It’s a small place, Franciacorta: just a blob on the map at the southern end of Lake Iseo, which itself is a squiggle of water between the bigger and more famous lakes of Garda to the east and Como to the west. Unless you’re a Milan industrialist with a summer house on the shores of Lake Iseo you’re unlikely to be spending more than a couple of days there, between exploring Verona (see the churches, and give Juliet’s so-called balcony a miss), Brescia (a UNESCO site, and worth exploring), and Milan (get to the Duomo at opening time). You can unwind with walking and boating and all sorts of things; but lunch and dinner will approach with their normal inexorability, and with them, the wine list. Which will be full of Franciacorta. Which one to choose?
I am assuming, you see, that you won’t come here primarily for the wine. You could do, if you wanted: there are 116 producers, which is enough to keep you occupied, and there are enough styles – brut, pas dosé (zero dosage), rosé, vintage, riserva and the seductively named Satèn – to give plenty of tasting material. But when you look up from your glass and see the mountains in the distance, snow-capped except in high summer, and the high hills in the foreground, wooded and cool, and the lake not far away, glittering in the sun or pearly grey at dusk, you might reflect that life does not consist entirely of inspecting stainless-steel tanks.
Franciacorta is a place where you can very easily combine wine with lots of other holidayish things. You can do a stop-off here and get a good feel of the wine without your partner throwing a strop about yet another winery visit. There’s a lot to be said for a place like that.
Like anywhere near the Italian lakes, it’s crowded in high summer, and everybody will assume you’re German, because most tourists are. But like anywhere near the Italian lakes, there are some great places to stay, and great local food – lake fish like perch, tench and char (to use their English names), and ‘sardines’ that are not sardines, but were traditionally dried and used for flavouring dishes, and risotto made with Franciacorta, and a great deal of cheese – all of which can be accompanied by Franciacorta wine, of course.
Though not really ‘of course’ because light, dry fizz wouldn’t normally be one’s first choice with food. It works because the wine, although light (usually 12.5-13% alcohol) is ripe and has a bit of weight. And it’s dry: even the Brut seldom has more than five grams per litre dosage, and there’s plenty with no dosage at all. It’s a warm region here; warmer than Champagne, which of course is the model. And a model from which Franciacorta is now madly, even faintly desperately, trying to distinguish itself.
How did it all happen? This part of Italy used to make mostly red wine. It grew merlot and cabernet franc and nebbiolo and barbera – always the grapes of somewhere else. Then in the 1950s the great oenologist Franco Ziliani suggested that sparkling wine might work. Lots of producers headed north to learn all they could, and diligently planted chardonnay and pinot noir – and a little bit of pinot bianco, which is certainly a better bet here than the early-ripening pinot meunier – and Ziliani was proved right.
This is Italy’s best fizz, streets ahead of Prosecco and made with less cynicism and more seriousness. The producers pride themselves on their long lees-ageing times – 18 months for non-vintage, 24 for rosé and Satèn, 30 for vintage and 60 for riserva. This is how they show that they’re not just making copycat Champagne. Look what we’re doing! Look how rigorous we are!
Anyway. The categories are self-explanatory, except that non-vintage wines can actually be from a single year, and often are. Not all wineries have the stocks for reserve wines, though some are trying to build them up; and of course if you don’t declare a wine as a vintage then you don’t have to age it as a vintage, so you can use the vintage designation for your best and weightiest wines; which is how it should be. In any case, the date of disgorgement is always on the label, but a vineyard name never is. You can’t have single-vineyard wines named as such here.
Satèn is the wine that needs explanation. It has one bar of pressure less than usual, so has a silkier – yes, satiny – texture. It has to be a minimum 50% chardonnay, with the balance only allowed to be pinot bianco. A lot of producers look for a particular floral character in their Satèn – ‘lime blossom’ is how one describes it.
Rosé is always made by maceration on the pinot noir skins, with no blending of red and white, but to my palate it has the least definite character of all Franciacorta. In Champagne you might choose a rosé to go with your pigeon or your salmon; I’m not sure that it would be the obvious choice here. Most rosés here don’t have the extra weight or the extra savoury character that you might expect.
If you want weight and savouriness, in fact, you should go for an older wine, about ten years old or more. There’s no problem with the wines ageing this long: they have good acidity (to which end the grapes are picked in August) and good balance. They age very well, keeping their purity and their focus and gaining a bit more roundness, a bit more weight.
This is when I have to be honest and say that I don’t think they ever get as exciting as great Champagne. They’re technically correct, very well made, and you’ll be hard put to find a dud. They’re refreshing, perhaps a little earnest, but are particularly good drunk beside the lake as the sky darkens and the lights flicker on across the water. But do they make you say, ‘Wow!’ Do they make you want to execute a small but energetic dance? To my mind, no.
This may be because Champagne has become so very, very good in recent years. Champagne now has a profoundly detailed understanding of its terroirs and much better understanding of picking dates, and even if those terroirs end up in a blend, it’s that detailed understanding, that perfect ripeness, that gives the waves of flavour, the gradual revelation of depth and power, that you find in really good Champagne. I’m not saying that Franciacorta doesn’t focus on its terroir or its picking dates, because it does. But technical correctness is not the same as excitement.
