Finding treasures on the shores of Lake Garda

Italy’s most celebrated wines are red: think Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico. While those can be undeniably great, I think some of Italy’s best vinous treasures are the lively, flavorful whites made from the country’s indigenous grapes.

I’ve written about Italian whites ranging from arneis and fiano to verdicchio and vermentino. Now here’s another: turbiana, the grape used in the whites of Lugana.

Lugana lies at the southern end of Lake Garda in northern Italy, astride the border between the regions of Lombardy and the Veneto. The lake moderates the area’s climate, keeping it warmer in winter and cooler in summer, as well as mitigating the frost danger in the spring. Lugana is a small appellation, only about 4,000 planted acres (with the potential to about double in size). In 2015, total production was about 1.2 million cases, according to Carlo Veronese, director of the organization representing Lugana’s growers and vintners.

Turbiana, which is sometimes called trebbiano di Lugana, is thought to be related to trebbiano di Soave and to verdicchio.

Most Lugana is made to be drunk young and fresh, but there are also versions that see some oak aging, some late-harvest bottlings and even some sparkling wines. Veronese describes the classic Lugana flavors as green apple, peach, bitter almond and some salinity. He adds that the wines can also have some tropical flavors, but those usually are the result of the yeast that was used for fermentation.

The wines can also be quite aromatic. For a long time, Veronese says, turbiana wasn’t thought to be an aromatic grape, but modern vinification methods preserve the grape’s aromas.

A view of Lugana's vineyards from the Le Morette winery. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)
A view of Lugana’s vineyards from the Le Morette winery. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Fresh Lugana whites offer so much drinking pleasure when they’re young that it wouldn’t necessarily occur to me to age them. But Veronese says many of them can age well for five to seven years. In the old days, he notes, they could age even longer, but they were too tart and austere when young. During my visit late last fall, I did taste a few older wines – wines with anywhere from four to 17 years of aging – that were quite good. They didn’t have quite the taut raciness of a younger wine, but they had picked up interesting secondary flavors of mature fruit and smoke.

Even though about three-quarters of Lugana’s production is exported – Veronese says the wines are better known in Germany, for example, than in Italy — the wines can be hard to find in the States. A number of the wines are available in only a handful of states.

Art from the cellars of Ca dei Frati. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)
Art from the cellars of Ca dei Frati. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

One winery with good distribution is Ca dei Frati – which, luckily, is also one of Lugana’s best and most important producers. The Dal Cero family acquired the estate in 1939; it now includes about 450 acres of vineyards in various parts of Lugana. The flagship wine is the 2014 I Frati ($16), a wine that displays pure white fruit, a lot of freshness and some salinity. (There’s a whiff of sulfur now, so the wine would benefit from decanting.) The 2015, which should be showing up soon, is also a lovely wine. There’s also a wine called Brolettino ($23), which spends some time in oak. I tasted the 2015 during my visit; although the oak is evident, the wine is by no means oaky. The 2014 vintage is currently in stores.

Brolettinolabel

Zenato is probably best known for Valpolicella and Amarone, but it’s also an important Lugana producer. The 2013 Zenato Lugana Riserva Sergio Zenato ($40) is fairly showy, with tropical fruit, a hint of butterscotch and some oak. Zenato also makes a “basic” Lugana called San Benedetto ($16), but I haven’t tasted it.

Le Morette is a smaller operation that’s also family-owned. The winery takes its name from a protected duck species that lives in the vineyard area. Although Le Morette, like many of the area’s wineries, produces other types of wine, Lugana “is our DNA,” says Fabio Zenato, a third-generation vintner.

The classic bottling is the 2015 Le Morette “Mandolara” ($20), which displays lively green apple and citrus with a hint of almond paste and some salinity. The 2015 Le Morette “Benedictus” ($26) is made from 40-plus-year-old vines and the grapes are harvested later than those for the Mandolara; the wine is rich and vibrant, with white stone fruit and dry honey notes.

Veronese poured a number of other Lugana wines for me during my visit. The wines that follow are available in the States, although they may be difficult to find in some areas.

The 2015 Ottella “Le Creete” ($22) is lean and racy and really needs to be paired with food. The 2015 Pratello “Catulliano” ($18) and 2015 Feliciana “Felugan” ($23) are both a little fleshier, while the 2014 Montonale “Montunal” ($22) adds a lot of minerality. The 2015 Cesari “Cento Filari” ($25) has some tropical overtones and a firm core of acidity. (It’s not available yet; the current vintage is 2014).

The 2013 Ca Lojera Lugana Superiore ($22) has a couple of years of age, but it’s still racy and fresh, with plenty of green and white fruit and some marked salinity. I tasted a 1999 riserva from this winery, and it was still remarkably fresh, though it has also picked up overtones of smoky, buttered toast.

 

 

 

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