And this week, we will discuss Italian Champagne

By Celia Strong

Whoa! Wait a minute! There is no such thing. At least, that’s what we’ve all been told. Relax. All that we have learned is still good. And correct. It’s just that we get to learn a whole new wine this week. And, after we taste our new wine, I suspect we will have had our eyes opened wider. Always a good thing when it comes to new wines.

So, off we go to Italy. To a region that we don’t know well. Mostly because we don’t drink a lot of their wines. Lombardy, one of the twenty wine regions in Italy, Lombardy is located in the northwestern part of the country, east of the Piedmont region. It is just over 9,000 square miles and about ten million people (a sixth of the country’s total) live there. Milan is the capital city of Lombardy. The region’s name goes back to a Germanic tribe, the Lombards, who ruled the area in the 6th century. This is a region with lots of lakes, all from glacial origins. Including Lake Garda and Lake Como. The wine region of Lombardy has 15 DOCs, 3 GOCGs and 13 IGTs, geographically typical wines. They produce red, white and rosé wines. But, for many wine drinkers, their best is the DOCG Franciacorta. This is a sparkling wine, and, yes, it has been compared to French Champagne. Favorably compared. Let’s see why. . .

To begin with, Franciacorta is made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Sometimes a small amount of Pinot Blanc. We know that the first two of these varieties are the basis for Champagne’s wines. And, they are not the usual for Italian sparkling wines. (Think of Prosecco and Moscato. Way better known as Italian bubbles!) Franciacorta wine comes both non-vintage and vintaged. Like Champagne. There are rosé versions and Blanc de Blancs. When “experts” gather to taste Franciacorta wines, the descriptions are very similar to Champagnes. Biscuit, brioche, lemon, creaminess are all common terms for both appellations. Basically, Franciacorte is considered to be Italy’s best bubbly.

There are some differences, though, between Champagne and Franciacorta. First, Champagne production dates back 350 years; Franciacorte has only 65 or so years of history. This sparkling wine is a newcomer in the world of Italian wines. The first one ever made was in the late 1950’s. It was an attempt to make a “Champagne” style wine, not just a sparkling, but something to compete with Champagne in quality. The first was very well done, and well received. And more Franciacortas followed quickly. The second big difference between Champagne and Franciacorta is the amount wine they produce. The French produce more than seven million gallons a year. One hundred times more than Franciacorta. Which means Franciacortas are harder to find. And can be costly.

In 1967, Franciacorte was established as a DOC wine. In 1995, it was elevated to DOCG. Italian wine laws say that these wines are bottle aged on their lees, to enhance flavors and complexities. For non-vintage wines, the aging is 18 months. For rosés and satèn (their name for blanc de blancs) wines it’s 24 months, and, for vintage dated wines it’s 30 months. Reserve Franciacorta wines are 60 months. All these directives are meant to raise the quality level of the wines. Besides these laws, Franciacorta producers are helped by an almost perfect climate and soil. Warm, sunny summer days and cooler nights. Resulting in good acidity and developed flavors in their grapes. The vineyards have gravely, stony soils that are well drained and mineral-rich.

Hopefully, with just this bit of new knowledge, we are all ready for our Franciacorta? Ferghettina Franciacorta Brut. The Ferghettini winery was established, in 1992, by Roberto Gatti. Roberta had spent years working in the local vineyards and was well-respected by others in the wine industry. His reputation let him acquire contracts for some of the very best grapes in the appellation. Today, he has 445 acres of vines, in nine Franciacorta districts. Besides top quality grapes, Roberto and his wife and their two children also emphasized top quality equipment and vineyard management. The family is supported by 15 employees and they produce 350,000 bottles a year.

The Ferghettina Franciacorta Brut is made from 95% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Noir. There are 250,000 bottles of this wine per year. The first fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks at controlled temperatures. Grapes from each vineyard are fermented separately (like Champagne), and then rest in steel tanks before the second fermentation. The wines are blended, sugar and yeasts are added, and the wines are bottled for their second fermentation. Like Champagne. Four weeks for the second fermentation, followed by 24 months of sitting in its lees in the bottles. Then, finally, disgorging and corking is done. Our wine is straw yellow in color. With aromas of hazelnuts, sweet fruits and white flowers. Delicious. And ready to drink by itself or with cheese or seafoods. Any where you would enjoy a Champagne. Good news is the cost. $24.97. Bad news is there is a very limited amount. I guess, though, that has to be expected if Champagne producers make 100 times more than Franciacorta producers. An eye opening new wine! For Christmas or before. Enjoy.

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