Maurizio Zanella likes driving his Alfa Romeo, but he loves making wine. Wine editor Lettie Teague is wowed by his acclaimed Ca' del Bosco bottlings.

By Lettie Teague
Updated March 31, 2015

If the biggest cliché in sportswriting is the up-from- nowhere football, baseball or basketball star, the most predictable tale among wine writers is a trip with an Italian winemaker in a too-fast automobile. I feel like I've read at least a dozen such stories—of journalists panicking in the passenger seat as some speed-mad producer takes them for a spin on the autostrada. Maurizio Zanella had apparently read a few of these too. "Don't worry, I'll drive slowly," were his first words to me as he opened the passenger door of his Alfa Romeo. Zanella, the owner of the winery Ca' del Bosco in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy, and I were on our way to dinner at Da Vittorio in Bergamo, a city that is some 30 miles north of Milan. Via the autostrada, of course. As we pulled onto the ramp, Zanella offered me this observation: "I pay more attention when I drive fast; if I go under 220 kilometers an hour, my mind tends to wander."

I'd traveled to Italy to meet with Zanella soon after Ca' del Bosco had been named the 2002 Winery of the Year by Italy's leading wine magazine, Gambero Rosso. Although I'd tasted Zanella's sparkling wines before and had been impressed, I was less familiar with Ca' del Bosco's still wines, which had received several awards from Gambero Rosso, too. "Has anything changed since you were named Winery of the Year?" I asked Zanella as we headed toward Bergamo. (True to his word, Zanella zigzagged repeatedly, unable to find a lane that could hold his interest for long.) Zanella turned to face me, taking both hands off the wheel to illustrate his response: "My friends make fun of me. They say 'You're everywhere! On the cover of magazines, on television. Yesterday there was an hour of Ca' del Bosco on the Gambero Rosso television show. It's too much!'" Zanella gestured again even more fervently. I decided to save the rest of my questions until we were seated at the restaurant.

"Too much" seems like a pretty fair characterization of the Maurizio Zanella style. There is Zanella himself, a generously proportioned, good-humored man in his mid-forties; then there are his wines, some of the most lavishly packaged and highest priced bottles in Italy, and his extravagant plans for the future, which call for a new winery building that will cover five acres of land and feature a five-story tower. The winery is currently under construction, as are parts of Zanella's two homes, in Italy and France. ("The contractor told me it would be best to do everything at once," Zanella explained.) He also plans to open a restaurant, one he expects will be a one- or two-Michelin-star establishment; he has already had discussions with a few famous chefs. But it wouldn't be a three-star place, because, Zanella says: "It is too much. You can enjoy the food, but you can't enjoy yourself."

"Too much" turned out to be an accurate description of dinner at Da Vittorio, where the proprietor, the chef, the chef's wife, the sommelier and even a couple of diners came over to embrace Zanella. The meal began with three white-truffle courses followed by a few fish dishes and concluded with a four-part dessert series that included a chocolate service that looked like 10 Whitman Samplers spread out on a silver tray and candies that came in an assortment of little glass jars. "My daughter Maria once put an entire jar of candy into her purse," Zanella said. He pretended to be shocked, but I thought I detected a note of paternal pride.

If any wine region needs a larger-than-life spokesman like Zanella, it's Franciacorta. Although Franciacorta is the premier sparkling wine region of Italy, in effect the country's Champagne district, it suffers from several disadvantages. First of all, it's quite small—covering less than 4,500 acres (or about one-seventeenth the size of Champagne) and currently produces just over half a million cases of wine (compared to over 20 million in Champagne). Compounding the problem is the fact that even Italians seem to have trouble differentiating Franciacorta's serious Champagne-method sparkling wines from inexpensive spumante-like Proseccos. And on special occasions they still favor Champagne over both. "When Italians want to impress someone, they always give Champagne," said Zanella throwing up his hands in mock despair. "Only true connoisseurs understand the kind of serious wines we're making in Franciacorta."

There is also the problem of Franciacorta's location, about an hour northeast of Milan. Although this might seem an advantage, as far as tourists are concerned, it is not. According to Zanella, not many Milanese make the pilgrimage—most tourists who come are German or Japanese. While Zanella blamed this on Franciacorta's lack of great restaurants and hotels, I thought it might have something to do with its resemblance to New Jersey—its landscape of shopping malls, asphalt plants and amusement parks. (I wondered if its water slides covered more ground than its vineyards.)

