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Franciacorta: Unique, Different and Authentic

June 14, 2017 9 comments

“Sir, I will be very happy to work with you to improve the quality of your wines, but I have one request”, said young oenologist. “What is it?“ said Guido Berlucchi, the man famously known throughout the whole Franciacorta for his aristocratic, elegant lifestyle. “I would like to make Champagne here, in Franciacorta”.

The year was 1955, and young oenologist’s name was Franco Ziliani. Guido Berlucchi, while may be surprised, was not shy of taking the risk, and Franco Zeliani got to work. First vintages were a total disaster – awfully tasting wines, blown up bottles. But in 1961, the patience and perseverance paid off, and first 3000 bottles of the Franciacorta sparkling wine came into being.

Mr. Berlucchi invited his influential friends from Milan to try the wines, and they all happened to like it. The new chapter in the Franciacorta history was opened.

Map of Franciacorta

Map of Franciacorta region

The wine was produced in Franciacorta literally forever. The land surrounding Lake Iseo from the south was strategically located along the trade path between Turin and Rome. In the 11th century, the monks created a special zone called Curtefranca to encourage land development and commerce – “Curte” in this case represents “land”, and Franca, while sounds related to France, has nothing to do with it – it simply means “free of taxes” in Italian. The primary focus in Curtefranca was agriculture, and can you imagine agriculture in Italy without making the wine?

As the time went on, the Curtefranca became known as Franciacorta – however, the Curtefranca name didn’t disappear and since 2008 it is a designation for Franciacorta still wines.

That first 1961 vintage at Berlucchi became a turning point for the whole region which was before mostly known for its red still wines. Producers started changing their ways and make sparking wines, and Franciacorta DOC was established in 1967 with 11 sparkling wine producers. Franciacorta became first DOC in Italy to require all sparkling wines to be produced by the metodo classico. In 1990, the Consorzio per la tutela del Franciacorta was formed and became a major regulatory body for sparkling wine production; in 1995 Franciacorta was awarded a DOCG status, top level of quality for the Italian wines. Starting from August of 2003, Franciacorta became the only region in Italy where the wines can be labeled only as Franciacorta and not Franciacorta DOCG – similar to the Champagne where the word AOC doesn’t appear on the label.

If you are like me, I’m sure you are dying to hear a few more facts. Today, Franciacorta comprise about 7,500 acres of vineyards and produces about 15,000,000 bottles per year; there are about 200 grape growers in Franciacorta, 116 of them produce their own wines. 65% of all the vineyards are organic, and conversion to organic methods continues.

Franciacorta vineyards

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are the only permitted varieties in production of Franciacorta, with Pinot Blanc being somewhat of a bastard child, as the grape is even more finicky to properly produce than Pinot Noir – while some of the producers phasing it out (e.g. Berlucchi), the others love the perfumy bright character which the grape can impart on the resulting wines.

Franciacorta’s climate is very conducive to getting grapes ripen perfectly. The climate is generally mild, with consistently warm summer days. The Lake Iseo creates a cooling effect during the summer nights, helping grapes to reach the levels of phenolic ripeness which is very difficult to achieve (if not impossible) in the Champagne. During winter, the lake provides a softening effect, protecting vines from the very low temperatures.

Unquestionably Champagne was an inspiration for the ways and means of the Franciacorta sparkling wines – as expected if you use metodo classico production. However, Franciacorta is largely moving past the “Champagne copycat” status and actively seeks and creates its own unique style, not only by stricter aging requirements (both non-vintage and vintage Franciacorta must be aged on the lees for longer than the Champagne in the same category), but by the whole method of production – for instance, by using only stainless steel tanks for the fermentation or relying much less on blending and more on the quality of the grapes from the given vintage.

