As seen on WineAlign – Franciacorta and the Meraviglioso of Bellavista
Where can you find snow-capped Rhaetian Alps, double morainic amphitheatres, glacial lakes, ancient vineyards and one of the best kept Sparkling wine secrets on the planet? At the end of a day not in Franciacorta I could do well with a glass. Bubbles from north eastern Italy, where traditional method Sparkling wine of Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco come together masterfully to create Franciacorta. Satèn, Brut and Rosé, for Millesimato, Riserva and now the new elaboration, finalmente, some kind of wonderful, Meraviglioso.
The month of November bids up translation to such an Italian vernacular as it is a wonderful time to visit Lombardy and the cellars of Franciacorta. A time before the snows of winter fall, long after the stems have turned to brown, the grapes picked, crushed and fermented, at a time when the vintage’s base wines rest comfortably in the caves of the region’s 110 wineries. You can take an early morning walk through a Chardonnay block and note the gentle south-east exposure slope engulfed by fog thick as porridge in the greater provincial Brescia world demurred a whiter shade of pale. On sunny days summon up a cool, crisp stroll through courageous Pinot Noir up on a hill above the village of Erbusco, with the Oglio River to the west, Lago Iseo and the snow-capped Dolomite Mountains rising in the deep distance. The vines stand stark, stripped and undraped, like petrified wood monuments, now only possessive of memories.
It is here where Lombardic legacies are cemented in this northerly Italian region, after 450 years of recorded Sparkling wine history. Newly appointed President of the Consorzio Franciacorta and Bellavista Winery proprietor Vittorio Moretti has recently bottled something no self-respecting vigneron on this fizz fermenting planet has ever had the enterprise or perspicaciousness with which to follow through. Not in Franciacorta and certainly not in Champagne. Moretti and his enologist/chef du cave partner of 30 years Mattia Vezzola gathered the wines of six great vintages (1984, 1988, 1991, 1995, 2001 and 2002) spread across three decades together in one singular, bold, ultra-elegant and exacting impossible cuvée. Meraviglioso.
Bellavista Studio Meraviglioso Vendemmia 2004, 6000 mL, Docg Franciacorta (WineAlign)
Poured from a Methuselah and can only be produced every 30 years. This is the first vintage. Studio equals a test product. This is something wholly other. The holy coming together of acidity (energy) and texture (elegance) From the best harvests of the last 30 years. Sparkling as the interaction between studying and working. One or the other alone will not achieve the culture of this wine. Middle rope lined by fine sea salt flecked by dried thyme. So refined. Gentlest mousse and forming the most amazing rim. As the winemaker notes, “it’s very exciting that technology must reside in the traditional. Idea must reside in craftsmanship. Manual work enables the soul.” Drink 2015-2045. Tasted November 2015
Bellavista Meraviglioso, 1500ml, Docg Franciacorta (WineAlign)
The best way to make a sensory profile last is to model it after someone. Choosing great vintages, as here with ’84, ’88, ’91 ’94, ’01 and ’04 is to offer a shared sensory profile and characteristics, along with the value of patience, something that lasts over time. This blend of vintages, which includes 1984 speaks to a winemaker’s emotion. “Nothing makes more sense than passion.” Will this leave a different mark on Spumante wines? “We wish that every of the 30,000,000 bubbles is a moment of happiness for each of you. Long term Franciacorta will have to take direction from this wine.” Words of proprietor Vittorio Moretti. The Studio (test) 2004 here transmogrifies into another turn of phrase, twirl of body, as told from marble. Watch the bubbles rise from the centre and widen to the edges, slowly, purposefully, without distraction. You can hear a pin drop with this wine sitting in glass. A wine to connect a string of great vintages, spanning decades, interlacing hands, sweat and passion, from contributors who are all represented in this bottle. They are all remembered, their lives, their wishes, their shared culture. Finesse, energy, mousse, elegance and length. For whom the Sparkling wine tolls. Drink 2015-2050. Tasted November 2015
The playful and calculated wine pays respectful homage to a wine region immortalized, like warriors in stone, by classic authors; Pliny, Columella and Virgil. In the 16th century Lombardian physician Gerolamo Conforti encouraged a healthy lifestyle and widespread consumption, defining Franciacorta bubbles as “mordaci” or, lively and bubbly.
