Monday, May 06, 2013

Franciacorta vs. the World

Maybe it was the way he raised the glass when he toasted the group at our gathering. Perhaps it was the conversation we had about my next trip to Italy and where I was going. Or maybe he had grown used to it, after all these years. He was one of the most powerful men in Italy and he had chosen, when building his empire, to put his beloved Franciacorta on the map. He had accomplished a lot in his life on this earth, but Franciacorta wasn’t quite yet a household name.

Franciacorta, ah Franciacorta. If you were to ask most Americans they wouldn’t be able to tell you what it was, let alone where it came from. Perhaps in Denmark or Singapore the educated masses there know better how to distinguish this sparkling wine in a bottle, but most of the world is still painfully ignorant.

There are reasons, for sure.

Franciacorta is like the tall gangly middle child, nestled between her older sibling Champagne and the cute youngest child, Prosecco. While the eldest has had more experience and is wiser to the ways of the world, and the baby is cute and cuddly, Franciacorta's beauty often goes unnoticed.

Champagne. Anyone who delves into the world of wine must eventually bow before a cup of Champagne. This accidental wine is now the centerpiece of celebrations and victories, parties, engagements, break-ups, trysts; too many occasions have elevated Champagne to an almost unworldly place on the mantle.

Oh yes, the wine is peculiar to the region, like no other place on earth. And the land is so fecund, millions and millions of bottles rise out of the land and the cellars yearly, like so many prophets ascending to Heaven. Meanwhile thousands of growers whittle away at their earthly plots, scraping and kneeling, pruning ever so carefully, making sure every drop makes it to the goblet. Yes, Champagne is having a very good ride, and marketers push the products as well as a gun lobby pushes firearm sales under the cover of personal rights. It’s all very well-orchestrated. And more often than not, the result is joy, pure, joy. Who doesn’t love a glass of wine that is filled with life?

Then there’s the new kid, Prosecco. Arising from nowhere and nothing, in less than a generation. Millions and more millions of bottles of the sparkle juice emits from the Veneto and surrounding points. Unknown to most people 25 years ago, in this time many people think there is little difference between Champagne, because it sparkles ever so slightly like the older, wiser sibling. But Prosecco, even with its mercurial rise, is still in development, now going through an awkward juvenile stage. Is it sweet? Is it dry? Is it trying to be rose’? How can that be? Is it trying to be method champenoise? Again, how? Why? And then there are the super Cru’s from Cartizze, the col fondo’s from tiny little producers, the special bottling’s. Meanwhile, marketers are churning out legends that never existed, telling the tales of a wine that all wines aspire to be, but few seldom achieve. And all in so few years. Prosecco, the cross between a debutante and Lindsey Lohan. Still cute, possibly someday very pretty, but now just a little troubled.

To throw a stick between the spokes, we also now have Moscato. Not Asti, not anymore. But fizzy, sweet low alcohol wine. The post-financial-meltdown trade-down to sooth the shrunken wallet syndrome and still offer something people want – alcohol and sweetness. This noisy cousin is running its course, just waiting for the next scandal to tamp down the momentum of sales that have seen Moscato now being produced worldwide. A mania. But not a sparkling wine. A gatecrasher for folks who don’t want to go “all the way.”

That leaves us with the quiet little wine from the pretty little region in Lombardia. Often a drive-by for folks making their way to and from Milan and Venice. But for those who live there, an oasis, a part of Italy that is hidden to most tourists, and many Italians. The Beverly Hills of Italy.

And the wines? Years ago, I worked for a wine company. We tried hard to sell Cá del Bosco. Maurizio Zanella was good with the press. He made the cover of the Wine Spectator in the 1980’s. He had a heliport. He flashed a great smile – the cameras loved him. And his wines?

His wines were not understood as much then as they are now. Which is not to say a whole hell of a lot more now. But for some reason, the company pressed on. Sold to the Santa Margherita group. With effective marketing and momentum from the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, the wine found its way through the market. One way or another. But often it was a Mudville solution - very little joy in the way the final product found its way to the end user. Part of the confusion of the category, compounded with a zig-zag marketing approach back then.

And the other powerful man, the one who was toasting our group? His story was that when he was in the beginning of his career, which would be construction, and which made him wealthy beyond words, he started making Franciacorta for himself and his friends on top of the hill he lived on. The hill is called Bellavista, as it has an envious view of Lake Iseo and the surrounding area. As he made the wine, his circle of friends grew, and before long, he had to take the hobby more seriously. Not that this man isn’t serious about everything he does. He’s one of the most serious men in Italy. I wish we had politicians in Italy with his level of gravitas. But this man, he isn’t interested in policymaking. He has his empire. And for him Franciacorta has become a huge part of his life and the life of those around him. When his wife asked him to buy an abandoned brick kiln in the neighborhood, a place near where she grew up and had fond memories of, he did so. And he started another winery, Contadi Castaldi. Now the two wines, Bellavista and Contadi Castaldi make up nearly half of the Franciacorta produced in the appellation. The success of wineries like Bellavista and Cá del Bosco has encouraged others to follow, large and small alike. Now one can find any number of hand crafted wines from Franciacorta. There are conferences and seminars and trade trips and buzz – big buzz. But Franciacorta still cannot make a bigger mark on the world of sparkling wine. They just can’t seem to break out of the bubble. And with all the success, I know that nags on my friend a little bit. Not enough for him to lose any sleep over it. If anything, this man is a problem solver. No, what’s working against him, like all of us, is time. This might just be a multi-generational project. After all, the Antinori family didn’t make it all in their first generation. And after 25 or so under their belt, even they have their modern day problems. So that is life. And this is what we have before us.

As the evening was breaking up, the gentleman asked me to come to the winery soon. He wants to open a series of large bottles over many years. “I’d like to invite you to come to Franciacorta so you can have this experience.” I stumbled in my oh-so broken Italian and muttered something like “I would be honored, thank you so very much.”

He knew I was going to be near, at a conference for the Prosecco, one I have been invited to by the Consorzio. He quizzed me again, if I would have time, but I knew my itinerary would be packed this time. But nothing unkind came out of his mouth, he merely nodded and noted that the wines would be waiting, resting for the time when we would enjoy them. “But don’t take too long to get back,” he advised, “neither of us has the time these bottles do.”

Indeed. That might just be the answer to the riddle of this middle child. They wait and they age and they get better and better with time, in anticipation of some perceptive and wise souls to stumble upon them and help them break out of their bubble to a larger world ahead.

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Alfonso Cevola said...

definitely - a rising tide lifts all boats, large and small...

the Barone Pizzini I had yesterday @ Marea (w/Shelly Linders and Antonio Galloni) is a great example.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alfonso,
Thanks for writing about Franciacorta! It's the wine that I always open for a celebration nowadays and I can't understand why it is so under appreciated. I happen to be from Singapore, I would like to add that most people here still go for Champangne instead for a Franciacorta. Keep up the good work!

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