Last week, I attended a wine tasting in Beverly Hills that was really more of a “coming out party” for a wine and region hoping to launch itself in a new market. Hosted by Ian Blackburn and his Learn About Wine crew, this was a showcase of the wines of Lugana, and it was an opportunity to explore the nuance and complexity of one particular grape.
These days, events that feature multiple wines made from one variety are common. Often, it’s a well-represented variety like Pinot Noir, or a regional tasting that is already famous as an international benchmark, like Burgundy. These things happen all the time, from the annual Bordeaux dog and pony show where hundreds of wineries trot out their newest releases, to the Zinfandel competition in Lodi to which I once participated as a judge. The focus of Ian Blackburn’s tasting event was quite different. This was an examination of one grape that has very little exposure, Turbiano, from one region that people seldom mention in wine circles, Lugana. In fact, before I went to the event, I thought that the only grape grown in Lugana was the Trebbiano grape, so on the surface, it seemed a little bit like going to Champagne and having a room full of people only discuss how fabulous the Pinot Meunier grape is and that it should be appreciated. That would never happen, and in fact, many Champagne producers deny there’s any Pinot Meunier at all in their blends.
Most people know Lugana as a tourist region, as it is on the shores of Lake Garda, Europe’s second largest lake, and only a few hours drive from Germany. Like many regions in Italy, the wine and food culture in Lugana goes back thousands of years as proven by archeologists who have found Vitis silvestris grape seeds in bronze age dwellings in Peschiera del Garda. Since Roman times, the Carpione del Garda freshwater fish was widely prized and the method of cooking and storing the fish (known as in carpione, this is done by cooking the fish in a mirepoix and vinegar mixture) was a pre-refrigeration age manner to protect food from spoilage during shipping. The climate is warm in Lugana, and this is the site of the most northerly planted olive groves in Italy. Sadly for the reputation of the wine, the pedigree and potential of the region may have been hampered by the misconception by many in the wine world that Lugana was simply another place in Italy where the near ubiquitous Trebbiano grape was grown (I’ve read in many sources that contend that Trebbiano is as much of a third of all Italian white wine). Many Italians think that Trebbiano is only good when it’s transformed into Balsamic Vinegar, and in France, where Trebbiano is known as as Ugni Blanc, it generally the tops of the lists of most planted grape varieties. The French use it for ordinary, plain table wine or it is distilled into Cognac and Armagnac. In other parts of Europe, it’s generally blended with more characterful wines, or it is turned into some sort of industrial alcohol. Even now, a Wikipedia search of Turbiano re-routes to the Trebbiano entry, claiming that it is simply another name for Trebbiano.
At the tasting, I spent quite a bit of time speaking with Carlo Veronese, the director of the Lugana DOC consortium. Understandably proud of his region and wine, he told me that Turbiano is genetically related to Trebbiano, but that it is a different grape. The way he described it is “the grapes are like two brothers, both athletic, but one of whom is svelte and wiry like a swimmer, and the other is broad and thick like a rugby player.” Mr Veronese said that the University of Milan has identified that Turbiano may indeed be the same genetically as Verdicchio di Marche, but that the soil and climate bring out profoundly different aromatics in the two varieties (interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry on Verdicchio lists Turbiano and Trebbiano di Lugana as synonyms for Verdicchio…all very confusing!). The growing region in the Lugano DOC is quite low, extending up the hills from the lake only about 60 meters, and the vine can easily send shoots down four to five meters deep. The soils of the zone are morainic, sedimentary clay, that is high in minerals and compact and hard when the conditions are dry, and stay heavy and muddy when wet.
Another great advocate for Lugana at this event was Luca Formentini, the president of the consortium. Mr Formentini spoke of the strong investment in the region, the area’s producers dedication to quality and sustainable vineyard practices, and the strength of the wine from both a historic and future potential standpoint. The strong north and south breezes over Lake Garda that make it popular among windsurfers moderate the weather patterns from the lake and control the microclimates; in fact the winds prevent many of the dangerous moulds from forming on the grapes.
There are five basic types of Lugana wines permitted in the DOC:
- Lugana. At nearly 90% each vintage, this is the largest production style of the region. It has floral and nutty aromatics, and with its bright acidity, it boasts a long, refreshing finish. It is at once delicate and layered.
- Lugana Superiore. This category was legally introduced in 1998, and the requirement is that it must age for at least a year before release (in tank or bottle). This allows the wine to develop more herbal, almond, citrus, and apple aromas. It has more body on the palate, with flavours that show pronounced minerals while still having the backbone of firm acidity.
- Lugana Riserva. Launched in 2011, Lugana Riserva is a more complex version of the Superiore. The wine must be aged for at least 24 months before release, and at least 6 months of that must be in bottle. Depending on the house style and variations dictated by the vintage, before bottling these are aged in Stainless Steel, large oak or concrete tanks, or small oak barrels (although most of these producers do not select new oak for flavour, rather choosing older, neutral oak for the textural properties it imparts to the wine, and some wines are even aged sur lie. Riserva wines tend to show more hazelnut and cinnamon aromatics than the basic and Superiore.
- Vendemmia Tardiva. Produced in tiny levels and only in certain vintages, this is a true late harvest wine, where the grapes are allowed to over-ripen on the vines and are harvested in late October-early November (rather than being made as a passito, produced from grapes that are harvested and then allowed to dry). The grapes typically do not have Botrytis Cinerea. Always balanced by the grape’s trademark high acidity, these wines are more of a soft and layered sweetness than a thick, viscous dessert style wine.
- Spumante. This sparkling style is done by either Charmat or Traditional (méthode traditionnelle) Method, and it was officially introduced in 1975. These wines are typically dry, with the Charmat style yielding a crisper, more simple style than the more complex wine made by traditional method.
All five of the DOC types are protected by very strict locally imposed labelling standards, that go beyond the Italian government and EU standards. The producers tout their government seals are not just on the neck or under the back label, as one finds on many other Italian DOC bottlings, but are often over the top of the cork, acting as an additional seal to the capsule. Every label is unique to that bottle, and each one has a code that can trace the bottle and its contents all the way back to the vineyard. Mr Formentini also spoke of the value and longevity of these wines, with even the basic Lugana retaining its finesse and gaining in complexity for a good two to three years in the cellar, and the Superiore and Riserva will improve when properly cellared for ten years or more.
Overall, I found the wines to be delightful and intriguing. So far only a few of the bigger style Lugana wines have been imported to our shores, and as the average US consumer likes white wines that are a little bit on the voluptuous side, I think that was probably the right move. But after tasting the depth of styles this wine is capable of while still retaining its signature character, I’m convinced it’s perfect for our diverse modern California cuisine. I think our wine drinkers are ready to enjoy some of the other styles too; after all, ubi Lugana ibi guadium magnum!