Origins and History
Ours is a story that first took root long ago. Sparkling wine has been produced in Franciacorta since the sixteenth century, and still wines have been produced since the dawn of time, but for a long time they were only for local consumption. Various events relating to viticulture and marketing hindered its production. The renewed interest in Franciacorta on the part of winemakers dates back to the late 1950s, when, quite suddenly, there was a newfound confidence in the region’s potential to produce base wines suitable for making sparkling wine. In 1967 name Franciacorta was granted official recognition thanks to the efforts of a small group of producers who were encouraged by the new Italian laws regarding designation of origin. Pinot di Franciacorta DOC was made from Pinot Blanc with the possibility of adding Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, with natural fermentation in the bottle or in the vat. The early 1970s set the stage for the great revival of Italian wine, and Franciacorta had already laid solid foundations to start manufacturing quality products. Entrepreneurs and managers began to buy land in Franciacorta, enriching the area with vineyards that they used to produce their own fine wines, for themselves and for their friends. However, this casual approach was clearly not suited to the character of the local Lombard people, and the properties were soon transformed into an “oenological laboratory”. The first historical group was soon joined by another dozen producers. Secondary fermentation in the vat could still be used, but even then most of the producers preferred the much more challenging secondary fermentation in the bottle. The 1980s were marked by the arrival of a wave of entrepreneurs, who came to Franciacorta seeking new or remodelled vineyards and who had the spirit and the means to get things off the ground and the determination to succeed, even if they weren’t original from the winemaking business. Despite this, they showed willing by seeking the help of wine experts and specialists who were able to enhance the quality of the product. This was the period when Chardonnay was distinguished from Pinot Blanc, and its perfect harmony with the terroir of Franciacorta became well established. By 1983, the original 50 hectares had become 550, and sales of Pinot di Franciacorta exceeded one million bottles while the number of companies doubled once again. The 1990s began with the establishment of the Voluntary Consortium, marking the beginning of the contemporary era of Franciacorta and Franciacorta DOCG.
Girolamo Conforti With its interwoven history, wine and culture, it should come as no surprise that Franciacorta was the home of one of the world’s first publications on the technique for preparing naturally fermented wines in bottles and their effect on the human body. Printed in Italy in 1570, the text was written by Gerolamo Conforti, a doctor from Brescia, with the significant title of “Libellus de vino mordaci” (Dissertation on Sparkling Wine). This doctor, whose studies preceded the insights penned the illustrious abbot Dom Perignon, highlighted the remarkable popular and widespread consumption of effervescent wines at that time, defining them as “biting”, which is to say lively and bubbly.
Not only that, he described them with the skilled attention to detail of an expert taster, describing them as having “a piquant or biting flavour that does not dry out the palate like wines that are immature and austere, and that does not make the tongue soft like sweet wines,” and then went on to list their therapeutic properties. According to Conforti, who was well versed in French oenology among many other things, the wines of Franciacorta became more effervescent during the winter, becoming flatter and duller during the summer months.
This meant that the origin of the foam therefore lay in the boiling of the must or, more correctly, in the fermentation, which, even then, was controlled so that the “gassy, light and pungent surface” was not lost.
Perhaps it was these distinguished considerations that inspired the first producers of Franciacorta sparkling wine again to revert to the use of barley grains to accentuate and prolong fermentation.
Ancient viticulture Vines have been planted on the hills of Franciacorta since ancient times, as proven by the discovery of grape seed remains from prehistoric times. In addition to the archaeological material found throughout the area, several testimonies have also been provided by classical authors, including Pliny, Columella and even Virgil. We also know of the peoples who settled in Franciacorta, such as the Cenomani Gauls, the Romans and the Lombards, from a vast array of historiographical evidence.
The most abundant historical material available relates to the Roman period and consists primarily of funerary inscriptions, memorials and military stone structures. One particularly exceptional archaeological item is the huge temple architrave, which was made in Erbusco and taken to Brescia, where it is now exposed in the facade of the palace of Monte di Pietà located in Piazza della Loggia. The Romans left their mark in many place names, such as Cazzago and Gussago, which referred to the Roman nobility.
A particularly interesting and useful contribution for understanding the configuration of the agricultural landscape and the significance of human work within it is the large-scale work by Gabriele Archetti on “Vineyards and Wine in the Middle Ages: the Franciacorta model (X-XV centuries)”.
Archetti’s investigation, which spanned the area between the Mella and Oglio rivers, made it possible to draw a map of the winemaking landscape in the High Middle Ages, to assess its impact over the centuries and to identify the variety of the grapes used, the yields per hectare, the cultivation techniques and the tools used by farmers in the vineyards and in the cellar. It even established the prices of wine, the labour costs for farmworkers and craftsmen, and the statutory provisions enacted to protect the vines and the wine trade.
Another great piece of territorial research on Franciacorta was conducted by Angelo Baronio using maps of large monastic institutions, the assets of which contributed significantly to the consolidation of a rural society deeply linked to their influence, even before the year 1000. One of the monastic foundations most active in the tilling, reclamation and cultivation of the land was the female convent of Santa Giulia of Brescia, whose properties in Franciacorta were documented by a source of exceptional importance: an Altarpiece from the second half of the ninth century. In the same era numerous other monastic courts were also active, including those of Clusane (a Cluniac priory), Colombaro (cell of Santa Maria), Timoline (court of Santa Giulia), Nigoline (court of Sant’Eufemia), Borgonato (court of Santa Giulia), and Torbiato (court of the monasteries of Verona and San Faustino of Brescia).
