A glass of bubbles effervescing in your hand, water lapping at your feet – these are just some of the delights awaiting visitors to the Franciacorta region of northern Italy. We tour the area around Lake Iseo
Padre Antonio Santini has been looking toward Milan his whole life. From the terrace of San Annunciata monastery, his gaze falls upon endless fields of corn and sunflowers and the industrial chimneys of the Po Valley, which stretches before him like a tapestry. But Milan, that elegant and capricious signora, never looked his way, persistently ignoring her hinterland. After all, Franciacorta, where the 68-year-old padre lives and works, is different from the rest of Italy. It’s not part of the millennia- old cultural landscape abounding with Roman ruins and medieval wineries to which tourists flock to gain a real sense of history. If a list of the most neglected and unappreciated parts of Italy existed, this northern tip of the country would top it. There are no ruins of note or traditional culinary delicacies in Franciacorta, just busy highways running through it.
But not long ago, the people of Milan did begin to take notice. They no longer make the trip north with the sole intention of dangling their feet in noble Lake Como but have taken to exploring the terra incognita between the monastery and Lake Iseo, northern Italy’s fourth-largest lake. Why? Because now all of Milan wants to know the region that produces Franciacorta, the sparkling wine that is slowly but surely replacing Champagne at La Scala and Fashion Week events in the city.
Sparkling wine from Franciacorta is replacing Champagne at Fashion Week
Every visitor to Franciacorta passes Padre Antonio’s monastery, a 500-year-old stronghold surrounded by vineyards and nestled into the hillside above the small town of Rovato. The monks began growing grapes here in the Middle Ages to make the wine they needed to celebrate mass. In 1570, Girolamo Conforti, a physician from nearby Brescia, published a treatise on sparkling wine in which he castigated the local juice of the vine for being too “acrid” because it “didn’t soften the tongue like sweet wine.” As late as the 1960, the padre tells us, four monks and 17 novices still worked the southern slope, pruning vines and harvesting grapes. Today, only Antonio and two other monks about his age remain; monastery life has lost its attraction and the vineyards have long been leased to local wine growers.
Stooped but firm of step, Padre Antonio descends a narrow staircase and walks briskly past a 15th century Madonna fresco into the 16th-century refectory. The table is set for 20 although only the padre and the housekeeper will be eating today, but habits don’t die easily, and who knows who might stop by? Visitors from Milan rarely find their way up to the monastery, which is a shame because Padre Antonia knows a lot of local history. France and Venice, then an imperial power, fought for many years for control of Franciacorta’s fertile soil and disrupted its development in the process. The crenellated towers and battlements built to secure the border region in the Middle Ages are still a typical sight and testify to those unsettled times.
North of the monastery, the ground rises. Thousands of years ago, melting glaciers left great mounds of debris behind them as they receded, creating a chain of hills around a horseshoe-shaped basin measuring roughly 20 square kilometers. And on this moraine landscape with its mineral-rich soil – ideal for growing Chardonnay, Pinot blanc and Pinot noir grapes – a divine hand appears to have randomly strewn human settlements: medieval-looking villages grouped around austere churches, magnificent family estates hidden away behind stone walls. Interspersed between them are vineyards and wine-growing estates, among them Castelveder, the estate belonging to Camilla Alberti. Clinging to a hill some 15 kilometers east of the monastery, Castelveder has been in her family for nearly 50 years. The 45-year-old vintner talks about the concerns of Franciacorta’s producers: that the market will become flooded with Prosecco and other cheap sparkling wines or that Champagne, with its luxury image, will overshadow it completely; that Franciacorta with its roughly 2500 hectares is tiny compared with its French competitor – ten percent the size of the wine-growing region in Champagne. Alberti points out that the Franciacorta bubbly is really just as good as its French cousin because it’s produced in the same way. In other words, the wine is fermented in casks for at least 18 months before yeast and sugar are added for the second phase of fermentation in the bottle. This is when the bollicine, the wonderful, small, sparkling bubbles appear.
