Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Champagne and Franciacorta: Comparisons and Contrasts

Franciacorta is regularly compared to Champagne by its boosters and there are some areas of similarity: (i) they are both sparkling wines; (ii) they are both produced using the method of second fermentation in the bottle; (iii) in both cases the wine is identified with its region of production rather than by variety; (iv) each of the regions have a single-word nomenclature;  and (v) the levels of sweetness of the finished product is similarly characterized. But there are also many differences.  In this post I will highlight these differences, some dictated by environment, others of choice.

Champagne Wine Region.  Source:

Franciacorta Wine Region. Source: Franciacorta Consorzio

Franciacorta is the new kid on the block.  Enologist Franco Ziliani had been engaged by the Berlucchi estate to help with the stabilization of its wines. While undertaking that effort, Ziliani also sought to convince Guido Berlucchi that the area was well suited to the production of a sparkling wine using the methode champenoise.  Berlucchi gave him the go ahead and, after a number of tries, Ziliani successfully produced his first batch of sparkling wine in 1961.  The wine was awarded DOC designation in 1967 and DOCG in 1995.  The history of Champagne, converesly, stretches back 300 years from the birth of Franciacorta to the period when Dom Perignon was the cellar master at Abbey of Hautvilliers and established the principles that are used to this day in its production.

The first major difference between the two regions is location.  Champagne is located at latitude 49 degrees, 160 kilometers to the east of Paris, while Franciacorta is located at latitude 45 degrees in Lombardia (Italy), 700 kilometers south of Champagne.  The northern location of Champagne makes it difficult for grapes to ripen, resulting in acidic base wines which require the bubbles of the second fermentation to make them sparkle.  Grapes in Franciacorta have no difficulty ripening and the resultant wines are richer than Champagnes of an equivalent sweetness level.

The Champagne region consists of 32,900 hectares of vineyards in 300 villages distributed between five sub-regions: Vallée de la Marne, Montagne de Reims, Côte de Sézanne, Aube, and Côte des Blancs.  In this region, 15,000 vineyard owners grow and sell grapes while another 5000 grow grapes as well as produce wines. Vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru, or Deuxième Cru.  Blending, aging, and marketing of the wines are the domain of large Champagne Houses.  Franciacorta has approximately 3000 hectares under vine spread between 19 municipalities.  All of the sparkling wine produced in Franciacorta is estate grown by its 104 producers.  Vineyards are not currently classified.

Franciacorta is mild in the winter and hot in the summer.  The climate is moderated by winds blowing in off Lakes Iseo and Garde which act to protect the region from the autumnal and hibernial fogs that threaten from the Brescian plains.  Rainfall in the region is concentrated in the spring and fall.  Champagne lies at the northern edge of the vineyard-growing areas and, with an average July temperature of 66ºF (18.8ºC), grapes struggle to ripen.  Rainfall is at its highest during the month of September.

The soil in Champagne is chalk or a clay-chalk mix.  This soil absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night.  It also absorbs water during wet periods and retains it such that it can be accessed by vine roots in search of moisture and nutrients. The region's thin layer of arable top soil is infertile and requires the aid of fertilizers.  There are four glacial morainic soil types in Franciacorta with pH ranges from neutral to sub-alkaline and drainage ranging from poor to good.

Vineyards in Champagne are planted on slopes at elevations between 90 and 210 meters. Montagne de Reims and Côtes des Blancs can be said to have the best vineyards as they have the highest concentration of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards.  The vineyards are planted to Pinot Noir (35%), Pinot Meunier (40%), and Chardonnay (25%). Franciacorta vineyards are planted in the "gentle" hills that are characteristic of the region and are constituted thusly: Chardonnay (80%), Pinot Nero (15%), and Pinot Bianco (5%).

The grapes utilized in the production of Champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.  The permitted grapes in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, and Pinot Bianco (maximum of 50% in the bottle).   Champagne production was 370 million bottles in 2010 as compared to Franciacorta's 10.3 million bottles, an average 10% annual production growth from 2002.  Champagne exports 50% of its production while the corresponding number for Franciacorta is 15%.

The average price for a non-vintage Champagne is in excess of 20 euros while the price for a non-vintage Franciacorta ranges between 10 and 35 euros.  At the high end, the Franciacorta will not exceed 100 euros while the tête de cuvées of the large houses will cost several hundred euros.

No comments:

Post a Comment