By Elin McCoy, Bloomberg
THE PROSECCO boom is real: Sales are projected to reach 412 million bottles annually by 2020, up from 150 million a decade ago.
But, ho-hum, that’s old news.
Time to move on to what’s next: under-the-radar, world-class bubblies from Northern Italy’s Franciacorta and Trentino regions. Unlike populist Prosecco, these are made with the same grapes and labor-intensive method used in Champagne, which gives them similar style and elegance but at a much lower price on average than their French counterparts. Their quality keeps getting better, too, thanks to avant-garde wine makers pushing organic viticulture techniques.
These wines have been overlooked because the regions are small and little of what they produced was making it out of the country. That’s changing, however. Worldwide demand for sparkling wine is on the rise, and Italian producers see an opportunity to capitalize on Prosecco’s popularity in the US and UK as both large and small producers of other wines focus on quality, importers are seeking them out. Online retailers have added more labels in the US, and wine shops have started stocking a few of the brands.
Franciacorta is the name of both the region and the wine. Compared to Champagne, which produces about 300 million bottles annually, the 117 wineries in Franciacorta make fewer than 20 million bottles a year and export a mere 11% of that. Trentodoc, the trademark for Trentino’s sparkling wines, is even smaller: Just 51 producers will pump out 8 million to 9 million bottles a year, exporting 20%. And neither region boasts wineries with the centuries-old tall-tale history of a monk “drinking stars” like the legendary Dom Perignon in Champagne.
But vineyards have been in both places for centuries, even though Franciacorta’s serious sparkling wine lineage only dates to the 1960s. Franciacorta, about an hour from the fashion hub of Milan, is in the foothills of the Alps near Lago d’Iseo, where the artist Christo created a floating pier spectacle two years ago. The high-altitude Trentodoc lies in the shadows of the craggy Dolomite mountains, northeast of Lake Garda. The modern history of sparkling wines in this region goes back to 1902, when the now-famous Ferrari winery (no relation to the maker of sports cars) planted chardonnay grapes.
Chardonnay and pinot noir, plus a bit of pinot blanc, are the most important grapes, but some Franciacorta wine makers, worried about global warming, are beginning to embrace the native white grape erbamat, which has a longer growing period than chardonnay and maintains high acidity even when the grapes get very ripe.
Both regions make a variety of styles, but Franciacorta also has its own all-white grape blend labeled satèn (“silk” in Italian). It’s creamier, with a softer effervescence and is meant as an aperitivo.
The bubbles get into the wine via the metodo classico, the same way they do it in Champagne. The base wine is bottled with yeast and a small amount of sugar to create a second fermentation, trapping CO2 in the bottle, and the wine is aged for 15 months to 60 months. In Franciacorta, most wine makers are starting to use very little or no of sugar before release. Labeled “zero dosaggio” or “nature,” these wines have extra energy and purity.
What all this means is that these wines doesn’t taste like Champagne. They are fresh and lively, but also riper, with less edgy acidity and more creamy peach and pear flavors. Here are nine of my favorites.
• 2011 Ferrari Perlé Brut. This creamy-textured all-chardonnay sparkler comes from the largest estate in the region, owned by the Lunelli family. It has aromas of lush almond and freshly baked bread with flavors of apple and white peach. $36
• 2013 Rotari Brut Rosé. A blend of pinot noir and chardonnay that tastes of strawberries and ripe cherries. It has lip-smacking brightness and is terrific for the price. $18
• NV Il Mosnel Franciacorta Brut. Mosnel (new labels don’t show the Il) is located in the heart of Franciacorta. Crisp, bright, salty, and rich, this combo of chardonnay, pinot blanc, and just a bit of pinot noir over-delivers for the price. $25
• NV Ronco Calino Satèn Brut. A small producer (only 5,000 cases a year), Ronco Calino was founded 23 years ago. This 100% chardonnay is an Italian version of blanc de blancs. Citrusy, mineral, and fresh, it has a creamy texture and is ideal with spicy appetizers. $29
• 2014 Arcari + Danesi Dosaggio Zero. Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi are regional rebels, constantly experimenting to make a fizz that’s highly original and distinct from Champagne. This bottling, 90% chardonnay and 10% pinot blanc, is silky textured and complex, with floral and golden apple aromas and fruit and mineral flavors. $35
• NV Ca del Bosco Cuvee Prestige Brut. One of the region’s largest producers, Ca del Bosco also makes top cuvées such as the exotic Annamaria Clementi, which are hard to find. More easily obtainable is this sleek, basic bottling. It’s a mostly chardonnay blend with some pinot noir and pinot blanc that has minty aromas and savory, spicy taste. $35
• NV Ferghettina Rosé Brut. Fizz from this solid, relatively new producer includes this frothy, delicate pink, 100% pinot noir in a gorgeous clear bottle. It has bright cherry and floral aromas and flavors, with plenty of structure. $50
• 2012 Monte Rossa Cabochon Brut. An intense blend of 70% chardonnay and 30% pinot noir, it’s smoky and serious with aromas of citrus and toasted hazelnuts. It’s sharp and mouth-cleansing — in a good way. $70
• 2006 Bellavista Franciacorta Extra Brut Vittorio Moretti. Entry-level wines from this fine producer set a high standard. This flagship is from the vineyard’s best chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, and it’s superb. Harmonious and golden, it’s filled with flavors of citrus, caramel, and yellow fruits. $120
By Elin McCoy, Bloomberg