Above: the Montorfano (Mt. Orfano) vineyard where Arcari + Danesi grows Chardonnay for their Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero, a wine that they make using their “solo uva” (“just grapes”) method.
Despite the extreme quality, the immense value, and the uniqueness of the wines within the spectrum of sparkling viticulture, Franciacorta remains one of the fine wine world’s most misunderstood and improperly categorized wines.
Such malignment can be attributed in part, at least in my view, to how the wines have been marketed outside of Italy. In the 2010s, just as many young U.S. wine professionals were looking out for the soulful, family farmer-driven, and thoughtful wines of Italy’s new wave, the Franciacorta powers-that-be continued to pound the luxury/premium pavement. And pound they did until they pound their Franciacorta into the ground.
There is still a of confusion in the wine world about what the term dosaggio zero means.
That’s not to say that Franciacorta isn’t producing world-class wines: Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista (and family), Ricci Curbastro, Barone Pizzini, and Monte Rosso among other iconic brands continue to ship great wines to North America. But young people can’t afford and have little interest in drinking them.
(I owe all of the above a thanks for the two years I served as the consortium ambassador in the U.S.)
That disconnect has been breached over the last decade or so by just a handful of small-scale producers who grow their own grapes and age their wines themselves.
One of those winemakers is Arcari + Danesi, led by my close friends Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi. Depending on the generosity of the vintage, they make about 22,000 bottles of their Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero each year.
The wine is produced using mostly Chardonnay grapes that they grow in their terraced vineyard atop Montorfano (Mt. Orfano), one of the highest growing sites in the appellation. The soils are compact and morainic in nature, meaning they are composed of small stones (about 10 centimeters wide, give or take) with a robust presence of iron.
Tracie, the girls, and I visited Giovanni and Nico’s vineyard in 2018. As Tracie would say, if I were a grape, I would want to grow there.
But they also add a small amount of Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) to this wine. Chardonnay is the hegemonic variety of Franciacorta and many producers have shied away from fickle Pinot Blanc, choosing instead to make 100 percent Chardonnay wines. But Giovanni and Nico still value the gentle aromatic character the grape imparts to the wine, giving it a “lift” (as the young sommeliers say) that many others lack.
The wine is a dosaggio zero, otherwise known in wine parlance as pas dosé or brut nature. Some believe that this designation means that no sweetener is added to the wine. What it really means is that no sweetener is added before bottling and that the total residual sugar in the bottled wine is less than 3 grams per liter. But even when no dosage (sweetener) is added at the end of vinification (a common practice in Champagne and beyond), a sweetener is still used. It’s essential to the process.
Like all producers of classic method (Champagne method) sparkling wine — from Champagne to Napa and beyond — Giovanni and Nico use a sweetener to provoke the wine’s second fermentation in bottle — the tirage (French) or tiraggio (Italian). (The classic recipe used in Champagne calls for 24 grams of sugar — yes, 24 grams! — per liter.) But unlike the overwhelming majority of classic method producers, they don’t use a sweetener made from cane or beet sugar. Instead, they use reserved grape must from the same vineyard where the Chardonnay is grown. In other words, when they harvest the fruit, they set aside and freeze some of the grape must (newly pressed juice) and freeze it until they are ready to provoke the wine’s second fermentation. They call their tirage protocol the “solo uva” or “just grapes” method.
I can’t wait to get back to Italy next month to teach in Piedmont at Slow Food U. But the first stop will be Mt. Orfano! That’s me and Lila Jane at Arcari + Danesi in 2018.
The winemakers believe that by using reserved grape must instead of refined cane or beet sugar, they can avoid the oxidative character that you find in wines from certain Champagne and Franciacorta houses. You know that wonderful “yeasty,” “brioche” aroma you get in Bollinger (our favorite Champagne, btw)? Giovanni and Nico will tell you that it’s created by the oxidated sugar in the wine.
I’ve done countless tastings with them where we compared their pre-solo uva method wines with their current style. And we’ve even added famous Champagne houses to the flights when comparing the wines. Over and over again, you get a freshness in the solo uva wines that you don’t find in traditional Champagne and other classic method wines.
That’s not to say that one is better than the other. I love them both and no one is taking away our beloved Bollinger! (I even once wrote and recorded a song about Bollinger.) But I do find myself more readily reaching for Arcari + Danesi wines when I’m sitting down to dinner. Bollinger is reserved especially for pairings with caviar, oysters, risotto alla parmigiana, and even potato chips — extra salty foods that work well with that style of wine. Arcari + Danesi is a wine we drink throughout dinner, including pairings with a wide variety of flavors and textures.
As an Algerian critical theorist once said, vive la différance!
Houstonians, if you want to taste this wine, it’s now on our wine list at Roma in Rice Village where I became the wine director earlier this month. And Californians, the wine is coming to my Do Bianchi wholesale/retail program next month. Hit me up! Thanks for checking it out.