Italy's most celebrated chef, Gualtiero Marchesi, recently closed his eponymous restaurant in Milan and moved to the village of Erbusco in the Lombard countryside. Marchesi set up shop in a Victorian-era hunting lodge newly transformed into a grand country hotel with elegant dining rooms offering stunning views of Lake Iseo. L'Albereta, as the new establishment is called, sits in the heart of Franciacorta, Lombardy's premier wine-growing region. The sunny hillsides of the valley surrounding the lake provide not only beautiful vistas but also wonderful soil and weather for growing the Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero and Chardonnay grapes used to make the local sparkling wines.
No more than 25 years ago, Franciacorta was undistinguished as a wine region. That was before the "miracle of Franciacorta" occurred. Beginning in the mid-1950s, a young winemaker named Franco Ziliani began making sparkling wines using the methode champenoise of France. The results were spectacular and other winemakers soon followed suit. By 1975 the champenoise of Franciacorta was a best seller in Italy and was gaining recognition internationally. Soon the sleepy valley on the shores of Lake Iseo was transformed into a miniature version of France's Champagne region.
Today, over 30 wineries in Franciacorta produce champenoise-style sparkling wines. Of those, the most notable is Ca' del Bosco. Its owner, Maurizio Zanella, sets the standard for the region, if not the entire country, with wines noted for their fragrance and finesse. Pale yellow-greenish in color, they are remarkable for their freshness. Other outstanding winemakers of the region include Bellavista and Cavalleri. All these wines are best consumed in their region but are also available in the United States.
Making the trip to Erbusco is a worthwhile undertaking. The drive from the eastern outskirts of Milan takes about 40 minutes (getting to the outskirts of Milan may double or triple the length of the trip, depending upon your starting point). Once in Erbusco, it's easy to find L'Albereta. The ultimate goal is a seat in Signor Marchesi's dining room, where the view of the lake and vineyards will set the mood for gastronomic adventures. A glass of Ca' del Bosco's champenoise is the perfect companion as you read the menu and choose among the updated classic dishes for which Marchesi is famous.
Click here for one of Gualtiero Marchesi's most surprising recipes!
Update on the Wines of Lombardy (1995)
Beginning with the vintage produced from the just-completed 1995 harvest, the wines of Franciacorta will have a new legal appellation. Until now, all the region's wines went by the name of Franciacorta; now, that appellation will apply only to sparkling wines, whereas still reds and whites will be called Terra di Franciacorta. In addition, the new Franciacorta sparkling wines have been elevated to the status of DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), a special label accessible to only fourteen other types of Italian wine.
Italy's wine labelling legislation goes back to 1963. Modeled after the French appelation controllée system, it was designed to give legal recognition and protection to the most famous and best Italian wines. The law created two categories: DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) designates wines from particular regions; DOCG designates the country's most elite wines. Today, there are over 250 DOC wines; the addition of Franciacorta brings the number of DOCG wines to fifteen.
The venerable champagne method of making sparkling wine was created at the beginning of the eighteenth century by a French monk named Dom Perignon. The Italians didn't pick it up until around 1955, and although their wines are made using the same methods and similar grapes, they have long felt that they could not compete effectively on the world market without a distinctive name of their own. Now, thanks to the new designation Franciacorta, consumers will easily be able to tell if a sparkling wine has been hand-made according to classic champagne methods, or if it has been mass-produced, as are Italy's spumantes.
It will be a few years before you can walk into your neighborhood store or bar and order wine using the new names: the 1995 harvest will not be released until 1997 or 1998. It also remains to be seen whether the Italians can compete with the French in the prestigious sparkling wine market. With a 250-year head start, the descendants of Dom Perignon will be hard to catch.
by Sims Brannon