Italian fizz has become increasingly popular with UK drinkers in recent years. However, what they do not realise is that ever-popular Asti Spumante and prosecco are by no means the best Italian fizz on offer. In my opinion the top ranking sparkling wine in Italy – by far – is Franciacorta.
The prestigious Franciacorta fizz hails from a small region in the province of Brescia in Lombardy, just east of Milan. It is basically Italy’s answer to champagne – and more popular than champagne in Italy itself. Franciacorta, as a region, is also the only one in Italy with an appellation specifically for classic Brut sparkling wine. It is made using the same method as champagne, with second fermentation in bottle, made with similar grapes to champagne, chardonnay, pinot noir – also with up to 50 per cent pinot bianco allowed in the cuvée – and even has a longer lees ageing stipulation of 18 months (compared to champagne’s 15 months).
So what does it taste like? It has a similar style to champagne with a yeastiness, and rich citric fruits – but perhaps with a little more ripeness, nuttiness and vinosity – and always with the usual racy Italian zip. What Franciacorta can perhaps lack is a little refinement and finesse as well as high natural acidity in comparison to champagne, but it is always consistently good quality.
So why have we not heard about Franciacorta before? The reason is it is usually more expensive than Asti and prosecco, and much of Franciacorta’s 11 million bottle production is sold in Italy itself. Plus the region was only given its DOCG status as recently as 1995. Now winemerchants and high street retailers such as Majestic Wine have discovered Franciacorta – more are now starting to stock it – so we now have a really good selection to try in the UK.
What I discovered in my tasting of a selection of new Franciacorta on our shelves was that there is a great consistency of quality with very few duds. There are very few poor producers in this tiny region. Cuvées obviously vary depending on the style or producer, but many are really high in quality. You can buy Franciacorta as a Non-Vintage (blend of vintages), Saten (made from just white grapes chardonnay and pinot bianco), Rosé, Vintage (85 per cent from one harvest) and rich Riserva (vintage dated with 60 months ageing).
Still wines have been produced here in the mild sunny Alpine microclimate of Franciacorta since Roman times, with vines grown on the mineral-rich glacial soils around Lake Iseo and River Oglio west of Brescia. When it comes to Franciacorta’s fizz, the first sparkling wines were made here as recently as 1961 by Guido Berlucchi’s winemaker Franco Ziliani. Since then the region has attracted many new producers following Berlucchi’s example, most particularly Italian businessmen such as Vittorio Moretti of Bellavista winery and Maurizio Zanella of Ca’del Bosco winery who are now making some of the best cuvées in this region.
The name Franciacorta, first used in 1277, is thought to derive from curtes francae, the fortified courts of the Frankish empire established in the 8th century.
Franciacorta - The best Italian bubbly
Guido Berlucchi cuvée imperial NV (£22.49, Majestic Wine) - Star Buy
My favourite in the tasting. It seemed to tick all the boxes from a biscuity nose, citric vibrancy, apricot notes, creamy palate and long finish: served at a recent tasting it proved very popular with all tasters.
Barone Pizzini Brut Animate NV (£19.99, Vintage Roots)
I enjoyed the very subtle bready notes, light citric fruits and rich nuttiness of this cuvée. It suits those who like their fizz very dry. Alcohol is a touch more moderate here at 12 per cent, compared to most other Franciacorta in the tasting at 12.5 per cent. You can also buy a six pack of Barone Pizzini's different Franciacorta styles for £124.99 from Vintage Roots.
Marks & Spencer Franciacorta NV (£19, Marks & Spencer or case of 6, £114)
Delighted to see M&S list this vibrant, crisp, green apple-infused fizz. Made from 100 per cent chardonnay with 24 months lees ageing, it has a lovely pure citric focus and almondy rich undertone. Well done M&S.
Monterossa Prime Cuvée NV (£29.50, Vini Italiani)
Very popular with tasters, this little Italian gem has a beautiful, creamy roundness, approachability, and fine mousse. It also has a lovely long length - as it should for this price. It would match well against champagne.
An example of the all-white grape blend (chardonnay and pinot bianco grapes): very flinty, mellow creaminess on the palate with brioche and honey undertones. Definitely worth a try for those who enjoy Blanc de Blancs champagnes.
Bellavista Cuvée NV (£28, Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh; Liberty Wine, London; www.thedrinkshop.com)
I am a great admirer of Bellavista's fizz, although their prices can be steep. This is perhaps closest to the champenois style with its rich biscuitiness and creamy palate, but it does have that characteristic Italian nuttiness.