Franciacorta, sitting below Lago d’Iseo in Italy’s Lombardia, is one of the few Traditional Method sparkling wines outside France to have developed a tightly-regulated identity tied to a restricted production zone. Total output is around 18 million bottles per year, making it similar to South Africa’s Cap Classique and about one tenth the size of Champagne. Visit a bar or restaurant in Italy and you’ll be just as likely to see it on a wine list as Champagne; the Italians drank 89% of the entire production in 2019, leaving those of us elsewhere facing a difficult job tracking some of the wines down.
A few key facts:
- Franciacorta is tightly regulated, adapted from Champagne with similarly-mandated lees-ageing times (18 months for non-vintage, 24 months for Satèn, 30 months for vintage and 60 months for the lesser-seen Riserva category).
- Chardonnay is in charge with 81% of plantings. Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco are used sparingly. Some producers are experimenting with the native grape Erbamat, which is the only non-Champagne grape variety allowed in the wines.
- Lago d’Iseo, which sits to the North of the vineyard area, moderates temperatures. Nevertheless this is one of the warmer areas in the world for top Traditional Method sparkling wine. With some harvests beginning in July over the last decade, Franciacorta’s battle is to lengthen the season and preserve acidity and elegance in the wines. Some believe Erbamat, which ripens almost a month later than Chardonnay, might provide the answer.
Below is a collection of notes from the last few months.
The formalisation of this style is unique to Franciacorta. An inventive twist on the Italian for silken, Satèn wines are 100% Chardonnay (although 50% Pinot Bianco is allowed), produced to a final pressure of no more than five atmospheres. Satèn is all about taming the bubbliness of full-pressure sparklers in favour of the silkier, gentler mousse that comes with lower pressure.
When it works, the Satèn style cleverly carries Franciacorta’s sunny, ripe nature with a cool, calm texture that emphasises elegance rather than weight. Some of these wines would jar with a big, lively mousse – the sunny style of Chardonnay can be a little closer to a still wine than some, so it does make sense.
Of the wines tasted below, the Bellavista was (perhaps unsurprisingly) my pick. Winemaker Mattia Vezzola did invent it in 1984, after all. The model in this case is suave and sweet-natured, but aligned with enough zip and energy to keep you dipping back in for another glass. Flavour is not in short supply in Franciacorta; the magic comes teasing out front-end ripeness into something long, fine and refreshing.
100% Chardonnay, 65 % oak fermentation. Disgorged Autumn 2019. I love the hedonistic style here, with lots of candied lemon, lime and yellow tropical fruits, wrapped up in white chocolate and hazelnut wafers. Just puts a smile on your face.
But there’s detail and nuance too, from interesting florals to heady vanilla/tonka. Some real grace in how the palate plays out too, even when it is wrapped in silky-sweet pasticceria goodness. Cin cin!
NV, disgorged in 2019. This such an assured wine, perfect for anyone trying to get to grips with what Franciacorta Chardonnay is all about.
The fruit is so clear and transparent, sunny but controlled with fragrant peaches, ripe pear and a nice juicy grapefruit bite keeping it keen. 2 years on lees just rounds it out – it doesn’t need more as the body and freshness is right where it should be. It’s not toasty or developed in style. Just pure fruit, perfect for a sunny aperitif. Great value.
Mosnel’s 2015 Satèn is a real charmer. Disgorged October 2019. All estate fruit from Carmignone. Dried yellow apples and pear tart, lovely candied yellow grapefruit and this subtle perfumed note that reminds me of jasmine and Turkish delight.
You’re hit with a lovely peachy/juicy pear ripeness up front, but there is enough transparency and interest – flower, pepper, chalk, even a nicely pitched reductive streak – to stop the sweet-natured fruit running away with the whole show. It would be ungainly, jarring even with a big, zippy, insistent mousse. Silk is where it’s at for this style. Approachable.
