Conjuring an appellation out of bare soil seems like New World behaviour but back in the 1950s Guido Berlucchi did more or less that with a small patch of northern Italy, making a still wine named Pinot di Franciacorta that, a few years later, one of his young winemakers bravely enhanced with bubbles. Mind you, this is a part of the world used to odd incomers – the vineyards still occasionally throw up fossils of dinosaurs that were checking out the local flora and fauna 185 million years ago. The remains of those ponderous early Italians were perhaps pulverised by the glacier that rolled through about 100,000 years ago, stopping only at Monte Orfano to form an inland sea. Their fine-ground vestiges may be partly responsible for the sandy soil known as glacial moraine, which is, it turns out, ideal for making a light and altogether delightful fizzy wine that has approximately the same relationship to champagne as the sparrow has to the pterodactyl.
“We are not in competition with champagne,” Giulia Pezzola of La Valle winery tells me firmly. “We have much lower acidity and, anyway, we are a tenth of the size.” Many of these wines are also a tenth of the price. There are better ways to compete than simply to imitate your rival: you can evolve. Franciacorta will never be champagne but Prosecco, for instance, may one day find that by encouraging drinkers to consume decently priced northern Italian sparkling wines, it has fertilised soil that now nourishes a host of ambitious whippersnappers.
Still, the inhabitants of Valdobbiadene, where Prosecco is made, probably have a while before they need to start worrying. Franciacorta the area may be ancient but Franciacorta the DOCG, or certified region of wine excellence, is very young: it won this prestigious status in 1995.
Yet its winemakers have discipline as well as energy. Their rules are rigorous. Only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a little Pinot Bianco are planted; all grapes are picked by hand and gently pressed; their method of winemaking, not dissimilar to méthode champenoise, involves a second fermentation – the one that provides the fizz – in the bottle, followed by a gradual process of settling, with the bottles tipped upside down and tiny turns encouraging the fermentation gunk to sink gradually towards the cork, which is eventually removed and replaced so that the bottle can be sent out to make its way in the world.
There are complex rules on how long the wine must remain in the bottle (for a vintage Franciacorta, for example, it’s at least 30 months and for a riserva 60 months) but the novice consumer, flirting with a charming fizz that flirts right back, need not worry about them much. These wines are not supposed to blow you away with the first glass, at least one winemaker tells me: they want the drinker to stay put and finish the bottle.
So it makes sense that these are food-friendly wines, high in acidity and easy on the sweetness. Franciacorta wines are particularly amenable to sushi and other fish. They sell well in Japan and, for those of us with a whimsical turn of mind, it’s nice to see these fruits of an ancient sea reunited with the inhabitants of bodies of water still very much in existence – at least, for now.
At Villa Franciacorta, one of the area’s oldest wineries (its winemakers first planted in 1960 but, with magnificent forbearance, they waited until they were truly happy with their grapes to release any wine – which took until 1974), the owner tells me that they prefer only to release vintage wines. Certainly, theirs are excellent, but I’m not sure that this is quite in the spirit of this land. Surely the ancient bones and glacial soils suggest that age is important, yet not quite in the way we usually imagine. Older isn’t invariably better: just ask the dinosaurs.