In my short time (6 years) in the business of wine I have had the chance to try many Champagnes, some of them outstanding in quality: my previous employer set up an online shop focused only on this wine, so I was able to take part in many seminars, to interview many producers and to taste lots of different cuvées.
On the other hand I am much less familiar with Franciacorta: I tasted my share at trade events or by myself, but I simply haven’t had the time to properly explore this area.
As a consequence, if you ask me my favorite between the two, that would be Champagne: I have drunk memorable bottles in the past and I am jealously storing a Extra Brut Philipponnat 2006 that I got as a farewell present from my ex-colleagues. I do not have such memories with Franciacorta (still?), nor I have ever found wines capable of rivaling the best Champagnes.
That said, I have found the words of Richard Hemming MW in his article from 16 October 2018 (“Franciacorta seeks a USP – still“) a bit too harsh and his criticism toward Franciacorta exaggerated.
The article is over paywall, but I hope no one will complain if I quote a paragraph:
Put briefly, and harshly, it is: so what?
It is a traditional-method sparkling wine, made in the exact image of champagne. It resembles its French progenitor in almost every way, including price. So why would a British wine drinker choose Franciacorta instead of champagne? Beyond a few adventurous drinkers or Italophiles, they don’t. There simply isn’t a compelling reason to.
After reading the article, and this part in particular, my thoughts started running on two tracks: first, is Franciacorta just the same as Champagne? And second, is Franciacorta really lacking a USP (unique selling point)?
Midway, the tracks came together and I asked myself: how would I sell a bottle of Franciacorta to a customer? What would I highlight?
Here are my conclusions.
- Price: come on, are we really saying that Franciacorta costs as much as Champagne?? The overwhelming majority of Franciacorta available on the Japanese market ranges from 2,500 to 7,000 yen. A Cuvée Royale from Montenisa (= Antinori) aged 36 months on lees is sold for just 3,500 yen! You will be hardly pressed to find a Champagne under 4,000 yen, the sky being the upper limit.
Sure, you can have a Ca’ del Bosco Annamaria Clementi for 16,000 yen, but that’s not exactly the norm.
I frankly doubt that a Franciacorta and a Champagne of comparable quality will have the same price: viticultural land south of Lake Iseo is valued 200-230 thousand euros per hectare, while in Champagne it goes over 1 million, even in the Aube. The magnitude of the fixed costs is different, the name is different, the price that you can charge different as well.
- Country of Origin: Richard Hemming states that, except some Italophiles, no one will be motivated to buy Franciacorta over Champagne. I have been to London only once and I totally ignore the structure of the restaurant business there, but let me tell you how it works in Japan.
The Italophiles here are many and the image of Italy is still a largely positive one, but this is not the point: the point is that the Japanese yellow pages site lists over 13,000 thousand Italian restaurants in the entire Country and more than 2,300 only in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. This is not just a bunch of Italophiles, this is a fairly sizeable market. (1)
Now, when one of these restaurants will need a prestige sparkler to complement their menu, will they choose a Champagne from France or will they lean toward a Franciacorta from Italy, which on average is also cheaper? You know the answer.
- Flavor: let’s leave aside the fact that Pinot Meunier is replaced by Pinot Blanc and let’s also leave aside the almost experimental Erbamat. As much as I love Champagne, Franciacorta wines tend to have quite different aromas and structure. You find more yellow fruit, more peach, a softer palate, more weight, less marked acidity, less flint. The Satèn has more delicate bubbles, the rosé is fuller (minimum 35% Pinot Noir), the non-dosé wines more frequent. Mediterranean climate, Lake Iseo influence, warmth, different soils: you don’t need me to tell you this stuff. You may like it or you may not, but a rounder style of traditional method sparkler will have its audience and a point of difference.
Sure, it would be great to have a cru system, or at least some MGAs (Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive) to better differentiate the varied terroirs of the region, but we are talking of a 2,800 ha appellation born 1967 and gone “full sparkling” only 1995. On one hand I think that we can forgive it, on the other I am not even sure of the economic feasibility of this choice. (2)
My point of view may be too narrow, as it focuses mainly on Japan. But why should this be the case? On the contrary, I would like to venture a guess.
The Franciacorta Consorzio states the following:
The export results are encouraging, with an increase in overall sales of + 15%. The main market remains the Japan which now constitutes 22% of the total, followed by Switzerland, which represents 15.2%. There’s an interesting growth in the performance of various countries: Germany (13.2%) exceeded the US (12.4%) with a growth of over 24%, while Japan recorded a further + 16%. It’s also surprising the change that is taking place in the Scandinavian countries where the interest in Franciacorta has been significantly increasing: Norway shows an increase of 249%, while Sweden a growth of 514%, although on low volumes.
UK is nowhere to be seen here, which suggests me that this market is pretty irrelevant to Franciacorta. If we consider that 2016 exports amount to just 1.7 million bottles, this means that over 1 million of them are already sent to Japan, Switzerland, Germany and the US. How many of the remaining ones can possibly go to the United Kingdom? Not many for sure and certainly much less than the over 27 million bottles of Champagne consumed there every year. (3)
Could it be that maybe, just maybe, Franciacorta presence in the UK market is simply too small to give an adequate picture of this wine? Clearly, the denomination is focusing on other Countries, for one reason or another.
I know that this may sound as blasphemy to Anglo-Saxon ears, but this time UK may not be at the center of the wine world: it could be the wrong market to draw conclusions, too small.
After all, from Japan I always look with mild curiosity at the low-alcohol wine fashion, the Prosecco boom or the rosé craze, because nothing of that sort has ever happened (or is happening) here.
Maybe now is someone else’s turn to wonder – about Franciacorta, in this case.
(1) The same search for French restaurants returns less than 7,000 results, though this figure is less relevant: French wines are also widely used in places not defining their cuisine as “French”.
(2) And if you ask me, the village classification system in Champagne is not that great either: Mesnil-sur-Oger covers over 400 ha and all of it can be labelled “Grand Cru”. Are we really sure?
(3) I could not find the latest data, but Unione Italiana Vini reports around 107,000 bottles sent to the UK in 2014.