Monday, 22 June 2015

Franciacorta - the other Italian fizz

A frothy, fruity, lightly sweet tidal wave of wine from Italy has been rushing over the UK in the past ten years – and its name, of course, is Prosecco.

But Italy always has more tricks up its sleeve and if you are feeling the urge to explore its fizz further, Franciacorta could be your next destination.

Franciacorta doesn’t have a long history as a sparkling wine region. The first sparkling wines were made in 1961 and official DOC status came in 1967, followed by top of the tree in Italian wine law DOCG status in 1995. It lies in Lombardy, northern Italy, between the city of Brescia and the almost impossibly picturesque Lake Iseo (little brother to the more famous Garda and Como).

Commitment to quality is the hallmark of this small region. The wines are made in the same way as Champagne, with the sparkle deriving from a second fermentation in the bottle. The varieties grown are predominantly the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a little Pinot Blanc. Maximum grape yields are lower and maturation time of the wines on their lees are longer (both factors considered important for wine quality) than they must legally be in Champagne.

You can see that this is an “aim high” strategy and quality is definitely there in the wines – to use a very broad brush, they have the elegance of Champagne, but with greater ripeness of fruit thanks to their more southerly location. These are wines that all sparkling wine lovers should look out for.

Franciacorta wines in the UK
Exports to the UK are still relatively small, but seek and ye shall find:

Berlucchi Cuvée Imperiale NV – Majestic £19.99, currently £13.32 a bottle as part of their mix and match offer
This is the biggest selling Franciacorta anywhere and it makes for a great introduction:  a fairly typical blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir, it is light, pretty and zippy with elegant fruit - and incredibly good value.

Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Prestige NV is in the same stylistic mould, but with more nuanced flavours of lemon, green apple and melon and is a touch drier. Available from independent merchants at around £30 a bottle, £39.99 from Selfridges.

Bellavista completes the trio of big producers of Franciacorta and their Cuvée Alma NV is £28.95 from and a range of independent merchants. Time on the lees gives it a lovely biscuit and savoury dimension, which, combined with the baked apple fruit, is beguiling and moreish.
La Valle Franciacorte Rosé NV - £22.49 from
This small producer makes only 50,000 bottles a year, so distribution here is understandably restricted. But I would happily recommend any of their wines that you come across (and online merchants seem to be the sole importer to the UK).

So often the rosé versions of sparkling wines, and especially Champagnes, offer no more enjoyment than the regular cuvée, yet we cough up a good few quid more for them. In contrast, I was particularly struck by the quality of rosé Franciacorta.

La Valle’s rosé is 100% Pinot Noir and combines a food-friendly broad spiciness mid-palate, with succulent fruit and a delicate finish. Quite delicious. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sparkling English success stories

It’s no longer news that English wines are growing in stature with every passing year. Sparkling wines, especially, continue to set the pace and I was bowled over recently with the quality and consistency of the sparkling wines I tasted at the annual English Wine Producers’ event. But don’t just take my word for it - English wines have already scooped up plenty of medals at major competitions this year, with surely more to come.

Stories are circulating about a looming shortage of Prosecco, which I would take with a large pinch of salt, but if they do materialise, there is plenty of English fizz to fill the gap, with production up to 6.3 million bottles last year. And this figure will only rise, as more vineyards enter production.

Below are some old favourites and some new (to me at least) discoveries:

Hambledon Classic Cuvée NV – £29.95 from Berry Brothers
This Chardonnay dominated blend from Hampshire based Hambledon Vineyard combines complexity and linearity with delicious baked apple maturing Chardonnay character. It scooped a Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge and that competition’s English Non Vintage trophy.

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2010 – £29.95 from and The Wine Reserve (Cobham)
Another Hampshire vineyard, and all of whose wines I rate, has done well on the medal front – this also scored Gold at the International Wine Challenge. It is 90% Chardonnay, has lovely, long-lasting flavour and is, according to my tasting note, “quite delicious”.

High Clandon The Succession Cuvée 2009 – not commercially available
This is a bittersweet success story for Surrey-based, tiny producers Bruce and Sibylla Tindale. Their 1-acre vineyard has produced a wine judged worthy of a Gold medal at the International Wine Challenge (as well as Bronze at the Decanter World Wine Awards and Gold at the Sommelier Wine Awards) – but sadly, they have none available to sell as their stock was stolen from its bonded warehouse earlier this year. You can, however, get a taste of High Clandon, as the Tindales will be launching their 2010 Magna Carta Cuvée this month.

Wines to match the season

English asparagus has hit the greengrocer’s shelves and Jersey Royal potatoes will soon be joined by mainland British new potatoes – the hungry gap is well and truly over and we can soon look forward to more delicious, fresh and local produce.

And to drink?

Fashionable it ain’t, but Muscadet is just right for the season – fresh, vibrant and with a slight tang that is redolent of the sea. Château du Cléray Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur lie 2013 (£9.99 or 8.49 from Majestic on their mix and match any two offer) is a classy example which goes well with asparagus, pan fried salmon and the like.

Gaillac Perlé is an interesting wine style created in the 20th century in the Gaillac region of Southwest France. It’s lightly sparkling (but not enough to require a Champagne-style bottle or cork) which adds to the sensation of freshness. And at around 11-12% alcohol, this is a perfect lunchtime glass. These wines are pretty consistent, whichever one you come across, but The Wine Society lists Esprit de Labastide Gaillac Blanc Perlé 2104 for £5.95, which is clean as a whistle and does the job nicely.

More patriotic would be something English (or Welsh). These wines are going from strength to strength.

Surrey’s own Denbie’s estate produces a wide range of wines, including their Whitedowns Cuvée (£21.99 from Denbie’s online shop, £17.99 from Waitrose, also available elsewhere), a blend of Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner. It’s youthful, light and frothy with a delicious combination of creaminess, lemon sherbet acidity and a hint of spice – perfect for an outdoor afternoon tea. 

Chapel Down’s Vintage Reserve Brut (£20.99 at Majestic and elsewhere, £20.79 at Waitrose) is a classic blend of the Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – with just a dash of Reichensteiner. It has a floral aroma and is a youthful, light, fresh and vibrant palate.