Franciacorta, the symbol of Italian traditional method sparkling wine
By Francesco Saverio Russo - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, ©Mattia Aquila, ©Giuseppe La Spada, posted on 15 November 2022
After becoming a DOC in 1967, then securing the highly coveted DOCG endorsement in 1997, Franciacorta has gone from strength to strength. We drill down on what makes it so unique, and the producers behind this highly sought-after traditional method sparkling wine.
The historic Italian wine region of Franciacorta is located in the heart of Lombardy, near the city of Milan. Situated on the shores of Lake Iseo, it covers some 200 square kilometres and encompasses 19 localities in the Province of Brescia. The name Franciacorta is probably linked to the arrival of the Cluniac monks and their 'Francae Curtes', meaning an area with no taxes on trade. The region, which is mostly hilly, was formed by glaciers retreating over 10,000 years ago, creating the Sebino Morainic Amphitheatre which is home to the vineyards of Franciacorta. The area’s recent history began in 1961 with the production of the first sparkling wine using the traditional method. In 1967, it became the first Italian sparkling wine to be awarded DOC certification. Thanks to the work of the consortium (established in 1990) it obtained DOCG certification in 1995. The consortium also pushed for the area to be divided into zones. This was achieved with the support of the Agricultural University of Milan, thereby making it possible to identify micro-areas with different soils and climates which are suitable for different grape varieties. The present-day area is home to approximately 2,800 hectares of Franciacorta DOCG vineyards planted with 82% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Noir and 4% Pinot Blanc.
According to regulations, Franciacorta can only be produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc grapes (to a maximum of 50%). In 2017, the use of the Erbamat grape variety was also permitted. This indigenous variety is very useful for giving the wines acidity, thereby countering the effects of climate change. Yields may not exceed 100 quintals/ha and the harvest must be carried out by hand.
The Franciacorta designation in fact covers different styles:
- Franciacorta NV, which has to age for at least 18 months on the lees;
- Franciacorta Satèn and Franciacorta Rosé NV, which have to age for at least 24 months on the lees;
- Franciacorta Vintage, Franciacorta Satèn Vintage and Franciacorta Rosé Vintage, which have to age for at least 30 months on the lees;
- Franciacorta Riserva, Franciacorta Riserva Satèn and Franciacorta Riserva Rosé, which have to age for at least 60 months on the lees.
Satèn is a particular style that can only be made from Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc grapes (to a maximum of 50%). It is only allowed to have 4.5 atmospheres of pressure which makes it ‘silky’.
Franciacorta can be made to different levels of sweetness: Zero Dosage, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec or Dry, Demi-Sec.
Today, the name Franciacorta is synonymous with the area, the production method and the wine itself, so much so that a European law prohibits the use of the word ‘Spumante’ (meaning ‘sparkling wine’) to describe it, just as with Champagne.
Below is a selection of the leading Franciacorta producers.
The unforgettable winemaker Franco Ziliani and the first bottle of Pinot di Franciacorta vintage 1961.
The history of Franciacorta began with the story of Guido Berlucchi, who created the area’s first traditional method wine in 1961. In 1955, Guido Berlucchi called the very young winemaker Franco Ziliani for advice on how to improve his small production of white wine. Ziliani met Guido, tasted his wine and had the idea of producing sparkling wine. It was his dream to produce an Italian wine using the traditional method and he achieved this in 1961. Ziliani was also ahead of the curve in his choice of name: 'Pinot di Franciacorta', to emphasise the link between the wine and the land. This 'start-up' paved the way for all subsequent companies.
In 2021, the Berlucchi company turned 60, coinciding with the number of years that have passed since that first bottle of Franciacorta. Today, Franco Ziliani's children share the workload in the company they have owned since 2017. Cristina handles marketing and hospitality, Arturo is winemaker and managing director and Paolo is tasked with sales and exports. This important company remains family-run and faithful to its original values, focusing on producing the highest quality but also displaying a strong awareness of the modern requirements for sustainability.
The charming Castello vineyard, one hectare of organic vines on the slopes of the medieval manor of Borgonato.
Berlucchi produces wine from approximately 550 hectares of vineyards, 115 of them owned by the family and the remainder managed by winegrowing partners. The grapes are divided between around 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir.
