On the 12th September, 1962, President John F Kennedy announced his country’s intention of putting a man on the moon and, in doing so, enthralled the world as the might of the United States’ technological machine was directed to this goal for the ensuing decade. A year earlier, Count Guido Berlucchi and Franco Ziliani had also made an announcement – one that would change the future of a small part of northern Italy forever. However, this event, unlike President Kennedy’s announcement, attracted little or no attention, even in Franciacorta where the Count employed the young Franco as his oenologist. Up to that time wines from this area were exclusively still; however, three years earlier Franco had persuaded Count Berlucchi to allow him to try and make a sparkling wine in the French manner – one must be careful here because an incorrect reference to Champagne will, in an instant, generate an army of lawyers and a tsunami of litigation – and after three long years of learning by trial and error, Franco’s efforts had finally produced a drinkable result in 1961.
Today, there are 120 cantinas producing sparkling wine in the metodo classico in Franciacorta and Vinnie and I went to visit one called Ronco Calino. We were met by Anna who explained some of the history of the winery. It was founded by Paolo Radici, the son of an industrialist, who actually did not want to enter the family business but rather produce wine. As often happens, his father’s wishes prevailed and it was only when he was 50 that he managed to fulfil his dream. In 1996 he purchased 10 hectares of abandoned and neglected vines and started the project that today consists of 13 hectares of vines that, in a good year, produce 70,000 bottles. But, as Anna explained, this year they will make less because of the damage caused by a hailstorm at the end of July. Such are the vicissitudes facing winemakers in an area where the hot winds from the south come up against the alpine mass.
The vineyard sits on a north-facing amphitheatre of glacial moraine facing Lake Iseo and the Alps. The cool breezes coming off the lake provide a perfect microclimate for the Chardonnay and Pinot Nero vines that have been managed organically since 2016. The beautifully appointed modern and spacious reception area and tasting rooms blend unobtrusively into the geometric precision of the vineyards. The huge glass walls that give views onto the vineyards sit underneath a very traditional wooden-beamed roof topped with terracotta tiles, a delightful synergy of old and new. The surprise awaits underneath where the visitor finds himself in a series of vast rooms that provide the space necessary for not only the fermentation and blending but also the storage of wines that may remain on the lees for up to five years before a final disgorgement.
This is a concrete cathedral dedicated to meticulous wine-making. The harvest is undertaken by hand and grapes are brought in crates holding a maximum of 20kg. After a soft pressing the grapes are fermented in stainless steel with separate tanks for the different grapes and soil conditions. The Pinot Nero remains in steel but a percentage of the Chardonnay matures in barrique. The exact percentage depends on the wine in question. Blending is generally undertaken the following March with bottling the following May. Then the long wait commences as the wine ferments a second time on the lees.
The first wine we tasted was Saten which is 100% Chardonnay. 30% of the wine is matured in French oak barriques before bottling, The wine then rests on the lees for 30 months before disgorgement, followed by the addition 3.5 grams of dosage per litre – the term “dosage” is used to describe the wine that is added after the plug containing the yeast is removed and can have sugar added to produce a final result that will be labeled according to the resulting sweetness. For example, brut nature would mean that there was no sugar at all in the “top up”, whereas demi-sec could have 33 to 50 grams of sugar per litre of wine. The Saten is a delicate pale yellow with a bouquet of brioche with citrus notes of grapefruit and orange. On the palate there are pears and green apples with a good salinity and acidity.
We next sampled the signature wine of Ronco Calino called Brut. It is a blend of 80% Chardonnay of which 15% is matured in oak with the balance of Pinot Nero. This is one half of their total production. This wine spends 34 months on the lees with a dosage of less than two grams of sugar. The colour is again pale yellow with a perfume that is light with almond and blue cheese and, in the mouth, grapefruit.
Brut Nature is 70% Chardonnay that has had one third matured in oak with 30% Pinot Nero. It has spent 40 months on the lees with no added sugar. Again, the colour is pale yellow with hints of green and on the nose elderflower and vanilla. In the mouth, it has a brightly acidic lemon flavour.
Finally, we tried Brut Millesimato from 2014. A 60/40 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, half of the Chardonnay has been in oak. This wine spends a massive five years on the lees with a final dosage of less than one gram of sugar per litre of wine. Pale yellow with hints of green, the bouquet was floral with brioche and vanilla and on the palate a good salinity with lemon.
These are sophisticated wines that have been constructed with care and reflect the dedication of the team of professionals that have made them possible. Yet, as you savour the bead of bubbles rising in your glass do not concern yourself with all that has made this happen for that is not what Paolo and his team would want – rather be truly Italian and just enjoy the moment.