Lugana: The Heart of Italy's Lake District
A few years back, I worked with a crazy Italian during harvest at Gainey Vineyards in Santa Barbara. He had a shock of thick bushy brown hair, always wore bright blue or fire engine red Adidas, and ran the lab during harvest with the precision of a mob boss. Despite his position firmly at the head of the notorious Boy's Club of Gainey (alas, similar to most wineries) during harvest, he would find the compassion to invite me along for beers at the end of the day in between critiquing my forklifting skills. "Christina, you're such a wo-man, you can't lift 6 barrels at one time!"
Medieval Fortress in Lago di Garda, Italy
Needless to stay, once the juvenile antics of harvest were all put away on the shelf and collecting dust, Domenico and I stayed in touch. He once came out to visit me in Yountville, where I did my best to show off my regional tour guide skills. And when I learned that I would be spending a good amount of time over in France and Italy in 2011, I made sure to get in touch with Dom to see if he was still running the show at a prominent Prosecco estate in Valdobbiadene. When he wrote back that he had moved on to Ottella, and was producing Lugana in Northeast Italy's Lago di Garda region, my first thought was "They're making wine in the Lake District?!?". And my second was to book a train via Verona to this region of unexplored minerally and spicy floral white wine.
Ottella is one of several major estates producing DOC Lugana, which is grown on the picturesque southern slopes of the Lago di Garda, and one of the smallest DOC's in Italy. The region nearly straddles the Veneto and the Lombardy regions of Northern Italy, and is 24 kilometers west of Verona. To enter the region from the south, it is uncanny the similarities to another Alpine-influenced wine region, Friuli Veneto-Guilia, and the colorful villas and fisherman's homes that dot the shores of Garda only enhance the magical beauty of this most scenic region. Oh, and a few castles reign above the lake as well, hidden away in the rocky slopes.
Lago di Garda, Italy
The mild continental climate ensures frosty winters and hot summers, with a great swing in the pendulum of diurnal changes during the growing season. The soil is rich in calcerious clay and silt from ancient lake deposits. What does that mean for the hearty Trebbiano grape grown in this area? Retaining florals and tropical aromas while showing off in a cloak of acidity and minerality that screams for ripe cheeses and late summer bounty from the garden.
Late winter light in the vineyards of Lugana
According to Dom, the grapes in this area have to overcome much harsher conditions than their cousins gown in the fertile southern valleys of Tuscany, as witnessed during my visit at the end of January. Clear but freezing, the solid pack of clay earth seemed like it might never sprout life again. After accompanying Dom and his veterinarian girlfriend Mila to the local stables to exercise their stallion in a seemingly daily ritual (he also is a roper for the local rodeos), we headed to the Ottella winery, situated just on the outskirts of Peschiera del Garda, where I would be able to taste freshly racked Lugana from the recent 2011 vintage. Tightly wound with wonderful young aromas of key lime and zesty jasmine blossom, the acid zings through you like a sweet-tart, and even in the near-zero degree cellar, a bit of perspiration beads up on your upper lip and under your eyelids due to the acid. Bound to rest for another vintage, I could see then the structure and finesse that the DOC Lugana possesses.
Baby Ottella Lugana DOC, fresh from racking (and in a freezing cold cellar!)
Dom then graciously handed me off to another winemaker friend and rodeo roper in the region, Nunzio Ghiraldi, whose tough cowboy exterior matched the American muscle of his Dodge Ram Extended Cab 4X4. However, beyond the stone walls of Nunzio's family estate or tenuta, which was situated a few kilometers to the west of Ottella and just peeking over at the Lombardy border, Nunzio's true internal spirit was revealed to me. Upon meeting me, Nunzio's excitement was palpable, as he took me by the hand, led me through the corridors of the tenuta, past the looming Dodge parked in the creamy stuccoed carport, to the edge of the first vineyard on the property, where we kneeled down together in the dirt, grabbing handfuls of it, rubbing it together between our fingers and letting the rich clay and calcareous granules release their iron-rich aromas. "This is what matters. This and only this." Where Dom was the bright university whiz kid who had traveled the world and could out-calibrate you in the lab at every turn, Nunzio couldn't wait to get out into the dirt where the family legacy thrives today. Only 800 meters from the shores of Lago di Garda, Azienda Agricola Nunzio Ghiraldi has been run by the family sine 1750, and upon exploration of the original farmhouse, or podere, a few kilometers south of the tenuta, I could feel the pride Nunzio has for his family's history by the passionate way he pointed out every important wooden beam, fireplace, stone mantle, and iron latch in the place.
The beautiful podere of the familia Ghiraldi, c. 1750
Like with all producers in DOC Lugana, Nunzio's focus is with the white grape Trebbiano. You could stop quite pleasantly at their "Il Gruccione" DOC Lugana and "Il Gruccione" DOC Lugana Superiore, which will take your breath away. However, he produces an astounding Vendemmia Tardiva from the Trebbiano grape, and the Ghiraldi family also owns 54 hectares down in Toscana, which they truck up to Lugana for production on the estate, thus giving their line a very wild, very vibrant Sassirto Toscana (which was paired marvelously that evening with housemade culaccia di zibillo, a glorious cured salami from Parma). The "Il Gruccione" DOC Lugana Superiore stopped me cold though, with the mineral and clay ridden soils we had just tasted out in the vineyard racing through from beginning to end to form the spine of the wine, the nose all honeyed exotic spice, and and the palate fleshed out with wonderful zesty green apple, white peach and pineapple, softened on the finish with elements of Chantilly cream, blooming white florals and a languid, glamourous finish.
Il Gruccione DOC Lugana Superiore & Il Gruccione DOC Lugana, tasted at Azienda Agricola Nunzio Ghiraldi
Something with a languid, glamourous finish is just the sort of thing you'd like to be drinking on your terrace overlooking the Lago di Garda, admiring how just before the sun dips beyond the peaks of the Italian Alps, it scatters scores of glittering jewels across the dark rippling surface all for you.
Lago di Garda, Sunset