Getting fizzy with it: the Italian wine route that sparkles

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Put sparkling wine and Italy together and the usual answer is prosecco, but 200km west of the Veneto – the home of prosecco – lies another, little-known, sparkling wine region: Franciacorta. Wine has been made in the area for centuries but producers didn’t start making sparkling varieties until the 1960s. However, by 1995 this wine had been awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status, making it one of the most strictly regulated wines in the country.

Brescia, Italy map

Franciacorta wine is made in the same metodo classico (with a second fermentation in the bottle) as champagne and cava, so the bubbles are smaller and last longer than in prosecco or lambrusco. It is also made from similar grapes to champagne (chardonnay, pinot blanc), so it’s not surprising that the region is sometimes called Italy’s champagne. Yet the territory’s proximity to the Italian lakes, its silty soil and limestone bedrock make for a different, less yeasty flavour than champagne. Also, 70% of Franciacorta’s wine is organic.

Despite the wine’s popularity in Italy, and the international plaudits it has received, the area, which fans out from the southern shore of Lake Iseo, is often overlooked by tourists. Yet, as well as its 117 family-run vineyards, it has many historical and architectural highlights. The city of Brescia is home to some of the oldest Roman ruins in Italy, such as the Capitolium, and the Unesco-listed Santa Giulia city museum, set within several churches. It also has a Mediterranean climate, mountain and lake views – and great food. Walking tours are available at Infopoint Centro (via Trieste 1/Piazza Paolo VI). And between this weekend and 8 September is the Franciacorta summer festival, with guided tours, visits to historic mansions, classes, concerts, bike tours and other events.

WINEMAKERS TO VISIT

Ricci Curbastro


Vineyard of Ricci Curbastro, Franciacorta, Italy.

Ricci Curbastro’s family has been farming in Franciacorta for 18 generations and his father was one of the founders of Franciacorta as a designated wine denominazione in 1967. His winery was one of the first in the region to be completely sustainable , and it’s been organic for four years. “I don’t own the land; I rent from it. That’s my philosophy,” he says. “We drink wine to enjoy it. We don’t need it, so being sustainable is key.” His farm is a mix of old buildings and a modern rooftop winery with solar panels and LED lighting. There’s also a small museum that tells the story of his family and the region. A small shop (owned by Curbastro’s sister) sells artwork, historic maps, antique home decor and accessories.
Tours from €7 to €25, including tastings, riccicurbastro.it

Villa Franciacorta


Grapes in a container on the back of a tractor at Villa Franciacorta, Franciacorta, Italy.

This 15th-century hillside villa was owned by nobles until 1960, when Alessandro Bianchi bought the house, surrounding 100 hectares and 16th-century wine cellar. Winemaker Corrado Cugnasco and technical manager Ermes Vianelli have been making Franciacorta here since then and Bianchi, who still owns the estate, is assisted by his daughter Roberta Pizziol and her husband Paolo. Villa Franciacorta also has an agriturismo (see below). The first sparkling wine was produced here in 1928, and today the winery makes only vintage wines. Try the 2013 Mon Saten, which won Best Franciacorta and Best Italian Sparkling at the 2017 London International Wine Challenge.
Monthly public tastings, usually on Saturday, €25. Weekly tours and tastings for agriturismo guests, villafranciacorta.it

Fratelli Berlucchi


Fratelli Berlucchi, Lombardy, Italy.

Photograph: Perry van Munster/Alamy

Berlucchi is fancier than others on the route but as it is the winery credited with inventing Franciacorta, a visit is essential. The 16th-century ivy-covered Palazzo Lano, which is open for tours, is stunning. It was in the gilded rooms of the medieval building, with marble fireplaces, ornate rugs and antique furniture, that the idea for Franciacorta wine was dreamed up by Guido Berlucchi and winemaker Franco Ziliani. Until 1961, Franciacorta was a territory but after the first bottle was produced here that year, it also became a wine. In 1962, Berlucchi produced Italy’s first sparkling rosé. When Berlucchi died, the estate was in the hands of Ziliani, who still owns the vineyard and serves as president, though it is mostly run by his children. As with everywhere in Franciacorta, this is a family operation.
Choice of three cellar tours and tastings (from €25pp according to quality of wines tasted). Other high-end wineries in the region include Ca’ del Bosco, Bellavista, and Monterossa, fratelliberlucchi.it

Ferghettina


Bottle of wine on a counter in the wine cellar of Ferghettina, Franciacorta, Italy.

One of the younger wineries in the region, Ferghettina opened in 1990, but owner Roberto Gatti has been working the region’s land since he was a boy. Everything at the winery is managed by Gatti, his wife, Andreina, and their two children who both have degrees in oenology. Ferghettina is more modern than other estates, with large windows, sleek surfaces and lots of glass, but like the others it is perched on a hill with views of the vineyards.
Guided tours 10am and 3pm Mon-Sat, 10am Sun. Book at least three days in advance recommended. Tour and tasting (1½ hours) €15pp, ferghettina.it

Barone Pizzini


Grape harvest at Barone Pizzini, Franciacorta, Italy.

