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Italy’s Sparkling Advantage: Prosecco and Franciacorta
BY ERIC GUIDO | DECEMBER 15, 2020
The holidays are upon us. It’s the season where more bubbly is purchased and consumed than at any other time of the year. Whether it’s for gifting, celebrating or the perfect pairing at your holiday meal, a bottle of bubbly always fits the bill. The funny part is that, when the average consumer walks into a retail store at this time of year, the word Champagne is usually the first thing to part from their lips. However, and I can tell you this from personal experience, once they learn that the average entry-level Champagne sells for $40 or more, the next word from their lips is Prosecco! I say Bravo to that, as long as the Prosecco you’re buying is through an informed decision and worth the tariff - but that’s a big part of the reason why you’re here reading this, isn’t it? But let’s just say that you’re really looking for that Champagne-like experience without settling for the “entry-level” bottle. I have an answer for that too - it’s Franciacorta. Here we have a mix of the similar varieties used in Champagne, which are vinified using the same techniques. The good news is that, while Franciacorta isn’t inexpensive, it is possible to experience something special through a bottle that shows complexity and finesse while communicating it at a much more digestible price.
Prosecco on the Rise
Champagne may be the most popular category for sparkling wine around the world, but Prosecco doesn’t fall too far behind. If my recent tastings have revealed anything, it’s that this attention is well-deserved. Granted, there’s an ocean of simply palatable Prosecco produced each year; and because of this, in building this report, I thought it prudent to be selective in choosing which producers to focus on. Having said that, overall, the wines that I tasted really impressed me. First, let’s consider the price point. With nearly 100 bottles of Prosecco tasted, a mix that spanned from the entry level, to the more defined locations within the Conegliano Valdobbiadene of Rive and Cartizze, the average bottle price came out to just $23. This number alone is amazing, yet what’s even more interesting is that it includes many wines that overperformed in every possible way. Will you find a Prosecco that will deliver all of the jovial fruit and juicy freshness you could ever hope for at the $15 price point? You certainly will. However, what you’ll also find is an even higher percentage of wines that transcend expectations. These are the Proseccos that manage to communicate a sense of place and varietal purity, often with little to no residual sugar, while at other times, such as in the Extra Dry category, with a filigreed sweetness that will remind you of your favorite Riesling Kabinett.
I believe the potential here is untapped; simply look to the steep hillside vineyards of the Rive category to see what I mean. Each one is made from hand-harvested fruit, grown at lower yields, easily identifiable from their labels and vintage-dated. Seriously, one of the only negative impressions that I left these tastings with was how the Proseccos from Cartizze simply didn’t communicate their elevated status or the price tags that go with them, yet these also make up the smallest percentage of Prosecco produced. In the end, If you haven’t yet had your eye-opening Prosecco moment, then I strongly urge you to look to many of the top wines in this report.
The Franciacorta Paradigm
So, if Franciacorta can offer a high level of quality, complexity and oftentimes longevity comparable to the greatest sparkling wines from around the world, then why aren’t we all drinking it? The fact is, with Champagne and its over 300 years of branding dominating the luxury market, and Prosecco cleaning up throughout the value category, Franciacorta has found itself in an odd position of trying to prove its worth. This is an unfortunate yet completely true reality.
Franciacorta is made using three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Blanc. The growing region is significantly smaller than the size of Champagne, yet restrictions on yields are also much lower. What’s more, they are produced using Metodo Classico, the same process as Champagne, with a secondary fermentation taking place in bottle, where the wines then mature sur lie (on the lees). In the case of Franciacorta, this is for no less than eighteen months for non-vintage, thirty months for vintage and sixty months for the Riserva category. It’s important to note that these aging restrictions are also longer than in other sparkling wine regions. As for the terroir, it’s an ideal growing location with well-draining mineral-rich soils, cascading hills, warm summers and cool nights, all moderated by the effects of Lake Iseo to the north. One could argue that it’s the longer and cooler growing season of Champagne that gives them the edge - but let’s stop there.
I think it is a mistake to constantly comparing these two regions. When you look to Franciacorta and its aim at the high end – to create Italy’s greatest sparkling wine – its value suddenly becomes apparent. I think it’s time that we all have a paradigm shift and welcome Franciacorta into our cellars. Sadly, not nearly as many Franciacorta producers as I had hoped for were able to submit wines for this report due to the current difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the end, I invite you to think outside the box. To look beyond the stereotypes in sparkling wine. To perhaps save a bit of money without sacrificing quality and, possibly, have and share a revelatory moment.
All wines for this article were tasted in December of 2020 in New York City.
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