Even though the wine industry has deep roots throughout most of Italy, Tuscany is probably the first region that comes to mind when you think about Italian “wine country.” But north of Milan, where the plains ripple into hills that quickly become the jagged Alps, lies another winemaking region most of us have never heard of.
The wines of Franciacorta are not widely imported in America. The name applies not only to the wine and the geographical area, but also to the process used by more than 100 wineries to turn grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Nero, and Pinot Bianco into the sparkling wines that bear the name.
A consortium of winemakers strictly regulates a process that involves the classic method of a second fermenting in the bottle (the same process as Champagne). The wines are a definite step up in flavor profile from lower-priced Italian sparkling wines like Prosecco or Moscato, which are not fermented in-bottle, but in pressure-sealed tanks. Dryness classifications are similar to Champagne, so you will see “Brut” and “Extra Brut” among the varieties. In addition, the registered term Satèn applies to a specific type of Franciacorta wine, made with only white grapes, no more than 50% Pinot Bianco, and fermented on the yeast in-bottle for a minimum of twenty-four months. The resulting product has a lower bottle pressure, smaller bubbles, and leaves a delicate feel in the mouth.
While we Americans tend to save sparkling wines for celebrations and toasting, Franciacorta wines pair quite well with food. The Satèn particularly, is both enhanced by and delivers flavor boosts to the foods of Northern Italy. Think Milan Salami, prosciutto, and hard cheeses. It could easily accompany pasta or risotto, and even veal.
As if the wine were not enticement enough, the Franciacorta region is visually spectacular. Villages squeeze between the vineyards and along the shores of Lake Iseo, with the Alps standing guard in the background. The land and buildings tell the history of invaders and conquerors through the centuries. Castles, churches, and monasteries dating from the thirteenth century dot the landscape. Even the vines themselves were once used to stake a claim over land. Landlords brought their own vines with them; as they overtook a new region, they planted vines as a way of saying, “I’m here to stay.”
The towering island of Monte Isola is the largest island within a lake in all of Europe. A ferry from the town of Sulzano takes you to the island, where you can walk or rent bikes to explore the 15km route that rings the island, passing through tiny fishing villages.
Outdoor activities in the region include boating, hiking, biking, and birding in the wetlands of Torbiere del Sebino, beneath the thirteenth- century Monastero di San Pietro in Lamosa. The monastery no longer houses an order of monks, but is used as a parish church. Step inside for an overwhelming sense of the history of the region played out in centuries of overlapping layers of art on the church walls.
Like much of Northern Italy, the region has an interesting industrial past, that includes gun-smithing and yacht building. The Beretta factory does not offer tours, but smaller gun shops in the region stillcarry out the gun building tradition around the lake. Yachts up to 68 feet in length are built at the Riva factory on the lake, where its plant encompasses more than 60,000 meters. The massive boatyard can be seen from the lake if you rent a boat for touring.
Though close enough for a day trip from Milan, if you can spare a night, staying in the quiet of the country is a nice break from city pace. Choices range from the four-star Relais Mirabella with its stunning views of Lake Iseo to Camping del Sole, a fun campground with a variety of rental units on the shore of the lake.
Airbnb has options like this three-bedroom apartment that accommodates five for only $92 per night. With hotel rates averaging close to $200 a night, living like a local in a rental has a great deal of appeal. Another option is staying at one of the wineries. The locals call this “agritourismi.” The Ricci Curbastro winery is a good example, with eight apartments in a restored farmhouse, with prices just over $100 for two people.
If you opt for a day trip, many tour operators offer wine tours out of Milan. These range from busses of fellow tourists to a private car tour like the one offered by Le Baccanti. If you prefer to explore on your own, rent a car, either at Malpensa Airport or at the Milan Central train station. Expect to pay between $50 and $100 per day. Take the A4 Autostrada through Bergamo, then on to Lake Iseo. This is a toll road, easily paid with a credit card. Use Provincial Road SP47 on the east side of the lake, where most of the vineyards and wineries are located. Local tourism websites for the Province of Brescia and Lake Iseo have a wealth of detailed information, including a list of wineries and their individual contact information.