The Female Winemakers of Franciacorta Are Giving Champagne a Run For Its Money
You may not have heard of Franciacorta yet—but you will. Only an hour's drive east of Milan, this little area has long played host to well-to-do Milanese looking for a weekend escape. Still largely undeveloped, it was only in 1957 that the region discovered its terroir was particularly suited to sparking wine. Now the area is home to more than 100 winemakers who are producing and bottling the bubbly.
And just to get things straight, this is no mass-produced Prosecco or Lambrusco. Franciacorta is made in the old-school méthode champenoise, using the same grape varietals as French Champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot blanc). The grapes are typically harvested by hand and the wine fermented first in wooden barrels and then in the bottle, for a minimum of 18 months. And while the end product is quite similar to traditional Champagne, the wine has its own distinctly Italian flavor profile. In fact, some argue that certain bottles of Franciacorta rival even the highest quality Champagne (and you can get them at a quarter of the price).
So, while the region is no Champagne yet (it has about 7000 acres of vineyards compared to Champagne's more than 80,000), it's certainly on the rise. And at the top of this growing enterprised? A handful of dedicated women, many of whom grew up among the grapes and are now heading their family businesses. Here, three of the best share their Franciacorta stories.
Diletta Cavalleri, Cavalleri
"An ancient deed reports that my family has owned land in Erbusco [the Franciacorta region] since 1450. We have also found documentation that the family was already producing still red wines at the beginning of the 20th century. But the real change came about when my grandfather Giovanni started to produce the first bottles of Franciacorta in the 1970s with his beloved Chardonnay grapes.
As a child, I remember spending the summer with my cousin—who now takes care of production at the winery—at our grandfather's house. The vineyard always held a special fascination for us. I remember sitting for lunch with the whole family and there was always a bottle of our wine on the table. I was very proud of it.
At first, I didn't want to work in the winery. I wanted to prove to myself and to my family that I could do things on my own, which I did for many years. But then the call of the land was too strong and I came back home. I've worked in the winery since 2009, handling the domestic and international business, both sales and administration.
The more time I spend working here, the more confident I become. Today, our passion is supported by a refined technique. We are always experimenting and looking to improve our wines."
Roberta Bianchi, Villa Franciacorta
"In 1960, my father, then 26 years old, fell in love with Borgo Villa and had a great dream to bring the semi-derelict and abandoned medieval village back to life and enhance the land through high-end wine cultivation. In 1978, after eighteen years of study, the first Villa Franciacorta wine was produced.
Right from the start, the idea was to use only our own grapes in order to maintain full control over the supply chain and to produce only vintage wines. This meant using grapes from only one harvest annually with a minimum of 30 months on the yeasts. In 1978, a total of 4,000 bottles were produced. Today, we produce 250,000 bottles of Franciacorta.
I have always devoted time and energy to the cellar through various events. In 1990, I helped to open Villa Gradoni on our property, a small 'agriturismo' for tourists to stay in. Originally, there were six rooms and now there are twenty-one flats, two swimming pools, and a restaurant.
Up until 10 years ago, my father continued to work in the winery with the support of Paolo, who later became my husband. It was a male-oriented approach to the wine business, so the company has changed a lot since I became involved. For the past 12 years I have been working full-time at villa, dealing with importers, trade fairs, and event organization both locally and abroad. I personally choose the packaging for each of our bottles. I am also a staunch supporter of environmental protection, which is why we embarked on an organic conversion process and have been granted an environment certification for our production.
What has changed compared to the past? Everything and nothing at the same time. Technology helps us, we have renovated facilities and new cellars, but nothing has changed in terms of our passion and commitment. At the end of the day we say, 'from the vineyard to the cellar, the only possible route is the heart.'"
Cristina Ziliani, Guido Berlucchi
"My father, Franco Ziliani, an oenologist, met Guido Berlucchi in 1955, because Berlucchi was searching for a winemaking expert to help stabilize his white wine, Pinot del Castello. The pair founded Guido Berlucchi winery, and in 1961 my father proudly corked 3,000 bottles of Pinot di Franciacorta. It was the first sparkling Franciacorta wine to ever be bottled.
I have wonderful memories of the harvest. As kids, we waited all year for that moment. I remember anxiously trying to get the grapes into the cellar before the rain arrived. And I remember the women who worked in the cellar, too. They were so confident and artistic as they rotated the wine bottles, coaxing the sediment down to the neck of the bottle, where it would later be frozen and removed. I can still see their hands as they expertly dressed the bottles and wrapped them in beautiful tissue paper.
Our property is very special. We have historical cellars that date back to the 17th century. Additionally, we have a beautiful 16th-century palace next to the cellars, which was Guido Berlucchi's private residence. Today, we host events, lunches, and dinners in the home for guests and collectors.
I personally have been working at the winery since I was 24. Now I'm the head of communications and have been involved with the winery for thirty-five years.
Since the beginning, we have remained ceaselessly committed to the environment and our territory. We have now reached organic certification for all of our vineyards. We are also striving to promote worldwide knowledge about Franciacorta, together with other producers in the region, instead of competing with them. We all believe Franciacorta is a real undiscovered gem!"