Italy’s sparkling region

While the world has gone crazy for sparkling wine, Franciacorta’s sparkling wine remains a niche product. James Lawrence looks at its plans to drive growth.

Ca' del Bosco winery
Ca' del Bosco winery

The pace with which Franciacorta has established itself as Italy’s leading source of premium sparkling wine is one of the most dramatic changes to have occurred in the Italian wine industry in recent times.

Awarded DOCG status in 1985, the region has grown exponentially from a handful of producers to an area with over 100 wineries and an established reputation for quality. However, despite such remarkable achievements, Franciacorta is still restless, conscious of the fact that the non-Champagne market continues to be dominated by Prosecco. IWSR data shows that consumption of Italian sparkling wine outside Italy increased from 16.7m 9-L cases in 2008 to 26.9m in 2013. Of these, only around 100,000 cases were of Franciacorta, but exports from the region are growing. Overall sales (domestic and exports) have been steadily increasing, from under 14m bottles in 2012 to 15.5m in 2014.  And the proportion of those that were exported grew from 7.9% in 2012 to 9.2% in 2014. 

Growth curve

Situated in the province of Brescia in Lombardy, Franciacorta produces Italy’s most prestigious traditional method sparklers, and is its answer to Champagne. The principal grapes grown – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and the production methods mirror those of the French wine, but there are some differences. While Pinot Blanc is allowed in both regions, you are more likely to find it in Franciacorta, where you won’t encounter any Pinot Meunier. The Italian region is also much smaller than Champagne, with a mere 2,200 ha, compared to approximately 34,600 ha in Champagne.

Quality sparkling wine is also a recent development. Still wines have been produced in Brescia for centuries, but a small,  successful industry only really began to emerge in  the 1970s. The pioneer of the style was Franco Ziliani, who made a small quantity of wines for the Berlucchi brand in 1961. His success attracted wealthy investors such as the Zanella family and the industrialist Vittorio Moretti, who invested in the industry’s largest players, Ca’ del Bosco and Bellavista. 

Today, the Franciacorta Consortium, a dynamic appellation authority, controls the industry’s production methods and sets stringent quality controls, including  minimum ageing of 18 months for NV Franciacorta. A typical winery is medium- sized, with an average output of 400,000 bottles per annum. “Unlike Champagne, our secret is that Franciacorta has no co-operatives,” says consortium president Maurizio Zanella. “We are quality-focused vintners who simply grow our own grapes, produce and market the wine.” However, Zanella continues, “Marketing the wines globally is actually a relatively new concept for our region... The Consortium was founded in 1990, and for 18 years solely focused on raising quality across the region... After all, how can you market a product when the quality isn't present?”

Nonetheless, a number of wineries have made some headway in the export arena. Laura Gatti is the second generation of the Gatti family to run the Ferghettina winery – and the first to speak fluent English. Like most producers, she is acutely aware that the overall market for still and sparkling wine in Italy is in decline in volume terms, and exports are inceasingly crucial. “Of course, Italy will always be a key market for Franciacorta, but it would be dangerous to solely focus on domestic sales for several reasons: demand may waver, there is currently much political and economic uncertainty at home, and, of course, you’re always in a stronger position with a diverse range of markets to rely on.” 

Ferghettina's and Franciacorta’s most important export market remains Japan, where, following key investments from the Consortium and the wineries themselves, the popularity of Italian cuisine has helped to drive sales in the on-trade. The next four most important export markets are Switzerland, US, Germany and the UK, once a tiny market for Franciacorta. Zanella's recent priority has been driving growth in Great Britain, with a marketing campaign focusing on education and generating excitement in the on-trade. Franciacorta sales rose in volume by over 170% between 2013 and 2014, according to LʼOsservatorio economico Franciacorta figures and Britain now takes over 7% of exports compared to barely 3% in 2012. For some producers, the growth was even more dramatic. According to Ferghettina's Laura Gatti. “Our importer, Boutinot, sold over 5,000 bottles compared to a few hundred when we first started.” 

In markets like the UK and US much work remains to be done, however, to generate further and sustainable growth. The main barriers to overcome are clearly a lack of consumer recognition and a relatively high price point. “There is definitely a missed opportunity in the market for a quality sparkling wine that sits between Prosecco and entry-level Champagne in price point,” says Michele Bozza of La Montina winery. “There are plenty of good quality examples at this price point and this is where the region must focus,” he adds. However, the Italian wine is at the higher end of this range. 