Temperatures at ripening are much higher as compared to Champagne. The mountains are a major part, as a barrier to the southern winds to preserve acidity. Franciacorta producers have the historic sparkling traditions of Champagne to compete against a crowded global market. That said, they have little interest in comparing their ancient method Sparkling wine to those from other regions, nor does it matter whether their roots were laid down prior to or subsequent from more famous peers. What matters is progression, innovation and resolution. Meraviglioso adheres and abides to Franciacorta’s deferential past. It also revises the scripture and reinvents the future.
The historic concept directs the winemaker to make wine that is fresh with acidity on the palate, but not felt in the stomach. Wines that are easy to digest. Wines to drink for all of eternity. Between 6.7 and 7.5 TA is the number on the base wines. This differs from Champagne in alcohol because the Champenoise reach a maximum level which is the minimum for Franciacorta and acidity is exactly the obvious. Everyone these days talks about terroir, which is important, but they seemed to have forgotten about genes.
The area’s modern era dates back to 1961, with 11 producers, 29 hectares of vineyards and a production of 2000 hectolitres of Pinot di Franciacorta. DOC status was granted in 1967, with nine pioneering agriculturalists in the mix. In 1990 the creation of the consortium for the protection of Franciacorta wines was accomplished with 29 producers as members. Now, after nearly 50 years of officially recognized production Franciacorta is poised to become the next big thing. Fizz is in demand worldwide and compared to other high quality traditional method sparkling wines, Franciacorta is well positioned. Pinot Noir has a role to play and perhaps everything to do with that. Chardonnay and its essential Blanc de Blancs sparkling oeuvre has managed bubble expectation and dominated output since time immemorial but the sweeping cloud of global warming is changing everything.
A portal into the Franciacorta compass dial only 15 years ago sees Chardonnay picked on average around August 15th. Cyclical weather patterns notwithstanding, temperature increases of nearly five degrees Celsius mean that in order to maintain freshness and protect necessary acidity these days the grapes are picked two weeks earlier. Short of washing this planet clean as the bible says or continuing to hot wire reality, something has to give.
Even while Chardonnay’s phenolic journey is finding its way to completion, some things can’t help but get lost in accelerated heat unit translation. Any winemaker worth their weight in viniculture excellence knows that the real future lies in the embrace of complex behaviour inherent within the later ripening condition of thin-skinned Pinot Noir. Chardonnay will not be abandoned any time soon but ripping up some of the dominant vineyard holdings and switching to Pinot Noir is in the cards.
On my late November trip the epiphanies came fast and furious when Franciacorta opened its arms to receive journalists from around the globe. My WineAlign colleague Treve Ring and I were introduced to Bellavista Vino and Contadi Castaldi pours at L’Albereta Relais & Chateaux and it was for me an initiation into a personal paradigm shift, in a dream that had just recently begun. Tasting the range on premises at Contadi Castaldi from Blanc de Blancs through Blanc de Noirs and into Pinot Nero aided in clarifying the varietal shift. The entire visit was qualified by Gambero Rosso’s principals Luigi Salermo, Marco Sabellico, Lorenzo Ruggeri and Tiina Eriksson, with their ushering of seminal tastings, including a Bellavista horizontal of 1987’s in 750 mL, Magnum, Jeroboam (3L) and Methuselah (6L), along with a Salmanzar 9L bottle from 1989. This line-up made for a rarest of opportunities, tasting chance of a lifetime.
Treve and I tasted a number of Franciacorta examples during our visit and we have also been able to sample imports in British Columbia and Ontario.
The Bellavista Horizontal
The purpose of this extraordinary tasting is to assess how this wine changes its sensory impression depending on the size of the vessel it was bottled in. Though it once contained 30,000,000 bubbles, now 28 years later, perhaps the number is just 13. Well, from now on I’m clearly only buying my sparkling wine in minimum 3L formats.
The wines were tasted in 1991 and 1998. This is the third and last chance to taste these large formats. From 1987, in 750 mL, Magnum, Double Magnum and Methuselah. The 9L bottle is a 1989 (because there are no more ’87’s in that format).
1987 (750 mL)
Composed of 80 per cent Chardonnay and 20 Pinot Nero, the harvest it refers to is 1987 though it is not a vintage wine. Runs straight to a marzipan and honey with lanolin dressing, marked by orange rind and spice that needles into the olfactory nerve. Has aged well and would call it oxidative (at least this bottle). The hue has obviously changed. Was disgorged yesterday (November 27th) so there was no need for added liquor. Truth be told it has not developed into a tertiary, overly mature, oxidative step, but it has sublimated in micro-oxygenation.
