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Lugana: The Perfect Summertime White
By Michael Apstein
Apr 25, 2017
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With their crispness and cutting acidity, the refreshing wines of Lugana, a small Denominazione Origine Controllata (DOC) on the southern edge of Lake Garda in northern Italy’s Lake District, are perfect for drinking in the summer--or year round for that matter.  (Just don’t confuse Lugana, the wine, with Lugano, a neighboring lake.)  A bonus is in finding an area that produces distinctive and unique wines using an autochthonous grape come to life, rather than succumbing to the allure of planting international varieties.

These mid-weight wines deliver a captivating combination of tropical fruit-like flavors, spice (sometimes in the form of a white-pepper bite) minerality and zesty acidity. They’re reminiscent of dry Vouvray or Riesling with a delicate fruitiness buttressed by welcome, laser-like acidity.  The more mineraly ones bring to mind Savennières, another Chenin Blanc-based Loire wine, or again, Riesling.  Unlike many New World wines that convey tropical fruit flavors, Lugana wines are not cloying, sweet, or heavy.  And therein lies Lugana’s near magical balance:  A subtle hint of tropical flavors and then, wham!--palate-awakening vigor.  Their ying-yang balance makes them extremely versatile--lively and easy to sip before dinner, but bold enough to cut through virtually anything on the plate--from sushi to, believe it or not, grilled meat.

Winemakers insist the character of the wine comes from the Turbiana grape, proximity to Lake Garda, and the abundant clay in the soil. 

Let’s start with the grape.  Recent DNA research indicates that Turbiana, long thought to be identical to Trebbiano di Lugana (a.k.a. Trebbiano di Soave or Verdicchio Bianco), is distinct from that variety though many in the region still refer to the grape both in conversation and on labels as Trebbiano di Soave or Trebbiano di Lugana.  The grape ripens late and has inherently high acidity.  To be labeled Lugana, 85 percent of the wine must come from Turbiana with other 15 percent coming from a wide variety of non-aromatic grapes.  Some producers insist that adding a small amount of other varieties has little effect on the finished wine, while other producers shake their head and insist that Lugana should always be make entirely from Turbiana. 

The surprising warmth in this northern clime--there are palm trees as well as prized local olive oil--is a result of the moderating affect of Lake Garda and allows the Turbiana to achieve good ripeness without losing verve.  The lake is also responsible for the consistent morning and afternoon breezes in the vineyards that helps keep the grapes healthy.

Thick grass and other vegetation growing between the rows of vines gives the appearance of vineyards planted on someone’s lawn.  Clay soil, which many growers credit for the wines’ distinctive spice, mandates the use of heavy inter-row vegetation.  Fabio Zenato, the head of Le Morette, one of Lugana’s top produces, notes enigmatically, “The grass allows you to leave the vineyard after a rain.”  He explains that, “After a rain you could walk into the vineyard, but without grass, you’d sink into the mud up to your ankles and never get out.”  The grass, he adds, gives the otherwise rock-hard dry clay porosity, allowing adequate oxygenation of the soil.

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The region is undergoing a transformation.  I remember drinking Lugana 30 years ago because it was cheap.  Some of the wines were pleasant enough, though not memorable, while others were “horrible,” to borrow a word from Carlo Veronese, the Director of the Lugana Consorzio when he described the wines from that era.  The wines now are, by and large, stunning because a new generation of producers have energized the area.  To be fair, Zenato, the region’s second largest producer and the one responsible for initially popularizing the wines, has always made--and continues to make--an excellent array of Lugana.

The public has noticed by buying the wines.  In 1967, when Lugana received DOC recognition (it was the first in the Lombardy region to be awarded that distinction) there were only 1,000 acres under vine, but, with increased demand, 3,500 acres are planted today.  In the past, producers sold much of their wine in bulk because it was worth more as a non-DOC wine that could be blended with--and expanded the volume of--a prestigious DOC wine, than it was bottled and sold as DOC Lugana. That practice is a thing of the past.  All of Lugana’s production is bottled and sold proudly as DOC Lugana, Lugana Superiore, Lugana Reserva or as a sparkling Lugana.

Fortunately for consumers, the prices--most are under $20 a bottle--have not kept pace with the increased quality.  That situation will not last long for two complementary reasons.  It’s hard to keep this kind of character and quality secret for long.  And the price of vineyard land will increase as new vacation houses in this gorgeous part of Italy encroach on the DOC’s boundaries.

When I asked Stefano Fraccaroli, the winemaker at the eponymous family estate founded in 1912, how much they produced 20 to 30 years ago, he responded with an Italian shrug, “molto meno” (literally, much less) and scurried to find his father, Luigi, who estimated their production back then was roughly 100,000 bottles annually, compared to 450,000 bottles now.  Many of the winemakers in the region are too young to remember what precisely was happening 30 years ago, they just know that that area was in the doldrums. It is not clear when the region’s fortunes turned around--no one to whom I spoke could point to a single event that initiated the resurgence--but most agreed it occurred about 15-20 years ago, at about the turn of the new century. (The Consorzio has data regarding production figures only as far back as a decade.) 

Some growers speculated it was the world market’s disaffection with international white grapes, while others noted that it might be the affect of tourism since the Italian Lake District receives 60 million visitors a year, a third of whom come to the province that includes Lake Garda.  Other growers believe the surge in popularity was related to the Consorzio’s efforts to re-name the grape and distance it from the stigma of Trebbiano, which is Italy’s most prolific, and least prestigious, white variety.

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The overall production from Lugana is small, about 1.2 million 12-bottle cases, and the Germans love the wine, so finding examples in the U.S., especially from small producers, can be difficult, but worth the effort.  The 2015s, from a riper vintage that still maintains lively acidity, are currently in the market.  The incredibly consistent 2016s, which are more linear and penetrating, should arrive over the next six to 12 months.  You can almost “select blindfolded” when selecting a 2016 Lugana.  Although only a few percent of total production is labeled Reserva or Superiore, tasting how beautifully some have developed with 10 or 15 years of bottle age reinforces the idea that Lugana has potential for being included as one of the world’s great wine areas.  (Capuzza Selva’s 2001 Lugana Superiore, a wine made for early consumption rather than extended bottle aging, had developed incredible complexity without losing its vibrancy.)

Since many producers’ wines are available in only one or two markets, I have simply listed my favorites, alphabetically.  I’d be happy drinking any of their wines this summer:

Cà dei Frati, Castrini, Citari, Corte Sermana, Feliciana, Famiglia Olivini, Le Morette, Marangona, Montonale, Nunzio Ghiraldi, Ottella, Pasetto, Pasini San Giovanni, Roveglia, Selva Capuzza, Turina, Zenato and Zeni.

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April 26, 2017

Do you have any experience with Lugana?  Email me your thoughts at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein