the wine
Franciacorta

the land
Franciacorta

17 Sep 2015

Icon Magazine Germany

Prosecco is familiar throughout the world – while Franciacorta, far higher in quality, is virtually unknown. Plans are afoot to change this. Philip Cassier and photographer Massimo Rodari travelled to the Northern Italian region and learnt about far more than wine Although Maurizio Zanella’s business is wine, what first becomes apparent to visitors at the estate of the President of the Franciacorta Winegrowers’ Consortium is his somewhat offbeat love of animals. Take the sturgeons, for example; kept in a pool directly at the entrance of the estate, they are not simply killed to fulfil their destiny as caviar suppliers; instead, they receive an injection of sedative and are then massaged to extract their roe. The fish are then returned to their pool – groggy, but at least alive. The plastic wolf statues that scatter the Ca’ del Bosco Estate – a fitting environment for 007, complete with helipad – are quickly explained. The wolf is the emblem of this region in scenic Northern Italy. But a life-size plastic rhino? The beast hangs from the ceiling of a vault full of steel tanks, used after the harvest in August to collect the grape juice. It looks as appropriate as, well, as a plastic rhinoceros in a premium winery. Zanella is unfazed by our enquiries about the animal – a work by artist Stefano Bombadieri. “Rhinos are animals that always go their own way”, he says. “That’s not a bad thing in my business either.” And yet this may only be part of the truth. Everything else depends on the “gentleman on the floor upstairs” – Zanella’s description of his heavenly boss. Zanella is convinced that the “gentleman”, as controller of the weather, has more say in the quality of his product than Zanella does himself. Long periods of rain or excessive sun can impact on the quality of an entire vintage; this year was extremely hot and dry. The rhino could thus be interpreted as a nose-thumbing gesture: Dear Lord, this hall is where my influence holds sway – and if I want to hang a plastic rhino there, I will. Yah boo to you! The presence of the rhino not only tells us something about Zanella, who tends to purse his lips when speaking of subjects like his relationship to the “gentleman”. It also reveals a lot about the inhabitants of this region of Lombardy. Traditionally associated as much with the steel industry as with agriculture, the people living here between the peaks of the Alps and the waters of Lake Iseo are familiar with the power of the elements. Although wine-growing has been documented here since 1809, it took until the 1960s for fine wines to be developed. Before this time, explains Zanella, from the First World War onwards the aim had simply been to produce as much wine as possible and thus ensure there would be enough stocks of this staple of the local diet. Accordingly, the region gained a widespread reputation for cheap produce that is still a headache today. The Franciacorta soil is high in minerals and of limited use in industrial agriculture; products from Zanella and his colleagues are thus an extremely new market presence. As Franciacorta’s wines are sparkling, they must unwillingly endure comparisons with champagne. It’s a similar story to the ancient Gaulish village made famous by Asterix, home to a magic potion that trumps the mighty Romans; somewhat over 15 million bottles of Franciacorta wine are sold every year, compared to 337 million bottles of champagne. Given this ratio, a quirkily individual sense of humour would seem to come with the job. Driving through the landscape, it’s hard to believe that the 113 vineyards in the consortium could experience any kind of hardship. Among these rolling hills, the misery of the world seems far away. Over four-fifths of the grapes grown here are Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir dominating the reds. The neat orange cottages, the forests of oak, chestnut and pine, the turquoise waters of Iseo Lake, its breezes and its toothsome fish, the local cuisine based on regional vegetables, lamb and beef: all these elements build an impression of contentment and happiness. The rumour goes that a few years ago George Clooney tried to buy up an island in the lake with a huge castle on it, but he didn’t get it. It hardly matters whether the story is true or not; this is a region that has no need of Hollywood. And yet locals have certainly noticed that the pace of life has picked up in the past decades. Skipper Paolo, who plies his boat on Iseo Lake against that improbably stunning backdrop of mountains and water, was born here 56 years ago. He learnt boatbuilding, knows everything there is to know about the relationship between the islanders and the mainlanders, and is increasingly noting a lack of ability to simply live for the moment. As he talks, his suntanned foot keeps the wheel of his motorboat under control. After his wife died he spent some time in Nicaragua and thought of emigrating, but familiarity ultimately won the day – and that meant the lake and its inhabitants, even if life is growing less easy-going for him as time goes by. The fine wine business, today so dominant, came gradually. Its progress can best be traced by a look at the market leader, Guido Berlucchi, whose estate now produces around four million bottles a year. Cristina Ziliani, daughter of co-founder Franco, accompanies us into labyrinthine cellars where batteries of bottles are stored between the pillars. It’s hard to imagine that in the 1950s, estate-owner Guido Berlucchi had no greater ambition than a few bottles of good sparkling wine for home consumption. In 1955 Berlucchi, a lover of hunting and sports cars who favoured English tailoring, was sitting at