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Franciacorta's Turn

It’s unfortunate that more than half of sparkling wine sales (and one assumes their consumption) in the United States occurs during the winter holiday season, unfortunate because these are wines that should be enjoyed during all seasons at the table as well as for celebrations.  But, as people who can’t think of anything better to observe often say, “it is what it is.” 

Still, if this is the season that people who are ordering sparkling wine, either at the table or in the shop, why not recommend a few bottles of perhaps the best sparkling wine outside of Champagne?  That would be Franciacorta from Lombardy in northern Italy.  I admit my own tardiness in discovering Franciacorta, largely because there aren’t that many producers, and there hasn’t been very much promotion of the brand.

“It wasn’t until 1990 that an association was formed, and there are still only 104 producers,” Cristina Ziliani told me recently at a luncheon at Mozzarella & Vino around the corner from MOMA in New York.  Ziliani is the daughter of Franco Ziliani, who was asked to stabilize a white wine in the region a half century ago and convinced the owner to make a sparkling instead.  With Ziliani’s Berlucchi brand helping to lead the way, Franciacorta received its D.O.C. in 1967 and was upgraded to a D.O.C.G. in 1995.  The primary grapes of Franciacorta are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with lesser amounts of Pinot Blanc, and the wine is fermented in the bottle in the classic method.

Much of the Franciacorta I have tasted is fresh and clean in the manner of non-vintage Champagne, and Ziliani says there is a reason.  “We are just starting to use reserves for non-vintage,” she says, “but it is not yet part of the rules.  Many of the wineries are small, and they don’t have room to store reserves for blending.”  As the region itself ages, more reserves will undoubtedly be part of the equation to add richness to the bubbles. (Conversely, some Champagne makers I have talked with recently are using less reserve to give more freshness to their blends.)

A special category that Franciacorta has created, Ziliani says, is “Satèn,” a dry blanc de blancs designation that has less atmospheric pressure than other Franciacorta. So far, little of that is available in the United States.  We tasted several Berlucchi bottles at lunch, all quite good, although not all are yet available here.  Brand ambassador that she is, Ziliani was offering her Franciacorta to everyone at adjoining tables.

In addition to Berlucchi, another Franciacorta brand to look for is Montenisa, a winery run by the three Antinori sisters, who introduced it to me in Italy a few years ago.

Every well-made wine has its due, regardless of style, and Franciacorta is only one of many delicious sparkling available to America drinkers. But for quality and price, Franciacorta has earned its turn at the table.

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