Over the past couple of years I’ve been an ambassador for Franciacorta – a gem of a wine region that lies just to the south of Lago di Iseo, one of the lesser known northern Italian lakes, yet barely 80km from Milan airport – and have been acquainted regularly with its fine sparkling wines. Here, 116 growers produce on average 17.5m bottles annually, meaning production is artisan and the quality benchmark high. There’s a focus on sustainable viticulture (70 per cent of production is organic or in the process of conversion); an insistence on estate-grown, hand-harvested fruit; and a tendency towards extended maturation in the cellars.
What prevails is a level of craftsmanship and quality at prices that are disproportionately reasonable, tracking equitably with the grower champagnes and English sparkling wines with which they are inevitably compared. For example, the Franciacorta Fratelli Berlucchi Freccianera Brut 2012 (£25 from Tannico) is well matched in quality and style to Champagne’s Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru Brut (£29 from The Wine Society) and Sussex’s Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs (£29.50).
In terms of taste, Franciacorta’s predominantly Chardonnay grapes, ripened naturally in the warm climate but freshened by chill breezes sweeping down from the Dolomites, never lack for acidity. The natural balance achieved between the ripe fruit and long ageing means that low-dosage styles (often made with 6g of sugar per litre or less) are far more common than in Champagne or England, and even those with 2g of sugar or less are never abrasive.
It is increasingly the vintage millesimato (harvested in a single year and aged for a minimum of 30 months) and riserva (aged for at least a further two and a half years) categories that are receiving the highest praise from critics and wine buyers. Both have an amplified depth, complexity and harmony that are best enjoyed, says Silvano Brescianini, president of Consorzio Franciacorta, within 10 years of their release.
There are a number of exceptional limited-availability wines that can be tracked down in the UK, including, from 2009, the no-dosage Bagnadore Riserva from Barone Pizzini (£33 from Vintage Roots) and the Annamaria Clementi from Ca’ del Bosco (£125 from Hedonism Wines). From 2011, the Castello Bonomi Cru Perdu Brut (£71.43 for a magnum from Tannico), the Ferghettina Riserva 33 (£34.49 from All About Wine) and Il Mosnel’s EBB Extra Brut (£42 from Alivini) are all great examples of this stellar vintage. The recently released Monterossa Cabochon Brut Riserva 2013 (£68 from Huntsworth Wine Company) and the no-dosage Majolini Aligi Sassu 2008 (£28.50 from Bat and Bottle) would also whet one’s appetite for visiting the region. This year’s Franciacorta Summer Festival runs until September 8 and is, of course, highly recommended.
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter: @winechapUK.