Exploring Lake Garda and its very different and fascinating shoreline landscapes is a task for half a lifetime. The immediate surroundings also hold scenic, cultural and culinary sensations, with many of the most famous Italian wines coming from areas around Lake Garda, mostly to the south. It is always the triad of excellent wine, scenic beauty and Mediterranean climate that inspires. From Bardolino to Chiaretto or Amarone and Recioto al Lugana from the Valpolicella region to Custoza al Marzemino – these wines are among the best in Italy, but usually, one excellent wine variety is missing from the wine hit lists: Franciacorta.
The Franciacorta: hills, castles, lake and wine
Just 35 kilometres west of Lake Garda lies Lago d’Iseo, and the beautiful hilly landscape south of the lake is called Franciacorta. It is home to a sparkling wine of the same name, with a controlled and guaranteed designation of origin (DOCG). The wineries in the region with two dozen municipalities and a cultivation area of around 3,000 hectares between Lake Iseo and Brescia produce Franciacorta according the so-called “Méthode Traditionelle”.
Accordingly, only wines obtained by re-fermenting in the bottle and removing the lees by disgorging may bear the guaranteed designation of origin “Franciacorta”. It was not until the 1960s that the Berlucci winery produced a sparkling wine according to the “Méthode Traditionelle”, following their French models. Other wineries followed and today, many Italians see Franciacorta as a first-class sparkling wine that is on a par with French models and is also usually a little fruitier and fresher – more about that later!
Franciacorta Wine Route – 80 kilometres through the heart of the wine region
It is not only the special wine that distinguishes Franciacorta. The region presents itself as a very beautiful hilly landscape, which was formed by glacial moraines ages ago. It is embedded in historic towns, villages, monasteries, stately villas and many castles.
The “Strada del Vino Franciacorta” (Franciacorta Wine Road), a special wine route that starts east of Brescia and runs for 80 kilometres from Gussago to Paratico, passes many of the wine villages and some of the famous wineries. The opportunity to taste the regional wines in the numerous restaurants and wineries along the route should definitely be taken advantage of. Shopping at the local wineries is also an option. The region is also ideal for beautiful cycling tours.
From Etruscans, Romans and Venetians: the ancient cultural landscape of Franciacorta
The inhabitants of the region are proud not only of their sparkling, fine wines but also of their extensive cultural history. Over the millennia, Etruscans and Celts settled here, while Romans, Lombards, Carolingians and Venetians ruled, and there are still numerous architectural traces of all of them. The medieval fort of Capriolo, the Castello Oldofredi in Iseo on the shore of the lake, the Dominican monastery “La Santissima” in Gussago, the church of San Giacomo Maggiore in Ospitaletto and the ruins of the Lantieri castle near Paratico are all worth a visit.
Lago d’Iseo itself, 25 kilometres long and up to 250 metres deep, is by far not as frequented as Lake Garda, but it has developed into a sailor’s paradise because of its favourable downdrafts. Another special feature: many of the rock walls on the shore drop steeply into the water, and yet it is possible to drive completely around Lake Iseo by car or bicycle – the road has been hewn out of the rock in many places for this purpose.
At the southern tip of Lake Iseo, the Sebino peat bogs are an enchanting place where water and earth meet. The nature reserve and wetland of international importance overwhelm with its wonderful colours and abundance of rare birds.
Walking across Lake Iseo – on Christo’s piers
Three islands lie in Lake Iseo. Two of them, the large Monte Isola and the small privately owned Isola di San Paolo became famous in 2016. With his installation “The Floating Piers”, the artist and wrapping specialist Christo made it possible for three weeks to reach and circumnavigate the two islands from the shore on foot via floating piers covered with yellow-red fabric. An estimated 1.3 million art tourists took advantage of the opportunity.
Pietro Riva founded a shipyard in Sarnico on the Oglio River, the outflow of the lake, in 1842, and great-grandson Carlo Riva built the famous Riva boats there from 1949 onwards. With their seamless mahogany planking and elegant, luxurious design, these boats were highly sought-after, especially in the jet-set scene of the 1950s to 1970s. Around 2,000 of these vintage boats, which now fetch top prices, are said to still exist.
Franciacorta – one of the best sparkling wines of Northern Italy
The lake and the region have much to offer visitors, but the most interesting thing, at least for wine fans, will be the small Franciacorta region with its inimitable Spumante wine of the same name. It comes in three varieties: Franciacorta is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), with a maximum of 50 per cent Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc). It must be kept on its lees in its bottles for 18 months. Franciacorta Rosé requires at least 25 percent Pinot Noir. For the past six years, a maximum of ten percent of the grape variety Erbamat, which only grows here, may also be used. Maturation of the yeast for 24 months is mandatory. The silky, velvety Franciacorta Satèn has to do without Pinot Noir and must also be left on the yeast for 24 months. 11.5 percent alcohol by volume is mandatory for all Franciacortas. The Satén is only produced and offered in “brut”; the other two also as dosaggio zero, extra brut, brut and extra dry.
Enough variation, therefore, to find the right sparkling Franciacorto for a wide variety of menus. Many restaurants and wineries offer well-composed menus, the courses of which are accompanied by a suitable Franciacorta sparkling wine. Specialities of the region here are beef slow-cooked in olive oil from Rovato on polenta or Iseo lake tench from the oven – both a delight!
Don’t miss: a stop in the cultural capital Brescia
Anyone setting off from Lake Garda for a trip to Franciacorta wine country will pass by Brescia. A visit to the city, which this year is Italy’s Capital of Culture together with Bergamo, deserves at least a whole day of time, but at least a short detour to the fascinating city with its Roman past should be a must.