Nero and 40% Chardonnay, this great value from the producer who first made sparkling wines in the area shows a fragrant bouquet and taste of ripe cherries and strawberries, with hints of lemons and limes in its finish. More than just an aperitif wine, it makes great accompaniment to pasta with red sauce as well as grilled branzino or shrimps.

BLANC DE NOIR

Majolini, Blanc de Noir, Brut NV ($56)

While a bit pricey, this 100% Pinot Noir wine, from grapes hand harvested from a vineyard on a hilltop loaded with calcareous soil, represents Pinot Noir bubbly at its best, with fragrant flavors of ripe berries and a taste of berries and hints of dried apricots in its long smooth finish. This is an ideal wine to mate with a wide range of food from scallops to grilled chicken or veal.

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