Franciacorta “reset” applauded by winemakers

Above: The gorgeous Lago d’Iseo (Lake Iseo) provides maritime influence for the vineyards of Franciacorta. The beauty of Italy’s topography is immeasurable.

“No inflated numbers this time. No triumphalism. And not even any orgasms during a ‘Ring Around the Rosie,'” wrote my good friend, winemaker, and Franciacorta superhero Giovanni Arcari on his blog yesterday. “Nonetheless, it feels like a good moment to celebrate a success, even if that success was generated by a problem.”

Giovanni was referring to newly announced Franciacorta appellation regulations that will lower yields, raise the minimum vineyard age, and help to raise production standards throughout the appellation, where Champagne-method sparkling wines are produced.

By all accounts, Italy produces more sparkling wine than any other country: at latest count, “400 million bottles with Euro 1.7 billion in sales.”

Despite the generally bleak outlook for Italian winemakers, these figures have resulted in robust chest-beating, fist pumping, and a surplus in funds devoted to marketing (the “triumphalism” to which Giovanni refers).

But Franciacorta, an affluent appellation created in the 1960s and funded by Italian steel magnates, has suffered the economic crisis more acutely than any other sparkling wine producer: as Franco Ziliani reported on his sparkling wine blog earlier this year, prices for Franciacorta — a luxury product — have reached alarming lows, with wines being sold in Europe for as low as Euro 4.

Above: One of the most interesting tastings I attended during the 2011 European Wine Bloggers Conference was a flight of nearly 30 Franciacorta crus at the Berlucchi winery. I think that many would be surprised at the diversity of growing sites in the appellation (but more on that in a future post).

The new appellation regulations were approved by an overwhelming majority (by Italian standards) of 80% of consortium members, reports Giovanni.

And the measures will deliver significant change in an appellation dominated by large commercial producers whose bottom line often trumps character and originality in the wines they bottle.

Of all the sparkling appellations in Italy, Franciacorta — there’s no doubt in my mind — has the potential to deliver truly great and original wines: even though very few of the top bottles make it to the U.S., I’ve tasted some stunning wines in Franciacorta, where fresh, clean, bright Pinot Noir and Chardonnay take on an intensely saline quality that pairs superbly with the fresh water cuisine of the Italian Lake District.

And the new appellation regulations, everyone seems to agree, are a step in the right direction. [We must] “improve to grow and grow to improve,” wrote Giovanni in the chiasmus of his title. And they are sure to do more than consortium president Maurizio Zanella’s recent appeal to the Italian media to stop using the term bollicine (tiny bubbles) when referring to Franciacorta.

Franciacorta and sparkling wines from Italy have been on my mind lately because I’ve been asked to speak on a panel devoted to the subject at the upcoming Viva Vino conference in Los Angeles.

The Holy Grail quest to produce sparkling wines has played an enormous role in shaping the history of Italian wine in general. And I’ll devote an upcoming post to my research.

In the meantime, if you want to get the discussion rolling, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

What is it, after all, that makes sparkling wine play such a powerful role in our vinous psyche?

I have seen Franciacorta future and its name is…

…Giovanni Arcari.

Above: Giovanni Arcari, the Bruce Springsteen of Italian sparkling wine. This man is crazy and I thank goodness for him.

We first met in September of 2008, when he, Franco, and I visited Ca’ del Bosco together, where we tasted 1979 Franciacorta by Ca’ del Bosco (owner of Ca’ del Bosco, Maurizio Zanella, was just elected president of the Franciacorta consortium, btw).

We connected again at Vinitaly, where we got thrown out of the fair for hanging around his booth after hours, drinking Franciacorta and eating salame.

Above: In March, Giovanni led a tasting of artisanal “grower-producer” Franciacorta bottlings at Ceri Smith’s excellent wine shop in San Francisco, Biondivino.

