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Italians love sparkling wines. There are some great indigenous examples, and Italy is also a fantastic place to drink Champagne, particularly if you’re interested in the best grower Champagne. But Italy’s famous sparkling wine called Franciacorta has long been a mystery to me, so for a couple of years I’ve made an effort to seek knowledge through more tasting. After trying many Franciacortas, including the most renowned labels, I’m still not much past where I started: What’s the point of an apparent homage to Champagne that is mostly confected and dull, and that rarely seems to offer anything original? Franciacorta now produces more than six million bottles a year; surely there must be some good wine? Surely someone is doing good vineyard work and good cellar work to make compelling wine? Indeed, someone is, and we can start a short list with Arcari + Danese. But first, courtesy of JancisRobinson.com, we’ve borrowed a far more informed analysis of Franciacorta by the inimitable Walter Speller. For reasons of politics, tangled webs of social obligations, and ad pages to sell, few critics are willing or able to call it like they see it. Instead Walter sheds a lot of light on the subject, and he makes it fun to read. Jamie Wolff
The New Franciacorta - a Battle Against Dosage
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but in the case of Franciacorta, Italy's answer to Champagne, it has had a detrimental effect. This expensive Italian metodo classico wine has modelled itself closely on the French example, not only borrowing its grape varieties, with the occasional addition of Pinot Bianco, but also pretty much all of the nomenclature. Because of this it struggles to sell its wines on their own merits - as unique vehicles expressing its complex, diverse terroirs.
This is also why Franciacorta has attracted my attention only superficially, so when Jamie Wolff asked me to join him for a couple of visits in Franciacorta I was wondering what could possibly has piqued his interest. He suggested we meet with consultant Giovanni Arcari, 'a somewhat polarizing figure here', as Wolff described him. I saw this invitation as a chance to find out what is wrong with Franciacorta.
Together with oenologist Nico Danesi, Arcari founded TerraUomoCielo in 2002, a quirky young consultancy advising three small-scale Franciacorta producers. What makes TerraUomoCielo so different is the fact that their website doubles as Franciacorta's voice of dissent. Arcari is not exactly shy when writing about what he feels are key issues the region needs to address: its marketing, its addiction to sugar, and the lack of expression of terroir in many of its wines.
Arcari used to be a courtier and commercial wine rep and, although he originates from the region, he had never been involved with Franciacorta commercially. That changed in 2000 when he met Nico Danesi. Fresh out of university with a degree in oenology, Danesi had just begun to work as a vineyard consultant at Feudo di San Gregorio in Campania, when one of his fellow students, Andrea Arici asked him for advice. Arici was about to take over the running of a small family vineyard in Gussago - the 'classic' zone of Franciacorta, if you like - which, until then, had served merely to supply additional income to the mixed agricultural activity by selling off grapes. Arici wanted to use that plot to make a still wine, but Arcari and Danesi convinced him to devote it to Franciacorta.
'We entered the life of a contadino, a farmer, and we set off to understand his terroir and support him with technical advice', explained Arcari. There were no written contracts, just a handshake. What followed was a tiny production of 900 bottles of metodo classico, while the majority of Arici's grapes were still sold off to keep the estate afloat. But the urge to create something original was much stronger than mere financial gain.
That was in 2001. The vineyard with red wine grapes was ripped out and replanted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 2003 the production had already climbed to 3,000 bottles, while from 2007 the estate became financially self-sufficient as a wine producer. From the very beginning Arici has been the only producer in Franciacorta never to have used liqueur de dosage in any of his wines, labeling them all 'Dosaggio Zero'. I asked Arici why he had made that extraordinarily radical choice at a time when the standard practice in Franciacorta was Brut, which sold like hot cakes in the domestic market, and when Zero Dosaggio had hardly been given a second thought. 'I wanted to understand my terroir. Sugar would have only gotten in the way', came his succinct answer.
Arici's approach to take terroir, instead of a preconceived style (and a foreign one at that), as his main inspiration is radically different from that of most Franciacorta produced today and very much the vision of TerraUomoCielo. That is not to say that the idea is brand new, but it has never been advocated so strongly before. It is so unusual in the region that when Arcari and Danesi stopped using sugar in any form for the production of their own wines (Arcari and Danesi started their own label in 2006), they requested an inspection of their cellars by the anti-fraud department of the ministry of agriculture so that there would be no suspicion that they were buying sugar on the black market.
