Kingsley Amis used to think the most depressing words one could hear in a restaurant were: "Shall we go straight in?" In other words, shall we not have a few quick ones at the bar first? For me, there's nothing that sinks the heart quite like: "How about a glass of prosecco to start with?"
I truly am no wine snob, and would be happy with the cheapest house champagne as an aperitif, or no aperitif at all. However, the question strikes an instant note of stinginess, like rationing the butter-pats. And the name of that ubiquitous Italian sparkling wine is so very off-putting; it could be a Latin form of "prosecute", "prostitute" or "prostate".
I feel the same unfestiveness at parties or receptions, watching the servers go round with foil-necked bottles carefully angled to keep their labels hidden. At such moments, I silently quote the immortal Horace Rumpole whenever such bargain-basement beverages were offered to him: "Aha, metodo Italiano! Wait for the headache!"
Prosecco and Asti spumante – which I'm just as anti – have always seemed to me a rare blind spot in Italy's glorious gastronomy (along with its dearth of good desserts). But no more. The sparkling white and rosé wines of Lombardy's Franciacorta region offer the most serious challenge to champagne I've ever encountered. And Rumpole, old darling, take my word: with this one, there's no headache.
Franciacorta lies about an hour's drive north of Milan, a small pocket of rose-bowered vineyards in alpine foothills between the Po Valley and Lake Iseo. Its name – loosely translated as "free place" – is said to derive from the Benedictine monks who once ran the whole area and received tax exemptions from the Venetian Republic for helping to feed, educate and discipline the populace. Emperor Charlemagne unwittingly prophesied its future by nicknaming it "Little France".
For centuries, Franciacorta was merely a retreat for wealthy Milanese, a Lombardian stockbroker belt, and the only wine produced there was red, although that had been appreciated by connoisseurs as far back as Pliny the Elder. Not until the 1960s was it realised that the volcanic soil and microclimate perfectly suited white grapes superior and sensitive enough for the sacred methode traditionelle of France's champagne-makers.
The Franciacorta process is a far cry indeed from the industrialised metodo Italiano. The grapes are harvested by hand, pressed like green velvet and fermented underground in wooden casks specially imported from France. As with champagne, a secondary fermentation then takes place inside the bottle, for between two and seven years.
A destination only for wine buffs then – or those seeking a little one-upmanship at their dinner parties? Franciacorta produces a mere 15 million bottles per year, compared with the Champagne region's 300 million and prosecco's 350 million. Franciacorta wines are still a comparative rarity outside Italy, although it is served in chic London restaurants such as Knightsbridge's Bar Boulud (the rosé version in spectacular magnums) and new overseas markets are constantly opening up. As proof of its ambition, Franciacorta is a "protected" name like champagne and only one other sparkling wine, Spanish cava.
However, there are more reasons to come here than just a crash course in viticulture. Franciacorta is both charming in itself and a perfect jumping-off point for Venice, Verona and Mantua (just in case you feel like recreating that song from Kiss Me Kate, "We open inVenice/We next play Verona ...").
Down the road is Brescia, with its Roman temple built by Emperor Vespasian. A short car- or bus-ride away are Lake Iseo, the most under-appreciated of the Italian Lakes, and the Camonica Valley with its 8,000-year-old rock carvings. You can even enjoy a day's skiing in the Dolomites and return in time for an après-ski glass of Franciacorta.
For my brief stay, I based myself at L'Albereta, an ivy-clad mansion standing alone in an expanse of vineyards that an English guest describes as "the most shop-less place" she's ever seen. On one hand, L'Albereta is a serious health farm and spa, where overfed Milanese industrialists flip-flop around in skimpy robes and international soccer stars go for their pre-season detox. On the other, it provides five-star luxury with its marble staircases, chandeliers, sumptuously pastoral rooms (mine had trompe l'oeil palms painted on the walls) and a restaurant personally supervised by Gualtiero Marchese, the first Italian chef to win three Michelin stars.
