Lights flashing on the catwalk, designers hobnobbing with the jet set, flutes overflowing with bubbly: it’s Fashion Week in Milan, and industry insiders are set to celebrate in style. But if Champagne is a given in Paris, Italians have their pride to consider. A French product? Never. Moscato d’Asti? Too frivolous. Prosecco? Too simple. Lambrusco? Out of the question. What about a sparkler that’s made by the méthode traditionnelle, fully effervescent, dry, yeasty, autolytic from extended lees contact— and Italian? Enter Bellavista, the crown jewel of Franciacorta, Italy’s first sparkling-wine Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).
Situated near Milan in the northern province of Lombardy, the region derives its name from the Latin curtes francae, the "tax-free zones" that were part of the Frankish empire as early as the 5th century. In 1570, some 200 years before the more-famous Dom Pérignon, Dr. Girolamo Conforto wrote a manual on bottle fermentation, Libellus de vino mordaci . Today, Franciacorta is home to Italy’s finest, most serious dry sparkling wines, with a level of quality to equal that of the finest Champagnes.
The area’s cool climate is ideal for growing grapes for sparkling-wine production, and a glacial moraine provides stony soils on a sandy base that ensures good drainage. Alpine breezes contribute to a long, slow ripening season, so that the grapes maintain high levels of acidity while picking up slightly more flavor than is found in their counterparts from Champagne.
Bellavista proprietor Vittorio Moretti, who began his career in the construction business before establishing his winery in the mid-1970s, owns some of the best vineyards in Franciacorta—107 crus that enjoy ideal exposures and the moderating effect of nearby Lago d’Iseo. Winemaker Mattia Vezzola blends from more than 100 plots in 10 villages; grapes are hand picked by experienced harvesters and gently crushed in traditional Coquard presses, after which 65% of the must ferments in stainless steel, the other 35% in the 228-liter barrels known as pièces borgognona . Riddling is still done by hand. The méthode champenoise, as a second fermentation in bottle is historically known, is mandatory in the DOCG—indeed, Franciacorta’s aging requirements are even stricter than Champagne’s: 37 months for a vintage wine (30 on the lees) and 25 months for a non-vintage (18 on the lees).
With a total annual production of 12 million bottles from a little less than 6,000 acres (versus Champagne’s 315 million bottles from more than 82,000 acres), Franciacorta’s wines are still virtually unrecognized outside the region. After all, Milan is a major city where hordes of international visitors join the natives in drinking up as much of the local bounty as they can, leaving very little for export. That said, for the past two decades, two major brands have had a strong presence in the United States: Bellavista and Ca’ del Bosco. Bellavista is more widely available, but it lacks the well-oiled marketing apparatus of Champagne’s grandes marques . Even if it’s a must have for a world-class wine list, it takes a passionate sommelier to move it out from the cellar onto the floor. The typical guest looking to order a fine Champagne hesitates to spend $100 or more on such an unknown commodity. So what’s a sommelier to do?
The good news is that because its house style is elegant and full, Bellavista is easy enough to compare to Champagne in terms of quality, autolytic character, and finesse. Although its strong, tarry, ferrous, often salty minerality and hallmark Italian hint of bitterness set it apart for aficionados, the difference is negligible for most palates. Says Sara Pedrali, the U.S. ambassador for Bellavista (and Moretti’s niece), "I am very proud when Bellavista is compared to Champagne; I like to think of it as a boutique or grower Champagne in terms of characteristics, style, and quality standards." Moretti adds, "The comparison to Champagne is a positive one, because it means that the savvy consumer is thinking of our wines as embodying a terroir, a DOCG, and a method of production at the same time. Indeed, in 2003, the European Union granted to Franciacorta wines the same rights and status as Champagne. Stylistically, we would be closer to the full-bodied Bollinger and Roederer, but Bellavista’s philosophy and values have been from the very beginning the opposite of many of the grand marques —we are a private-capital estate belonging to a family, not a multinational group, and we do not purchase any outside grapes."
A Bellavista Franciacorta is also beautifully showcased by food; as with every Italian wine, the universal understanding is that it will dance with dinner. "Franciacorta bubblies are among the most versatile to pair with food for complexity and diverse range of profiles, from Satèn to the Gran Cuvée Pas Operé," says Pedrali. "Even thinking back to my childhood, I cannot remember an occasion or a meal that was not right with our wines—from an antipasto of Grana Padano cheese and prosciutto to my wedding feast, which we celebrated at Bellavista! And I cannot even express how proud I am when my French husband asks me to open a Bellavista rather than a bottle from our Champagne stock."