In the New York market, the average price for Franciacorta is $27.00, just above the US ‘sweet spot’ of $20.00 to $25.00 for quality sparkling wine. Brands like Ca’ del Bosco and Bellavista have higher ambitions, selling their non-vintage wines for $36.00 to $38.00. More premium cuvees such as Ca’ del Bosco’s Vintage Saten and Bellavista’s Gran Cuvée command prices of $50.00 to $90.00, according to Wine-Searcher. By contrast, Sherry Lehmann – one of New York’s leading retailers – offers Veuve Clicquot NV for $47.00. Similarly, the UK supermarket Marks and Spencer’s own-label Franciacorta (produced by Ferghettina) carries a £19.00 ($29.00) price tag, and has to compete with Champagnes at £16.00 and £20.00. Unlike Prosecco, whose UK sales – at under £10.00 - have just overtaken Champagne,  Franciacorta is rarely seen in UK supermarkets.

Franciacorta has, on the other hand, gained from the increased specialism of on-trade venues, particularly restaurants that offer tapas-style dining and diverse wine pairing options by the glass. “Sales of Franciacorta are going well after a slow start. At the beginning it was not easy to persuade our customers as they thought that Prosecco is the Italian version of Champagne and much cheaper,” says manager Lorenzo Fabrello of London's Dego restaurant and wine bar. 

US consumers also need encouragement to try Fanciacorta. “Very little awareness exists of Franciacorta in the New York restaurant scene, whilst Crémant from a prestigious region, Sekt and domestic sparkling sales outstrip it easily,” says Dustin Wilson MS, the wine director at Eleven Madison Park, New York. Amanda Yallop, Head Sommelier at Sydney's famous Quay restaurant agrees, saying that, “I do have a Franciacorta on the list, but it's a slow mover; more of a hand sell. Many guests are not familiar with the term Franciacorta. They simply want a local sparkling wine or a Champagne.”

It is clear that only producers that are prepared to invest in marketing and who understand local prices will increase their share in the buoyant and potentially lucrative non-Champagne market. But while there may be a limited number of spaces on generic restaurant lists and retail shelves, increasing restaurant specialism and wine focus offers hope for this still-peripheral category. 

What lies ahead

For any visitor to the region, there is no denying the confidence its producers have in what they see as its strengths: the consortium, the collegiate approach of the winemakers, the proximity to Milan and Bergamo with their international airports, and to the tourist attractions of Lake Garda and the city of Verona. High on the consortium's agenda is attracting more international tourists to the region, as numbers are currently relatively low. To that end, they have created a marketing concept known as the Strada del Franciacorta, or Franciacorta Wine Route. Would-be tourists are given extensive multilingual guides to the scenically attractive region, detailing local restaurants, cycling routes, wineries to visit and more. Zanella insists that the vast majority of wineries welcome visitors, and many are equipped with tasting rooms and bi-lingual guides. 

However, compared to other Italian regions the infrastructure remains modest, even for a small area; there are barely more than a handful of good hotels and only one top class restaurant. Therefore, unless significant investments are made, Franciacorta's cultural attractions are likely to remain mainly appreciated by Italians alone. For now, the Strada del Franciacorta feels like a missed opportunity. 

But ultimately, there is good reason to remain optimistic about Franciacorta's chances for growth and market expansion. The region has entered the export arena at the perfect moment; it is no secret that sparkling wine sales have recently been the greatest success story in the global market. In the UK alone, Italian sparkling wine has increased its share to 65.6% of the sparkling market and, according to Nielsen, is worth £387m. IWSR analyst and Italian specialist Humphrey Serjeantson also believes in the region’s chances on the world stage. “I think it’s almost inevitable that Franciacorta will expand its market share; there is such a buzz about Franciacorta in Italy at the moment and this will inevitably spread outside Italy as well.” He adds that the high prices will mean Franciacorta’s expansion on the world stage is likely to be slower than that of Prosecco, but at the same time “the high price and production values [100% DOCG vs Prosecco which is both DOC and DOCG] will help convince drinkers of its quality.”

Moreover, the region finds itself well placed to capitalise on both the popularity of Italian gastronomy and its fine wines in general, given that many Italian producers have taken this route in the battle to gain a share of the Chinese market. Provided that the industry remains disciplined and resists the temptation to expand too quickly, Franciacorta should have a bright future ahead. 

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