Maurizio Zanella didn't create Franciacorta. It only seems that way. When the now-famous wine region was awarded DOC status in 1967, the sparkling wine business in Italy was dominated by sweet fizz from Asti, and Prosecco was barely on the radar.
Zanella came along a few years later and launched Ca' del Bosco on a piece of property in northern Italy's lake region — land that had been purchased by his mother, Annamaria, many years earlier.
Today, Franciacorta is to Italy what Champagne is to France. It is Italy's most complex, elegant and sophisticated bubbly. Ca' del Bosco is one of its most celebrated properties.
At the recent Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival, Ca' del Bosco was poured alongside the renowned Champagne house Salon to demonstrate that sparkling wines from the finest regions and producers have the ability to improve with age.
"We opened eight older vintages of Ca' del Bosco that had been disgorged for just one month," Zanella said proudly, believing, as did many of the sommeliers in attendance, that Ca' del Bosco was able to shine even in the august company of Salon.
That's where the inevitable comparisons with Champagne end, however, at least for Zanella.
"Franciacorta is its own category," he suggests. "You see a wine list, it will have a category for Champagne and then another for 'other' sparkling wine. This is wrong. Franciacorta has the strictest regulations for sparkling wine production in Europe.
"We are allowed only nine and a half tons (of grapes) per hectare, compared to 12 to 15 everywhere else. We can press off only 60 percent of the juice. We have the longest ageing by law in Europe.
"It is a wine in its own category."
The similarity, other than bubbles, is the method of production. Franciacorta must follow the Champagne method, with the second fermentation (which creates the bubbles) in the bottle as opposed to the large tanks and vats used in Asti and throughout the Prosecco region.
Stylistically, Franciacorta strays dramatically from the Champagne model, with the emphasis on fruit aromas rather than the secondary aromas and flavors found in fine Champagnes.
One style isn't necessarily better than the other. They're just different.
The Franciacorta style takes advantage of a warmer climate, and many of the bubblies from the region exhibit tropical fruit aromas. The riper fruit also allows for a lower dosage, between 4 and 6 grams per liter compared to 9 to 12 grams in a typical Champagne.
"We can do this because the wine is already rounder to start, before we add the dosage," Zanella said. As a practical matter, that means a typical Franciacorta brut is drier than a typical Champagne brut. There is a growing trend in the Champagne region toward lower dosage, however, which in addition to making the wine drier enhances its ability to age.
The grapes permitted in the production of Franciacorta are similar to those allowed in Champagne, where chardonnay and pinot noir dominate. Franciacorta's regulations also allow pinot bianco (pinot blanc in French) and an indigenous variety, Erbamat, which was only recently included in the selection.
"It's a local grape, so it gives to the wine something more connected to the region," said Zanella. "And it has more acidity. With the warming of the climate, we believe it will be important to the structure of the wine."
Erbamat is a white grape that may be added to Franciacorta production up to 10 percent.
I caught up with Zanella near the end of his U.S. tour and sampled three Ca' del Bosco bubblies (of the eight now imported to the U.S.), including the exquisite 2007 Cuvee Annamaria Clementi Brut Riserva, the wine Zanella created to honor his late mother.
The current vintage Franciacorta in release is the exceptional 2009 Franciacorta DOCG Brut. It exhibited complex notes of peach, tropical fruit and brioche. Both of these exceptional wines are considered luxury bubblies and priced accordingly, at $90 and $55 respectively, according to the Wine-Searcher website.
The non-vintage Prestige Cuvee Franciacorta DOCG is the easiest find and the least expensive, though for $35 it's certainly not cheap. What all have in common with Champagne is quality. Given that the quality is on par with top-notch Champagne from luxury producers, the prices aren't so bad after all.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.