Franciacorta is obsessed with quality. It starts in the vineyard, where even if not certified, most of the grapes are growing as organic. New vines are often planted at a very high density, to force the roots to go deep down as they have no room to grow to the sides. The yield is well limited to about 4 tons per acre. All the grapes are harvested by hand (this is a requirement of Franciacorta DOCG). The grapes are cooled down before the pressing – and in the case of Ca’del Bosco, one of the premier producers in the region, the grapes are even washed and then dried, using specially created complex of the machines.

Getting the grapes into the winery is only the beginning of the quest for quality. We talked to many winemakers, and they were all repeating the same words – “gentle pressing”. There is a tremendous focus on gentle handling of the grapes, using various types of presses. Arturo Ziliani, the son of Franco Ziliani, who is in charge of winemaking at Berlucchi, gave us the best explanation. “Think about a lemon. Cut it, and right under the skin, you will see the white layer – pith. When you quickly juice the lemon, lots of that pith ends up in the juice, rendering it cloudy – and adding bitterness and extra acidity. If we would juice the lemon slowly without destroying the pith, the resulting juice would be clear – and lemonade would need a lot less sugar to make. While much thinner, grapes also have the layer of pith right under the skin – and when we press the grapes, we want to avoid crushing it as much as possible”.

Even gentle pressing alone is not enough. Franciacorta regulations allow up to 65% of grape mass to be pressed. Most of the winemakers press less, at around 50%, in some cases even limiting only by 30%. At all stages of the process, there is a great effort to protect grapes and wine from oxidation; such focused handling also allows to greatly reduce the levels of added SO2 – while the law allows up to 210 mg/liter, many winemakers limit it at only 50 mg/liter.

Official Franciacorta Glass

Obsession with the quality. Attention to detail. How do you drink your bubbles? The flute, you say? Where you ever able to perceive the full bouquet of your sparkling wine through that small opening on top of the flute? Well, leave the flute for Champagne, but if you want to enjoy Franciacorta, you will have to dump it (whatever way you see fit) and upgrade to something better – an official Franciacorta glass. It is specifically designed to enhance the visual and sensual qualities of your bubbles in the glass. The shape allows concentrating the aromas. And the glass is specifically made with the slight imperfections at the bottom to help form beautiful bubble traces better (perfectly polished glass doesn’t allow bubbles to form).

Glass of Franciacorta

Obsession with quality. Attention to detail. Passion. So what makes Franciacorta unique, different and authentic? It is all of the above. Franciacorta is a unique place, with its own terroir, its own ways of making the wines, and really its own, authentic sparkling wines. Franciacorta shouldn’t be compared to Champagne, for sure not anymore, not based on the tasting of 50 or so wines during our 5 days there. Well, maybe except one thing – similar to Champagne, it should be simply called by the name. You will make all hard working Franciacorta producers very happy next time at a restaurant, when you will have a reason to celebrate (and every new day is enough reason in itself), by simply saying “Waiter, please bring Franciacorta, the best one you got!”

Do You Prefer Montepulciano or Montepulciano?

December 22, 2016 13 comments

Nope, no typo in that title. And no, I’m not losing it. Not yet anyway.

Yes, the title is purposefully misleading. But within a reason – and I’m not looking to gain any unjust benefit from the confusion.

As most of you know, Montepulciano happened to be the name of the indigenous Italian grape, popular in central regions of Abruzzo and Marche. Montepulciano is also the name of the small medieval town, right in the heart of Tuscany, where the grape called Sangiovese is a king. The wine produced around the town of Montepulciano, which dates back to the 14th century, is called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and to be called Vino Nobile the wine should contain at least 70% of Sangiovese grapes. What is also worth mentioning that Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was the very first DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in Italy, awarded in 1984 – the emphasis here is on Garantita, denoting highest quality Italian wines.

