Why you should care
Because horses and tons of fizzy wine.
Forget picnics, bike rides and yoga sessions amid grapevines. The latest fad in Italy is to tour vineyards and drink as much as you can … on horseback. It’s called cavalca e bevi — meaning “ride and drink” — and is probably as ill-advised and careless (and fun) as it sounds: Get on a horse for some trotting and galloping and make pit stops at wineries in beautiful surroundings. Think of it as an opportunity to balance your alcohol tolerance with, well, balance.
The best place to start is Franciacorta, a heavenly patch of fertile land near Milan where mineral-rich vineyards spring from the remains of glaciers and people have a knack for making great sparkling wine. Here, newborns are weaned on Franciacorta’s bubbles, and young children learn to dip their pinkie in a flute before they’re even able to slurp up spaghetti. The word “teetotal” here is banned.
In the Middle Ages, Franciacorta was an off-shore paradise where monks, who enjoyed privileges and tax exemptions in return for keeping the roads clean and draining stinky marshes, started the flourishing wine business. Franciacorta is a sparkling wine that gives Champagne a run for its money, probably because it’s made with a higher concentration of handpicked grapes and yeast aging takes longer — from 18 months to five years for top riserva bottles, says Fabio Lantieri de Paratico, a co-founder of the Franciacorta consortium that unites 116 winemakers of the region.
If you’re neither a heavy drinker nor a skilled equestrian, you might encounter some challenges.
De Paratico’s winery is my first stop. Fabio is an elegant, charming man with sparkling blue eyes and curly blond hair. As I sip a glass of brut, the driest of bubbles, he spins tales of when his ancestors hosted Dante Alighieri during his exile and how the great poet’s circles of purgatory was inspired by Lantieri’s nine terraced vineyards. Naturally, I’m spellbound. Next comes a glass of Franciacorta rosé and soon Ramon, my horseback-ride guide, shouts that we must move on to the next destination.
A few warnings if you plan to drink and gallop: If you’re neither a heavy drinker nor a skilled equestrian, you might encounter some challenges. Namely: dizziness (from drink) and sore buttocks and thighs and shaky knees (from riding). It takes ages to pull yourself on the horse, and the more you drink, the harder it is to remain on the saddle. Did I mention the biting cold and potential danger of riding through thick fog with a chance of hunters in the area? Well, depending upon how many bubbles you’ve consumed, the less likely you are to care. The cost with Scuderia Crazy Horse tours is about $21 per hour, roughly $75 for two to three wine tastings and lunch.
After a journey across streams, mud and bumpy hills, I reach Monte Rossa winery. Luckily, owner Emanuele Rabotti lets me switch from horse to golf cart to tour his lavish estate. There’s a 1700s frescoed villa with ancient furniture, stone chimneys and decorated roofs. With a wicked smile, Rabotti pops open a fine bottle of Franciacorta Satèn, which is less bubbly and very suitable for delicate palates — it’s like enveloping your throat with a silk scarf. After two glassfuls, I’m treated to a brut millesimato, an exquisite vintage that requires at least 30 months of aging. By the time I say ciao and grazie to Rabotti, I can hardly walk. My horse, named Pongo, eyes me suspiciously.
I give up on riding and call a driver, and am soon relaxing in a spa pool of glacier rock back at my hotel, the Cappuccini Resort, a former monastery. A final massage — using Franciacorta grapes, of course — and I’m ready for dinner … with wine, of course. That’s the Franciacorta experience.