Fans of effervescent wine know there’s far more to explore than that one certain region of France.
In Italy, Prosecco reigns supreme, commonly regarded as the ‘champagne of Italy.’ Elsewhere in the country, however, is an area bottling bubbly far closer to its famous French cousin, yet earning only a fraction of the hype. You might not know about the wines of Franciacorta, but they’re eager to introduce themselves.
About an hour’s drive east of Milan, Lombardy is a mountainous province home to Lake Iseo which forms the breathtaking scenic backdrop for a swath of vineyards rolling out into the distant valley. The overwhelming majority of the grapes on those vines are of French provenance — Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varietals. Virtually all of it goes into the production of Franciacorta.
Since 1995, the region’s wine has been protected as a DOCG, a controlled designation of origin, much like France’s AOC.
But the similarities between Franciacorta and the king of sparkling wine don’t end there. All of the bubbles in Franciacorta are forged through the ‘méthode champenoise’ — the traditional process of making champagne, wherein a secondary fermentation in the glass introduces effervescence into each individual bottle. Prosecco, by contrast, is often carbonated in large steel tanks — a modern, more cost-effective approach.
Many of the winemakers of Franciacorta welcome visitors to their dank cellars burrowed into the cooled hillsides. Take a tour and come face-to-face with thousands of capped bottles laying on their side, awaiting the slow turn — 90-degrees every few days — to avoid the accumulation of spent yeast cells along the edges of the glass. Eventually these bottles will end up completely inverted, and the mucky yeast, now collected at its tip, will be disgorged before a final corking.
Sparkling wines, especially prosecco, commonly add sugar at this part of the process. An added allure of Franciacorta is a reluctance to produce an overly-sweetened liquid. Many winemakers in the region want the bright acidity of the underlying fruit to shine above all else. A tasty example arrives in the form of Extra Blu by Villa Franciacorta. This dry, extra brut jumps off the tongue with a hint of sour that emerges in a lengthy finish. Priced at around $30 a bottle in the States, it’s one of the more expensive wines you’ll find from the region — still a fraction of the cost of comparable French counterparts.
If you’re lucky enough to visit this part of the world, there are a handful of sensational stops along the way, with visitor centers as dazzling as the bubbly on pour. Chief among them is Monte Rossa — a 15th Century villa bottling an exemplary version of Satèn: a style designed to impart a satin-like mouthfeel. Nearby is Quatro Terre, a winery and seasonal restaurant built into a 250-year-old farmhouse. For a more modern aesthetic, Contadi Castaldi holds a third-floor tasting room with sweeping views of the valley below. Here you’ll enjoy the citrus-laden aromatics and refreshing body of their award-winning Brut.
Although there are many fine inns alongside the lake, your best bet for lodging is to head for the hills in search of L’Albereta. This stunning Relais & Chateaux property in the village of Erbusco is unrivaled in the region. An overnight stay, starting at $250, includes access to their world-class spa, and two vastly different — yet equally impressive — dining concepts: Chef Fabio Abbattista’s modern Italian mastery at LeoneFelice, and incomparable Roman style pizza by Franco Pepe at La Filiale. Unflinchingly food-friendly, Franciacorta bottles are abundant at each.
If an extended trip to Northern Italy just isn’t in your budget, thankfully the wine is. The average cost of a 750ml remains just under $30 – supple, bone dry, offerings that would command triple the cost if the same bottle was produced in the Champagne region.
But the savvy drinker knows it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And within the region of Franciacorta is a vivacious, sparkling beauty reflected in each sip of liquid that ferments there. Prosecco will remain the first name in Italian sparkling wine for the foreseeable future. Franciacorta, in the meantime, will thrive as your little secret on the side.