A picture worth thousand words, so here is an infographic which nicely lines up all the confusing Montepulciano:

Montepulciano Infographic Italy

Infographic courtesy of Mosiah Culver

Now, let’s go back to the main question, only let’s ask it in a less controversial way –  do you prefer Montepulciano or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine? The answer to such a question requires some wine drinking, so let’s fight it off with maybe some of the very best examples of both – Masciarelli Marina Cvetić Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Masciarelli Tenute Agricole was established in 1978 by Gianni Masciarelli in San Martino, Chieti Abruzzo. In 1989, Giovanni married Marina Cvetic, who took over winemaking duties. Today Marina overseeing about 750 acres of estate vineyards, producing about 2.5 million bottles a year – of course, not only Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but many different wines – you can find more information here.

The wine we are tasting today, Masciarelli Marina Cvetić Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, is a flagship wine, which won numerous accolades from the critics around the world, and it is definitely a beautiful example of how good Montepulciano wine can be.

Avignonesi estate was founded in 1974, and the Avignonesi family was instrumental in helping the regions to obtain DOCG status and promote Vino Nobile wines worldwide. From 2009, the estate, which comprise today 495 acres of vineyards in Montepulciano and Cortona appellations and produces about 750,000 bottles per year, is owned by Virginie Saverys. She works tirelessly to convert the estate to organic and biodynamic winemaking, and Avignonesi is expecting to get its organic certification in 2016. You can learn more about the estate and its wines here.

The wine we are drinking today is Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which goes way beyond the requirements of the DOCG and made from 100% Sangiovese sourced from 8 best vineyards of the Avignonesi estate. If you will look at the suggested price ($29), in conjunction with the quality, this wine would easily beat many of its famous Brunello neighbors. Many critics also concur, as the wine repeatedly gets high scores and makes to the various “Top” lists.

Here are my notes for these two wines:

2011 Masciarelli Marina Cvetić Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva (14% ABV, $28, 100% Montepulciano, 12/18months in oak barriques, 100% new)
C: dark garnet
N: cherries, tar, roasted meat, undertones of sage
P: sweet cherries, perfume, open, layered, clean, good balance, very approachable and ready to drink from the get go
V: 8/8+, sexy, luscious and delicious

2013 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (14% ABV, $29, 100% Sangiovese, 12 months French barriques, 6 months large Slavonian oak casks, 6+ months in the bottle)
C: brilliant ruby
N: herbs, sage, hint of black fruit, restrained
P: sweet and tart cherries, earthy, leather, touch of cherry pits, touch of tannins, good balance. Very long finish with fruit dominating.
V: 8. surprisingly ready to drink (unlike some Vino Nobile which I had before). Classic Italian wine all around, with finesse.

As you can tell, I really liked both wines, probably hedging a bit more towards Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – these are very well made wines, different and excellent in its own right – and by the way, both would perfectly brighten up your holidays :).

What do you think? Which Montepulciano would you prefer, not only from these two wines but in general? Cheers!

A Night of Great Food and Great Wine – Arezzo in Westport, CT

April 17, 2014 8 comments

DSC_0277Have you ever been in the situation where you read about the restaurant and look at the menu, and your first thought is “ahh, it’s that same thing again…”? Continuing the situation, how many times did you actually still ended up going to the restaurant, and afterwards were glad you did? My personal account – more often than I care to admit! My latest experience – the restaurant called Arezzo Ristorante & Bar in Westport, Connecticut.

Arezzo is located at the intersection of route 1 and Riverside Ave, with its patio overlooking Saugatuck river. While restaurant had been in the same location for a while, you can consider it brand new – Juan Ceballos and chefs/brothers Llanos are the new owners of the Arezzo restaurant.

What I really like in the restaurants is the diversity of the setting – this is when the restaurant inside doesn’t look “uniformly the same”. Arezzo has a number of different areas – a spacious bar, almost as a separate room, a “foyer” with soft and comfy chairs, the main dining room, huge patio – you can come to the restaurant many times and every time discover something new.

