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Berlucchi, father of Franciacorta sparkling wines, looks to the world and bets on Expo

by Federico De Cesare Viola

At the entrance of the Borgonato winery there is a photo of Franco Ziliani and Guido Berlucchi: “It is the first picture I show all our guests. It depicts a meeting without which our company and perhaps even Franciacorta would not exist.”

Cristina Ziliani, with her brothers Arturo and Paolo, is at the helm of Berlucchi, the company that today produces nearly 5 million bottles of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, in Italian DOCG , Ed’s note) sparkling wine.

The first bottle - a Pinot di Franciacorta - was born in 1961, thanks to the happy encounter between Ziliani, a young ambitious winemaker, who wanted to produce wine the way the French do in the Champagne region, and Berlucchi, a nobleman who lived in the sixteenth-century Palazzo Lana and already produced a white wine - Pinot del Castello - that had to be improved.

“My father and Berlucchi were very different - said Ziliani - but they complemented each other and the company would not have existed without one of the two.”

At first, only 3,000 bottles were produced. Ziliani went to France with Berlucchi’s Mini Clubman and filled it with the corks suitable for the classic method, because in Italy after World War II they were not available. Although no one believed in the new wine, its quality, instead, was encouraging. So, the Max Rosé was also produced, as suggested by an antiquarian friend, Max Imbert (hence, the name of the wine), which became the first sparkling rosé of Italy.

To produce their sparkling wine, Ziliani and Berlucchi also chose the best grapes from the territory – Pinot nero in the Oltrepò Pavese, and Chardonnay in Trentino. Therefore, since the grapes were not from the Franciacorta area, the company that invented Franciacorta did not qualify for PDO specifications for many years. Then, after much thought, Franciacorta PDO Cuvée Storica (produced in 2001) was put on the market at Christmas, in 2004, thus aligning the production with the method of the territory.

Today there are four lines of the winery: Cuvée Imperiale, which accounts for 65% of the production; Cellarius, with 200,000 bottles; Palazzo Lana, dedicated to the palace where the company’s history began, with 10,000 units bottled, at most. There have also been collaborations with the world of art, such as the one in 1998 with Arnaldo Pomodoro, author of a bronze label-sculpture made in small numbers.

“There is a growing interest in the Franciacorta brand, because its quality is perceived,” continued Cristina Ziliani. “Our region has huge potential and with Expo Milano 2015 we hope to make ourselves known to the world.”

And also for this reason, during Expo, Berlucchi will open its cellars to the public (15,000 square meters, with a portion dating back to the 17th century) for guided tours and tastings.

Berlucchi’s exports do not exceed 6-7%, and are mainly directed to Germany, Japan and the United States.

“We are interested in the markets where there is already a wine culture - explained Arturo Ziliani, who is also the company’s winemaker - . The Northern European market is growing too, and it is very sensitive to sustainability.”

Berlucchi is also testing organic production.

“Winemakers must be sustainable, but also produce excellent wines, and I’m not sure I can get the same quality level with organic vineyards,” said Ziliani. “We started ten years ago on a 10 hectares plot of Chardonnay, the results have been good and so we decided to extend this method to all our 85 hectares of vineyards. There must also be economic sustainability. That is why I prefer the French term “agriculture durable”, which expresses the responsibility towards future generations.”