As the holidays approach, it’s again time to celebrate with family and friends. The popping of corks, the clinking of glasses and the toasts to health, wealth and happiness: Nothing says celebration like sparkling wine.

We’re all familiar with the sparkling wines from France’s Champagne region, Cava wines from the Penedès region in Spain’s northeast and Prosecco from Italy’s Veneto region.

Franciacorta, Anyone?

Although relatively unknown around the world when compared to the others, Franciacorta is regarded as Italy’s finest sparkling wine and truly their answer to Champagne. It is one of the wine world’s best-kept secrets, since more than 85% of the production is consumed in Italy.

A Bit About It

Franciacorta is a tiny, wine-producing area in the Lombardy region of northern Italy that’s known for the production of high-quality sparkling wines. It is located east of Milan, in north-central Italy, and extends between Brescia, Lake Garda and Trento, south of Lake Iseo.

The region’s cool climate is ideal for growing grapes for the production of sparkling wine. The area consists of glacial stony soils of limestone and clay on a sandy base, providing excellent drainage. Cool Alpine breezes contribute to the long, slow ripening season. This causes the grapes to maintain high levels of acidity, while developing slightly more flavor elements than the grapes grown in Champagne.

Like Champagne, the wines are made mostly from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (with small amounts of Pinot Blanc). They get their bubbles from the traditional Champagne method of secondary fermentation in the bottle, and their complexity and richness from extensive aging on the lees. Unlike Champagne, where producers have been making sparkling wine for centuries and are now producing about 320 million bottles annually, Franciacorta has only been making sparkling wine for about 50 years and produces about 13 million bottles annually.

The first sparkling wine to be labeled Franciacorta was created by the Berlucci winery in the late 1950s. It was a conscious effort to produce world-class sparkling wines to rival the wines of Champagne. Other producers soon followed, and in 1995 Franciacorta was awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita status, which is Italy’s highest wine classification level.

Franciacorta comes in both vintage and non-vintage bottles, as well as a rosé and a blanc de blanc called Satén. Like Champagne, producers use French designations. For example, they use rosé to describe the wines instead of the Italian word Rosato. Also like Champagne, the same designations are used for sugar level. From driest to sweetest, they are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec and Demi–Sec.

A Few to Try

Franciacorta wines are not always easy to find, so you may need to have search a bit. Your efforts will be worth it.

  • N/V Berlucchi, Franciacorta Brut. Crisp, rich and elegant with aromas and flavors of apple, pear and tropical fruit with a touch of spice. All of the elements of this wine are very well balanced, with luscious acidity and citrus notes on the finish. It’s priced in the low $40s.
  • N/V Ferghettina, Franciacorta Brut. Made mostly from Chardonnay with 5% Pinot Noir, this wine is bright and lively, with citrus and yellow apple aromas and flavors. The bubbles are soft and persistent, with notes of white flowers and hazelnut. It’s priced in the upper $30s.
  • 2009 Ca’ d’Or, Franciacorta Noble Cuvée. Made with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir, this wine is aged for seven months in tank and in bottle, for 30 months on the lees. Loaded with aromas of citrus, dried fruit, fig and bread crust, the palate is tangy and fresh, with hints of citrus and grapefruit. It’s priced in the low $50s.

Franciacorta is the ideal wine before and at any point during a meal. Its extraordinary quality makes it the perfect wine for all your important celebrations: from aperitif to main course, from the simplest appetizers to the most complex menus.

Here’s to health, wealth and happiness in the New Year. Cheers.

Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at sippingwithsam@verizon.net.