By Christopher Matthews
For wine lovers, Italy’s incredible regional diversity and myriad grape varieties – many of them indigenous, and some produced only in certain Italian locales – are the gifts that keep on giving. But that’s what also makes Italian wine difficult sometimes for American consumers to grasp, and explains, in part, the US love affair with Italian Pinot Grigio – it’s easy (in more ways than one)! Given this dichotomy, it’s important to highlight quality Italian wines that are less well-known on these shores, offering character and value.
Clearly one such precinct: Lugana, a northern Italian Denominazione (DOC) tucked in between the provinces of Brescia and Verona, on the south shore of Lake Garda. Based on mainly dry white wines produced from the Turbiana grape, the region’s wines showed extremely well at a recent Lugana event in Manhattan at La Pizza Fresca, hosted by the Lugana Consortium. These wines are worth knowing.
As a group, the Lugana wines exhibited medium to full body, vibrant acidity, a pronounced mineral/saline character, and pretty citrus, orchard and (in a few cases) tropical fruit notes. Full of energy and minerality, they remind me of higher end Loire Valley whites (like Sancerre and Savennières), and make excellent food companions, at extremely reasonable prices (around $18 a bottle in our sample).
Lugana’s secret sauce? A number of key elements, adding up to great terroir.
First, a fairly large and flat area along the hinterlands of the Lake Garda has firm clay and calcareous soils, which imparts mineral qualities into the wines.
A second, hillier zone, composed in part by morainic gravel — deposited by the glaciers that cut Lake Garda — yields more full-bodied and fruit-driven wines.
In terms of microclimate, the lake generates temperate breezes and keeps things moderate and largely constant temperature-wise during the growing season, which perfectly suits the predominate grape of Lugana, Turbiana.
Turbiana is closely related to Trebbiano di Soave, which is grown in close proximity to Lugana, but the two relatives make for very different vinous expressions. The less high-yielding Turbiana excels in the Lugana clays and gravels, but it hasn’t shown the same quality and character elsewhere. Likewise, Trebbiano thrives in Soave’s volcanic soils, but it hasn’t performed as well in the Lugana region. Apparently, the Turbiana “clone” is tailor-made for Lugana, and versatile as well, be it in classic still versions, or as a sparkling wine or even a late-harvest dessert wine. The DOC regulations permit up to 10% of the wine to be another non-aromatic white (mostly Chardonnay in practice), but the lion’s share of Lugana wine is made exclusively from Turbiana.
At the Manhattan event at La Pizza Fresca, there wasn’t a wine on offer that I didn’t like. But, naturally, one always has favorites…
The Ottella Le Creete 2015 (100% Turbiana) brims with energy and verve, with a spine of minerality, notes of gun powder and citrus and great length. Truly exceptional, reminiscent of a top-shelf Pouilly Fumé (at half the price!).
Sporting a big, creamy nose of orchard and tropical fruit, the Montonale 2015 (100% Turbiana) is bright, clean and citrusy on the palate, with hints of stone fruit and a long, pretty finish.
Looking for a wine for oysters or seafood? The Cesari Cento Filari 2015 (95% Turbiana, 5% Chardonnay) is the ticket, bone dry with saline and lemon notes, orchard fruit and a clean mineral finish.
And the Ca Maiol 2015 has a focused orchard fruit nose, with gala apple, tangerine and stony elements in the palate. A highly versatile wine of balance and good structure, it shines at the table (fantastic with roasted sea bass!).
Lugana wines are well-known across Italy, and among those who have visited Lake Garda, but they deserve much more attention here. Fortunately, the Lugana Consortium, headed by Luca Formentini of Podere Selva Cappuza (another excellent Lugana winery), is on the case, having conducted this US tour.
Even in a highly competitive market like New York, Lugana strikes me as an easy sell, given the quality and value of the wines.