Forget Prosecco. The sparkling wines of the Franciacorta region in Northern Italy are streets ahead.
Sold widely in Italy, particularly in the North, they are excellent quality sparkling wines made by the classic method as in champagne, but are relatively unknown in the UK, where competition from other high quality sparklers is intense.
Earleir this month, I spent a few days in the Lakes region of Northern Italy and visited one of the wineries of the Franciacorta wine region, called Antica Frata. The area is just south of the Lago d'Iseo, one of the smaller of the Northern lakes situated between the two better known lakes of Garda and Como. The region is made up of beautifully rolling hills, interspersed with woodland, olive groves and vineyards. As a wine region, it is relatively new, first starting production in 1961. Now there are more than 100 producers, many of which are very small with only a few major producers such as Ca del Bosco and Bellavista, with annual production of more than one million bottles.
Two of the main grape varieties used are the same as in champagne, namely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay being the most widely planted. Pinot Meunier, the other main grape variety of champagne, however, is not authorised. Instead, Pinot Bianco is the third grape variety allowed, although not used by all producers. In general, oak is used very little, and Antica Frata uses none at all, preferring to produce fresher wines with greater expression of fruit and terroir.
During my visit, the grape harvest was in full swing with only a few days left to finish. Piero Bonomi has been the winemaker at Antica Frata since 2002 and is a hugely experienced maker of Franciacorta wines, this year being his 28th harvest. My first tasting in the busy winery was an opaque glass of grape juice. It had been taken from the juice which had just been pressed and was intensely sweet with 180g/l of natural grape sugar. The second tasting was from a stainless steel vat which had just finished fermenting. Richer and slightly darker, it was bone dry with no residual sugar at all, but had 11.2% alcohol instead. This transformation had occurred over the space of just 15 days. It had good acidity and very interesting flavours and fruit character.
This year, the harvest was two to three weeks later than in recent years, due to poor weather in May and June, which had also caused disease problems. Since then, there had been a lot of dry weather and the combination will lower the quantity produced. However, with a longer ripening period, combined with perfect maturation of the grapes and excellent weather for the harvest, the quality looks very promising indeed. 2015 produced wines of great structure and complexity and 2016 may be even better although it is still a little early for a definitive opinion.
This weather phenomenon affected most of Europe this year, and there have been significant spells of unusual weather in the southern hemisphere as well. It is widely considered to be a result of global warming, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, extra warmth is good for ripening grapes in cooler climates, but on the other, it can cause huge upsets to weather patterns which may be disastrous for vineyards.