The company produces 4 Franciacorta lines:
- Cuvée Imperiale - Berlucchi's historic and versatile range, with 6 Franciacorta labels covering almost all styles: Demi-sec, Brut, Rosé, Saten, Zero Dosage and Vintage.
- '61 Numero Primo - non-vintage Franciacorta, in the Extra Brut, Saten and Rosé styles, aged for two years in the bottle; very balanced but not excessively complex.
- 61 Nature - non-vintage Franciacorta, in the Brut Nature, Nature Blanc de Blancs and Nature Rosé styles. Matured for 5 years in the bottle on the lees.
- Palazzo Lana Extrême - the Franciacorta Riserva aged for at least 10 years in the bottle on the lees. The Extrême version is 100% Pinot Noir with an Extra Brut level of sweetness. This line is the jewel in the company’s crown.
Commercially, the main market continues to be within Italy, but the company is working successfully to make Franciacorta known in Northern Europe, the USA and Japan.
Franco Ziliani's three children, Cristina, Arturo and Paolo are the driving force behind Berlucchi’s shift to sustainability.
Ca' del Bosco
It was the mid-1960s when Annamaria Clementi Zanella bought a small country house in Erbusco surrounded by trees. A few years later, the foresight of her son Maurizio transformed that property into one of the most important wineries in Italy where nature fuses with art. For Maurizio Zanella, founder and president of Ca' del Bosco, “Franciacorta is a unique territory. This small wine region was already known in the early 1800s, as recorded in the Napoleonic land registry, but it blossomed in the late 1960s. Over the years, a fixed set of principles have always been followed, aimed at achieving quality, and this has resulted in a unique and recognisable style”. There is a strong focus on sustainability as evidenced by the fact that "today a large number of the vineyards are certified organic”, as Zanella points out.
As for the Ca' del Bosco winery itself, the grape varieties grown over some 230 hectares of Franciacorta DOCG vineyards are 64.5% Chardonnay, 30.0% Pinot Noir, 5.0% Pinot Blanc and 0.5% Erbamat.
The vineyards are managed in accordance with the principles and constraints dictated by the Lombardy Region’s Rural Development Plan and the organic certification scheme. This implies a complete ban on the use of dangerous substances with a high environmental impact – only organic fertilisation can be used; harmful insects must be controlled organically; soil management is based on permanent grassing with a focus on preserving natural soil fertility; and only agronomic techniques can be used for disease prevention.
In the cellar, nothing is left to chance and the winery has managed to strike the perfect balance between tradition and innovation. Many improvements have been introduced over the years such as the use of a special grape washing system and a corking machine that eliminates oxygen during disgorgement. Some of these pioneering designs have been patented by Ca' del Bosco itself, in order to produce wines that are increasingly clean and expressive of their regional identity, whilst mirroring the company’s signature style.
Ca' del Bosco Arts: The Weight of Time Suspended by Stefano Bombardieri.
Maurizio Zanella, the founder and president of Ca' del Bosco.
Production is divided into 8 Franciacorta labels: Cuvée Prestige Edition (extra brut), Cuvée Prestige Edition Rosé (extra brut), Vintage Collection Extra Brut, Vintage Collection Zero Dosage, Vintage Collection Satèn (brut), Vintage Collection Zero Dosage Noir, Annamaria Clementi (zero dosage) and Annamaria Clementi Rosé (extra brut).
The company exports around 20% of its wines, primarily to the USA, Japan, Switzerland, Germany and the UK but it has a presence in more than 60 countries.
Stefano Capelli, the winemaker at Ca' del Bosco.
Ca' del Bosco Arts: Water in dripping by Zheng.
Casa Paladin – Castello Bonomi
The majestic castle, built in the 19th century in Coccaglio at 275 metres above sea level, has been owned by the Bonomi family since 1910. It became part of the Paladin family’s ‘Casa Paladin’ group in 2008. Roberto and Carlo Paladin are at the helm of the company, which is committed to carrying on centuries-old winemaking traditions with the help of a highly experienced team of the calibre of Leonardo Valenti, lecturer at Milan State University, and Luigi Bersini, cellar master. Together, they produce wines using a modern approach while staying true to their roots and regional identity.
Since 1962, the Paladin family has grown its vineyard acreage by acquiring new properties in the most suitable Italian regions.