When Zanella's family bought Ca' del Bosco nearly 40 years ago, Franciacorta was almost entirely farmland. The family was living in Milan, and his father worked in the shipping business. Zanella's mother wanted a weekend retreat (Ca' del Bosco means House in the Woods) where they could grow vegetables and raise livestock. It was an unfashionable thing to do at the time, said Zanella, and incited no small amount of mockery among his parents' friends—until they had a taste of the Zanellas' fresh chicken or produce, or prosciutto made from their pigs.

There were also a couple of acres of vines on the property so the Zanellas hired an old farmer to look after them. A few years later, Zanella's father asked the old farmer to look after young Maurizio, too; apparently school in Milan didn't suit him. ("I was a Communist one year, when everyone else was a Fascist. The next year, when everyone was a Communist, I became a Fascist.") Installed in the countryside, Zanella took up racing motorcycles, and on a whim, signed himself up for a bus trip sponsored by Lombardy's Department of Agriculture, which offered Franciacorta's winegrowers the opportunity to visit some of the greatest vineyards of France.

"We qualified because we had those two acres of grapes, but I wasn't interested in winemaking. I was only 17 years old—I just wanted to get out of school. And besides, the last two days of the trip were in Paris," said Zanella. Paris, however, became but a footnote, following a stop in Burgundy at the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC). "The growers on the bus were all old men who made fun of the way that DRC aged their wines in old oak barrels and grew their vines so close together," Zanella recalled. Zanella, on the other hand, was so impressed by what he tasted that he spent all the money he'd earmarked for Paris on three bottles of DRC wines. The Franciacorta producers were horrified. "They told me how many bottles of theirs I could have bought—200, 250—for the same price," laughed Zanella. The following year, at the age of 18, armed with a bank loan co-signed by his mother, Zanella opened his winery.

I had my first glimpse of Ca' del Bosco the morning following my dinner with Zanella at Da Vittorio. The winery is its own small, quiet world—a rustic fold of hills where the vineyards are painstakingly tended by hand. The old house where the young Maurizio lived with the old farmer is still standing, visible over a short rise of land. The old farmer's son now works for Zanella. Looking at the tranquil estate, it was easy to see what had attracted Zanella's mother to the property so many years ago.

The best sparkling wine of Ca' del Bosco, Cuvée Annamaria Clementi, is named after Zanella's mother. A consistent winner of Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri, or the "three glasses" award, the wine receives the same treatment as a great Champagne; it's aged a full six years on its lees before being disgorged. (Zanella's first winemaker came from Dom Pérignon.) When we finally sat down to taste, the first two bottles arrived in brown paper bags so we could taste them blind. "See what you think,"said Zanella.

One turned out to be the Cuvée Annamaria. The other, Dom Pérignon. Both were from the 1995 vintage. While the Dom had an aromatic edge, the Annamaria showed an equal depth of flavor, an incredible purity of fruit and an equally long and compelling finish. (It also happens to be priced the same as Dom Pérignon: about $120 a bottle.) The only criticism I had of the wine was that it was practically impossible to open. Its closure was a metal clamp instead of the wire cage that traditionally encases a Champagne cork. (At home, I'd had to use a pair of pliers to remove it.)

We tasted through the rest of Ca' del Bosco's sparkling wines. The nonvintage brut was a dead ringer for a fresh, fruity nonvintage Champagne (priced about the same, around $32 a bottle), while the rosé was a bit on the sweet side; the off-dry Satèn (the name Franciacorta growers give Crémant wines) had the lively fruit flavors and creamy finish that marked it as a first-rate food wine.

The still wines that followed were the real surprise. French Champagne makers don't make very good still wines. The qualities that contribute to a top sparkling wine (like high acidity) aren't very attractive in a still wine. But the character and concentration of Zanella's, particularly his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, were nothing short of remarkable. The barrel-aged Ca' del Bosco Chardonnay ($75) tasted like a cross between California and France—all the richness and flavor of the former balanced by the pure mineral character of a top Burgundy. The Pinot Noir, or Pinero ($94), was no less than a revelation. According to Zanella, he has made only three great Pinot Noirs in 30 years, and the 2000 is one of them. This gorgeously aromatic, tremendously rich and concentrated wine was without question the best Pinot I've ever tasted from Italy and impressive regardless of provenance.

Despite all these achievements, it's clear Zanella believes he has much to do—not only with the wines of Ca' del Bosco but with all Franciacorta. As he says, "Champagne took three hundred years to be known. I hope that Franciacorta will take only fifty." After two days in his company, I came away convinced that from Zanella, it wasn't too much to ask.

It wasn't too much at all.