Arcari and Danesi consider sugar in the form of dosage as the main culprit in the lack of identity in many of the Franciacorta wines. Playing devil's advocate, I asked Arcari if it is actually possible to make truly great sparkling wine in Franciacorta without resorting to using champagne as the inspiration. He answered with a resolute 'yes'. 'You can make great wines here if you stop harvesting grapes before they are physiologically perfectly ripe. Unripe fruit cannot express terroir and the sugar you use in the second fermentation and liqueur d'expédition makes for very uniform wines'.
One of the crucial differences between champagne and Franciacorta is that the former has a marginal climate in which grapes do not always ripen fully, leaving producers no option other than chaptalisation to achieve a decent alcohol level. With very few exceptions, such as the freakish 2014 vintage, Franciacorta never encounters this natural limitation. It is exactly this fact that makes Franciacorta unique: it can make traditional method wines without any enrichment, and, later, without any liqueur de dosage to counterbalance excessive acidity. In fact, zero dosage should be Franciacorta's default setting and, in the majority of cases, would result in fresher, much more original wines.
To get the bubbles in the wine, producers have traditionally had to add cane sugar to provoke the secondary fermentation, thereby also adding to the total alcohol. Arcari and his clients, on the other hand, have begun to add grape must from the same vintage, instead of cane sugar, to trigger the secondary fermentation. According to him, adding grape must dilutes the base wine's original alcohol level and results in only a marginal increase in the total alcohol.
An idiosyncrasy that is often overlooked is the fact that although the majority of Franciacorta wines are labelled non-vintage, practically none are the result of blending wines from different vintages. Most producers simply cannot afford to keep reserve wines from several vintages to guarantee a continuous house style regardless of vintage differences, because it ties up too much money. The consequence is that practically every NV Franciacorta wine is actually a vintage wine, even if it is not declared as such on the label. 'If I want to put a vintage on the label, much stricter ageing requirements apply', Arcari told me. While NV must remain for a minimum of 18 months on the lees before being disgorged, a vintage wine must have at least 30 months. However, unlike the majority of champagnes (but like most TrentoDoc fizz), almost all Franciacorta has the date of disgorgement on the back label. So with a little calculation, the vintage of an NV can easily be found out – generally two years before the year or disgorgement.
Because of this, practically all NV Franciacortas are an expression of a single vintage, something the region should embrace, especially in the light of the growing popularity of so-called grower champagnes. But Franciacorta producers also need to accept the relevance and impact of terroir on their wines. Embracing this could be a stepping stone to achieving wines whose identity comes from the site instead of from the vinification.
The region is fully aware of its problems, especially certainly since economic recession took hold of Italy, its most important market until now, but has been slow to decide in which direction it should go. Yet there are indications that new and exciting developments, driven by a small group of young Franciacorta producers, led by Arcari and Danesi, now themselves owners of a tiny Franciacorta estate are taking place. They are still far from numerous, and may look like a little like David against Goliath, but their idea of focusing on terroir rather than simply on a style of wine is gaining momentum. While for the moment the Franciacorta establishment merely observes their efforts, there are signs that some are quite interested in at least some of their ideas, if only to maintain their position in a changing and potentially lucrative international market for Italian sparkling wine. Walter Speller
NB: first published Oct. 25, 2015, on www.jancisrobinson.com, this is just one of many thoughtful, in-depth articles that are presented there every week on every imagineable wine topic. If you only have time for one site, this should be it. If you roam around the web (or printed matter), it's refreshing to read about wine from an Anglo-European perspective, free from many of the entanglements that snarl some other journalists.
Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi set out in 2006 to make Franciacorta in a style that paid more attention to the terroir of Lombardi than that of Champagne. Arcari e Danesi Dossagio Zero is the fruit of those efforts. Made from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Blanc, both harvested for ripeness, the wine is powerful on the nose with golden apple, ripe peach, layers of floral notes and a pronounced toasty note. The wine is full, smooth and very dry with a lively mousse, ripe orchard fruit, kiwi, and a mineral undertone. Rich and forward, Zero Dossagio would pair beautifully with washed rind cheese, pear and Gorgonzola salad, soft scrambled eggs, coconut curry, or other assertive dishes. Andy Paynter