Chow Town

Sparkling alternative to champagne

Champagne, real Champagne that is, meaning only sparkling wine emanating from the Champagne region of France, is considered by most to be a luxury, something only to be enjoyed on holidays and special occasions.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the years making the argument that Champagne is greatly under-appreciated, often misunderstood, and, more times than not, either put with the wrong food (dessert, when most Champagne is bone-dry), or not matched with cuisine at all.

I also have taken great pains to explain that nothing, no other sparkling wine in the world, tastes like Champagne. Champagne has the most complexity, most finesse, and by far the most diversity of styles than any other sparkling wine. Period. End of story.

However, today I come to you with a special two-part story of another region. It’s another group of sparkling wines, that while not necessarily rivaling Champagne, makes a very strong statement of quality, depth, and sense of place. And, it’s a good chance you haven’t even heard of them-unless, of course, you’re a wine geek like me.

The region is Franciacorta — about an hour east of Milan in the rolling hills of Lombardia. Turns out the mild climate, tempered by Lake Iseo, along with the region’s proximity to the Alps, is perfect for the creation of “world-class” sparkling wines. Keep in mind that I generally dislike the term “world-class,” as it is so often overused.

Still, the discovery of Franciacorta’s excellence with sparkling wines is fairly recent. For centuries, Franciacorta produced still wines — wines that often had a hint of carbonation, the result of a natural second fermentation that often took place in the bottle because of the region’s cooler temperatures. Locals called them “goosebumps.” It wasn’t until the later part of the 20th century that the “goosebumps” became part of the “methode champenoise” production of sparkling wines in a region more and more known for great ones.

Realizing the potential, a group of dedicated grape growers and wine makers banded together to ensure grapes and wines of the highest quality.

In fact, even before Franciacorta received the prestigious DOCG status, producers put self-imposed regulations on themselves in order to produce the very best sparkling wines. A Consorzio, the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta, was formed in 1990, and the quality of wines has risen to new heights in the near quarter century since.

From humble beginnings, the Consorzio has witnessed impressive growth. There are currently 191 members comprised of growers, wineries, and bottlers — 106 of which produce Franciacorta wines. To be sure, though, Franciacorta is small. There are just under three hectares of vines planted in Franciacorta today — a little more than seven acres. That is tiny, but even with its limited size, Franciacorta is growing in both acreage and production. The vine acreage today reflects a 140-percent increase in the last decade, and last year, Franciacorta sold nearly 14 million bottles of wine.

Further ensuring quality, the yields in the vineyards of Franciacorta are the lowest of any sparkling wine producing region in Europe, including Champagne. And, grapes are harvested exclusively by hand.

There are just three grapes allowed in the production of Franciacorta — Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (or Pinor Noir), and Pinot Bianco. These grapes do well in the region and they would likely make for a very pleasant still wine. But, in harmony, and sometimes on their own, they produce exquisite sparkling wines — wines I will explore in style, taste and with cuisine in my next on Franciacorta.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.