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Milan / Franciacorta – Italy’s very own Champagne

The perfect getaway – gently rolling hills, rural peace, the odd village dotted here and there and pretty Lake Iseo a splash of blue amid the green countryside. Idyllic! The Franciacorta region, east of Milan, is balm to the soul – and it also produces some excellent wines.

 
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Franciacorta – Italy’s very own Champagne

The name is deceptive. Ca'del Bosco may mean "house in the woods," but that doesn't apply because there are no woods here. Instead, the house lies nestled in a gently undulating landscape surrounded by a handful of gnarled chestnut trees. The sun has bleached its deep-red walls and there's no road leading to the door. Who knows by what tracks the owners reach their home?

" We used to come down here only on the weekend," says Maurizio Zanella. "My mother bought the house in the mid-1960s so that we kids could get some fresh air." Every Friday, the family would leave the business behind in Milan and drive out to its remote, wildly romantic paradise, which in those days included a small farm. "We had animals and a cellar where we produced a few bottles of wine for our own consumption," Signor Zanella recalls, laughing at the question of how the wine tasted. "Not as good as it does today."

Italy's very own ChampagneHung up on wine: A fiberglass rhino graces the production halls of Ca' del Bosco winery, where art is all part of the overall concept.

For a long time, Franciacorta was barely known for its viticulture. The idyllic region south of Lake Iseo and not far from Brescia offers other attractions: sleepy villages with medieval towers and castles, sturdy farmsteads, opulent patrician villas and any number of restaurants without Michelin-star aspirations but capable of pleasing the most epicurean palate.

Fabio Risi, owner of the simple but delightful Trattoria del Gallo in Rovato (Via Cantine 10, Tel. +39-030/724 01 50, www.trattoriadelgallo.it), explains: "We live in a farming region where the markets abound with excellent, really fresh produce. Not only that, at each of the farms there's a mamma in the kitchen, who loves cooking and knows the meaning of quality. If you open a restaurant here, you have to make a real effort or you won't stand a chance."

Italy's very own ChampagneMaurizio Zanella's wines mature in oak barrels and are among the region's finest

Ensconced in an 18th century building with beautifully tiled floors and arched ceilings, his trattoria is furnished with heavy wooden tables beneath crisp white tablecloths and has some of the region's best wines in its cellar. The most coveted dish on the menu is manzo all'olio, beef braised in oil for at least three hours until it's so tender you can cut it with a fork. The meat, from locally raised cattle, comes from Lancini's butcher's shop in the charming old town of Rovato, right next door to the church and just a stone's throw away from the trattoria. This small town is famous for its big cattle market, and even though that takes place just once a year, Rovato is the acknowledged meat capital of Lombardy.

Not that you would know this, looking at oval Piazza Cavour with its quaint cobblestones. Beneath the arcades, two elegant Italian ladies sip their cappuccinos at a bar, and the boutiques on narrow Via Ricchino display Marc Jacobs shoes, Alessi kitchenware and fancy French perfumes.

But while business is slow in the pretty shops, the assistant at old-established Enoteca Bombardieri is rushed off her feet. Why? Because Franciacorta is Italy's youngest and trendiest wine-growing region.

It all started with families like the Zanellas and the Berlucchis from Brescia, who earned their living in the city and only came to Franciacorta as summer guests. They discovered the charms of country life, the delights of viticulture and the pleasure to be derived from setting up their own winery without any of the pressures of tradition.

Italy's very own ChampagneThe market at Rovato beckons with small prices and a vast selection of cheeses, but cattle trading is really what made the town famous. In fact, it's generally regarded as the meat capital of Lombardy

"My four brothers have a lot of work commitments, I was the only one who had time" says Pia Berlucchi, 66, explaining how she came to transform her great-grandparents' farm into a modern vineyard. Although many of the buildings date from the 14th century and their vaults are adorned with original 16th century frescoes, the technology is state of the art.

Italy's very own ChampagneA growing industry: Since the number of wineries in the region has risen from 11 to 90, vineyards have dominated the countryside around Borgonato

"The country wine story is a myth, no one wants to drink ordinary wine anymore," says Tilli Rizzo Berlucchi, who runs the winery with her mother. So they produce bollicine (which means "little bubbles"), a sparkling wine, or rather a Franciacorta, the first and only Italian brut produced exclusively according to the traditional method of bottle fermentation. They are not alone.
Since Franciacorta was granted the "denomination of controlled origin" appellation, D.O.C., in 1967 the number of producers has risen from eleven to 90 and the growing area today totals more than 2,000 hectares.

The landscape has changed a lot and vineyards now stretch as far as the eye can see. Some are rather extravagant, like the one belonging to the sisters Maddalena and Chiara Bersi-Serlini, who hired architect Flavio Albanes to convert a 10th century monks' hostel into a modern timber-and-glass structure and have since received as many mentions in architecture journals as they have in wine magazines.

Italy's very own ChampagneIf gourmet delights and relaxation far from the madding crowd are what you're after, Franciacorta is definitely the place, and L'Albareta in Erbusco the luxurious country hotel for you

This leafy stretch of country is a great favorite, especially with the people of nearby Milan. Far from the hectic pace of city life and tourist haunts, they come here to enjoy the rural peace and beauty.