The South-facing vineyards, on the slopes of Monte Orfano, grow on calcareous soils with rocky substrates. The climate and soil lend the wines richness, structure and complexity.
Pinot Noir (30%), Erbamat (5%) and Chardonnay (60%) are grown, as well as some red grape varieties to make red wine.
Castello Bonomi subscribes to a philosophy of lengthy bottle ageing.
- Cuveè 22: 100% Chardonnay Franciacorta made from 22 different crus, which is aged in the bottle for 36 months;
- Cru Perdu (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir): Castello Bonomi's iconic Franciacorta, which comes from a ‘cru’ that was lost and then rediscovered. It is aged for over 72 months on the lees and for some vintages the Grand vintage is also available.
- Franciacorta Saten (100% Chardonnay) - aged for over 50 months;
- Franciacorta Rosè (100% Pinot Noir) - aged for over 36 months on the lees;
- Zero Dosage (50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir) - aged for over 80 months on the lees;
- Cuveè 1564 (40% Erbamat, 30% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir);
- Franciacorta Cuveè 22 Brut Nature (10% Erbamat, 45% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir).
- Franciacorta Riserva ‘Lucrezia’: ‘Etichetta Bianca’ 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir - aged for over 102 months on the lees; ‘Etichetta Nera’ 100% Chardonnay aged for between 170-220 months.
Castello Bonomi's target markets are the domestic market, but it also focuses on exports to Switzerland and Germany
The Vezzoli family has been farming since the 18th century, but the turning point came in the 1980s when Gianlorenzo Vezzoli planted the first vineyards. Within a few years, he had created processing, ageing and office facilities in the rural area of the property. His son Ugo then joined him as co-owner, with help from Gianlorenzo’s wife Rosita and his other son Gian Battista. In recent years, with the involvement of grandsons Gian Lorenzo and Alessandro in marketing and operational tasks, the production of Franciacorta DOCG has increased to 30,000 bottles. Two different facilities for events and tastings have been created inside the family home which sits in grounds with centuries-old trees.
Ugo Vezzoli's Franciacorta wines are aged on the lees in a temperature-controlled environment.
The company owns approximately 5 hectares of vineyards which are divided between 3 hectares of Chardonnay Franciacorta DOCG, 0.6 hectares of Pinot Noir Franciacorta DOCG and 0.4 hectares of Pinot Noir (to make red wine).
The range is as follows:
- The Satèn is made from 100% Chardonnay Franciacorta DOCG;
- The Rosè is made from 100% Pinot Nero Franciacorta DOCG;
- The Brut is made from 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir fermented as white wine for the base blend, most of which will be used for the Brut Franciacorta DOCG. After increased ageing on the lees, the remainder becomes Vintage Zero Dosage.
- The Pinot Nero IGT is used to produce the high-quality sparkling wine 'Rosita', which is aged for at least 60 months on the lees.
Two different facilities for events and tastings have been created inside the Vezzoli family home, surrounded by a garden with centuries-old trees.
The core market is essentially Italy, primarily areas such as Tuscany, Lombardy, Liguria and Lazio. Exports are focused on Switzerland and Northern Europe.
La Boscaiola – Vigneti Cenci
Azienda Agricola La Boscaiola - Vigneti Cenci was the brainchild of Nelson Cenci, a doctor, writer and member of the Alpine troops. After World War II, Nelson reunited in Cologne, Franciacorta, with other members of his Alpine regiment who had survived the disastrous operations in Russia. In the 1950s, with the help of his fellow soldiers, Nelson Cenci renovated a mid-19th century farmhouse and vineyards and began to nurture his passion for winegrowing.
Nelson Cenci, founder of Vigneti Cenci.
In the 1960s, the company resumed wine production which had been put on hold due to the war 20 years earlier. Today, Giuliana and Maurizio, Nelson's daughter and grandson, continue to lead the family in pursuit of excellence, making wines with very low sulphites. They craft pure, elegant Franciacorta with low levels of sweetness that do not obscure the wine and allow it to tell the story of the family and the land where it came from.
All the wines are made from grapes grown in the estate's vineyards on the slopes of Monte Orfano. These include old Pinot Blanc vines, the estate’s crowning glory, which are up to 70 years old. Over the years, new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards have been planted. The terroir at Monte Orfano basks in a dry, sunny Mediterranean climate with good ventilation, and instils the wines with minerality. All of them are produced using the ‘Solo Uva’ or ‘only grapes’ technique, where must from their own grapes is used in both the tirage and dosage, meaning that the wine is produced with no added sugar. This technique also means that the grapes can be harvested when they have reached full phenolic ripeness.