1987 (Magnum – 1.5 L)
Sensory activation. Zero oxidation, prominent acidity and underlying nutty comprehension. No honeyed and waxy filming, a seeker yet to find any true tertiary life. In elegance now and with imaginations of 10 more years this way. Any yet only the Magnum. Come back to it after ten minutes and the citrus is palpable. Finding a layer of preserved lemon 15 minutes later. Its next stage becomes more apparent with time, by size and in relation to what comes after.
1987 (Double Magnum – 3 L)
Completely different once again, now reductive, stinky, full of a preserved rage and with just two minutes in glass begins to soften and ready itself. A heap of aggression plus 28 years of time have blessed it with all the tools it needs. So alive, without the nutty accent but certainly in possession of the inside shaving of the barrel. Barrel peels, not fruit. More mineral here. Much more. Also tropical, like ginger and cardamom. The most interesting of the three by kilometres. The real access is toast and flint. This is the real deal. Rich and mature, not piercing and now accessible. Incredible length. Close to the edge in a mythical land, of impressions neither flora nor fauna, but of atmosphere.
1987 (Methuselah – 6 L)
The first wine to show similarly to another, this rocks out flinty and reductive like the 3L. The energy is consistent, but here the spice is magnified and the nutty sense that showed in the Magnum has come forth. This seems to combine the pique aspects of both the 1.5 and the 3. A best of all worlds bottle plus what it brings that neither had. Absolute freshness. Does not evolve in the glass in its first few minutes as the others that came before. It evens glistens unlike the others, as if it knows how complex, special, live and alive it is. This is the bomb for sure. Dart straight through the heart. Crazy exceptional Sparkling wine.
1989 (Salmanzar – 9L)
Absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably no evolution. If this dos not drive the point that if you want to age Sparkling wine you must bottle it in the largest format possible, then nothing will. At least do away with 750 mL bottles. Large format is not about pageantry. It is about age. The taste is very different than all the 1987’s. So much more acidity and vitality and it is wondered aloud that more Pinot Noir must be in the mix. The citrus is at the forefront and all over the hairs of this wine. Twenty six years in a 9L bottle is like five, certainly not 10.
It should be interesting to try and assess, which is a major act of liberty in assumption, to assume with accuracy how format affects age. To close one’s eyes tight and place a number on each wine, to where it has evolved and why. 750 mL left its post five years ago. Magnum is in the window as we speak and will not be perceived with evolutionary certainty to its tertiary development for two of three more. Double Magnum is still three to five years away from even that beginning. Methusaleh sits in a window of seven to 10 years and the 9L 1989 certainly 10-15. Perhaps as far away as 20. Truly.
The wines of Franciacorta
Apropos alms giving Cuveé, in regards to balance, offering a broad swath and sweep of creamy, soft spoken bubbles. Produced from one half of the estate’s harvest selections, out of 107 plots ranged over 10 different Franciacorta municipalities. A child of both horizontal and (reserve wines) vertical blending. Composed of (80 per cent) Chardonnay, (19) Pinot Nero and (1) Pinot Bianco. Known to its makers by an “affectionate” term for the land that produces wonders, this may be the most calming of the Bellavista portfolio. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted November 2015
This Sparkling blend of Chardonnay dominant with support from Pinot Nero is the welcome mat, regional conduit and arms open wide portal into the impressing preoccupation of Franciacorta. From vines of healthy altitude on south/south-easterly exposures and an average age of over 25 years. A sussurrare measure of and not much more than 30 per cent of the juice ferments and matures in small white oak casks for no less than seven months. When we talk of the natural balance in nature, we may as well be referring to an arid, saline, citrus and ontological yeast-filled Franciacorta such as this Brut. Compressed from a vintage with legs, creamy texture and dreamy ideas. Sparkling wine of soft bubbles, lace curtains and plentiful energy. The dictionary opens with this, a wine personified as a “villa delle delizie.” Drink 2015-2022. Tasted November 2015
Red chicory hue in a blend where Chardonnay (62 per cent) dominates Pinot Nero. Rosé of truth, unable to fib, a bit risqué and anything but rustic. Magnetic, full of multi-variegated citrus, magnified, petrified, magnetized, its Chardonnay and Pinot Nero polarized. The latter so important, like recherché of the occult and suggesting that its part should be increased. Like a tidal wave of blanc de noirs aromatics boarding at once. Rosé as the last train home. Drink 2015-2022. Tasted November 2015