Photograph: Anna Koj

This is one of the closest wineries to Lake Iseo and the first organic winery in the region. The noble Pizzini von Thurberg family from Rovereto (beyond Lake Garda), moved here in the 18th century. In 1870, brothers Enrico and Bernardino Pizzini formed a farming business, and after the second world war, when Eduardo Pizzini Piomarta decided to focus on grapes. When Franciacorta was recognised as an official denominazione in 1967, Barone Pizzini was one of the first wineries registered as DOC, and its first bottle of Franciacorta was produced in 1971. In 1998, the winery began experimenting with organic methods, and opened an eco-friendly organic winery in 2007. Barone Pizzini is not as picturesque as others on this route – it feels a bit industrial and two-thirds of it is underground – but the wines are fantastic.
Three tour options available to book online (€18-€35). Each tasting features grana padano cheese, local cured meats and organic bread, baronepizzini.it

WHERE TO EAT

Locanda al Lago


Locanda al Lago, Lake Iseo, Italy.

Boats run from the village of Sulzano to Monte Isola, an island in Lake Iseo with a few restaurants and shops on colourful streets. Locanda al Lago, owned by fisherman Nando Soardi, does lunches of freshly caught fish and seasonal pasta dishes (lots of lemon and fresh cheese). The sardines are a speciality (sardines are only fished in the lake from September to March only, using special nets). “You won’t find sardines like this anywhere else in the world,” says Soardi. If sardines aren’t your thing, try tinca (tench), a lake fish famous in the region, often stuffed with bread and herbs and baked. The average main course is about €13 and the setting on the lake is worth every penny.
Località Carzano, 38, Monte Isola, locandaallago.it

Hostaria Uva Rara


Restaurant at Hostaria Uva Rara, Lake Iseo, Italy.

Hostaria Uva Rara is a cosy converted farmhouse with vaulted stone walls and a large fireplace. Guests can also dine in the garden, under the shade of a mulberry tree. Pappardelle with wild boar and liquorice (€10), ravioli with freshwater fish and chilli (€16), and beef braised in olive oil with polenta (€18) are among the regional specialities. Individual vegan dishes are available on request, and a three-course vegan menu for two (€40pp) includes black risotto rice with carpaccio of marinated carrots, and red onion stuffed with hummus, herbs and mushrooms.
Via Foina, 42, Monticelli Brusati, hostariauvarara.it

Gelateria del Biondo


Ice-cream scoop and raspberries on a serving platter at Gelateria del Biondo, Brescia, Italy.

No trip to Italy is complete without gelato, and this place in Brescia is one of the best. It has been serving fine-tasting gelato since 1935 but now offers tastes beyond the conventional cone and cup: Il Bisc8 is ice-cream between two biscuits, half-dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate); and there are also fruit-filled, gluten-free gelato bars.
Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Brescia, open daily 8am-midnight, gelateriadelbiondo.it

WHERE TO STAY

Cappuccini Resort


Bedroom at Cappuccini Resort, Cucina San Francesco, Italy.

Photograph: Andrea Mutti

This simple and elegant hotel in a 16th-century former monastery has bedrooms made from old monks’ cells, with exposed wood beams, rustic furniture, and views of gardens and vineyards. It’s in an isolated position on the southern slopes of Monte Orfano, and offers tranquillity and hospitality rather than luxury furnishings. There’s a small pool in the garden, a guest sitting room, a wine cellar and a restaurant. A light breakfast of eggs, local cheeses and pastries, fruit and a cappuccino is a nice way to start a day of wine tasting.
Doubles from €160 B&B , Via Cappuccini, 54, Cologne, cappuccini.it

Villa Gradoni at Villa Franciacorta


Villa Gradoni, Villa Franciacorta, Franciacorta, Italy.

The Villa Franciacorta winery and agriturismo are in the oldest part of the town of Monticelli Brusati. The medieval hamlet has been restored, taking care to preserve the original architecture. There are 21 simple apartments and a pool and a restaurant, all within easy reach of Villa Franciacorta’s vineyards and tasting room. The views and peaceful location just a few minutes from Lake Iseo and a supermarket, make it stand out. Those who like to cycle or run will appreciate trails and mostly empty roads nearby.
Minimum three-night stay (one-bedroom apartment) from €381, (summer minimum seven nights, €910), Via Villa 12, Monticelli Brusati, villagradoni.it

Agriturismo Cascina Clarabella


Cascina Clarabella, Iseo, Italy.

This renovated farmhouse is close to Lake Iseo and a short drive from the wineries. It has nine apartments with kitchenettes, though breakfast is served daily in the common area; each room has air conditioning and a balcony, and there is also a restaurant. Guests can spend time hiking, fishing, horse riding or cycling (bikes available to rent), and it’s on the Brescia Paratico Greenway: a walking and cycling path. The agriturismo offers job opportunities to people with mental health issues, giving them a regular income through caring for the apartments and working in wine, olive oil, and honey production. Cascina Clarabella received a Legambiente Turismo award for social involvement.
Doubles from €75 B&B, via Enrico Mattei, Corte Franca, cascinaclarabella.it

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