Giuliana and Maurizio, daughter and grandson of company founder Nelson Cenci, continue to lead the family in the pursuit of excellence.
7 styles are produced: La Capinera Brut, La Via della Seta Saten, Zero Dosage, La Capinera Rosè Brut, Nelson Cenci Extra Brut, Sessanta Vintage Brut and Nelson Cenci 'L'Insolita Annata' Vintage Brut.
In terms of markets, 75% of the wines are sold within Italy, mainly to the hospitality industry. The remaining 25% is exported to Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong and Japan.
Castel Faglia, which was founded in 1989 and is now owned by the Cavicchioli family, is located in Calino, a hamlet of Cazzago San Martino, in the centre of Franciacorta. The estate takes its name from the castle of the former owner, Colonel Umberto Faglia. It is situated on a hill of morainic origin at 300 m above sea level. The partly terraced vineyards stretch across its slopes. The perfect aspect, stony soils and special microclimate define the estate's wines.
Winemaker Sandro Cavicchioli supervises the entire Franciacorta winemaking process at Castel Faglia.
The company’s philosophy is aimed at creating Franciacorta wines with a strong regional identity, showing respect for the quality of the grapes and winemaking traditions. The Castel Faglia style is based on the constant quest for harmony between intensity and freshness, personality and drinkability. To achieve this, the vines are grown with utmost respect shown for the ecosystem and the vineyard. The grapes are harvested entirely by hand in crates and only the best clusters are selected. In the cellar, under the watchful eye of winemaker Sandro Cavicchioli, the grapes are gently crushed (only free-run juice is used to produce Franciacorta) and the wines are blended to create a balance between complexity, aromatics, body, finesse, character and stylistic consistency.
Using grapes from local producers, the company’s range runs the gamut in terms of Franciacorta styles, from the basic level to vintage, under its two brands ‘Castel Faglia’ (for super and hypermarkets) and ‘Monogram’ (for the hospitality sector.) The 17-hectare estate’s varietal range is 90% Chardonnay, with a balance of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. The wine is mainly sold in Italy with small quantities exported to the USA, Japan and England.
The Biondelli family's farmstead, whose centrepiece is a 16th century farmhouse, is situated in Bornato, an ancient village in the heart of Franciacorta. Today, the historical estate is a modern company equipped with the most advanced winemaking facilities. The aim is to produce excellent wines from a perfect fusion of tradition and modernity, starting with organically farmed vineyards.
Dr. Joska Biondelli, the owner and inspiring creator and manager of Cantine Biondelli.
The winery's success is due to a very flexible and dynamic team revolving around owner and inspiring creator Dr. Joska Biondelli, now assisted by his wife Francesca. Marta Uberti is tasked with both the vineyards and work in the winery, Dr. Cesare Ferrari is consultant winemaker and Michele Ugolini is the company's sales manager.
For the fruit, significant emphasis has been placed on Chardonnay, varying rootstock and clones depending on the agronomic characteristics. The only exception is the Pinot Noir used to produce the Rosé Donna Clemy, which comes from an authentic 'cru' dedicated to growing this challenging, but extraordinary variety.
Biondelli produces 5 different styles of Franciacorta Docg:
- Biondelli Brut NV, 100% organic Chardonnay;
- Biondelli Satén NV, 100% organic Chardonnay;
- Première Dame Vintage Zero Dosage 2015, 100% organic Chardonnay;
- Donna Clemy Rosé Vintage, 100% organic Pinot Noir;
- Cavalier Beccaria Riserva 2010, 100% Chardonnay, Limited Edition, last disgorgement 2017, aged for 72 months on the lees.
85% of the wines are sold in Italy but Biondelli is witnessing an increase in exports to Japan, Germany, Holland and England.
Franciacorta has demonstrated its ability to constantly ramp up its level of quality. Increasingly, vineyards are farmed sustainably and export markets are growing. Developing exports is considered a necessity due to increased sparkling wine production within Italy and the desire to bolster international awareness of a designation that symbolises traditional method Italian sparkling wine.
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