Though perhaps best known for its funky cheesesTaleggio, Gorgonzola and robiolaLombardy is also gaining a reputation as one of Italy's most dynamic wine zones. Noteworthy wines are being grown by newcomers and established estates in virtually every part of this geographically diverse region. These are the three most important areas to watch.
FRANCIACORTA Chief among Lombardy's wine zones is Franciacorta, Italy's answer to Champagne. Though perhaps not yet on the same level, Franciacorta is Italy's only serious sparkling-wine appellation, the most important producer of méthode champenoise wines. Well-established estates such as Ca' del Bosco (whose Annamaria Clementi is a Chardonnay-driven powerhouse) and Bellavista are being joined by a number of new wineries. Tuscan nobleman Piero Antinori and his daughters Alessia, Allegra and Albiera released the first wines from their new Montenisa estate this past November. Champagne partisans may still demur, but Montenisa's all-Chardonnay Brut Satèn ($42) is far from ordinary spumante.
OLTREPÒ PAVESE Although Oltrepò Pavese (a little wedge of land in the Apennine hills south of Milan) still competes with Soave for the dubious distinction of being Italy's most productive wine region, there are some serious wines now being made there as well. These include the Giorgio Odero Pinot Noir from Frecciarossa ($27) and Bonarda-based reds from producers like Bruno Verdi and Vercesi del Castellazzo. (Bonarda is a local grape with a spicy Zin-like intensity.)
VALTELLINA This secluded Alpine growing area on the Italian-Swiss border is where the Nebbiolo grape of Barolo and Barbaresco fame takes on a mountain-cooled, almost leathery edge. For a truly unusual wine, try the sforzato (also labeled sfurzat and sfursat) versions of Nebbiolo. Made from grapes that are dried before fermentation, sforzato is Nebbiolo in a softer, sexier style, with an inimitable mixture of savory and sweet flavors. Nino Negri is the only producer with a big American presence, but others worth looking for include Conti Sertoli Salis, Triacca, Rainoldi and Sandro Fay.