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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!”

What Is In The Bubbles? – 2006 version

December 29, 2011 5 comments

In the past, I wrote a few wine articles for one of the local newspapers here in Stamford – Stamford Times. As right now it is a champagne times all over the place, I thought this post about bubbly, written in 2006, still make sense. So here it is in its entirety, and I will give you 2011 perspective in the next post. Happy reading!

What is in the bubbles?

 What is one type of wine a lot of people will be reaching for very shortly? If you said “champagne” – you are right. If you said “sparkling wine” – you are right too. As New Year rapidly approaching, one of the traditions of celebration is having a glass of “bubbly” with the toast to the health and happiness in the arriving year. Where this tradition is coming from is hard to tell, as ever since champagne was invented, it very quickly became a symbol of celebration – a new ship, a new house, a wedding and all other significant events all call for champagne on the table.

Let’s take a look at the history – what is champagne and where did it come from? As many other prominent discoveries of the past, the discovery of champagne is largely a result of an accident. Champagne as we know it came from France, and as majority of other French wines, the name of the region where the wine is produced became the name of the wine. Champagne region is located in the northern part of France. One of the characteristics of that region is cool weather – the mean annual temperature is only slightly above 50°F, just a minimum necessary to allow grapes to ripen.

At the same time, the advantage of the cooler climate is that it allows grapes to ripen slowly, thus gaining more flavor and adding complexity. When grape juice is becoming a wine through the process called fermentation (by adding yeast to the grape juice), constant temperature is very important for the overall success. If the temperature drops too low, the fermentation would stop. Once the temperature rises, if there is any residual yeast left, fermentation will start again. If the wine is already bottled, this so called secondary fermentation will take place inside the bottle. Those wonderful refreshing bubbles, which we adore so much in our champagne, is nothing but carbon dioxide, which is a normal byproduct of fermentation process. If takes place during first fermentation, all carbon dioxide will go out in the air. At the same time, when secondary fermentation takes place in the closed bottle, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go, thus it stays in the bottle and becomes a wonderful fizz we all enjoy. Thus thanks to the Champagne’s weather helping to “spoil” bottled wine, and someone’s imagination, we received a gift of great taste called champagne. Who was that “someone”?

History often calls a French monk, Dom Perignon, an inventor of the champagne. In the late 17th century, Dom Perignon was a cellarer at the abbey of Hautvillers, near Epernay in Champagne. Dom Perignon also was a great winemaker, who mastered making practically a white wine from the black grape ( Pinot Noir). He also advanced the art of blending ( mixing wines from different vineyards and/or vintages) to produce wine of consistent qualities. Blending is one of the cornerstone processes in making of the champagne. Interestingly enough, Dom Perignon worked hard to prevent the fizz in wine, which was at a time considered a sign of the poor winemaking. Nevertheless, the name Dom Perignon literally became a synonym of the great champagne. It is also  suggested that there is a famous phrase which belongs to him – “Come quickly! I am tasting stars! – he said at the first sip of champagne.

Let’s talk about some of the characteristics of the champagne. First, there are 3 types of grapes used in champagne’s production – chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Next, there are 2 main categories of champagne – non-vintage (usually the letters NV are added to the name) – blend of wines from the different vintages, and vintage, when only wine of single vintage is used. There are usually only few vintage years in a decade, so the majority of the champagne consumed is a non-vintage ( NV) variety. One more classification is based on the types of grape used in the blend – most of the champagne are a blend of different grapes, but if only Chardonnay grapes had being used, the champagne will be called Blanc de Blancs, and if only Pinot Noir is used, the champagne is called Blanc de Noir. Lastly, there are different levels of sweetness found in champagne, which is also put on the label: if the label says “Brut”, it is very dry, Extra Dry – less dry, Sec – sweeter, Demi Sec – medium sweet, Doux – sweet. Interestingly enough, most of the champagne produced before 1850 was sweet. Majority of champagne produced today falls into brut or extra dry categories.

Similar to the other wines from France, there are thousands producers making champagne. At the same time there are currently 26 Champagne Houses, known as Grand Marques – they are making most of well known champagne in the world. Some of the most popular names from that group include Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Krug, Moet & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, Salon, Tattinger and Veuve Clicqout. Is there champagne made outside of France? Of course, but it is not called champagne. In majority of the cases, only the wines produced in the Champagne region in France are called champagne. Sparkling wines, which are produced using the same winemaking techniques, are made in the different parts of the world – Cava in Spain, Sekt in Germany, Spumante in Italy, Sparkling wines in California. Some of the well known sparkling wines producers in California include Korbel, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Mumm Cuvee Napa.

How champagne is served? It is served cold, best temperature being in the range of 43°F – 48°F. Most appropriate glasses for champagne are flute- or tulip-shaped. Do not serve champagne in the wide open glasses – this only leads to champagne going flat in no time, losing all of it’s refreshing fizz.

What is champagne served with? First, champagne makes great aperitif – great way to start an evening with friends. When it comes to food, similar rules apply as for matching any other wine and food. Champagne represents light and refreshing wine, thus it would be best paired with similar type of food, meaning being light. Shellfish, oysters, seafood, poached salmon all would do great. Also sushi is definitely not to be forgotten. And, yes, of course, the classic combination – Champagne and Caviar.

As John Maynard Keynes said,  “my only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne” – let’s not make this mistake! Get the friends together, open the bottle of bubbly, and celebrate – New Year, new child, a new beginning! Happy New Year! Cheers!