Falling in Love with Franciacorta

We knew we wanted to go away, switch off and relax for a few days after the New Year. The ideal location would be Italian, filled with good food and wine, but not too far away from home. Somehow, just before Christmas, we came up with idea of going to the green hills of Franciacorta, located south of Lake Iseo in the region of Lombardy. The area is renowned for its production of sparkling wine and is just over two hours drive from Turin, making it the perfect destination for our much-needed mini-break. So, when we found a good, low-season rate at a hotel in the town of Colombaro, we immediately booked three nights accommodation there.

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Inhabited since the Paleolithic era, Franciacorta’s name is generally thought to derive from curtes francae, the Frankish empire’s fortified courts which were established in the area in the eighth century. As for local viticulture, records take us back to at least to Roman times, with the poet Virgil and the naturalist Pliny the Elder documenting the still wines produced in and around the settlement of Brixia (modern-day Brescia).

Grape cultivation and wine making continued well into the Middle Ages, thanks in great part to the monastic orders which were established in the area and in 1570, the local doctor Girolamo Conforti described the area’s wines as having ‘spicy and nipping’ qualities.

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In the 1950s, Franco Viliani, a young winemaker working for the Berlucchi family, was permitted to pursue his ambition of producing a fine sparkling wine comparable to French Champagne. The first 3 000 bottles of bubbly Pinot di Franciacorta were released in 1961. An instant success, production has continued ever since.

Today, bubbly Franciacorta DOCG is made according to a strict set of directives established in 1995. (N.B. The area’s still wines are released under the name of Curtefranca DOC). Only metodo classico (the Italian term for the traditional or ‘Champagne method’) can be used to produce Franciacorta. Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero grapes must be harvested by hand during the vendemmia in August and September. Key to achieving the wine’s natural effervescence is the second fermentation, aging, riddling, refrigeration and disgorging the wine undergoes in the bottle after yeasts and sugars are added. (i)

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The vine-covered countryside and medieval towns surrounding Lake Iseo’s southern shorelines did not disappoint, nor did its eno-gastronomic offerings. Someday, perhaps in the warmer months, we hope to return. Here’s a little guide, in no particular order, to some of the things we enjoyed the most in this tranquil, enchanting part of northern Italy:

1. Cascina Clarabella, Corte Franca (BS)
Berlucchi, Bellavista and Ca’ Del Bosco are much better known but I was keen to visit a smaller scale winery in the Franciacorta area. When Marialuisa told me about Cascina Clarabella, the agriturismo she stayed at during a summer holiday last year, I was intrigued and immediately wanted to visit. This biodynamic winery doubles as a social cooperative which seeks to reintegrate people with mental illnesses into society. Like many Italian businesses over the New Year-Epiphany period, the agriturismo was actually chiuso or ‘closed’. After receiving our phone call though, the manager was kind enough to invite us over for a wine tasting in the cellars, for which we will be forever grateful. Honey and olive oil are also made in this peaceful, child-friendly location (luckily for us, there was a playground for TT to run around in after she got bored by the adults’ degustazione di vino in the cellars).

2. La Riserva Naturale Torbiera del Sebino , Provaglio d’Iseo (BS)
Once upon a time, peat was extracted from this stunning reserve, an oasis for over 25 species of birds and marsh vegetation, to provide fuel. In 1983 though, the bogs were declared a nature reserve by the Lombardy Region and visitors can now admire its ponds, fauna and vegetation from a series of paths and wooden walkways. Located on a hill overlooking the bogs below is one of the many medieval monasteries in the area, the Cluniac Monastery of San Pietro Lamosa, also worth a visit.

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3. Trattoria del Muliner, Clusane (BS)
This fine, beautifully decorated restaurant’s name, il muliner (meaning ‘miller’ in the local dialect), is dedicated to owner/chef Andrea Martinelli’s grandfather Giovanni Sperolini, who once transported flour for a living and fried fish for Clusane’s fishermen. Founded in the 1950s after Sperolini’s fish-frying business took off, the trattoria specialises in cooking locally sourced freshwater fish, such as tinca al forno con polenta (baked tench with polenta), a specialty of this charming, lakeside fishing hamlet. Other menu highlights include their spaghetti alla chitarra con sardina del Sebino (spaghetti alla chitarra with Sebino agone – more on this subject below), pescato del giorno al cartoccio (catch of the day baked in parchment) and giardiniera casalinga. Highly recommended.

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4. Monte Isola (BS)
We spent our final day in Franciacorta exploring Monte Isola, one of Europe’s biggest inhabited lake islands. Tranquil and car-free (only mopeds and bicycles are permitted), Monte Isola is easily reached by regular ferry services from the lakeside towns of Iseo and Sulzano. The winds were strong but TT delighted in catching her first ferry and I admired the agoni or ‘sardines’ that the local fishermen had left to hang and dry inside ventilated wooden racks along the island’s lungolago. The sardine, as the locals confusedly call them for their resemblance to their saltwater cousins, are a freshwater fish common to Italy’s subalpine lakes. Oral tradition has it that the inhabitants of Lake Iseo have been using the same ancient method for preserving these tasty fish for over 1 000 years.

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5. Hostaria Milago, Località Peschiera Maraglio, Monte Isola (BS)
When we mentioned that we were planning on visiting Monte Isola, the manager of Cascina Clarabella was quick to recommend eating at this restaurant. Located in the stunning village of Peschiera Maraglio, Hostaria Milago specialises in preparing dishes with locally sourced ingredients, including the aforementioned dried sardine and other freshwater fish. For those not into seafood, there is also the salame produced on the island served with giardiniera as an antipasto as well as dishes incorporating meats and local cheeses such as Bagòss. The staff were also very accommodating in finding vegan solutions for my parents.

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(i). Here’s a link to an infographic explaining the complete process.

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