The people of Franciacorta know what quality of life is all about. Drop by the luxurious country hotel L'Albereta (Via Vittorio Emanuele 23, Erbusco, Tel. +39-030/ 776 05 50, www.albereta.it), and you will find an elegant clientele sampling star chef Gualtiero Marchesi's famous gold-leaf risotto and other culinary delights in the restaurant at the end of a day of indulgence in the hotel's Henri Chenot spa.

Vittorio Moretti, proprietor of the Albereta, understands the region's popularity: "My guests come in search of relaxation, and they are a discerning crowd, used only to the best. They don't want to mingle with the crowds on Lake Garda or Lake Como, they are looking for an unspectacular idyll, where they can be certain of finding peace and quiet as well as gourmet delights." His hotel is tucked away in sleepy Erbusco, a picturesque, medieval hamlet in a hilltop location. Its main features are a handful of houses, an impressive church, a well-stocked kiosk, an ice-cream parlor and an expensive butcher's shop.

Iseo has much more to offer, especially on the third Sunday in the month, when the antiques dealers set up their stalls on Piazza Garibaldi and sell clocks, furniture and china. But the small town on the shores of Lake Iseo is well worth a visit on other days, too, if only to admire the lovely old buildings or to pay a visit to Barbieri, to try on the latest models by Alberta Ferretti, Giorgio Armani or Patrizia Pepe.

As night approaches, all of Iseo descends upon the lakeside promenade to stroll and plan the evening: Is it to be dinner on the cozy terrace of Ristorante Palafreno at the foot of splendid Bornato Castle (Via Basso Castello, Tel. +39- 030/725 44 84, www.ristorantepalafreno.com) or maybe at the trendy Dispensa Pani e Vini in Torbiato di Adro, star chef Vittorio Fusari's ultramodern restaurant (Via Principe Umberto, Tel. +39-030/745 07 57, www.dispensafranciacorta.com).

Italy's very own ChampagneLake Iseo, a charmingly unspectacular idyll on the northern fringe of Franciacorta, Italy's very own "Champagne" region

Maurizio Zanella favors Il Priore (Via Sala 70, Calino, Tel. +39-030/725 46 65), a quiet restaurant within shouting distance of his vineyard. Architectonically and technically speaking, he is the most adventurous wine grower hereabouts. Beside his old house by the woods, he built a postmodernist wave into the hillside and filled it with high tech and contemporary art. His Ca' del Bosco winery now wins one prize after the next, and his wines are among the best and most expensive in Franciacorta.

"I always dreamed of producing really first-rate and innovative wine," he tells me over lunch. Here on the restaurant terrace, you have a fantastic view out over the whole region. "What would I do in Milan?" he asks, ordering another bottle of Cuvée Prestige, a lively, gently effervescent, straw-colored Franciacorta from his cellar. "You can see for yourself, it's so much nicer here."

 
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Tips:

Ca’ del Bosco:
Of all the wineries in Franciacorta, this is the most spectacular. Cutting-edge technology coupled with artworks and a creative interplay of light and color make the Ca’ del Bosco complex a must-visit even if you’re not a connoisseur of fine wines. But if you do enjoy Franciacorta wines, you will find some of the best right here.

Info:
Ca’ del Bosco: Via Albano Zanelli 13, Erbusco, Tel. +39-030/776 61 11, www.cadelbosco.com

Bersi Serlini:
The ancient building now converted into an elegant winery at this vineyard bordering the Torbiere del Sebino nature reserve has a modern, Scandinavian look.

Info:
Bersi Serlini: Via Cereto 7, Provaglio d’Iseo, Tel. +39-030/982 33 38, www.bersiserlini.it

Fratelli Berlucchi:
The Berlucchis are one of the foremost wine families in Franciacorta. Their vineyard, among the loveliest, skillfully combines the best of old and new and produces 400,000 bottles a year.

Info:
Fratelli Berlucchi: Piazza Duranti 4, Borgognato di Corte Franca, Tel. +39-030/98 43 81, www.berlucchi.it

Contadi Castaldi:
A tour of the former brickworks that house this Franciacorta winery will reveal just how young and modern it is. But the design of its bottles and labels also speaks volumes – to say nothing of the wines themselves.

Info:
Contadi Castaldi: Via Colzano 32, Adro, Tel. +39- 030/745 01 26, www.contadicastaldi.it

Bellavista:
Probably the best-known and largest vineyard in Franciacorta, Bellavista produces more than a million bottles of bollicine a year, including each of the special sizes, which – and this is something they are very proud of here – are all hand-turned.

Info:
Bellavista: Via Bellavista 5, Erbusco, Tel. +39- 030/776 20 00, www.bellavistawine.it

Strada del Vino Franciacorta:
The aim of this initiative is to promote and foster the region’s enogastronomic tourism. It puts together travel routes and packages, and also provides visitors with special GPS navigation devices and lots of useful and interesting information.

Info:
Strada del Vino Franciacorta: Via Verdi 53, Erbusco, Tel. +39- 030/776 08 70, www.stradadelfranciacorta.it

 

Photos: Martin Nink

 
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