Camilla Alberti climbs the slope to inspect her Chardonnay grapes. She has roses blooming in front of the vines; they’re an early-warning system, not a decorative touch. If there are harmful pests present in the soil, they will attack the roses first. Alberti tells us that her family originally made its money building thermohydraulic systems. This is very typical of Franciacorta wine: It is mostly grown by people who gave up entirely different careers and turned their wine-growing hobby into a business. The region was only awarded DOCG classification in 1995 – a designation for controlled and guaranteed origin. Until then, producing Franciacorta was an expensive hobby and enjoying it a very affordable pleasure.
Down in the valley, the houses of Monticelli Brusati crowd around the church as though seeking shelter from an oncoming storm. When storm clouds gathered, her grandparents would burn consecrated olive branches to pacify the forces of nature, Albertini tells us. The region was considered backward and not even mentioned in textbooks when she was at school. Recently, though, she read in one of her son’s schoolbooks that her home region was “known for its wines produced according to traditional methods.” No doubt about it, that information has now spread throughout Italy.
Continuing northward in Franciacorta, we arrive at Lake Iseo, the region’s natural boundary. Thick-walled houses line the shore in Clusane, where fishing boats bob on the water along the pier. This is where the Bellini family plies the unusual trade of buying, selling and restoring classic yachts. Grandfather Bellini, who founded the company in 1960, built the fast, elegant wooden yachts himself. But on his deathbed, he forbade his son from continuing in the business: It’s too hard, my boy, there’s too much competition. His final advice to his successor was to put his passion for wooden boats into restoring them. Who could deny a patriarch his final wish?
Battista Bellini, the founder’s grandson, is just as deferential to the old man’s wishes. “It takes nine months to fully restore a classic boat,” explains the 29-year-old craftsman sporting Prada sunglasses and a tailored shirt. He keeps his smartphone in a case that simulates the wood used to build boats. Battista and his younger sister Martina climb on board a 1972 Riva Aquarama with two 320 HP engines – a mahogany dream. Riva, the company, still exists. Its headquarters are on the other side of the lake. But a few years ago, when the Chinese acquired a majority share in the old-established company, it stopped building wooden yachts. If you’re looking for a classic, you have to come to the Bellinis.
Martina, 23, starts the engine, which growls like a lion and then purrs like a cat. She carefully guides the Riva out of the Bellinis’ marina, past modern red-and-black yachts waiting for their Italian, Swiss or German owners to take them for a spin across the lake. “Che bello,” sighs Battista, as the wind ruffles his carefully styled hair. Great crested grebes fly up in alarm as the boat rushes toward them at a speed of 20 knots.
Lake Iseo is deep. It has a stony shoreline and very few beaches, which is why even on hot days, there are not many swimmers to be seen. Our eyes are drawn to the foothills of the Alps that tower 2000 meters in places on the northern shore. Monte Isola – a rocky promontory in the middle of the lake – looks almost dainty in comparison despite rising a good 400 meters into the sky. Two years ago, the installation artist Christo built a shimmering yellow, three-kilometer walkway around Monte Isola. Entitled “Floating Piers,” it gave visitors the feeling that they were walking on water. Close to 1.3 million visitors came and nearly brought the traffic in the region to a standstill. These days, the islanders are worried that the Christo effect could fizzle out. “Remember the Piers” has been written in large letters on the photographs of the installation that decorate the ferry landing.
Back in Clusane, Martina Bellini takes us to a warehouse outside the town center. The ground floor is dedicated to the boat-building workshop, but the upper floor contains her private collection of Rivas: 16 models dating from the 1920s to the late 1990s. We visitors admire the fine lines and elegant curves of the classic yachts while Martina opens a bottle – of Franciacorta, naturally.
Explore Lake Iseo
The bathing beach at Lago di Endine is still a well-kept secret.
Bike the mountainous country near Marone on a guided tour.
The Due Colombe in Borgonato boasts a Michelin star.
The Bellini Nautica boatyard has vintage Rivas on display.
Guests at L’Albereta will enjoy a panoramic view of the lake.
Lufthansa flies up to six times daily to Milan-Linate (LIN) from Frankfurt (FRA) and to Milan-Malpensa (MXP) from both Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC). Use the app to calculate your miles. Download here: miles-and-more.com/app