the grand piano in the salon of his palazzo when the wine dealer Franco Ziliani – who is still in the company today – appeared for an audience. The two quickly agreed to join forces and drive operations further. After the first bottles burst under excessive pressure, the duo turned to studying the methods used in producing champagne – how long to store the wine, at what temperature, how often to turn the bottles during ageing, and so on. Maurizio Zanella’s Ca’ del Bosco was founded in a similar process – in this case by Zanella’s mother, seeking a country refuge from life in Milan where she could farm high-quality produce for herself. Several years passed until the wines were ready for large-scale production. To this day Zanella believes it was a lucky coincidence that his mother grew tired of the products of industrial agriculture at the very moment that a market for exclusive products sprang up. At the Berlucchi estate, the first bottle of wine that was judged to be good is still preserved in an illuminated glass case in the cellar. The label bears the date “1961”. “I don’t even know whether it’s still drinkable”, says Cristina Ziliani, her half-smile marking the irony. There is no room for levity where quality standards are concerned. But there’s an image problem; “sparkling wine” carries an echo of cheap gaiety in many countries; wines like Asti Spumante or even prosecco are universally associated with Italy, yet come nowhere near to matching the premium quality of Franciacorta; and the region prefers to avoid any comparison with champagne owing to the vast differences in volume. So where to start carving out a distinctive position? The usual approach is to match Franciacorta with France – and in fact, the regulations in Franciacorta are more rigorous than in Champagne; grapes must still be picked by hand, as the only way to guarantee they are inspected and passed by the human eye. A maximum of 9.5 tonnes of grapes are harvested per hectare of vineyard, and every bottle must be matured for a minimum of 18 months – vintage and Reserva products for even longer. All these measures ensures that quality remains extremely consistent, whether an estate produces 10,000 bottles or millions. But anyone that has experienced more than one Italian in a room at one time will begin to understand Maurizio Zanella’s difficulties in persuading 113 growers to adopt ever stricter standards. So far he has always managed to prevail – with assistance from colleagues such as Riccardo Ricci Curbastro. A scion of a family with a 1200-year history, Curbastro was once himself President of the consortium. Broadly smiling, grey-haired and accompanied by Weimaraner hunting-dogs, he is the living epitome of the word “nobility”. He freely admits that Italians are not highly qualified in the discipline of working smoothly together, but explains that Italy’s history is dominated by its individual regions and the fierce conflicts between them, which have left their scars. Paraphrasing de Gaulle, he adds that in a country with over 400 different varieties of beans, achieving consensus is naturally going to be difficult. The strategy adopted by Curbastro and Zanella? The former, relaxed in the noon sun, comments with a casual lift of the eyebrow that the only way to convince people is to make them believe they came up with your idea first. Curbastro has set up a small museum on his estate and can describe the precise history of every item on display, from a saw to a cattle yoke. And although he, like Zanella, is not convinced that the “organic” tag guarantees higher quality because fully organic farming is even more dependent on the whims of the “gentleman on the floor above”, they use natural methods as much as possible in their vineyards. Does the perfect wine exist? Ricco Curbastro screws up his eyes. “Impossible”, he says firmly. “What you think is perfect might not be my taste at all.” A good point. Is it true? After a dégustation held at the heavy wooden table outside the door in the warm sun, we conclude that it’s perfectly possible to drink Franciacorta not only as an aperitif, but also to accompany even meat dishes. Only an ignoramus could fail to taste the skill and effort that has gone into the product, particularly where the vintage wines are concerned. And we confess that the first glass – no more is necessary – has the effect of transporting us to a place we’d like to visit more often: with heightened awareness, mildly tipsy, and conscious of the carefree moments that lie ahead. Picture captions: THE PURE DROP The world is so unfair – or, at least, Franciacorta certainly looks a little different from, say, Toxteth, Tower Hamlets or Marzahn. But despite the beautiful setting, this is a place of hard work when harvest time comes around. Enjoying a glass: After sipping the local products, visitors to Franciacorta can’t help but be convinced of how delightful the region is in the vast expanse of the universe. Animals and wine are essential for happiness: Maurizio Zanella from Ca’ del Bosco is the head of the Winegrowers’ Association and has an affection for rhinos and wolves. Franciacorta may be a sparkling wine – but it’s one that complements food perfectly, according to winegrower Riccardo Curbastro (r.). And he’s not the only one. A little support from the Lord during gourmet pleasures can’t hurt – after all, we are in Italy. Cristina Ziliani from the Berlucchi estate (l.) likes to receive guests in the palazzo, with frescos and historic kitchen. The first successful year was 1961; one bottle is preserved in a glass case in the cellar. The turquoise waters of Iseo Lake are not only a breath-taking splash of colour – their breezes ensure that in summer, temperatures are not too high for the grapes.