Maybe it’s just the way the world works these days, but it seems really hard to find a place that isn't already pinned, tagged, or liked. Which is why I was so surprised to discover Franciacorta. Okay, yes, the Milanese have known about this corner of Lombardy for forever and a day and it is one of Italy's premiere wine growing regions, but it's pretty unknown outside of Italy.
Part of the reason it's so unknown? The region is relatively young (for Italy at least) as a wine region. Sure, there has been on and off wine production in the area but the sparkling wine, aka Franciacorta, that's from the region was only first produced in the late 1950s and really started taking off in earnest in the late 1970s.
And it's kind of ironic that the area is so off most travelers' radars because it's just one hour East of Milan. The vineyards of Franciacorta are set against Lake Iseo, which, is one of the smaller and lesser-known lakes in Italy's Lake District. But the fact it's mostly a local spot means the area has a genial, small town attitude. And it's got plenty to brag about even beyond the wine, from freshwater sardines (ie shad) celebrated by SlowFood, people boating around on Talented Mr Ripley- era Riva boats, the largest island lake in Europe, and a bespoke castle set upon a teeny tiny island.
If it sounds kinda like I’m describing some surreal dream, well, that’s kinda how it was, were my dream set in the Italian countryside amongst vineyards (and, let’s be real, everyone’s dream should have that backdrop). I'm so smitten with this area that I've decided to include it in our first-ever Salt & Wind Italy trips.
But, in case you can't join, here's where you should head and what you should do in Franciacorta:
Taste The Wine
Franciacorta is a respected wine region that specializes in sparkling wines. Unlike Prosecco, the wines here are made in a manner similar to Champagne—using méthode champenoise—and it makes for some really beautiful, sophisticated sparkling wine. Think of Franciacorta like the Champagne of Italy except that the region is way smaller (just over 100 wineries) and the majority of that wine is consumed in Italy.
For wine tasting, you'll want to start with some of the classics to get perspective—as in, the original Franciacorta-style winery, Guido Berlucchi or another larger producer like Barone Pizzini or Monte Rossa. One of the things that makes this region so special is that even the biggest winemaker (Berlucchi) still is not that big by Napa Valley standards and the majority of the vineyards are family owned and small to medium in size.
Once you've got a taste of the region's history, make sure to also stop by some smaller, just-as-respected, but harder-to-find-outside Italy wines like Villa Franciacorta, Mosnel, Ricci Curbastro, and Montenisa.
Bike The Vineyards with IseoBike
Sure, you can easily drive everywhere as the whole area is country roads, but, when weather permits, you should ditch the car and bike instead. Our guide, Flavio at IseoBike, worked to create bike paths throughout the region so it's really easy to get around and that bike path winds past everything from castles to historic villas and, of course, vineyards. Speaking of, IseoBikes also does wine tastings via bike, which pretty much sounds like heaven to me!
Walk Through The Bogs of Torbiere del Serbino
Okay, truth is, there was rumored to be a panther on the loose (no, I'm not kidding) when I was there so the bogs were closed as a result. But, after everyone and their sister told me I must return to experience them, I can tell you I’m definitely heading there on my next trip. And, if you're into more serious hiking (but still want to relax before or after), Iseo is a great launching point for more serious trekking expeditions into the Alps and hte company MilleMonti leads all sorts of expeditions in the area.
Boat The Lake To visit Montisola
Lake Iseo is one of the Grand Lakes of Italy (along with Como, Maggiore, Garda, etc) but it’s relatively quite small. That said, it is a glacial lake, so there is some varied terrain — picture hills dramatically drop down to the water on one side, adorable towns on the other, and an island, Montisola, smackdab in the middle of the lake. Montisola lays claim to being both the largest lake island and the highest elevation lake island in all of Europe, so it's worth going, if only for the novelty. There is regular ferry service but we rented a boat to take us over during sunset and I highly recommend you do the same.
Passeggiata in Iseo
The lakeside town of Iseo is right out of an old Italian movie, with everyone from kids to grandparents walking arm-in-arm for the evening passeggiata during warm summer nighs. But it also has some adorable independent boutiques so you make sure to leave some time for shopping too.
Oh, and, though we didn't get a chance to stop by ourselves, the line out the door at Gelateria La Mongolfiera made clear it was a local favorite for gelato.
Dinner at Barboglio di Gaioncelli
By far, our favorite dinner was the tasting menu at Barboglio di Gaioncelli. Yes, this is a highly respected winery but the restaurant is equally noteworthy. It was a higher end experience worthy of a Michelin star with white tablecloths, impeccable service, and their sparkling wines paired with the meal. Each course was exceptional but the pastas were our favorites; so much so that I recerated their Franciacorta risotto as soon as I got home. If you go, know that it's really hidden on back roads and cell service can be spotty so you'll want reliable directions (or a driver).
Lunch and Shop at Dispensa Pani e Vini
On our last day, we lunched at Dispensa Pani e Vini, a combination wine bar, restaurant, and speciality food and wine store. We had a multi-course lunch here and loved that the food was very reflective of the region, including local Slow Food ingredients and every course was paired with a different local wine. If you don't have time to eat there, at least stop by to buy some wine before you leave as they have bottles by all the region's top producers.
Stay at Relais Mirabella
While the decor is a bit more traditional than I personally like, the location, service, and pretty much everything else was fabulous at Relais Mirabella. The hotel is set on a hill with one of the best views in the area, so you have a panorama of Lake Iseo, Monte Isola, and the bogs. The staff was beyond kind and they paid attention to every single detail, including the fact I liked a dry cappuccino at breakfast and a Campari Spritz for aperitivo. My only regret is that we didn't get more free time to spend on property because the pool looked divine and the restaurant supposedly has some of the best food in the area.
Stay at Le Quattro Terre
For something a bit more tucked away, check out Le Quattro Terre. This newly-opened, minimalist boutique property totally emdodies the historic-meets-modern style of Francicacota as it's a 17th century property that's been renovated in chic modern but minimal Italian style. It's only 11 rooms total so it's the perfect place to rent out for a group of friends!
Day Trips and Detours
You could easily spend a week on Lake Iseo and have a pretty packed schedule, but it's also close to some other noteworthy places. The nearby town of Brescia may not have the international appeal of Milan, but it's old town has some of the best historic ruins in the region and doing a historic walking tour of the area you're able to see almost all of Italy's major architectural styles.
You could also do an Italian Lake District tour and hit the bigger lakes of Maggiore, Como, and Garda (where the adorable town of Sirmione is located). Oh, and FYI Milan is not even 90 minutes away by car so it's easy to fly in and out of there and then train or drive over.
Did you know we lead boutique food and wine tours for food lovers to Italy? Come join our next Salt & Wind trip!
P.S. If you liked this story, you'll probably like our newsletter too!
Photography by Aida Mollenkamp
My trip was sponsored by Franciacorta Consorzio but all content, ideas, and words are my own. Thanks for supporting these sponsors who allow us to keep Salt & Wind up and running.