Franciacorta’s Yellow Brick Road

maurizio zanella wineAbove: Maurizio Zanella of Ca’ del Bosco is Franciacorta’s Wizard of Oz. The technological advances he’s made in his pursuit of zero-sulfur wines are astounding.

The most amazing thing happened on the last day of Vinitaly, Italy’s annual wine trade fair, held each spring in Verona.

A couple of colleagues from New York, high-powered wine buyers, had asked me to walk them through the Franciacorta pavilion. Both of them work intimately with Italian wines and have years of experience in the Italian wine trade. But neither, they told me, had ever “wrapped his mind” around Franciacorta.

And so we set out together to taste. When they arrived at our first appointment, they were nonplussed. Why, they asked me, in the late afternoon on the last day of the fair, when the grounds were practically empty, was the Franciacorta pavilion brimming with consumers?

Welcome to Franciacorta’s Yellow Brick Road.

grape washing machineAbove: Zanella’s new multi-million-dollar grape washing machine, which he conceived and developed personally. As the winery has expanded its organic farming, Zanella has worked assiduously to eliminate oxidation and the application of sulfur by means of his ingenious contraptions.

Italians love Franciacorta. Here in the U.S., we hardly understand the category. But over the last decade Italians have developed an insatiable thirst for the wines.

On the last day of the fair, the pavilion was still bustling with tasters. On the first three days of the fair, the entrances to the Franciacorta section of the Lombardy pavilion were blocked by security guards who were charged with controlling the overflow of people trying to get in. I had to use my press pass to enter every time I visited.

organic wine italyAbove: my client Barone Pizzini became the first Franciacorta winery to produce certified organic wines in 2001 (note the “bio” or “organic” designation on the seal of the bottle (the day I visited they were rebottling the wines for second fermentation and lees aging). Today, more and more growers are experimenting with organic and biodynamic farming there.

Franciacorta is among the youngest of Italy’s high-profile appellations. Even though fine wines have been produced in Brescia province since the Renaissance, the Franciacorta classic method DOCG was created relatively recently (1995).

Sparkling wines were first made there in the 1960s by a handful of wealthy landowners. For the most part, they were Italian industrialists who had vacation villas in the beautiful wine country that lies to the south of Lake Iseo, part of Lombardy’s chic lake district (Como is the most famous). And three decades would pass before classic-method wines would become the focus of winemaking in Brescia province.

Today, the viticultural landscape has changed radically, thanks in no small measure to a new generation of growers and homegrown winemaking consultants.

Most of the small growers used to sell all of their fruit to the big négociant houses. Today many are bottling their own fruit and marketing the wines themselves. Family-run estates like Camossi and Colline della Stella have become the darlings of Italian wine insiders, for example.

Franciacorta’s new wave has begun to reshape Italian consumers’ perception of the wines and their ethos in the marketplace. But there are still a number of factors working against the success of winemakers’ efforts. Chiefly, the wines continue to be marketed as an alternative to their transalpine counterparts. Another major problem faced by growers and bottlers is a boom-and-bust approach to production and pricing (33,000 bottles of Franciacorta were recently sold at auction for just €8,000, for example).

In my view, Franciacorta is one of the most exciting appellations in Italy today and I have a number of posts lined up on the wines I tasted on my recent visit there. I’ll also be posting on new and potentially revolutionary approach to classic-method winemaking. Stay tuned…

Please see this post that I wrote for Barone Pizzini on “What makes Franciacorta so unique in the panorama of Italian wines.”

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