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It takes at least a hundred years to establish a great wine region, says Maurizio Zanella, founder of Ca’ del Bosco in Lombardy’s Franciacorta DOCG. “You need the opportunity to change your vines at least three times, because only then will you understand what mistakes you made earlier.” The estate, which is now more than 50 years old, has 248 hectares, and produces 1.8 million bottles, is halfway there, as is the region, established in 1968.
Given the estate’s track record of growth, one might expect to hear of a singular vision propelling it forward. But in the case of Ca’ del Bosco, the story is almost the opposite: Over the course of five decades, Zanella has brought in an impressive series of winemakers, their multiple talents overlapping to generate the estate’s progressive history.
Today, Stefano Capelli heads that lineage. He joined the team in 1986, when Ca’ del Bosco was just 35 hectares and making a tenth of its current production. Capelli, who had just graduated from Italy’s oldest winemaking, discovered the winery through a cousin who worked in a restaurant, and he was determined to make wine there. “I studied specifically to come to Ca’ del Bosco,” he says.
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Zanella’s propensity to align himself with great winemakers began even before Ca’ del Bosco existed. Lombardian wine philosopher Luigi Veronelli took a teenage Zanella under his wing, encouraged his natural boldness, and introduced him to the wine world’s greats. “A connection through the front door,” Zanella says of visits to Lafite Rothschild to meet Eric de Rothschild, to Champagne Krug to meet Remi Krug, and to Napa Valley to meet Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff.
“Traveling the world, I understood that in the world of bubbles, there was no one region dedicated to quality—only alternatives in price,” says Zanella.
Making a French Connection
In 1971, when Zanella took his first steps toward production, on oak-wooded land his mother, Annamaria Clementi, had purchased four years earlier, he was unapologetically guided by France. Zanella built his first cellar 30 feet below ground; and, to manage yields, planted his vines with a higher density—one meter by one meter—then was customary in Italy, then refined the vines’ output with a French-inspired green harvest.
Ca’ del Bosco’s first harvest of traditional Champagne grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) to make sparkling wine came in 1976 and yielded a Franciacorta Pinot Brut and Dosage Zéro, as well as a Ca’ del Bosco Rosé.
A few years later, in 1979, by way of a newspaper ad placed by Zanella, the winery’s most important French connection arrived: André Dubois of Moët & Chandon fame. Change came quickly. “We were putting harvested grapes into a large cargo bed, which was terrible for him. We had to change to small baskets, to doing everything by hand,” Zanella says.
Most importantly, Dubois confirmed the potential of Ca’ del Bosco’s terroir. He emphasized that timing was the key—harvesting not only for sugar ripeness but also the acidity to help flavors shine through Champagne’s traditional double-fermentation. “He became very proud of the wines,” remembers Zanella. “When he went home each year, he would take bottles for blind tasting.”
Tchelistcheff in the House
Non-sparkling wines soon became an equal focus at the winery. In 1981, Zanella traveled with Piemontese Barbera-champion Giacomo Bologna, which solidified his belief in the quality Franciacorta-grown French varieties could offer. The winery’s eponymous Maurizio Zanella Sebino Rosso IGT, one of Italy’s first Cabernet blends (and today a blend from three-decades-old Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc and Merlot vines) was born that year, when André Tchelistcheff arrived at Ca’ del Bosco to work with still wines. “Your red wines are better than your bubbles,” he mischievously told Zanella.
“His idea was to make still wine in a very different way from how we were making it,” says Zanella of Tchelistcheff. “He made what is probably Italy’s first barrel-fermented Chardonnay.” That wine eventually became a a DOC wine, Curtefranca, in 1995, when Franciacorta became a DOCG for sparkling wines only, and today Ca’ del Bosco’s Chardonnay Curtefranca Bianco DOC comes from 31-year-old vines, with a weekly battonage and an oxygen-free bottling process.
In 1985, when Tchelistcheff was offered an exclusive deal to work with a Tuscan estate, he took it, recommending as his successor a young American, Brian Larkey, a UC-Davis graduate and his former colleague at Napa’s Far Niente winery (who would eventually go on to establish the Dalla Terra WInery Direct, an import company specializing in Italian wines).
Larkey brought new ideas, including talk of bacteria and controlling malolactic fermentation. “[Dubois] was a cellarmaster, not an enologist. Not technical, a simple chef de cave,” says Zanella. “He hadn’t studied but he had worked underground in the cellar for 40 years. Through him, we caught up on a century of expertise we were missing here.” Larkey brought “the freshness and the enthusiasm of someone who wanted to go a completely different way. It was not a simple life together.”
Balance in the Modern Cellar
Over time, Stefano Capelli became a bridge between the two worldviews. Today, his skills and philosophy for making both sparkling and still wine are a particular mix of tradition and innovation. “Dubois taught me the magic of vinification understood as extracting wine from the bunch and raising it—élevage as the French say,” notes Capelli. Having learned Dubois’s method, Ca’ del Bosco needed to “bring it home—to have the strength, the capacity, the intelligence to imagine ourselves in our own territory, our own soils.” According to Capelli, there are palpable differences between the morainic hills where Ca’ del Bosco is located compared to Champagne. “We don’t have the same soils, we have lower levels of acidity, and fruit that ripens without problems.”
As they learned, they tweaked. With the 1989 harvest, Ca’ del Bosco’s most coveted wine, Cuvée Annamaria Clementi, was born. A vintage Franciacorta Riserva of free-run juice from Chardonnay and Pinots Bianco and Nero, it’s fermented in small used casks and aged at least eight years before disgorgement. In 2003, the Cuvée Annamaria Clementi Rosé version, 100 percent Pinot Nero, debuted. In 2017, it was restyled to omit dosage.
The vintage line was introduced in 1979, in both Brut and Zero Dosage styles (today, half of Ca’ del Bosco’s sparkling wines forgo dosage, and none contains more than 5 grams of sugar per liter). In 2007, the best-selling Cuvée Prestige (a multi-vintage Franciacorta with a larger percentage of Chardonnay) was released for the first time. All remain riddled by hand.
The production of still wines also continued. In 1983 the Ca’ del Bosco Pinéro (a barrique-aged 100 percent Pinot Nero) joined that Chardonnay. The first Ca’ del Bosco Carmenero, a 1997, was released in 2001. In 2005, Zanella built a new cellar, with presses positioned to pass juice along by gravity and “flying” lifts, which carry wine gently throughout the four stories.
Since 2008’s harvest, a “berry spa” has been removing the copper residue that, along with mold, dust, and insects, plagues organically grown grapes. “We think about the health of the person drinking our wines,” say Capelli. Washed, with spontaneous fermentation made possible by yeasts in the winery instead, Ca’ del Bosco’s musts remain unracked for up to seven months, before being blended. “I say we ferment pulp,” Capelli notes. “I extract everything that’s contained in the skins.”
While the Champenois understand classic sparkling winemaking is grounded in the second fermentation, the Ca’ del Bosco style seeks out foundational qualities in the first. “Champagne becomes great with refermentation. Before that it’s an almost undrinkable wine,” Capelli says. “But we’re not looking for fermenting aromas.” Instead, he says, primary aromas of fruit and tertiary ones of development let Ca’ del Bosco “create a style that is ours, a taste tied to our soils.”
Looking ahead, Capelli says it’s important for future Ca’ del Bosco winemakers to “prioritize sustainability and healthiness and to preserve these grapes’ citrus and floral expression, which is essential for maintaining finesse with aging.” Today, befitting the winery’s history of overlapping talent, the cellarmaster he works with is the son of the farmer who planted Ca’ del Bosco’s first vines.