It is unclear as to where the name ‘Franciacorta’ itself came from. There are two predominant myths as to where it originated: the first is that it is named for the ‘france corte’ or tax-free zones, which it encompassed. The area was inhabited by religious orders in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries that were not subjected to the taxes of the ruling Brescians. Historian Iacopo Malvezzi put forth the second myth. Malvezzi believes that the area was named by Carlo Magno, the King of France better known as Charlemagne or Charles Magne, who, in 744, while staging an attack with the Longobards found himself near the town of Rodengo Saiano on the feast day of San Dionigi. Magno had promised to spend that day in Paris. To alleviate his aligning conscience, he called the area “little France”, hence Franciacorta. Regardless of its origin, today, through the diligent dedication of the producers and their consortium, the name is synonymous with quality sparkling wines.
Franciacorta is a relatively small region encompassing only 18,000 hectares, with the actual vineyard areas being 1,500 hectares distributed amongst 200 growers. The zone itself is bound on the west by the Oglio River, to the north by Lago Iseo and the eastern most portions of the Rhetic Alps, on the east by the morainic hills and on the south by the Bergamo-Brescia highway. Geologically the zone is a function of glacial activity, a huge glacier, which descended upon the Val Camonica, shaped it. As a result of this activity, a large quantity of minerals were deposited there, which sit atop the indigenous soil. Such minerals catalyze the biosynthetic reactions in viticulture, which are essential for aromas for instance. Likewise, these deposits are granular in structure, which is essential for drainage.
Climatically, Franciacorta is much milder in the winter than most sub-alpine zones, while the summers are hot. Winds, which blow off the lake and over the moronic heights, maintain a moderating function, which is likewise important; the winds also prevent autumnal and hibernal fogs and humidity from the plane of Brescia, which eliminates the possibility of many parasites. Most importantly, given the heat ripening occurs sooner than in other areas in Italy lessening the risk of exposure to autumn rains.
History of Winemaking
Although the history of viticulture in the area of Franciacorta is centuries old-the wines were extolled in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Columella and Virgil-the contemporary development is quite recent. The sparkling wines of Franciacorta-the wines were actually “frizzante” or effervescent, not sparkling in the sense in which we think of it today, and remained “sparkling for only four to six months-inspired the first book ever written on bubbly beverages; Brescian physician Geronimo Conforto wrote the book Libellus de Vino Mordaci in 1570. He used the adjective ‘mordace’, or ‘biting’, to describe the wines of Franciacorta.
Almost four hundred years later enotechnician Franco Ziliani found the long forgotten text and, based on the book, decided to start making wines according to the method developed by the French monk Dom Perignon–he decided to make wines refermented in the bottle, in the method champenois. Doing so at the time seemed completely fruitless, as the wines of Franciacorta were all still and consumed only in the immediate area, which was essentially a vacation area for wealthy Brescians. When Guido Berlucchi, the owner of the estate at which Ziliani worked and carried out his experiments, tasted the wine, he realized the potential and the history of viticulture was changed.
When other people in the area realized the potential, they too began making wines in the same fashion. Hence, there occurred a new situation, which required organization. This organization occurred in 1967 with the law establishing the DOC not only for sparkling wines, but for the Rosso and Bianco as well. Since 1967, the growth in the area has been enormous and has been enabled by a few facts aside from the obvious unique qualities of the soil and the climate. First, few of the producers depend upon agriculture for their subsistence; they are industrialists or professionals involved in a field outside of agriculture. Hence, they brought with them not only the entrepreneurial mentality, but also the resources and innovative ideas which were not overly bound to traditions. Hence, they also needed technical assistance to produce the wines, so they hired specialists to oversee each level of production, as well as marketing and administration. Secondly, they were driven not so much by financial concerns, rather by quality and prestige, thus they have not gotten involved in destructive price wars.
The result of the above is not only great wines, but on 31 August 1995 Franciacorta received the DOCG classification. Not only is Franciacorta the first Italian sparkling wine to receive this honor, but also the first for that the geographical name is believed to be a sufficient without the further designation–the only other such sparkling wine is Champagne. It is important to note that the still wines are named DOC ‘Terre di Franciacorta’, while the sparkling wines are simply ‘Franciacorta’. Certainly the DOCG designation would not have been earned without the work of the consortium, which the growers formed in 1990. The consortium is an association which was formed voluntarily to develop and enforce the standards and strict quality regulations which govern production-to this end it has conducted zoning studies with the University of Milan, has developed a code of standards called the “Franciacorta Code”. Ninety-two percent of the growers are members of the consortium, which speaks volumes for the commitment of the zone as a whole to develop the best possible product and image thereof.