Franciacorta Part 2 - An Interview with Silvano Brescianini
During his recent and brief visit to London, we sat down with Silvano Brescianini, Consorzio Franciacorta’s recently appointed President to discuss his view on the region’s present and future.
Franciacorta remains unknown to most consumers outside of Italy – have you read our brief introduction to the region and its winemaking history? It’s certainly a shame that the quality of its outstanding traditional method sparkling wines is not more widely appreciated. But with small volumes, a limited vineyard area and domestic sales soaring, export growth is an operational challenge in itself. It will therefore be a privilege to have some exquisite examples - from Silvano’s own Barone Pizzini, no less – poured at our Champagne & Sparkling Wine Festival for guests to taste and discover.
The Wine Gang - A pleasure to meet you. Congratulations on taking the helm of the Consorzio Franciacorta. Are there specific opportunities and challenges that you hope to tackle?
What will the key points of your strategy be?
Silvano Brescianini – Of course there are many things to be done. There are, from my point of view, a few particularly important key points. First of all, [the promotion of] the region. We have to work to introduce the region and its history. People don’t know that we’ve been producing sparkling wines for centuries. It’s documented that Franciacorta’s wealthy class loved to enjoy sparkling wines in the 16th century. They would keep barrels of partially fermented wine under cool deep water, and remove them in spring. As fermentation re-started the wines would bubble. So we have a long tradition of ‘bubbles’. At the same time, and has happens in many wine regions, monasteries were also important. The oldest monastery in the region was founded in the 11th century by monks from Cluny in Burgundy, so they definitely influenced the winemaking tradition in the region.
TWG – Part of the strategy to raise awareness of the region’s wine tradition is certainly related to history and therefore with tourism?
SB – Absolutely.
TWG – And we believe another of your priorities is sustainability.
SB – Yes. We are working with three Universities – Milano, San Michele all'Adige and Verona – with which we have three different projects, all about sustainability. With Verona we are trying to understand how a vineyard can retain Carbon Dioxide; with Milan and San Michele we are trying to understand if there’s a connection between biodiversity, the vineyard’s soil and the quality of the wine. We started this 5-year study in 2015 and we’ll have the first results next year. We do believe biodiversity is important but we really need to prove and understand the connection in order to focus on how to work better under organic standards. It is quiet easy for us because the 75% of vineyards in Franciacorta are certified organic or under certification. That’s close to 2000ha of a total of 2900ha under vine.
TWG – Is all this research also addressing climate change? Small vintage variation is one of Franciacorta’s greatest competitive advantages, especially when compared with Champagne. Is climate change causing greater variation or other negative impacts?
SB – Climate change is of course an issue in the wine world in general. If England is now producing wine is probably because something is changing! [laughs] What we need is to learn, adapt and find balance. There are many things we can do in the vineyard. Franciacorta is in the north of Italy, just at the foot of the Alps, and temperature is not a big problem but we can definitely say that a soil with life can prevent many things. A soil with life is softer, has more organic substance and acts as a sponge to keep humidity. In 2015 there was a very hot and dry summer and if you’d look at vineyards located next to each other, with similar aspects and soil profiles but different management practices, the plot farmed organically for 20+ years was still green in October, meaning the vines were vibrant and healthy, while on the other side [under conventional farming] all the leaves were yellow.
So you see why we work to promote life underground. The vines keep more energy and reserves and can better manage tough situations, whether it’s too much rain or too dry. For too long agronomists and technical media were focusing on nutrition and fertilisation but what you need is to have life in the soil. Which sounds simple but it’s not.
TWG – It’s a long term investment.
SB – Exactly. And how can you bring energy to your wine if the soil is not alive?!
TWG – Franciacorta’s soils are mostly sandy. Is that correct?
SB – Not exactly. The east of Franciacorta is moreinic soils, a deposit from the end of the ice age. A glacier moved down from the Alps bringing [geological] material with it and, as it was stopped by Mount Orfano, it left its deposit here. North, west and south are red soils, with more iron, clay and squared stones [limestone with a high percentage of quartz].
TWG – How have grape prices evolved?