I asked the head of one leading Champagne producer about Franciacorta, and his answer was blunt: “They’re growing the wrong grapes. The soil is glacial, with granite pebbles. And the climate is too warm for chardonnay and pinot. They have to pick too early”. What would you grow there? “Riesling”. It ripens later, he points out; it would suit the soil, and it makes great sparkling. It’s probably a bit late now, however.
The soil is indeed glacial – as is the lake, both geologically speaking and temperature-wise. (Be warned, if you feel like jumping in.) Some of the soil is chalky, some colluvial, some is clay, some is stony, but it’s all glacial moraine. The stones are rounded, ground down by the ice on its slow journey from the Alps, and many have ended their trip as building material in the local walls. The valley down which they travelled now funnels breezes from the Alps and provides some good scenery, lavishly sprinkled with ochre-coloured houses, the prettiest with gardens of wisteria, magnolia and bougainvillea.
The lake has such an influence on temperature that there is three weeks’ difference in harvest dates between the north of the region and the south, which is a lot for a region just 12 kilometres north to south. Not that there’s any particular reason why the southern boundary is where it is: the region starts in the west at the river Oglio and ends in the mountains 15 to 20 kilometres to the east, but in the south the geology doesn’t seem to be different the other side of the border – the line was simply drawn at the main road.
The name, though, is older than today’s wine. Grape seeds have been found dating from prehistoric times, but we will fast-forward through the complications of Gauls, Romans and Lombards, to the eighth-century Frankish Empire. Monks from France settled here, hence francae curtes – curtes meaning ‘courts’ in the sense of a large establishment rather than a royal one. Some versions say they were given tax breaks in exchange for clearing land of those awkward but useful stones, and draining marshland. Monks were famously good at spotting good vineyard sites; there’s nothing like a few Cistercians in your history for polishing up your terroir credentials. There are several monasteries you can visit; and the other visible signs of history are the crenellations you’ll see on many a medieval wall and tower.
They use quite a bit of oak, one way and another, but not, I hasten to add, for the sake of any oaky flavour. The majority of the wines are all about stainless-steel freshness, but clever use of (old) oak gives unobtrusive weight and structure. Where the oak is often overused is in the tiny amount of still wine – which isn’t Franciacorta at all, but has the DOC of Curtefranca. Merlot is the main red grape, but there’s cabernet franc and carménère, too, and still a bit here and there of barbera and nebbiolo. White tends to be chardonnay with or without pinot bianco.
Erbamat will not be going into Curtefranca. What is erbamat, you ask? It is Franciacortia’s latest claim to be different. The local consorzio looked at 40 to 50 old grape varieties in its search for something to give Franciacorta a point of difference, and settled on erbamat. It was first documented in 1565, it ripens six to eight weeks later than chardonnay, and it has double the acidity and less alcohol. You can see exactly why it became almost extinct. But now three clones have been identified and are being planted; it will be allowed in the sparkling blend to a maximum of 10%. It’s quite neutral in character, with fresh, pithy fruit – and all that acidity, with low alcohol. If the lake breezes aren’t enough in future years, as the world warms, to keep Franciacorta in the style to which it is accustomed, erbamat could do it. Hooray for difference!
Barone Pizzini (baronepizzini.it) practices organics and has a mostly underground, energy-saving winery. The wines have got fresher in recent years. The Extra Brut Animante is floral and structured; Bagnadore Riserva is from a single vineyard, half and half chardonnay and pinot noir, powerful, winey and deep. It’s only made in the best vintages, and has 60 months on the lees.
Bellavista (bellavistawine.it) is the biggest producer of the region, and clearly has plenty of funds behind it, some of which have created a large collection of contemporary art that is scattered around the winery. The gardens include a long wisteria tunnel which is worth seeing. The Curtefranca white, 2013 Covento de Santissima Annunciata, is a creamy, buttery example of full-on chardonnay; the best Franciacorta is the hard-to-find Meraviglioso, a blend of six vintages (1984, ’88, ’91, ’95, 2001 and ’02); very layered, very toast-and-honey topped with citrus.
Ca’ del Bosco (cadelbosco.com) is Maurizio Zanella’s winery, and it’s making the best wines of the region. If Franciacorta has an icon, Annamaria Clementi is it – zero dosage, with a lovely lemon shortbread nose, this is deep, elegant and poised. The brut Cuvée Prestige is steely, weighty, layered and vigorous. The winery is a splendid affair, full of large pieces of contemporary art, and worth a visit.
At Cantine Majolini (majolini.it), the novelty is the majolina grape, another of the region’s ancient and indigenous varieties, though they say that the name is just a coincidence. It makes a tarry, black cherry wine, bright, perfumed and elegant – I tasted and enjoyed the 2010 vintage, though it’s not listed on the website. The Electo might be easier to find: concentrated, powerful, salty, very good. It gets 60 months on lees.
