Italy’s answer to champagne is franciacorta, the country’s best-kept wine secret. Franciacorta — a name that refers to the territory, the production method and the vino — is a small bucolic wine region whose sloping hills overlook the shores of Lake Iseo. Sitting an hour east of Milan, it’s a popular wine-tasting getaway for Italians, but the destination hasn’t yet caught on in the United States.
“It’s a hidden gem,” says Hristo Zisovski, beverage director of the Altamarea Group, whose Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurants Marea, Ai Fiori and Costata all serve franciacorta in New York City. “The wines are delicious and represent the best in the world.”
The sparkler carries a richer and more complex flavor than the lightweight, fruity prosecco. The straw-yellow franciacorta is a blend of chardonnay (a minimum of 50 percent), pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes (a maximum of 50 percent). Franciacorta was the first sparkling wine in Italy to receive the highest designation of quality (DOCG) and the self-imposed regulations for the wines are even stricter than those used in Champagne.
“Franciacorta has always been emphasized as a sparkling wine of top class in our restaurant,” says Michael Greeson, wine director at Manhattan Five-Star Del Posto. “In addition to the sensitivities that can complicate vineyard management in this geographic area, the laws set in place by the DOCG system require a remarkably sophisticated sequence of decision-making in the cellar. Unlike most Italian sparkling wines, which are produced in the Charmat method, where the wine gets bubbly in bulk tanks, the secondary fermentation, which produces the CO2 bubbles, occurs in each individual franciacorta bottle. This is the same process used to make champagne, often referred to as the traditional method or méthode champenoise.”
“If people want a champagne alternative, franciacorta has the same great taste,” Zisovski says. “The way they differ is the area they come from in world. Champagne is known for its chalky freshness and angular sharpness. Franciacorta wines tend to be creamier and moussey. They have a roundness.”
Every wine lover should make the trip to Franciacorta to taste for himself. Use our itinerary of the region to indulge in Italian comfort food and top-of-the-line bubbles.
Where to Drink
On your wine-tasting tour, you’ll have more than 100 producers to choose from in Franciacorta. Zisovski favors Ca’ del Bosco, Barone Pizzini and Cavalleri, while Greeson prefers Berlucchi, all of which are either larger or mid-sized producers. But we sipped at smaller boutique wineries during our visit. Our first stop was Ronco Calino, an organic winery perched atop a hill with views of the surrounding vineyards and mountains. Its villa once housed noted classical pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who chose the locale because it was ensconced in nature (he closely guarded his private life). Now it’s home to Lara Imberti Radici and her husband, Paolo, who started making franciacorta wines in 1996. Ronco Calino is one of the area’s smallest producers, churning out 60,000 to 70,000 bottles each year. Radici walked us through the winemaking process in the cellars and then gave us a tasting. For an introduction, try the refreshing, well-balanced brut, a wine typical of Franciacorta that has notes of red fruit and yellow flowers. Next, move onto the Nature (pronounced “nah-ter”), a smooth, dry pour with a touch of sharpness that offers an aftertaste of red fruit, citrus, light honey, vanilla, hazelnut and almond.
Our next tasting was at Majolini, which links the winemaking art form with fashion and design. We ducked into the art-gallery-like cellar with winemaker Simone Maiolini to see some haute wine couture, with bottles of Majolini brut dressed in handmade corseted ostrich-skin jackets and others in long silk gowns with ruffled necklines.
After the fashion show, retreat to the tasting room for a glass of satèn, an easy-to-drink, silky sparkler made of chardonnay grapes, or the round and soft demi sec rosé, made of pinot noir and chardonnay that’s more of a dessert wine. As you sample, you’ll spy Mattia Trotta’s Moby Dick outside. The sculpture looks like a whale plunged headfirst into a hole in the ground with its large iron tail lagging behind it. The piece depicts Captain Ahab chasing the elusive whale, in the same way the winemaker chases that perfect wine every year.
For the final winery stop, we ventured to Il Mosnel, a family estate that dates back to 1836. Lucia Barzanò, who grew up in the estate’s 18th-century home, showed us the winemaking facilities and also let us wander the surrounding tree-dotted grounds (fun fact: roses are planted along each vineyard row because they indicate the health of the fruit; if the flowers don’t bloom, the grapes aren’t any good). To further explore the vineyards, opt to rent one of the winery’s bikes, complete with a packed picnic, to pedal through the 99 acres.
You’ll want to head to Il Mosnel’s loggia for some rosé pas dosé, a golden-hued wine made of pinot noir and chardonnay, and lunch. Order the plate of local cheeses, like a soft nostrano made of cow’s milk and an excellent grana padano, as well as the salumi platter. Then move on to the casoncelli, a buttery ravioli-like pasta stuffed with creamy ricotta and herbs, along with a glass of the smooth satèn.