The last time I saw him, he still hadn’t launched his new blog, Terra, Uomo, Cielo (Earth, Man, Sky), “a small man, on a small plot of land, under a small sky.” The blog is now live and so I felt it time to share my vision of the future with you: Giovanni has spearheaded an innovative winemaking program and agenda in Franciacorta, consulting with grape-growers who previously sold their fruit to the large commercial producers of Franciacorta. In doing so, he has helped to create a new genre of grower-producers who make excellent hand-crafted, artisanal expressions of Franciacorta.

Above: Ceri Smith (left) with Giovanni at their March tasting in San Francisco. One of the things I like the most about Giovanni is that he doesn’t just help the growers to make great wines. He also helps them to market the wines. There’s no point in writing a song that no one will ever hear and while there are plenty of reasons to make wines that will never make their way to the market, Giovanni’s wines are too good not to share with the world.

That day in Verona, we tasted a number of bottlings by Andrea Arici’s Colline della Stella and the Dario and Claudio Camossi’s Camossi di Camossi, each tasting better than the last. When sampling these terroir-driven wines, you cannot help but be impressed by their freshness and their structure. The secret, Giovanni will tell you, lies in when the wine is disgorged.

Chapeau bas, Giovanni!

The wines are not currently available in the U.S. but you can find them at Vittorio Fusari’s excellent restaurant and food and wine shop, Dispensa Pani e Vini in Torbiato di Adro in the province of Brescia (Lombardy). Even if you don’t read Italian, check out the photos is this review of legendary chef Vittorio’s new enterprise.

Rolling with MZ at Jaynes

From the “I may not be a rock star but I get to hang out with rock stars” dept…

Above: we paired Ca’ del Bosco 2001 Annamaria Clemente — one of the greatest vintages for this wine, said Maurizio Zanella — with steamed Baja mussels at Jaynes last night. It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta do it, right?

Flew in from Austin yesterday and rolled right into dinner with rock star winemaker Maurizio Zanella at Jaynes Gastropub last night. Friend and fellow wine rocker Robin was also in attendance.

I’ve met and tasted with Maurizio a number of times (and I recently tasted a 1979 Ca’ del Bosco disgorged à la volée at his winery). He is a true rock star among winemakers and his appetites and lust for life are stuff of legend. He’s also just a really cool guy who likes to talk about his experience as a student in Europe in 1968, about music, and about what it means to make real wine in a time when the marketing so often overshadows quality among sparkling wine producers.

I was geeked to ask Maurizio about the now legendary trip he made with Luigi Veronelli to California in 1981 (check out my post on Veronelli and new oak aging from October 2007): Veronelli wrote 1982, but Maurizio told me 1981 last night).

    “The real reason behind the trip,” Maurizio said, “was that [the great Friulian winemaker] Mario Schiopetto was suffering from back problems and had to go to Minneapolis to visit a specialist doctor. So, we decided to go with him and help him and from there we decided to California. We got off the plane in Los Angeles and headed right to Spago on Sunset Blvd. When the waiter took our order, I told him that we wanted ‘every thing on the menu.’ There were only four of us. So, Wolf[gang Puck] came out and said who are these guys? We ended up eating everything on the menu and Wolf and have been friends ever since. We asked him which was the best restaurant in Los Angeles and he sent us to Piero [Selvaggio] of Valentino. And it was Piero who organized our trip to visit all the great Napa valley wineries. I was completely amazed by the fact that the Californians were using the same winemaking practices that I studied in France [in Burgundy and then in Bordeaux]. I went back to Ca’ del Bosco and changed everything.”

Giacomo Bologna was with them, too. Bologna returned and created Bricco dell’Uccellone — probably the first and definitely the most famous barrique-aged Barbera. Maurizio made the first Italian barrique-aged Chardonnay. And Veronelli exhorted Italian winemakers to use new oak in his Catalogo dei vini d’Italia and he invited André Tchelistcheff to lecture at Palazzo Antinori in Florence.

Modernity had arrived. All because Mario Schiopetto had a bad back…

Yo, MZ, I like the way you roll…

Some how, some way, you just keep coming up with funky ass shit like every single day…