The first document that tells us of landed property located in Franciacorta, which belonged to the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia, dates from the year 766. It is the diploma in which Adelchi, son of Desiderius, in agreement with his mother, Ansa, promised to make a donation “pro remedio animae” (for the remedy of his soul) to the monastery, which was founded a few years earlier at his mother’s instigation.
Prior to the tenth century, however, our knowledge of the extent and nature of the local viticulture remains scarce and fragmented, though some locations must already have been the site of intense winemaking activities in Roman times. In a document dated 7 April 884, the monastery of Santa Giulia exercised “undatio fluminis in Caput Ursi,” that is, the right to levy a toll on the river Po, at Caorso in the area of Piacenza, and received spices, salt and oil while the monastery transported red and white wine to their properties in Cremona, Piacenza and the area around Rieti.
As is apparent from the Altarpiece of Santa Giulia and from the maps of Leno and other major urban monastic institutions, the documents from the ninth century, and especially those from the tenth and eleventh centuries, testify to the expansion of vine cultivation in practically every direction. Together with significant archaeological finds uncovered in the area, they are also indicative of the continuity of the winemaking activities in Franciacorta throughout late antiquity to the Middle Ages, which was in part facilitated by its favourable climatic and soil conditions. Further documentary evidence of this continuity comes from the maps of Santa Giulia and those of the bishop’s refectory, as mentioned by Gabriele Archetti.
Being part of a Signoria did not always mean peace: during the clashes of the Middle Ages over the papacy, the Ghibellines who sought refuge in Franciacorta, in addition to those from Valcamonica, found support from the Visconti of Milan, with whom they formed an alliance in the hope of chasing their Guelph enemies from the town of Brescia. Franciacorta was all Guelph, but two important centres at its gates were firmly in the hands of the Ghibellines: Palazzolo to the west and Iseo to the north. It was at this time that, according to sources from the Averoli archive, the court of Lantieri at Paratico and then Capriolo in Ghibelline Franciacorta hosted the exiled Dante Alighieri, who sought hospitality from the lords in power at the time. Iseo could be considered an outpost of the Camuni Federici family, and this ensured the safety of the Ghibelline islands in central-west Franciacorta.
An incessant series of intricate and bloody events followed one after the other around the fourteenth century. The municipal statutes from Brescia during those years contained a long list of towns throughout the territory devastated by these struggles (“terrae quasi hinabitatae et desertae”), which include the names of towns such as Calino and Rodengo. After this, Ghibelline bands were formed, led by local lords like Oldofredi of Iseo, or even adventurers, like Francesco Malvezzi, known as Brisoldo, who had a castle in Monterotondo and another in Provezze.
The advent of the lordship of Pandolfo Malatesta marked a major turning point in the countryside around Brescia in the early fifteenth century. The extended period of stability that ensued saw the resumption of agricultural activities, investment of new capital and the concentration of wine production in the hilly suburban band and in Franciacorta thanks to the introduction of new techniques such as the ‘piantana’ and the pergola for training vines. Some time later, Ottavio Rossi wrote in his memoirs: “Its members include Camignone, Calino, Paderno [...] the greatest income is generally that from wine, which is made in the most excellent way, with black and white and light wines which we call ‘racenti’ and sweet. Olives are picked, from which precious oils are made [...].”.
Brescia’s transition of from Visconti rule to Venetian rule once again brought Franciacorta to the fore. In the spring of 1426, the conspiracy of Guelph nobles led by Pietro Avogadro that delivered the city of Brescia to the Venetian Republic was organised at Gussago. It was in this period that the first high watch towers were built, with their square, crenelated appearance that became so characteristic of Franciacorta.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century the territory of Franciacorta was administered in ‘squares’, i.e. in districts that each had their own capital. Franciacorta was made up of the squares of Rovato, Gussago and part of Palazzolo. Venice rewarded the loyalty of the squares of Rovato and Gussago with privileges granted by means of the famous “ducal cards” of 1440, documents of the highest importance for the history of Franciacorta. This was the time of the mercenary companies, when a new geographical description of Franciacorta appeared in the statute of the Doge Francesco Foscari (1429) with an outline that follows the current boundaries as they appear in the product specification of the DOC wines of Franciacorta, approved on 21 July 1967. The first topological and place-name representation of the region of Franciacorta dates back to a paper from 1469 by an anonymous author, which is now preserved in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena.
More years marked by war with short intermittent breaks followed until 1797, when the conspirators of Brescia proclaimed the establishment of the Free Republic after Napoleon’s victories in Italy who the year before, as he moved from Milan through Via Chiari, Coccaglio and Ospitaletto, before peacefully entering Brescia. In the towns of Franciacorta (Rovato, Calino, Adro and Cazzago were among the first) the banners of freedom were raised and the insignia of the Venetian Republic were destroyed. An important role within this sequence of events was played by the noble families of Franciacorta, such as the Oldofredi (Iseo), Sala (Gussago), Lantieri (Paratico), Lana de’Terzi (Borgonato), Della Corte (Nigoline), Bargnani (Adro), and also the Cazzago, Calini and Fenaroli families, who not only had property and power in the cities, but all over Franciacorta. Meanwhile, the countryside continued to be developed, as testified by the work of Francesco Terzi Lana, a Jesuit from Rovato who was one of the first scholars to deal with the Italian technique of distilling pomace to produce grappa and produced an important body of writings on the subject. At the same time, the initiative of Count Ignazio Lana led him to introduce silkworm to his lands in Borgonato and to import fine French vines.
From the nineteenth century onwards, various elite-cultural coteries were formed in the calm hills of Franciacorta, in the villas that were resuming their former splendour at that time. Next came the most recent part of Franciacorta’s history, in which “novae curtes” made up of new agricultural companies used tradition and innovation as a basis for knowledge and experimentation to launch the new era of the local winemaking activities.