Translating directly to ‘short France,’ the bucolic region’s complex sparkling wines highlight cultural and climactic change

The wine produced in Italy’s Franciacorta, the bucolic agricultural area known for its sparkling wines just outside of Brescia, is not Prosecco. This was the first thing that I learned during my time with the Franciacorta Consortium, the local economic and agrotourism board, who invited me to the area for a three day tour of wine tasting throughout the region. My time with the Consortium came directly after the press preview for the Venice Biennale, a complete assault on the senses where every moment is coordinated. I needed a break, a moment to contemplate, and in this way Franciacorta offered an almost idyllic escape.

The region is a remarkable microcosm of geology with topography that shifts from moment to moment. Bound by Mount Orfano to the south, the stunning Lake Iseo to the north, and the urban Brescia to the east, the region’s rolling hills and position between the cold winds from the Swiss north and the mediating property of the lake form a microclimate ideal for wine production. The magic is all in the name Franciacorta, which translates literally to short France. This quality of smallness extends into many of the qualities of the region—an environment that approaches challenges hands-on, with a fiercely independent attitude focused on responsible growth, even in the face of economic and climate challenges.

In short, for the non-sommeliers among us, Franciacorta specializes in the production of sparkling wine with a much longer aging process than Prosecco. Whereas Prosecco sits for six months at a minimum, Franciaorta wines utilize the méthode champenoise, which mirrors the same method used to make French Champagne. This process requires two fermentations with a minimum age of 18 months. As a bit of wine-making politics, the French producers of Champagne are the only organizations allowed to utilize that term on their products, so Franciacorta officially refers to their process as the traditional method. Most of the producers that I visited produce several variations that age for far longer, depending on type and vintage. All Franciacorta vineyards that belong to the consortium follow a broad set of production requirements which stretch from viniculture, vinification, to restrictions on bottling and presentation.

Intensive process and focus on long-term craft mean that Franciacorta wines face a particularly difficult time on the global market when it comes to finding a routine buyer. Prosecco’s short production time comes with an advantageous price tag that is about half of a Franciacorta sparkling;anyone who’s looking for a pricier sparkling wine will usually side with Champagne, due to name recognition and established history. Franciacorta, which only hit the global market in the second half of the 20th century, is now focused on a campaign of spreading consumer awareness Right now, only a handful of members of the consortium vineyards produce on par with players in Champagne, with the largest being Berlucchi with a total of 4 million bottles, followed by Ca’ del Bosco (1.8m) and Bellavista (1.5m). For many of the medium and small sized producers, the business of running a winery is concurrent with another career, or handled as part of an investment by an independently wealthy owner or partner.

Along with a guide, I first visited the small Majolini winery, located in the small village of Ome, on a part of the valley that rises into the hills with stunning views of the entirety of Franciacorta. Simone, the third-generation operator of his family-owned winery, greeted us in the early afternoon as we winded up the driveway (alongside his uncle Ezio, who was accompanied by two immaculately groomed farm dogs). After a short tour of the facilities he brought us into his private office for a tasting. Because I’m insufferable and live in Brooklyn, I selected Majolini’s natural sparkling wine, which is adorned with a drawing by Simone’s young son, and drank five glasses within an hour. He noted the growth of the Majolini, as they’ve slowly acquired more land, while also remarking on the yearly crop losses as part of the changing climate. In this dynamic, revenue has remained flat despite the growth in total hectares, in a surreal way growing to remain the same. Nearly every member of the wine industry in Franciacorta contends with these climate change challenges. The last several years of grape harvests seem like meteorological Goldilocks—too dry, too wet, too hot, too cold. These changes impact the region in an outsized way. While the Consortium has implemented a number of requirements that allow for sustainable agricultural practices, these cannot control vastly changing global patterns that have shifted weather.

I slept haphazardly that night in part due to the five additional sparkling wines that I sank back at the extremely fabulous farm-to-table restaurant Il Colmetto, paired with a meal that ended with Torta di Rose, a local specialty that tastes and looks like a chic fried dough. The next morning, we stopped at Ronco Calino, a vineyard located on low-lying rolling hills. The home of the owner, which sits a short walk away from the production facilities, was the country residence of the late pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, whom many regarded as one of the most influential classistists of the 20th century. In addition to being kinda hot, Michelangeli was a notable obsessive, tuning his instruments repeatedly and focusing on the minutiae of his craft. This spirit lives on in the practice of Ronco Calino, who have utilized this approach to winemaking and introducing the aesthetics of music throughout their messaging and design.

At sunset, we reached another vineyard, Montina. The CEO Michele Bozza walked us through the property’s facilities, which include a traditional wine press made of wood that a sizable portion of their harvest still runs through. Bozza remarked about the changing climate and its impact on the season. Each year the harvest comes earlier and earlier in August, complicating the harvesting process in Franciacorta which is already early and narrow due to the complex microclimate of the region. These challenges seem not to phase him. “I was born here, and I will die here,” he said of the land that the vineyard sits on. The pride in craft and responsibility to the land, at least at Montina, rises above the complexities of making wine, even as the ability for producers to grow continues to shrink. Before leaving, we watched a wedding party celebrate on the building’s terrace before proceeding inside for a reception. One of the guests invited me to join, but we had to depart. I was also sure that I didn’t need another glass of wine, although I would have several more at dinner. I’m not sure what this says about my constitution.

I don’t enjoy wine to the extent of the typical traveler to Franciacorta, which in itself is typically only a stop for domestic travelers with a deep knowledge of global wine production. The charm is in its secrecy, an endlessly fascinating blip on the map of northern Italy obscured by mountains and in the shadow of the lake. Franciacorta is a place that exists on a unique balance of environmental factors, a fact that is not lost on its inhabitants who are keenly aware of the temporality of it all, and who bear the burden of continuing on in the face of complex problems, through stewardship and a tremendous pride in craft.