100% Chardonnay, steel and oak with 24 months on lees minimum. Dosage 6.5g/l
Peach yoghurt and a slightly funky jackfruit aroma on opening, then some interesting aromatics – a snap of chicory and charred lime peel veer towards herbaceousness, but talc and something lavendar-like add some intrigue. Pineapple sweets. A decent mousse, plateauing with herbal sage and lime flirting round the edges. Not totally harmonious but full of interest. Orange oil on the finish.
Blends and Rosé
Chardonnay still tends to dominate, with Pinot Nero is a natural second-in-command (and Pinot Bianco third). The two Ca’ Del Bosco wines below are hard to beat; this producer does have a unique way of injecting energy and direction into their wines. Annamaria Clementi is mightily impressive, but the Vintage Collection wines are superb too (and much more affordable). I did end up wondering whether Annamaria Clementi would edge even a tiny bit higher if they re-introduced just a smidgen of dosage, but you can see why they have taken it in this direction.
I was also impressed by the style of the Antinori wine, which takes a few leaves from Bellavista in its suave coffee-morning confidence. The Guido Berlucchi wines also tend to impress, although the Rosé was not up to the Brut and Satèn this time.
55% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Bianco, 20% Pinot Nero. 18 vineyards in Erbusco, Adro, Corte Franca, Iseo and Passirano. Notable for the high percentage of Pinot Bianco, otherwise declining in importance in Franciacorta. Whole bunch pressed to 39% extraction – coeur de cuvée style. 100% fermented in small oak barrels (minimum 3 yrs old), on which the base wines remain for 6 months. Full malolactic. Disgorged Autumn 2019 with no dosage or sulphite addition.
2010 opens up with explosive charred grapefruit, ripe yellow apples and blossom honey. It manages to tone down anything too peachy or tropical, trading off delicious verbena/bergamot perfume and a gorgeous spicing from white pepper, cinnamon and basil. Shifting in its seat, it gives you a different view every 5 minutes. Proper complexity from blending here.
It’s also pretty remarkable for a 100% oak-aged wine, letting the wood play brilliantly off reductive smoke and frangipane sweetness without smudging the fruit in butter or toffee. Golden crystal fruits just march steadily, evenly, towards more charred grapefruit and spice as it closes out. Lingering almond skin sends you back in. Wonderfully addictive.
It does offer that little squeeze though the mid-palate you get with some zero dosage wines (and a touch of powdery, rocky grip), but here it is refreshing and light, not hollow or abrupt. There’s intensity, but it’s delivered with a cool, steady hand. Will it maintain this poise with age? Who knows! I wouldn’t bet against it.
Fermentation in small barrels for about 5 months. Chardonnay dominant, with a splash of Pinot Blanc and around 30% Pinot Nero.
Cut a slice of ripe grapefruit and beautiful Mediterranean lemon, drizzle it with Demerara and pepper then roast it until just charring..grind up some hazelnuts (you left a bit of coffee in there), then smash it up over a fresh almond croissant. Finish it off with a teeny bit of woodland savour..scrunchy leaves, a little haunting of Pinot…delicious!
It manages to shape that lovely Franciacorta fruit into something with real direction and length. The sweet nature is there, but it is honed, channelled.
90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero. 24 months on lees. All Stainless steel.
So appetising. Ripe, golden Chardonnay fruits and some lovely buttery, peppery and spicy notes coming in. A little tropical. Pristine, sunny, very good indeed. Who wouldn’t like this wine?
78% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Nero, 10% Pinot Bianco. All steel.
Sweet apple purée on opening, with some pretty raspberry tart and dried peach. It does move up a gear, though, with chocolate croissants and charred clementines completing an alluring, swish kind of nose. It hits with a little fruity paunch up front, with candied fruits and peachy sweetness coloured with smoky charred citrus marmalade. A one act show, but it’s a good one.
85% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Nero, Steel and some small oak.
60% PN, 40% CH, 2 years on lees.
Sweet crabapple, fruit a little muted at first but opening up very slowly with some bitter herbs and grapefruit. The fruit sweetness – nectarine, raspberry – arrives after a while, tagged with a little autolytic and cut with fine phenolic details. Seems a touch charmless and anodyne compared to the others in this range at the moment. Difficult base vintage?