The Grapevine

Best wine for Valentine's Day

Toast your Valentine with Italian Franciacorta

Special to The TribuneFebruary 10, 2014 

The Italian city of Milan has a sexy, stylish image. It’s a center of fashion and design, opera (the famed La Scala) and fast cars (the annual Italian Grand Prix). The sparkling wine called Franciacorta celebrates all that.

Franciacorta — the official bubbly for Milan Fashion Week — comes from east of the city. It’s made in the traditional method, like Champagne, with the second fermentation (which produces the bubbles) occurring in the same bottle in which the wine is sold — unlike the less-expensive prosecco, which is made in a vat and bottled under pressure. At its best, Franciacorta can rival the more famous wines of Champagne, and it’s generally a little less expensive. It’s a natural for Valentine’s Day.

But if you haven’t heard of Franciacorta, that’s not surprising. Ninety percent or more of Franciacorta is sold inside Italy. The more forward-thinking producers understand, though, that if a wine is to be thought of as world-class, it needs to have a strong presence abroad, so they’re starting to make a push in the United States.

Among the brands you’re most likely to see are Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista and Berlucchi, all of which are excellent. Contadi Castaldi, which is under the same ownership as Bellavista, makes bubblies that are particularly good values, starting at under $25.

The quality of Franciacorta is particularly impressive when you consider that the area’s sparkling wine industry has been around for only about 50 years. The first Franciacorta sparkling wine was made in 1961 by Franco Ziliani and Guido Berlucchi. Ziliani had studied enology in Piedmont, home of Barolo and Barbaresco. But he loved Champagne and wanted to make something similar in the Franciacorta region. Their legacy is the Berlucchi winery, where the non-vintage wines bear the number ’61 on the label, commemorating the first wine.

The biggest difference between Franciacorta and Champagne is that the former has a warmer climate than the latter, resulting in wines that are a little riper and rounder, though they still have ample acidity.

There’s also a slight difference in the grapes. Although both places use pinot noir and chardonnay, Franciacorta allows pinot bianco (also known as pinot blanc), although it’s less common than it used to be. There are about 7,500 acres of grapes planted in Franciacorta, and no new planting has been allowed for about three years. The consorzio — the organization representing growers and producers — is being careful not to allow supply to outstrip the demand.

Despite Franciacorta’s very Italian identity, the labels carry a lot of French terms, like brut, rosé, pas dosé (which means no dosage of added sugar). But there is a type of Franciacorta with a unique name: Saten, which accounts for about 12 percent of Franciacorta production. Saten is made from all white grapes — usually chardonnay, though the wines can contain some pinot bianco. The wine also has lower pressure in the bottle, so it’s less fizzy, giving it a smoother texture.

PICK OF THE WEEK

Villa San-Juliette 2012 Chorum White ($22) This white blend, dominated by roussanne, blends fleshy, rich white stone fruit flavors with a racy streak of freshness and a touch of creaminess. Try it with Dungeness crab.

Laurie Daniel’s column is special to The Tribune. Email her at ladaniel@earthlink.net.

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