L'Albereta – like much else around here – is owned by Vittorio Moretti, the Milanese building magnate who created the Franciacorta wine region almost single-handedly during the 1970s. Moretti's Bellavista range comprises its best-known products; he also came up with the overall brand-name Franciacorta, then magnanimously allowed the 100-odd other vineyards in the area to share it.
All guests at his hotel are offered tours of the Bellavista winery, established in a former brickworks. As my guide, I'm fortunate to have the enologo, or master wine-maker, Matteo Vezzolo – a tall, wry, grey-haired man from Lake Garda whose motto is a quotation from the philosopher Schopenhauer: "The best things in life are those that mature slowly."
He explains how the grapes are harvested by hand, then gently pressed from side to side, rather than the brusque top-to-bottom squash of industrial production. He and Signor Moretti choose base wines from different grapes – pinot noir, pinot blanc or chardonnay – which are mixed with sugar and yeast for primary fermentation in their seasoned French timber casks. He pops the bung from a cask so that I can hear the hiss of yeast turning sugar into alcohol; for the enologo, every hiss has a different sound, like the cries of babies.
The wine is then bottled for its secondary fermentation in a warren of brick tunnels a kilometre long. The bubbles – known as perlage – do not form inside the bottle, but materialise only when the wine is poured, expanding as they race towards the surface. The tinier and faster the perlage, the better the wine. Each bottle of Bellavista, says Vezzolo, releases 13 million bubbles; one feels he's counted them personally.
On my travels I always pretend to be a vegetarian, though I'm not a 100 per cent one. It saves the bother of explaining my infantile food-prejudices: no meat except chicken breast and minced beef; no fish because I don't like the word "fish"; no shellfish except scallops because I like the word "scallops". It also prevents my being offered special local delicacies such as sheeps' eyes, as I once was in Jordan, or bull's penis, as I was at an "aphrodisiac restaurant" in Manila.
Italian cuisine shows my weirdness at its height: I'll happily eat prosciutto, salami, lasagne, beef ragù and spaghetti carbonara while avoiding the serious meats of the secondi piatti. And in this part of the country, as Masterchef's Greg Wallace might say, meat doesn't get more serious.
At a delightful restaurant named La Mongolfiera dei Sodi in Erbusco, I get roasted aubergine while my table companions are served bistecca alla Fiorentina, a Tuscan speciality consisting of roughly half a bullock per person. One of them asks the maître d' for a small portion and receives a look PG Wodehouse would describe as "not exactly gruntled". All manage to put away about a quarter of a bullock, however, and my neighbour, the restaurant critic Fay Maschler, calls it the best beef she's ever eaten.
Our visit ends with dinner at Gualtero Marchese's Michelin-starred restaurant at L'Albereta where, for once, my vegetarian option does not estrange me from my companions. I have the same salad of scallops, ginger and red pepper and the same risotto with a gold-leaf centre, only minus its usual bone marrow.
Marchese's other restaurant is at La Scala, Milan, and he gives this one its own touch of grand opera. On the wall beside our table is a screen on which one might expect images from the menu to be projected. After the first course, this is slowly raised to reveal the kitchen and five black-capped chefs, all as frantically active as bubbles in a bottle of Bellavista.
The 83-year-old Marchese pays us several visits to receive our adulation; unfortunately, he speaks almost no English so, once we've run out of superlatives, conversation becomes rather halting. At one point, he gives me a penetrating look that I interpret as chef's hostility to vegetarians. But no: it seems I remind him of a French rival, the creator of Nouvelle Cuisine, Paul Bocuse. What can one say to that but Merci Bocuse?
Philip Norman travelled as a guest of Kirker Holidays, which offers three nights' B&B at L'Albereta from £679pp. The package includes British Airways flights to Verona or Milan, transfers, a wine-tasting session and a one-day pass to the spa (020-7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com).
Flights from the UK to Milan are operated by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and Alitalia (0871 424 1424; alitalia.com). Verona is also an option, with flights on Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com), British Airways, easyJet and FlyBe.
L'Albereta, Lake Iseo, Brescia (00 39 030 776 0550; albereta.it). Doubles from €260, with breakfast.