Understanding Italian Sparkling Wine: Franciacorta

Franciacorta Pavillion Vinitaly 2015

When it comes to sparkling wine, everyone’s first thought is French Champagne. It has been the go-to-wine for parties and celebrations for a long time. But it’s not the only sparkling wine known worldwide:

  • Prosecco reached a solid international exposure;
  • Franciacorta is now showcasing its products to the world, being the main sponsor of the EXPO in Milan;
  • Spanish Cava is widely known and is produced by some of the largest wineries in the world.

However, there are significant differences among them. You certainly noticed that a bottle of prosecco is cheaper than a bottle of Franciacorta or Champagne: a research made by Cermes Bocconi in 2011 revealed that the average retail price of a bottle of Franciacorta is €19.6 versus €4.15 for a bottle of DOC Prosecco. This is pretty much related to the winemaking process.

Franciacorta Consortium

We created an infographic to describe the Franciacorta Consortium and how it went from 29 members in 1990 to 109 today, with the potential to sponsor an event like EXPO.

Franciacorta Infographic

Traditional Method vs Charmat Method

As we mentioned earlier, many wine drinkers still don’t know the difference between Franciacorta and Prosecco. Though both categories are characterized by bubbles, they are the result of two completely different winemaking techniques: the Traditional method and the Charmat method. The former, also known as méthod Champenoise (which can be used only by Champagne winemakers), is defined by WineSpectator as:

The labor-intensive and costly process whereby wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, creating bubbles. All Champagne and most high-quality sparkling wine is made by this process.

In the Charmat method, the second fermentation happens in a tank and not in the bottle:

A less expensive, mass-production method for producing bulk quantities of sparkling wine. The second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank, rather than in a bottle, decreasing lees contact and producing larger, coarser bubbles. The wine is filtered under pressure and bottled. Also known as the bulk process or tank method.

Fun fact about this second method: it’s also called Charmat-Martinotti to give credit to Martinotti who first studied this method in Italy, where it’s also more popular. Glera, the grape variety for Prosecco, is especially suited for this method. Charmat improved and patented this process in 1907, which was also revised and optimized later in the 20th century.

The Traditional Method Step By Step

Focusing on the traditional method adopted by the Franciacorta Consortium, we found a very clear infographic on the Consortium’s website:

Franciacorta Winemaking Process Infographic

The grapes are hand-picked to ensure a detailed selection of the healthiest bunches and a more gentle handle. The grapes are piled in small boxes, strictly regulated in size: too much weight in the same box would start micro-fermentation processes before reaching the cellar, affecting the quality of the wine.

The grapes go through soft pressing and primary fermentation in tanks, where the carbon dioxide is let go. After that, the cuvée is created blending the base wine of different vintages, varieties (chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot blanc) and vineyards depending on the final product the winery wants to create.

At this stage, the cuvée is bottled with sugar and yeasts; the bottle is closed with a crown cap similar to the one used for beer, and lies in horizontal position.

The secondary fermentation in the bottle generates CO2 that brings the pressure up to 6.5 atmospheres for the regular brut (5 atm for Satèn). As a reference, the pressure of your car’s tyres is probably around 2.2-2.3 atmospheres.

The aging period in the bottle depends on the type of Franciacorta the winery wants to obtain:

  • Franciacorta: 18 months.
  • Franciacorta Rosé and Satèn: 24 months.
  • Franciacorta / Rosé / Satèn millesimato: 30 months.
  • Franciacorta / Rosé / Satèn Riserva: 60 months.

The riddling phase (remuage in French), which slowly brings the bottle to vertical position while rotating around its axis, is now completely automatized, but it used to be executed manually.

It’s still done manually for some magnum bottles and special editions. If you visit Franciacorta, they will tell you how women were usually preferred for this activity because of their “better touch”.

Nowadays, the refrigeration process makes the removal of the metal plug and the lees much easier, but the disgorging (dégorgement) used to be done manually “à la volée”, as you can see in the next video:

The ability is related to removing the crown cap, letting the lees flow out of the bottle and closing it while losing the minimum possible amount of liquid.

After the disgorging, the liquid lost has to be replaced. Here, the liqueur d’expédition comes into play as a “secret recipe” of base wine and sucrose to really differentiate from other wineries. The quantity of sugar in the liqueur d’expédition determines the category of the final wine:

  • 0-3 g/l:     Pas dosé (it’s only the residual sugar in the wine)
  • 3-6 g/l:     Extra Brut
  • 6-12 g/l:   Brut
  • 12-17 g/l: Extra Dry
  • 17-32 g/l: Dry
  • 32-50 g/l: Demi-Sec

Final corking: the mushroom-shape cork and the wire cage are placed on the bottle, together with the official DOCG label.

You might have heard of Berlucchi, Ca del Bosco, Bellavista or Barone Pizzini. Click here for a complete list of the wineries that founded or joined the Consortium.

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