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Italy’s healthy fizz

Italy’s healthy fizz
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If you think Italian fizz is just Prosecco it’s about time you enjoy a glass of healthy Franciacorta.

A tasty wine made in a fertile corner of Lombardy where mineral-rich vineyards grow out of extinct glaciers and drained marshlands. Historically renown for its digestive and reinvigorating properties, it also boasts a ‘green’ side.

In Franciacorta, locals have a knack for making a great - but especially eco-friendly - sparkler. That’s how they’ve been killing time ever since the Roman empire. For starters, the Co2 bubbles aren’t added, but the end result of a long process of natural yeast fermentation inside the bottle, which is monitored step-by-step to ensure a sublime fluid that tantalizes taste buds.

The ‘zero environmental impact’ motto

The love and care for this fizz has been passed down across generations of families, aristocratic and peasant, together with a deep eco-conscious approach that usually clashes with making a profit. But not here.

Franciacorta’s sparkling production is based on the ‘zero environmental impact’ motto: it’s not intensive vine cultivation but one of extremely high quality. Producers are allowed to make only a restricted number of bottles each year from limited acres of land, which makes these labels all the more élite and sophisticated. The Franciacorta territory itself is tiny compared to that of other sparklers.

“You see this vineyard and those fences out there, that’s about all I have. I can’t plant one single, extra vine beyond that old pink chapel, which the church still owns and won’t sell to me. That’s my boundary, and it might stay so forever as my legal case keeps going on and on”, says winemaker Emanuele Rabotti, quite frustrated yet proud of his premium bottles, among the area’s top ones.

A niche haven for wine connoisseurs

His ancient Monterossa estate, a niche haven for wine connoisseurs, is hard to spot as it perfectly blends in with the green and brown patches of vines. Fresh air, chirping birds, not too many roads around, there’s a peaceful ambience. Forget that pungent, somewhat nauseating smell of must typical of any winery and the sound of heavy machinery. It’s silent.

I’m quite astonished indeed at finding a locked-up shrine jutting-out of neat rows of vineyards scattered across the sweet, gently rolling hills overlooking Lake Iseo. Rabotti explains how the local church, owner of all cultivated lands back in the middle ages, had started the flourishing wine business. Looking at the moss-covered wooden door and rustic windows of the abandoned little chapel where weddings were once celebrated amid the scent of delicate grapes, it strikes me just how much frozen in time a vineyard can be, bonded to the balance of nature.

Franciacorta’s small-size winemakers

The use of pesticides and fertilizers in Franciacorta is practically down to zero and vehicles are banned, meaning man does most of the work without a tractor (Rabotti himself either walks to inspect his vines or moves around on a white electric golf cart). The grapes are hand-picked and there’s a higher concentration per bottle than in most other sparklers. Each intervention on the land and new plantation follow strict regulations, renewable energy sources are used to keep the estates and wineries running, new vine inputs are discouraged while eco-friendly materials are extensively used. The goal is to make exquisite wine while favouring the increase of the soil’s organic matter.

Franciacorta’s consortium, reuniting some 100 mostly small-size winemakers, has even created a special surveillance tool to monitor companies’ greenhouse gas emissions across the whole production chain in order to provide guidance and boost sustainability. In this fizzy paradise, the architecture respects the environment. The stunning landscape has not been altered across time.

Rather than building new high-tech canteens that often look like space shuttles ready to take off, most producers have preferred not to radically change the surrounding countryside. They have exploited already existing medieval vines and old, elegant manors. Monterossa’s headquarters are in a lavish Renaissance villa with a stunning garden, frescoed walls and decorated furniture. Wine tastings take place inside the hunting lodge where aristocrats toasted to big events.

The Ricci Curbastro winery even features a wine museum and is still run by the founding noble family. Just like in the past the heirs live in a historical mansion close to the canteen. “My granny is never going to abandon this place, no matter how old she gets. The wine runs in our veins, it’s our oxygen”, says young Gualberto Ricci Curbastro.

Writer: Silvia Marchetti