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Tribute paid to Franciacorta wine pioneer Franco Ziliani

Tributes have been paid to winemaker Franco Ziliani, a founding father of Franciacorta sparkling wines in Italy, who has died aged 90.

Franciacorta has lost one of its fathers; Franco Ziliani died aged 90 this Christmas.

He was the winemaker who, along with the Count Guido Berlucchi, changed the destiny of an entire region and helped make Franciacorta one of the most consistent areas in the world for sparkling wines made in the traditional method.

Their fateful encounter was in 1958 at Palazzo Lana, in Franciacorta. Count Berlucchi began to question the young winemaker about how to improve his unstable white wine produced in Cortefranca.

‘I answered his questions without hesitation, and in acknowledging him I dared to suggest: what if we were to try to make a sparkling wine in the style of the French?’ said Ziliani, famously.

Berlucchi accepted his proposal, and the challenge was underway.

Ziliani was born in Travagliato and studied at the Scuola Enologica di Alba, in Piedmont before his endeavours with Berlucchi.

After a few tough years, Ziliani and Berlucchi bottled and stored 3,000 bottles of “Pinot di Franciacorta” in 1961, most likely made from Chardonnay.

Disgorged the following year, this first batch turned out to be excellent. In the past years, the old winemaker had been more sceptical about the quality. However, the turning point came from the “traditional method” recipe.

This is where it all began for Franciacorta, now with DOCG status and recognised today as one of the most prized sparkling wine regions in Europe.

Ziliani and the Berlucchi winery produced Franciacorta DOC up to 1975, before finally joining the region’s Consorzio in 2012. The Franciacorta Consorzio’s clear strategy aimed at top quality wines was enough to convince Ziliani to join.

After 1975, the winery had looked beyond the young appellation in order to expand. Ziliani’s strategy was quite aggressive, and he preferred to produce VSQ wines to expand his business, buying grapes from as far as the neighbouring regions Oltrepò and Trentino.

There were not enough planted hectares at that time within the region. ‘We stole each other’s grapes,’ he used to say.

Ziliani’s link with Franciacorta was always maintained, however. He remained associated to the Consorzio both as a viticulturist for Berlucchi and as a full member with Antica Cantina Fratta, another brand of the estate at the time.

Once the Berlucchi winery aligned fully with the Consorzio, the whole production of the Franciacorta appellation grew by 40%. Today, the estate produces more than four million bottles, making it the largest wine producer within the appellation.

Bellavista, the second largest winery, produces approximately 1.5 million bottles. Ca’ del Bosco produces around 1.3 million bottles (but has the highest number of hectares), while Contadi Castaldi makes around one million bottles.

‘Franco Ziliani had the courage and the intuition to produce fine wines [at a time] when in Cortefranca the wine was sold in demijohns,’ said Silvano Brescianini, the president of the Consorzio of Franciacorta.

‘All of us in this region owe him a lot, for his flair in producing classic method sparkling wines but also for having laid the groundwork for the other entrepreneurs.’

Ziliani also successfully navigated a generational shift in ownership, something that is always challenging in Italy’s wine world.

Berlucchi is today proudly managed by Franco Ziliani’s three children, Paolo, Cristina and Arturo Ziliani. They have helped guide the estate to its position as a leading Italian winery thanks to the trust from their father and their diligent investments aimed at raising quality.

During his father’s funeral on Tuesday 28 December, Paolo Ziliani read song lyrics to describe the determination and stubbornness of his father Franco: My Way.

The way of a pioneer that has become the story of Franciacorta as a winemaking region.

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