Open kitchen and huge wood-fired oven, imported directly from Italy, are definitely creating the next level of excitement for the guests – I don’t know about you, but I can stare at the tamed flames for a very long time…

We started our evening in the bar. I personally made a rookie mistake of ordering Espresso Martini as my first drink – while very tasty, this was definitely a drink to have after the meal, not before. Well, I’m still working on my cocktail culture…

As usual, a few words about the wine list. May be only two words – Very Good. While the list is not big (which is a good thing in many cases – flipping through 50 pages looking for a bottle of wine is not the fun for all), it is modern, attractive and not boring, sporting a number of unusual wines by the glass together with some safe choices. Bottle selection is also very good, and reasonably priced, which for me is always important.

The wine list is focused on the Italian wines, with some California and France. After the fiasco with espresso martini, I needed to refresh my palate, so I started with 2011 Donnachiara Irpina Coda di Volpe DOC, Campania (13% ABV), the wine made out of indigenous Italian grape from Campania, Coda di Volpe. Bright golden color in the glass, inviting nose of white stone fruit and perfectly vibrant acidity on the palate, paired with dense and round, medium to full body mouthfeel – just what I needed (Drinkability: 7+).

The red wine, suggested by Juan, was an absolute favorite of the group. Renieri is an excellent producer, making the wines in the number of regions in Italy. While I was somewhat familiar with their Brunello wines, this wine was new to me – 2010 Renieri Invetro Ross Toscano IGT (14% ABV),  a super-Tuscan blend of 50% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet and 25% Merlot. Dark ruby in the glass, clean nose of dark red fruit, very inviting, and beautifully refreshing palate – ripe raspberries, cassis, plums, warm spices, touch of minerality, full bodied and perfectly balanced with tannins and acidity in check. Great wine overall. Drinkability: 8+.

And then, there was food.

A number of appetizers were served while we were at the bar.

Pizza Margherita ( fresh tomato, basil, homemade Mozzarella) – fresh, sweet tomato, basil – always a winning combination.

Focaccia Robiola di Arezzo (white truffle oil) – this was sublime, as anything with the right amount of truffle oil.

Lobster Arrancini (saffron aioli and Lemon) – absolutely delicious, very tasty bites!

Rosemary Marinated Shrimp Skewers – one of the group favorites – incredible balance of flavors.

Italian Sausages Skewers with Roasted Peppers – simple and very well executed. Also a pleasure to look at.

The rest of our dinner was served at the table. First, a trio of pasta:

Risotto (fresh porcini mushrooms, truffle oil) – incredible, simply incredible. If you like mushrooms, I’m sure you are not going to leave a single morsel on the plate, no matter how big the portion will be. The umami factor simply doesn’t let you put the fork down.

Short Rib Tortellini (braised us jus sauce) – why all the braised, slow cooked meat invokes such a homey feeling? This was delicious.

Cavatelli ai Piselli (home-made pea-ricotta, how and sweet sausage ragout) – this was perfectly on par with two other dishes – savory and satisfying.

Pan Seared Pink Snapper (caponata purée, fregola, vegetables) – one of the best pieces of fish ever – flaky, perfectly seasoned and cooked.

Roasted New Zealand Lamb Chop (spinach, tomato, Yukon gold potatoes) – to tell you the truth., I’m extremely picky about my lamb chop – I don’t want any fat on it, I want it to be perfectly seasoned, so it will not have that unpleasant lamb flavor – yes, I’m high maintenance when it comes to the lamb chop. So what can I tell you about the lamb chop which was served to us? In a word, wow. In another word – delicious. Seasoning, texture, taste – wow.

For dessert we had Pannacotta and Nutella Pizza – yes, it was very tasty, and I will spare you my lame attempts to describe it.

And we are done here. The only thing left to do, as usual, is to thank Juan Ceballos and Executive Chef Vinicio Llanos for the wonderful food and wine. Whether you are living in the area or visiting, Arezzo will be a perfect dining destination for you. Cheers!

Disclaimer: I attended the restaurant as a guest of management. All opinions are my own.

Arezzo Ristorante & Bar
5 Riverside Ave
Westport, CT 06880
203-557-9375
http://www.arezzowestport.com/
Arezzo Ristorante on Urbanspoon