Like the Betella Blanc de Blanc, this is quite direct, but in a much different way. It’s funky reductive and yet super, hyper transparent and understood. Wound tight with racy acidity and spumes of an aridity that steals saliva and is nearly heart-stopping. These blush bubbles are savoury in a way the Chardonnay just can’t seem to herbalize and bracing in a way that does not fully compute. Exciting and tart if noticeably out of balance. Tasted December 2014
This 100 per cent Chardonnay is so direct, so grounded, so black and white. Just a hint of funky earth and a swath of painted lees but otherwise fruit entrenched in traction and fermentation in beautiful suspended animation. Defines modernity in Franciacorta, a still frame of concentrated, dry bubbles, life affirming and void of any extraneous conditioning. No add-ons, just straight up sock it to me Sparkling wine. Tight, bracing and built for serious fun, without ceremony or pageantry. So effective and so well constructed. Tasted December 2014
First introduced in 2007 after thirty years of Franciacorta’s salt pillar house’s trials, errors and magic. Chardonnay (75 per cent), Pinot Nero (15) and Pinot Bianco (10) are sourced from 134 vineyards, vinified separately and blended with the conceptualization towards “idem,” of being the same. Reserve juice from great vintages (at least 20 per cent) reinforces and elevates the cuvée, followed by 28 months on the lees. A stoic and somewhat tensely defined traditional method Sparkling wine with plenty of autolytic yeasty feel despite the modest time. Terrific, expansive and circulating mousse buoyed by unparalleled Franciacorta acidity. More Pinot Nero would really give it depth and breadth. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted January 2016
Disgorged February 2015. The opposite of the thoroughbred that is the Pinot Noir. Satisfying, saturated, stretched and churned though Brut in style. The soul of Contadi Castaldi even in a world in which the winemaker is want to make more masculine, Pinot driven wines. A caressing wine, gentle and creamy. Full mouth. Round putty smooth in spite of and in line with such stretched acidity. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted November 2015 @ @
The Contadi Brut is a much more direct, linear, in your cerebral cortex cement of a Franciacorta. Still in assumption of a lightly bruised and oxidative bent though the fruit is anything but mealy and the appetite yet whets. The apple in the eye is green, the grass greener still. In here “green grow the rushes go.” This sparkler seems to still be working, pushing itself and evolving. It begins in earnest and never ceases to cycle. It’s a bit exhausting and leaves a trail of exhaust. In demand of much attention it may never leave you to find and achieve that state of REM. But it is that vapour trail that will see it go deep into the night. Drink 2015-2022. Tasted July 2015
Statuesque, rustic, ancient ruin of Franciacorta, on a clear day, of tall grasses, oxidative apples and slices of hard Lombardian cheese. A total, classical, storied package of gastronomy in a bottle. Not so much Rosé as much as bubbles with a fostered history of age. Arid as the desert and piercing from acidity. This will be misunderstood by some, reveled in by others. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted July 2015
Fashioned with essentially an equal proportion of Pinot Noir. A specificity to Franciacorta where Chardonnay is clearly pegged as feminine and Pinot Noir masculine. The winemaker demands this move, to power, vitality and how a cuvée’s direction is acclimatized from picking on acidity and through to firm, direct expression. Very balanced wine. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted November 2015
Only 9,000 bottles are produced of this ultra niche product. Part of the move in concept and passion to masculine, powerful and vital Pinot Noir. A bull of bubbles and extremely long, trailing a tail of star fire. Brut to the most natural degree. Lime and direct energy. Tight as a fist. This is Thibault to the Contadi Castaldi Blanc de Noirs Romeo. Drink 2015-2022. Tasted November 2015
A Franciacorta blanc de blancs with a settled elegance in its stride and the persistence of far eastern aromatics. Though Satèn can contain up to 50 per cent Pinot Bianco, Ricci Curbastro’s is exclusively made from Chardonnay and at this stage even less atmospheric than the freshest examples. A pinch of ginger and a dash of lemongrass mark the aromatic territory. Preserved lemon fills the palate with residual fruit. This 2011 is in its drinking window right at present, its 40 month (48 from harvest) autolytic yeast lees having done the yeomans texture work in completion for the overall expression. Drink 2016-2018. Tasted January 2016 @
Good to go!
WineAlign: Michael Godel