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    Franciacorta, Northern Italy’s Sparkling Jewel, Has Formidable Wines and Secret-Garden Appeal

    Franciacorta, Northern Italy’s Sparkling Jewel, Has Formidable Wines and Secret-Garden Appeal

    Just as the Champagne region is to Parisians, the verdant hills, crystalline lakes, and refined sparkling wines of Franciacorta make it a stop worthy of discerning day-trippers from Milan.

    After getting your fill of the Fondazione Prada and a few well-spent aperitivo hours in Milan, there’s a relatively unexplored lakeside wine region just an hour northeast into Lombardy in which it’s easy to burn a luxurious and lazy day or two. As the Hamptons are to Manhattanites and Champagne is to Parisians, the lake-flecked and vineyard-dotted Franciacorta region has long been a cherished escape for the Milanese. No doubt you’ll encounter glass after glass of fragrant local sparkling wine and manicured vines by the roadside. But those looking for it will also see the low-key charms of a region ruled by farming and fishing traditions, centuries-old palazzi, and an increasing loyalty to to what comes from the land.

    Wines have been produced from Franciacorta’s fertile soils for centuries, but it wasn’t until as recently as 1961 that the region began to specialize in sparkling wines. Now arguably considered one of italy’s most interesting sparkling wine regions, the area’s namesake Franciacorta wines are produced in a similarly long-aged, high-acid, and bottle-fermented style to grower Champagne. While Prosecco, from Italy’s Veneto region to the east, has become more widely popular, the more complex Franciacorta—made with lower yield, more concentrated, and more gently pressed grapes—remains more obscure, largely because the wines cost significantly more and are exported in smaller quantities.

    Businessmen from Milan and Bergamo were the original investors in vineyard land here, as vanity projects. Obsessed with Champagne, this contingency of weekenders planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes—not at all indigenous to the area—to emulate the wines they loved from France. Many of the wineries in Franciacorta have expansive subterranean cellars for the purpose of aging their wines in the same way Champagne producers do. And some are experimenting with no “dosage”—or added sweetener—as are more and more producers in Champagne.

    Since the 60s, the area’s sophisticated winemaking has attracted impressive villas and hotels, and eventually modern osterias and Michelin stars. But you can still find family-owned properties, handmade regional cheeses and locally cured sardines, and sweet wooden boats floating slowly across the region’s Lake Iseo. All of this comes without the tourists nearby Lake Como and Garda—and other wine-producing regions like Tuscany—have not been able to avoid.

    While many corners of Italy don’t accommodate public winery visits, Franciacorta does. Just like in the Hamptons and Champagne, there are vineyard pet projects in Franciacorta, of course. But with more winery owners newly investing in farming hillside slopes and using organic methods, gems can be found that are deserving of far more attention than so-called “vacation land” wines. Make a day out of trying a few of these, with a couple of tastings and lunch on the water.

    360-Degree Vineyard Views at Ronco Calino

    Founder Paolo Radici only drinks sparkling wine, which makes his owning a winery in Franciacorta a brilliant proposition. The property was purchased from renowned pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in 1996, and since 2002, Radici’s wife Lara Imberti Radici has run the certified organic winery. Only six miles from Lake Iseo, Ronco Calino is a verdant wonderland. Growers focus on constantly improving the biodiversity of the vineyards and reducing the winery’s carbon footprint. The north-facing hillside property is edged with 120 olive trees and is planted with 25 acres of vines, a quarter of which are Pinot Noir, producing rich, textured bottles.

    In 2019 Radici renovated the winery, putting a window-lined lounge in the center, which means visitors are surrounded by vines from all angles. If you can get 10 people together, the winery will arrange for a local chef to host a private cooking lesson in its sunlit kitchen.

    Meeting the Family at Faccoli

    This tiny, family-run operation has been making wine in Franciacorta for 56 years. It’s so small that the tours are always run by one of the members of the family. While many of the wineries in Franciacorta are in close proximity to Lake Iseo, Faccoli is a beautiful drive to the opposite end of the region on the other side of Monte Orfano. The large hill protects vines from rain and hail, making Faccoli vineyards some of the sunniest in the region. The house style is dry wines made to express the land from which they come, which means you won’t find any of the once-popular Satèn—an old-school, more subtly fizzy style in the region blancs de blanc equivalent made from Chardonnay. What you will find is a seat at a large wooden table next to a cozy fireplace with four beautiful expressions of the wine to try.

    Old Vintages and Palazzi at Guido Berlucchi

    The iconic and pioneering Guido Berlucchi offers a fascinating combination of classicism and modernity. On the one hand, the centerpiece of the property is a grand, 17th century palazzo. On the other, the vineyards have undergone an extraordinarily high-tech aerial mapping process to determine the best areas for growing. Guido Berlucchi was the very first winery in Franciacorta to re-ferment its sparkling wine in-bottle in 1961—a slow and complicating process similar to Champagne’s. And though it is the region’s largest winery by hectares, it boasts some of the oldest vineyards and is converting all of them to organic viticulture. You can book a spot in a Gli Esclusivi tour for access to tastings of older vintage wines, as well as a chance to poke around in the transporting palazzo.

    Local Salumi in the Cellars of Mirabella

    Mirabella was one of the first wineries in Franciacorta to make sparkling rosé, and winemaker Alessandro Schiavi also places a special importance on the bubbles made from Pinot Bianco, now rare to find anymore in the region since Chardonnay became so prevalent. Sommelier Giovanni Felini, who was born and raised in Franciacorta, serves as the host at this family-run winery in the town of Rodengo-Saiano. Felini, who previously worked at Guido Berlucchi for years, leads guests through the cellar, which was used as a prison during World War II, then through a seated tasting. All of the tastings are accompanied by cheese from local dairy La Benedetta and salumi from Norcineria Polastri.

    Bespoke Tours at Bellavista

    While the sprawling Bellavista, founded by Vittorio Moretti in 1977 and now run by his daughter Francesca, is by no means a humble, family-run operation, its wines—deservingly—have helped put Franciacorta on the world wine map, and the property is no less remarkable. Easily book visits centered around your desired style, such as a vintages tasting or a private buy-out, or choose from five different tasting experiences on the winery’s website. (If you’re not able to make it out to the winery, Bellavista bottles a special wine for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.)

    Megan Krigbaum
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