For 50 years, Maurizio Zanella has gone for extremist causes.
The first time he flunked out of high school was at a posh Milan parochial school in 1969, when, Zanella remembers, “I joined the Communist revolution.”
After that, Zanella’s father, a successful European logistics entrepreneur, placed him in public school. “There, everybody was a Communist, so I became a fascist,” Zanella says, a broad, infectious smile stretching across his face. “I was playing war. I wasn’t a real Communist or fascist. It was just an excuse to not go to school.”
As Zanella flunked his second year, street violence between factions escalated. After a friend of Zanella’s died from injuries in one clash, Zanella’s father sent him off to Manchester, England, for months of physical labor on the docks. On his return, he was sent to live in the Lombardy countryside, on the modest family farm known as Ca’ del Bosco.
“My parents exiled me here in the middle of nowhere,” says Zanella, who lived with a caretaker and attended a local professional school.
Nearly a half-century later, Zanella, 64, is a leading figure in Italian wine—a pillar among producers of the metodo classico sparkling wines of Franciacorta, an appellation revered in Italy as the country’s little Champagne, but which exports little, partly due to its Champagne prices. (Learn more about the Franciacorta DOCG.)
Zanella has grown Ca’ del Bosco from a few acres under vine into an acclaimed, organically farmed, 600-acre estate producing about 150,000 cases of still and sparkling wines annually. It's best known for its high-end Franciacorta DOCG bottlings made from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.
And he’s done it by sticking to extremes.
“I am Taliban when it comes to quality,” says Zanella, sitting in his state-of-the-art winery featuring whimsically bold modern art sculptures inside and out. “There is no compromise.”
Zanella’s transformation from rebel to uncompromising bubbles impresario is a story of timing, luck and the help of wine greats on two continents.
It began on a 1972 bus trip of Lombardy growers to northern France.
“I went, not because I was interested in wine,” Zanella admits, “but to be able to go to Paris alone at 16.”
The tour’s first stop was Burgundy’s legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, where the group met then-winemaker André Noblet.
In the 1970s, Italy was at the height of its conversion to industrial viticulture, and the Lombardy winemakers were shocked by the rusticity of Burgundy, with the laborious hand work and low yields in the vineyards and the small barrels stacked for aging in moldy cellars.
“The Italians were saying, ‘Look, these people are stupid—they work like my grandfather!’” Zanella recalls.
When Zanella spent his week’s pocket money on three DRC wines as a souvenir, the other producers mocked him. “They said, ‘You are stupid to spend this money. For that price, I can sell you 300 bottles of my wine!” Zanella says with a laugh. “I immediately understood who was right and who was wrong and who was stupid.”
Dazzled by the culture of excellence (and the high prices) he saw in Burgundy and Champagne, Zanella’s interest was piqued. He dreamed of transporting a piece of France to Ca’ del Bosco, where he helped make a few hundred cases of still white wine under the farmhouse portico.
“I told my father we needed to build a cellar, and my father said, ‘Build it then,” Zanella recounts. His father secretly guaranteed construction loans taken out by Maurizio and his mother.
When his first underground cellar was completed, Zanella made Franciacorta sparklers, but was unhappy with the results. On a subsequent trip to France, he recruited Moët & Chandon cellar veteran André Dubois to advise him and to soon thereafter take the post of winemaker.
“André completely changed the culture of the farm with a respect of the grapes and hygiene,” Zanella says.
About this time, Zanella caught a break when he met influential journalist Luigi Veronelli, a towering figure in Italian wine. “Veronelli was a philosopher for quality,” Zanella says. “He became my teacher.”
Veronelli adopted Zanella as a protégé, using him as a driver on wine and gastronomic trips from Piedmont to France to Napa, where he met leaders of the world’s modern wine and culinary scenes.
As a result of his connections, in the early 1980s, Piedmont winemaker Giacomo Bologna helped Zanella make his first Cabernet-Merlot red blends. Then, Napa legend André Tchelistcheff came to Ca’ del Bosco to establish a barrel-fermented Chardonnay.
In the mid-1980s, Zanella says, Ca’ del Bosco’s technology-meets-tradition identity began with the hiring of winemaker Brian Larky from Napa’s Far Niente to make still wines.
“At that time, we had one young American [Larky] and one old Frenchman [Dubois], and they fought night and day,” Zanella says. “But it was those two opposites that made Ca’ del Bosco so successful.”
Zanella then hired Italian enologist Stefano Capelli, who “was able to take the best from the both of them” and has overseen the winery for the past 30 years.
At the time, Zanella was one of the youngest producers in Italy’s wine renaissance. In 1994, seeking a deep-pocketed partner, he sold a majority stake to the Marzotto family of Santa Margherita fame.
While Zanella remains president, the partnership has allowed him to take on big pet projects like planting vineyards at the highest altitudes in Franciacorta. He also invested in a new, larger winery with capacity for plot-by-plot vinifications, elevators that raise steel tanks up one story to so that the wine must can be moved gently by gravity instead of by pumps, and an impurity-removing grape washing-and-drying system that Zanella calls his “berry spa.”
Ca’ del Bosco produces five still reds, two whites and eight sparkling wines—topped by the Annamaria Clementi Brut Franciacorta Riserva (named after his mother) and the Extra Brut Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige, a multi-vintage blend from more than 130 separately vinified parcels.
With its Mediterranean climate, Franciacorta’s wines are naturally riper than Champagne, so they often require a lower dosage—the addition of a small amount of sweetened wine to balance their acidity—at finishing. Although such low- or no-dosage wines are now trendy, 80 percent of Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta is sold domestically, with exports hampered because “people outside Italy cannot accept that a sparkling wine costs the same as Champagne.”
The comparison to Champagne is a natural one. Yet Zanella admits that Franciacorta, established as a DOC in 1967, is still a generation away from reaching its potential.
“The vineyards, tradition and cultures are still too young,” he says. “To get close to the potential, you need to replant vineyards at least three times. If you don’t have 100 years behind you, you will never have the magic.”