Franco Ziliani, the winemaker and revered “founding father” of Northern Italy’s Franciacorta sparkling wine appellation, died of natural causes over the weekend at his home on the shores of the appellation’s Lake Iseo. He was 90.
Ziliani’s passing came at a historic milestone, 60 years after making his first groundbreaking vintage of a Champagne-style sparkling wine for Berlucchi, the winery he came to own through his long partnership with Count Guido Berlucchi. That wine demonstrated that the region could produce high-quality sparkling wine, in a similar style to French Champagne. Today, Franciacorta is considered one of Italy’s top sparkling styles.
Silvano Brescianini, president of the Franciacorta wine industry consortium, described Ziliani as the visionary who transformed a historic but languishing winegrowing area in Lombardy into an Italian answer to Champagne. “Above all he deserves credit for having believed and invested in something that did not exist—namely Franciacorta,” Brescianini said in a statement.
Maurizio Zanella of Ca’ del Bosco, who launched his family Franciacorta winery in the 1970s, adds that Ziliani’s greatest contribution was in helping to improve the image of Italian wine, particularly sparkling wine, among Italians. “It was not considered elegant to drink Italian. You had to drink French like Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon,” Zanella told Wine Spectator. “But Franco Ziliani broke that dogma, because when you drank Berlucchi in the ’70s and ’80s it was so fashionable, so chic.”
Ziliani, who studied enology in Piedmont in the postwar years of the 1940s and 1950s, turned Berlucchi into a success story on all counts. Today Berlucchi is Franciacorta’s leading winery, producing about 330,000 cases annually from organically farmed grapes grown on its 270 acres of vineyards and another 1,000 vineyard acres it manages.
Earlier this month, the non-vintage Guido Berlucchi Brut Rosé Franciacorta ’61 (91 points, $36) earned a spot among Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2021.
Ziliani often spoke of developing an admiration for Champagne while studying enology in Alba. After attaining his degree in 1954, he went to work for his family’s wine merchant company, which did business throughout Brescia province, including the area that became the Franciacorta appellation. In 1955, Ziliani was recruited by the elegant Count Berlucchi to improve the Pinot Bianco produced in his 17th century cellars in Borgonato. Berlucchi’s rustic white was plagued by instability problems that the young Ziliani traced to the release of iron and calcium from the walls of the winery’s cement fermentation tanks.
Ziliani didn’t stop by solving that puzzle. He famously suggested that to valorize his vineyards, Berlucchi should use the wines as a base for sparkling wine in the “French style.” After three years of experimenting, Ziliani produced about 3,000 bottles of 1961 vintage Pinot di Franciacorta Methode Champenoise Brut. In later interviews, Ziliani recounted how the count’s butler complained the wine would take 20 years to unload. Instead, it sold out in months.
With production and demand climbing in 1965, Guido Berlucchi formally created an eponymous wine company in partnership with Ziliani and another business associate, Giorgio Lanciani. The company set to work replanting and acquiring vineyards and expanding and renovating its cellars.
Berlucchi’s image made it something greater than the nascent Franciacorta. And in 1976, Berlucchi withdrew its wines from the appellation it inspired in order to source additional grapes from the Oltrepò region of Southern Lombardy and from the mountainous Trento area of northeast Italy. It wasn’t until the year 2000—at the urging of Ziliani’s children— that the winery began again producing Franciacorta appellation wines again and returned all its production to the area before Berlucchi’s 50th anniversary in 2011.
Following Berlucchi’s death in 2000, Ziliani became company CEO and embarked on a new era, aided by his three children. He gradually purchased the count’s business shares from his foundation. In 2017, at 86 years old, Ziliani retired, selling nearly all his shares to his children, while maintaining the title of company president. His son Arturo remains CEO today.
Ziliani is survived by his three children—Arturo, Cristina and Paolo—who all work at Berlucchi, as well as eight grandchildren, two of whom work at the company.