Corte Fusia (cortefusia.com) is situated in the south of the region, “at the two extreme bounds of Mount Orfano”, as they put it: “at his feet, and at the top”. The Brut is floral and open, the Satèn, with zero dosage, is spicy, textured and taut.
If you find fancy-shaped bottles annoying, then prepare to be annoyed at Ferghettina (ferghettina.it). If you like them, then the square-based bottles here will be right up your street. It gives greater contact between wine and yeast during lees ageing, apparently. The 2015 Rosé has nice pink rhubarb flavours, and the 2011 Riserva 33, with zero dosage, is aromatic with good depth; very approachable.
Guido Berlucchi (berlucchi.it) is another large company, and the one to which Franco Ziliani first suggested making sparkling wine. The first vintage was 1961, and the last remaining bottle is in the cellars. They won’t open it for you, oddly enough. The Berlucchi ’61 Nature is a more recent wine, silky and creamy, rather pretty. The ’61 Nature Rosé is herbal, slightly angular, but good.
Santa Lucia (santaluciafranciacorta.it) is small and charming, with iris-fringed vineyards and lots of terraces of various sizes on hillsides of varying steepness, on the western side of the amphitheatre of hills south of the lake. Nice floral, winey wines, including a relatively rich Satèn and a pretty, round 2013 Rosé.
Al Porto (alportoclusane.it) is clearly not intrinsically keen on veg, but it will rustle up a salad if you ask nicely. Come here for excellent super-fresh fish from the lake, cooked simply and well. If you want to compare tench, char and pike, this is where to do it: grilled, baked, steamed, smoked, deep-fried, with polenta, with pasta; they’ve got it. It’s on the edge of the water, too, at Clusane, so the views are good.
Al Rocol (alrocol.com) has 15 rooms and various apartments for families or groups of friends. You can take bicycle tours, walk, ride a horse or take the children to visit the farm animals. The cooking in the restaurant is local and seasonal, and they can do a personalised menu with plenty of advance warning.
Barboglio de Gaioncelli (barbogliodegaioncelli.it) is a winery and restaurant in Corte Franca, close to the lake. It lifts the spirits: the wine is good, the fizz precise and nicely creamy, the red juicy. The food in the restaurant is modern, light and full of flavour: a dish described as ‘Potatoes, cream and cod’ in the wrong hands could be dull, dull, dull, but here you’ll want seconds. Another plus point is that they understand that we want vegetables with our protein. Too many restaurants (here as everywhere) regard anything green as an eccentric inconvenience.
Da Nadia (ristorantedanadia.com) is a fish restaurant in Erbusco with a lovely courtyard and a well-deserved Michelin star. Tuna tartare with pistachios, pomegranate juice and fruit jelly, sautéed squid with radicchio, all beautifully served.
Due Colombe (duecolombe.com) is probably the region’s best restaurant, big on seasonality and regional classics. Sturgeon ceviche with citrus risotto and peas; spaghetti, shrimp and sea urchins. Excellent wine list, too.
L’Albereta (albereta.it) is the tops. It’s a Relais & Chateaux hotel with a restaurant, a bistro, a pizzeria and a spa. The restaurant used to be about fine dining, but is now changing, and at the time of writing no decision had been made about its future. The bistro, surrounded by tall trees and with glorious views from the terrace, is chic and modern, and serves such dishes as sturgeon (excellent) and golden perch, as well as classics like steak, vitello tonnato, and lots of salads and salami. The “wellness restaurant”, Benessere, is open to those having treatments at the spa – which also has a herbal tea area where you can pig out on infusions. You can do that too at the Greeneige Lounge, which bills itself as somewhere for a romantic encounter “or to meet with friends for a sincere conversation.” So no polite fibs, please.
La Foresta (forestamontisola.it) has ten simple rooms, great lake views and local food with a focus on fish – eel, pike, perch, trout, marinated, with sauce, grilled over a wood fire. It’s owned by two brothers, one of whom catches the fish and the other runs the restaurant. You can eat outside on the terrace, and if you arrive by boat (why not?) it has its own mooring.
Le Quattro Terre (quattroterre.it) is an agriturismo, an 18th-century farmhouse with 11 rooms, comfortable and well appointed, and a restaurant open for lunch and dinner. It’s chic, modern and welcoming, and the food is imaginative and very good: pigeon with young beetroot; monkfish with pancetta crust and green-tea mayonnaise; apricot clafoutis with ginger ice cream. It’s out in the country, well south of the lake, in case you’re lake-phobic.
Trattoria del Muliner (trattoriadelmuliner.it) is near Clusane, and with lake-based cuisine: smoked salmerino, eel and salmon trout; freshwater prawns; but there’s also rabbit and beef. Popular and busy, so book ahead.
Villa Calini (villacalini.com) serves modern cuisine, mostly but not entirely local. Slow-cooked veal cheek, for example, or kid, or scallops with Jerusalem artichokes, turmeric and truffles. It’s big on events, from corporate team-building via cooking classes to weddings, so it’s probably worth checking in advance that it’s going to be open for non-team-building tourists with no wedding plans.