SB – Grape prices are not stable at all. In 2017 for example we had a big frost and had a very small production. This means the available grapes were sold at premium. In 2018 quantities were generous but producers were very ‘thirsty’ so prices remained very high, around 1.80 to 2.00 €/kg. Before the 2017 frost - which was like an earthquake, it hadn’t happened for more than 60 years, most producers had never seen anything like it – the price was around 1.40-1.50 €/kg. But it really depends. It also varies a lot on the exact position and aspect of the vineyard.
TWG – Does this mean that Franciacorta has some recognisable ‘Crus’, like Champagne?
SB – Not yet. We don’t have enough history but we’re working on it. We also have a study on our soil, made in the 90’s, but we don’t have an official certification. Producers just know where to find better quality and pay more for it.
TWG – So you are actively doing soil mapping?
SB – The soil mapping was already done, part of a study with the University of Milan in 1992/93. Right now we are doing a second step. The study was done only for Chardonnay, which accounts for 80% of the vineyards. Pinot Noir is growing and we also have another variety, Erbamat. So the next step will cover these two as well. Also, in the 90’s we just looked at the soil; now we’ll look at temperature, rainfall and light. With the technology we have today it’s much easier to cross-reference all these data.
TWG – Is the percentage of Erbamat permitted in blends likely to change?
SB – I hope so! We are just introducing it and have to learn. During the next couple of years, we’ll work to identify different clones. Two years ago we started from a library collection of the Centro di Studi di Brescia, which identified 18 different varieties that producers once used. So we ask ourselves: why have these varieties stopped being farmed? Because they are not interesting? Because they are hard to ripen (like Erbamat)? Or is because of style? With Erbamat we have a variety whose characteristics could be interesting. It ripens six to eight weeks later than Chardonnay, and even then it has higher acidity and less sugar and, very importantly, less polyphenols. So it’s very light coloured. What we don’t know is how the blends with Erbamat will develop in time. I’m a big fan of Erbamat and believe it will be very important in the future but we need time. There are two kinds of producers in Franciacorta: half are very interested in Erbamat and it’s potential, the other half are completely against. But this is already changing. There used to be no interest at all.
TWG – Is Prosecco’s success an issue? Does its ubiquity bring prices down or make it difficult to adjust consumers’ expectation about what another Italian sparkling wine is like (and costs)?
SB - No, Prosecco is not an issue. It is an incredible success story. The UK opens more bottles of Prosecco than Italians. It’s unbelievable! [laughs]. But our main problem is, certainly in years like 2017, that we simply don’t have enough volume. What we have to do is work in order to present Franciacorta in the right place at the right time. Of course that the UK is not a top market in terms of volume but for sure it is a top market in terms of culture. That’s very important.
I think Prosecco brings consumers to enjoy bubbles, young people to enjoy wine. And you know, [overall wine] consumption is not increasing so if we can bring a younger generation to enjoy more wine that’s good news. Loving Prosecco is a beginning and in my point of view it’s one of the ways to bring a new consumer to wine. Then you can either go on enjoying easy-drinking young fruity wines or try to understand [a bit more]. A consumer who doesn’t know Franciacorta will not spend £30/35 more for a bottle. Will just go for a cheaper option. So what we have to do is explain why people should pay for a bottle of Franciacorta.
TWG – So Prosecco can be an entry point rather than a problem.
SB – It’s not a problem. They are different wines. If you consider Champagne, every single place in Italy where Champagne does well, so does Francacorta. Of course we can’t compete directly with Champagne. The history and the numbers are different. We are twenty times smaller. But what we have to do is to bring consumers to enjoy quality sparkling wines not only for aperitif and partying but during the meal. That’s the big challenge for our category.
TWG – Going back to export markets. How much of total production is exported and how much is domestic consumption?
SB – Exports are very small because Italians love Franciacorta! Exports are just 12% now. But I think that’s still good. We are a small region, production started in the early 1960’s and as an Italian I’m very happy to say that Italians love Franciacorta.
How would we increase exports? It’s not easy, specially now that we don’t have more bottles. For the next two years we don’t have the volume to grow.
TWG – It is impossible, specially because you mentioned how important the UK is, not to mention Brexit.
SB – Well, on Brexit, I have a question for you! Why?!!
— posted by Ines Salpico & Anthony Rose