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ERBUSCO, Italy (Reuters Life!) - It's hard to beat champagne but makers of top-shelf Italian bubbly franciacorta aim to establish their product as an alternative, using a blend of high quality and shrewd marketing.
Franciacorta wine is made from the same grapes as champagne -- Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with Pinot Blanc also sometimes added -- and uses the same method of secondary fermentation in the bottle. That inevitably leads to comparisons.
But rather than trying to take on the leading bubbly and its status as the world's celebratory drink of choice, franciacorta makers want to distinguish their product and carve out a niche as an upmarket wine to accompany a meal.
"We consider our wine an alternative to champagne rather than a rival ... We make a niche product compared to champagne," said Maurizio Zanella, chairman of the Franciacorta Consortium which represents 98 percent of the sparkling wine's makers.
The gap in size between champagne and franciacorta output would make head-on competition impossible, Zanella said at his high-tech Ca' del Bosco winery, some 70 km northeast of Milan.
The franciacorta district produces about 10 million bottles from vineyards covering 2,283 hectares and may boost output to a maximum of 25-30 million bottles, a limit imposed by the land available for cultivation.
That pales in comparison to Champagne's 32,900 hectares of vineyards and annual production of 320-340 million bottles.
Franciacorta makers say their bubbly is distinct thanks to the district's terroir, which lies 700 km south of Champagne.
Franciacorta's climate alternates between hot days and cool nights due to nearby mountains and a lake, and it has a stony soil of glacial origin. Some technological details of the wine making are also different, such as a longer period of refinement of yeasts.
For Zanella, franciacorta is more full-bodied, more lively and less acid than an average champagne. Some wine critics, however, say franciacorta is more crispy and less round and in the worst cases is just a formulaic attempt to copy champagne.
Zanella said franciacorta producers, who have set high standards of quality from the start of commercial production in 1960s, spare no effort to improve the product.
"We have 50 years of history against more than 300 (years) of champagne. We need to guarantee top quality to gain reputation," he said.
Ca' del Bosco has invested in technology to cut the use of sulfites, added to wine to stop fermentation and protect it from contact with oxygen but which can cause an allergic reaction.
Following growing concerns about the health effects of pesticides, Fratus La Riccafana, a smaller winery, has eliminated them in its vineyards and makes only organic wine.
Franciacorta remains little known outside northern Italy and the consortium aims to boost investment in domestic promotion with events like concerts or treasure hunts to lure wealthy clients.
"They will come here, see our beautiful area, taste our wine and go back home as franciacorta ambassadors," Zanella said.
Franciacorta, which exports just below 10 percent of its wine compared with some 50 percent for champagne, aims to boost sales abroad, especially in the United States and Japan and plans to start a marketing campaign in Switzerland soon.
The Italian bubbly may benefit from its lower retail price, especially during the economic downturn. An average franciacorta bottle costs between 10 and 35 euros while champagne starts at 20. The best quality Italian wine is under 100 euros, while top French names easily fetch several hundred.
Franciacorta sales have been rising on average 10 percent a year in the past few years. They jumped 16 percent in 2008 to 9.7 million bottles, when champagne sales fell 4.8 percent to 322 million bottles, hit by weak demand in key export markets.
This year grape harvesting started in Franciacorta a couple of weeks early, among the first in Italy, and wine makers expect a very high quality harvest thanks to the favorable weather which ensured high sugar content and healthy grapes.
Editing by Steve Addison