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Stars of Lombardia

Diving into the food and wine of Lombardia

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In a season with so much that was a stretch towards normalcy and so much that felt so out of  whack (like a wet, autumnal Roubaix last week), Il Lombardia, the Classic of the Falling Leaves, feels like a good note for us all to leave off on. At least until we begin again in earnest next year. The most important autumn race, usually anyways, Lombardia’s winner’s list is a who’s who of cycling greats, both past and present, many of them winning it more than once. Sean Kelly has won the fall classic three times as has Gino Bartali, twice for Hinault, Moser, Merckx and De Vlaeminck. Fausto though is king of Lombardia with five wins. And the most recent victor is Jakob Fuglsang. And though the finish has bounced around from Milan to Lecco, Bergamo and Como, the character of the race, and its importance on a rider’s palmares has remained steady through it all.

By Clive Pursehouse | Images by Aldo Padovan 

The race formerly known as Giro di Lombardia is a celebration of this special part of Northern Italy. (It’s almost unfair that Italy has so many special places, it’s not that large of a country.) The region of Lombardy is a cycling paradise, both in terms of history and topography. It’s a place that has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and so an opportunity for celebration feels especially good.

Lombardia, to the uninitiated may not call to mind visions of the olive groves of Tuscany, or the legendary prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano that hail from Emilia Romagna, but it should be taken just as seriously. Lombardia offers rich and unique contributions to the gastronomic lexicon of Italy and the world. The region’s legendary cheeses like Taleggio, produced in Lombardy’s Val Taleggio since before the tenth century, or Bitto, made from the milk of the Bruno Alpina, high alpine cattle. There’s Bresaola or more specifically the Bresaola della Valtellina, a wonderfully air-dried beef that is among Italy’s highest contributions to charcuterie, which they basically invented. And the less known Salame d’oca di Mortara is perhaps the world’s only salami made from goose.

Lombardia is surrounded by famous wine regions. Piedmont of course brings us the Barolos and Barbarescos of the hills beyond Turin. Then there’s Amarone from Veneto’s Valpolicella and the fun pop of Prosecco. In Lombardy there are stars.

When Dom Perignon supposedly discovered Champagne he is said to have uttered “I am drinking the stars.” The quote may be what he said, but who’s to say for sure; sparkling wine was actually invented in the south of France, in a small abbey in Limoux called Saint Hilaire. The Italian sparkling wines that are made in Lombardy’s region of Franciacorta are however made in a distinctively Champagne style.

Franciacorta produces wine in a style created in France’s Champagne region through what is known as méthode traditionelle. After completing initial fermentation, wine is bottled with liqueur de tirage, a combination of yeast (also known as lees) and sugar that sets off a second bottle fermentation and produces those wonderful tiny bubbles. The region received its DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in 1995, and it represents the pinnacle region in terms of Italian sparkling wines.

These Franciacorta wines are produced with the traditional grapes used in the Champagne region—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—as well as smaller amounts of the less-traditional Pinot Blanc. The minimum production requirements in Franciacorta exceed those in Champagne. Where Champagne has developed its reputation for quality on tradition, the young Franciacorta uses strict quality control. The result is a wine with a classic rounded mouthfeel but with a vibrancy and freshness, classic (of course), with a sense of Italian flare and a wildly accessible price tag.

Berlucchi 61

Franciacorta was born in 1961 with the collaboration of Guido Berlucchi and the winemaker Franco Ziliani. Berlucchi was struggling to improve the stability of his white wines; Ziliani prescribed bubbles and a style was born. That style has allowed Franciacorta to become the most serious of Italy’s sparkling wines.

The Berlucchi 61 is a blend of 90 percent Chardonnay with 10 percent Pinot Noir, and the wine balances fresh autumn fruits like pear and apple with a seriously rich texture and notes of toasted bread. It’s a style that the region’s wines have come to be known for at a tremendously approachable price. $26;