Where to Eat
The only meal where you won’t enjoy some sparkling wine is breakfast. Swap franciacorta for cappuccino at cheery La Pasticceria Roberto in Erbusco and indulge in croissants and panettone, though the bakery’s glass cases lined with colorful mini fruit tarts, tiramisu bites and more will more than tempt you.
When you need more substantial meals, Relais Franciacorta’s La Colombara restaurant serves Lombardy specialties like a rich, flavorful risotto made with franciacorta and topped with a Parmesan crisp. Pairing it with the sparkling wine is a no-brainer. Grab a table that overlooks the charming courtyard. Another place to get your fill of franciacorta is Cucina San Francesco at I Cappuccini Resort, a former 16th-century convent. In the cozy dining room, savor an asparagus-ricotta mixture tucked into egg pasta sheets doused in a creamy franciacorta-shallot sauce alongside a Lantieri Origines brut riserva (“riserva” indicates it has been aged for at least 60 months).
L’Albereta Relais & Chateaux’s more casual VistaLago Bistrò hits the spot with a melt-in-your-mouth burrata resting on a bed of bright cherry tomatoes as well as a heap of housemade spaghetti pomodoro that’s simple but perfect. The only thing that snatches your attention from the comfort food is the breathtaking view — the wood-slatted terrace opens up into lush greenery and the mountains. You’ll linger long after your meal with a glass of bubbly in hand just to take in the panorama.
The hotel also offers a fine-dining option, LeoneFelice, that provides a six-course tasting menu or à la carte dishes like fillet of beef with tomatoes, capers, olives and oregano sauce, or turbot with potatoes and smoked fish sauce. Foodies who can pry themselves from the terrace should reserve a seat in LeoneFelice’s chic tomato-red chef’s table to see the kitchen up close.
What to Do
While wine tasting and eating will take up the bulk of your time in Franciacorta, Lake Iseo beckons. You can go on a guided lake or island boat tour or a cruise, but even taking the water taxi or ferry is a relaxing experience. If you choose this route, zip through the water to the two-square-mile Monte Isola, Europe’s largest inhabited lake island. When you arrive there, you can dine just steps from the Peschiera Maraglio pier at La Foresta, which specializes in the catch from the lake, including perch, dried sardines and pike.
A great time to visit Monte Isola is during Festa di Santa Croce or Feast of the Holy Cross, which comes every five years (it falls on September 14 to 20 this year). Locals turn the districts of Carzano and Novale into dreamy scenes with illuminated arches made of pine branches and thousands of handmade paper flowers that can be mistaken for real blooms.
Back on the mainland, try to counteract the wine binges by making an appointment at the detox-focused Espace Vitalité Henri Chenot at L’Albereta (it’s one of only two Chenot spas in Italy; the other is in the hard-to-reach Alto Adige). While the copious quantities of franciacorta and pasta consumed will make the spa’s dietary programs a wash, you can still flush out some toxins with one of its massages. Go for the energizing Chenot body massage, which employs glass bell suction cups to accelerate the wave-like movement of fluids in your body and rid it of waste. We worried that the sometimes-strong suction cups would mark our skin, but we left without any redness. Plus, our therapist reassured us before the treatment that if the suction proved too intense, she could switch over to a relaxation massage.
Allocate time after your service to make the rounds in the spa’s sauna, cold plunge pool, curvy indoor pool (which has a counterflow function if you’re feeling ambitious and want a workout) and the adjacent leafy terrace for some sun in a chaise lounge.
Where to Stay
Since Franciacorta is only an hour outside of Milan, it’s easy spend the night in the city and just day trip it to the wine region. If that’s the case, check into the posh Hotel Principe di Savoia. We love the Milan hotel’s sumptuous décor; the guest room bathrooms with pale-blue mosaic-fronted tubs and Acqua di Parma toiletries; and the handsome Principe Bar, which obviously serves franciacorta.
But if you want to stay in Franciacorta, our pick is L’Albereta — which shouldn’t be a surprise considering our previous recommendations. But even if it didn’t have a destination spa, an incredible terrace and mouthwatering spaghetti, it would still be our go-to place. The ivy-covered neo-Renaissance villa seems to have a balcony or terrace everywhere you turn, some of which afford views of Lake Iseo. It also has a kids club so you can drop off the brood and go wine tasting without guilt as well as a warm décor that harmoniously mixes elements like brick-red-and-cream checkered wallpaper with Aegean-blue velvet armchairs. The boutique hotel holds 57 individually decorated rooms, but the most special is the Cabriolet Suite. Press a button and the suite’s ceiling opens up so that you can gaze at the stars from your four-poster bed.
Then there’s the grounds. A collection of 13 contemporary sculptures peppers the 15,000 acres. And surrounding the hotel are the vineyards of Contadi Castaldi and Bellavista, the latter of which is one of the largest wineries in Franciacorta.