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Franciacorta: A region and group of wines worth seeking out

When we last met, I was extolling the virtues of a beautiful and delicious wine region in Italy.

The region is Franciacorta, located about an hour east of Milan in Lombardia. Franciacorta is known for the production of sparkling wines — sparklers that are, in my humble opinion, second in finesse, complexity and downright yumminess (is this a word?) only to the original sparkling wine region — Champagne, France.

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,” but 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.

There are many reasons Franciacorta is able to produce sparkling wines that often rival the great wines of Champagne, but I’d have to narrow them down to two primary elements — climate and grape varieties.

As mentioned, it’s cool, often quite cool, in Franciacorta, a necessity for making a good sparkling wine. It’s just too hot in places like California, which forces vintners to harvest the grapes very early, leaving them devoid of not just sugar, but ripeness and complexity.

The second reason I believe the wines of Franciacorta stand above the ocean of New and Old World sparkling wines out there are the grapes used in their production. Only Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Pinot Bianco are allowed in the production of Franciacorta sparklers.

That’s much closer to the Champagne trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Menier, and I believe that makes their flavors and aromas most closely aligned with those of the wines of Champagne.

For example, Spain makes some nice Cavas, but they primarily use local grape varieties and those varieties don’t taste and smell like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In other words, no matter how well they’re made, they can never really compete with Champagne.

There are several styles of Franciacorta: Sataen (blanc de blancs), Rose, Millesimato (vintage) and Reserve. These styles are made in different flavor categories from Undosed to Demi-Sec.

I had the chance to taste a half dozen Franciacorta sparkling wines for this article: two vintage offerings, one vintage riserva, a rose, a brut and a blanc de blancs.

It’s patently unfair, and virtually impossible, to compare a vintage sparkler to a brut, or a rose to a blanc de blancs, so I won’t. I’ll just describe my three favorites of the bunch, in no particular order.

I truly love roses, dry still roses from all over the world, and rose sparkling wines of all kinds. So it came as absolutely no surprise to me that I enjoyed the Antica Fratta “Essence” Rose. Made with a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), the “Essence” Rose is lovely. Perfectly balanced, this is what a rose is meant to be — earthy, fruity and complex.

I image this as the ideal complement to grilled Copper River salmon with a cherry compote. And, at $25 retail, the “Essence” rose provides a lot of bang for the buck.

I also quite enjoyed the Montenisa Brut. Comprised of mainly Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) with just a hint of Pinto Nero (Pinot Noir), this is a serious sparkling wine that strikes a nice balance between power, yeast and toast, and finesse, aromas and flavors of white peaches and apples. It’s $37 retail, so the price matches the serious nature of the wine.

Finally, my favorite, again, no surprise — the Bella Vista Gran Cuvee Pas Opere — a 2006 vintage sparkler and Bella Vista’s tete du cuvee, or top offering. Bella Vista is considered by many to be the bell weather of Franciacorta, and rightly so.

I’ve had many Bella Vista wines through the years. I’ve never had one I didn’t enjoy, and I enjoyed this sparkler very much.

The Gran Cuvee Pas Opere runs toward the masculine side of sparkling wine styles. Made from vineyard plots that are more than 20 years old, and maturing for six years in Bella Vista’s cellars prior to release, this wine is a real beauty. Honey, apples, vanilla and even Mediterranean herbs are found on the nose and on the palette.

This is a long lived wine, and a testament to the quality heights wines from Franciacorta can reach. Is it Champagne? No. But, at roughly $50 retail, the Bella Vista Gran Cuvee Pas Opere offers quality usually found in Champagne costing twice as much, if not more.

Franciacorta — a region and a group of wines worth seeking out.

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.