During a recent trip to the Italian wine region of Lugana, I was told by a producer that the area has two different faces. I was intrigued.
The first, he explained, is that of the tourist. Lugana is located to the immediate south of Lake Garda. Given this immediate proximity to the Lake, it is impossible to disconnect the region’s wines from the holidaymakers that flock there.
However, the second face, he went on to say, is that of the quieter man – the agriculturalist. Once you escape the throngs of tourist activity of Garda and step away from the bars and boat tours, you discover a region that has close and intimate connection to the land.
The denominated Lugana DOC is a small region with just over 100 producers and around 1,005 hectares of vines. It produces only white wine predominantly from just one grape – Turbiana.
Turbiana is a late ripening grape but has the ability to retain fresh and vibrant acidity, even when picked later in the harvest. It also has a tendency to show a characteristic mineral streak. “Minerality” is a tricky term and means different things to different people but for me I found that many of the wines displayed an elegant, refreshing salinity.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a slavish adherence to one grape variety might make Lugana devoid of diversity, a one trick pony. But, to do so would be doing the winemakers of Lugana a great and unfair disservice.
Just as the region as a whole can be said to have two different faces, the same comparison can be applied to its wines.
Around 90% of the wine in Lugana is made in a dry, unoaked style with refreshing acidity and an appealing fruit character. The overall quality is good and they make perfectly decent, easy drinking wines. These wines are ideal not only for the tourists who come to Garda but also for certain export markets, Germany in particular.
However, you can also find wines which, to my mind, express the true character of Lugana and the Turbiana grape. These are the wines whose personality belongs to the producer and the land from where the grapes are grown.
Within this second group, one of the most exciting discoveries for me was the array of styles of wine being produced with Turbiana. Some were lean, fresh and mineral –Ca’ dei Frati’s ‘I Frati’ is a textbook example of this. Others had undergone oak aging and been made in a richer, plumper style, like the excellent 2009 Lugana Superiore Menasasso from Selva Capuzza.
You can also find some top Metodo Classico fizz on offer, which I was not expecting. The Olivini winery, in particular, stood out for me because of its funky, idiosyncratic labels and also its ability to produce consistently excellent sparkling wines.
And then there are the experimentalists – those putting two fingers up at the establishment and pushing the boundaries. These are the kind of winemakers I like to meet. Winemakers like Paolo Pasini.
Paolo makes very distinctive Turbiana wines in a reductive style. His flagship wine, the Lugana Busocaldo Turbiana, is aged for at least two years in stainless steel tanks, with 15% of the tank being made up of the lees. During this time he uses an agitator to stir the lees on a weekly basis. The result is a distinctive, textured wine with layers of flavour that show the true mark of the winemaker. Are these wines in any way commercial? No. But, therein lays their charm.
At a time when wines from international varieties are dominating the market, the diversity of Italy’s native grape varieties have to offer should be embraced. If that statement strikes a resonance with you, consider Lugana and the Turbiana grape. They not be household names for us in the UK yet but the region is full of diversity and quality and is worth exploring.