Holidays are sparkling and while I would never snub a glass of champagne, it’s good to know that in Italy we have a comparable and (for the most part) less-expensive alternative. Franciacorta is an area in the Northernmost part of Lombardy and like Champagne, only wines from this region can be called by that name. The Franciacorta sparkling wines use the same “traditional method” as in Champagne, where the second fermentation that produces the bubbles happens in the bottle as opposed to the “Charmat method,” where the fermentation takes place in a vat (in Italy we call this the “Martinotti method,” because according to the Italians it was actually invented by Federico Martinotti in Asti in 1895 whereas the French started using it in 1910).
This is one of the main differences between Franciacorta and the other famous Italian bubbly—Prosecco—which is made in the Martinotti method. Another is the grape, Prosecco being made from the glera grape found mostly in the Veneto region, and Franciacorta being made from traditional grapes associated with Champagne: Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, along with Pinot Bianco. The result is that Prosecco is a little fruitier and the perlage (bubbles) aren’t quite as lively and persistent – Prosecco costs much less however.
Franciacorta has the same bread crust and cookie flavor found in Champagne, and on one remarkable occasion Champagne specialist Tom Stevenson rated Ca’ del Bosco Annamaria Clementi 2005 higher than Cristal. One does not need to break the bank, however, to enjoy excellent Franciacorta. I have a few go-to favorites when ordering at a restaurant or just celebrating at home with the family.
Ca’ del Bosco, Cuvée Prestige – this is far less expensive than the Annamaria Clemente, and is delicious – it has bright fruit bordering on tropical and then a richer, creamier element which comes from 25 months on its lees. My personal irony is that this is the same house that produces Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, the supermarket wine that our teachers in sommelier class mocked mercilessly as “entirely consumed by Americans.”
Il Mosnel, Parose, Pas Dosé Rosé – Pink sparkling wine, always adds an extra note of festiveness and a little twist in flavor. This lovely wine has a pale copper/pink color and powerful burst of effervescence. It has the firm backbone of acidity (essential to these wines) but also a dried fruit, cakelike aspect like a Christmas panettone. It is not even remotely sweet however, pas dosé means there is no addition of sugar to the wine, making it even drier than extra brut.
Bellavista, Alma Gran Cuvée – this is the signature wine from Bellavista which also makes several types of Franciacorta including the lighter saten which has only 4-5 atmospheres of pressure as opposed to the typical 6. The Alma Cuvée has that light creaminess like beaten egg white and a nice mineral edge to balance the fruit.
When to drink it? Well in the words of Liliane Bollinger, “I drink it when I am happy, and when I am sad. I drink it when I am alone, and I find it indispensable for any social gathering . . . Otherwise I never touch it, except when I am thirsty.”
Except with desserts. The dry minerality of Franciacorta, like Champagne makes a poor pairing with sweets… unless you have a demi-sec handy!