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 a premiere wine growing region, but it's pretty unknown outside of Italy.
The vineyards are set against Lake Iseo, which, is one of the lesser-known lakes in Italy's Lake District but that 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, and a 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). 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, Berlucchi, Barone Pizzini, and Monte Rossa —and then work in some of the other respected, but harder-to-find-outside Italy wines like Villa Franciacorta, Ricci Curbastro, and Montenisa.
Bike Around 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 Iseo Bike, 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.
Boat on The Lake to Monte Isola
Lake Iseo is one of the Grand Lakes of Italy (along with Como, Maggiore, Garda, etc) but it’s actually quite small. That said, it is a glacial lake, so there is some varied terrain—hills dramatically drop down to the water on one side, there are adorable towns on the other, and an island, Monte Isola, smackdab in the middle of the lake. Monte Isola 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. 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).
Eat at Dispensa Pani e Vini
On our last day, we lunched at Dispensa Pani e Vini, a combination wine bar, restaurant, 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 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 Italian style.
Stay at Villa Gradoni
A place that is a tad more affordable, but not a bit less interesting is the historic Villa Gradoni. This property is a farmhouse restored into 20 apartments and it's just next door to the Villa Franciacorta winery. The clientele is largely made up of outdoor enthusiasts—cyclists and hikers—who come to both wine taste and get outdoors.
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 its old town (with some of the best historic ruins in the region) is worth visiting . 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 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.
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.