In wine, there's truth. ... The best kind of wine is that which is most pleasant to him [or her!] who drinks it. -- Pliny the Elder

Monday, May 8, 2023

Tasting California Anew: Tercero, Notre Vue, Kaena

I've been attending a variety of wine events in the last couple of months, which included wines of the Rioja region of Spain, the Union Grands Crus of Bordeaux, wines from two producers in Virginia, and the Chablis wines of Patrick Piuze, to name a few. Not to mention my trip to Italy last fall, focused on the wines of the Lugana region (see my posts on Italy here). I love tasting wines from around the world, but every now and then I need to be reminded that I live in the great wine state of California, where wine runs plentifully, and there are some world-class examples that warrant my attention. 

I just had a quick visit to Santa Barbara County, which is one of my favorite wine regions in the state, where I reacquainted myself with, and introduced my good friend to, the wines of Tercero Wines and Kaena Wine Company. The LA Wine Writers also hosted a pair of luncheons at A.O.C. Brentwood wine bar, one with Larry Schaffer of Tercero, and one with Renee Brown-Stein, owner of Notre Vue of Sonoma. All of these wineries produce excellent and unique examples of California wine.

Tercero Wines, Los Olivos, Calif.

A tasting with Larry Schaffer, owner, winemaker and provocateur (in the best way) regarding the wine industry, is always entertaining, and decidedly tasty! I believe Larry to be one of the most talented winemakers in the U.S., and also one of the most daring. He makes wines that remind me of the Old World, but with a New World twist. He's been making wine for over 20 years, sourcing grapes from some of the best vineyards in Santa Barbara County, picking and foot stomping everything himself, and regaling visitors in his no-frills but elegant tasting room in Los Olivos. He's also quite peripatetic, hauling his wines to wine-pairing dinners, to wine luncheons such as the one with LA Wine Writers, and wine fests, like the popular Garagiste Festival, where he often has samples of his homemade bread to pair with his wines. 

Larry is a Rhone guy, and is also vice president of the Rhone Rangers, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines. He's got Mourvedre (red, rose, and even a carbonic version that's so good), a GSM blend, Grenache, Cinsault, Counoise, and Clairette (one of the few to make this Southern Rhone white outside of France ... and it's delicious!), among others. But he doesn't stick just to Rhone varieties, producing other wines such as dry Gewurztraminer, Picpoul (which I have yet to taste), Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. "Never say never," is one of his mottos, and I'm glad because I eagerly await each and every new wine he produces. His Pinots are new as of the 2020 vintage, and he began making them because his wife loves Pinot. True to form, he makes three versions from three clones, from grapes grown in the Kessler Hawk vineyard. I'm going to watch how these beauties evolve.

He calls himself a "typicist," meaning he doesn't interfere with the grapes during the winemaking process, but let's the grapes speak for themselves. He believes his most important decision in winemaking is when to pick the grapes. All his wines are made using whole clusters, at a facility in Buellton, and he produces a total of about 2500 cases per year. 

At the A.O.C. Brentwood tasting, Tercero wines were paired beautifully (as always at this top-notch wine bar!) with dishes by the excellent and award-winning team of Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin, not to mention their staff, who pours wine like pros. My favorites of Tercero wines are both of the lighter body reds, the Counoise and the Cinsault, and I recently downed a bottle of his Mourvedre Rose, which was fantastic on a warm spring day.

I'm definitely a fan of Tercero Wines, and encourage anyone in Los Olivos to drop in for a tasting, and some great conversation with Larry, if he's there. Another one of Larry's mottos is "remain curious." I'll drink to that!

Notre Vue, Sonoma, Calif.

More often than I'd like to admit I get introduced to a winery from California that I just know nothing about. Such was the case with Notre Vue, which I learned about recently at another LA Wine Writer's luncheon at A.O.C Brentwood.

The luncheon was hosted by Notre Vue owner Renee Brown-Stein, pictured below in the top center photo (Cori Solomon, President of LA Wine Writers is on the left, yours truly is on the right). As per usual, A.O.C. paired Renee's wines with their scrumptious small plates, which included salad, appetizer, hanger steak entrée, and a cheese plate. Each dish was paired with two Notre Vue wines, which includes Balverne wines.

Balverne, which I should know but did not at the time, was quite renowned back in the day ... the day of Ronald Reagan in the White House, that is! 

After initially planting grapes in the 1970s, Balverne Cellars was launched in the Regan era and rose to fame quickly, becoming one of California's first cult wines. The award-winning wines were served in the White House, at a Supreme Court luncheon, at the famed Brown Derby restaurant, and on United Airlines flights. But like many fast-to-fame people and places, Balverne eventually ended up in bankruptcy, and languished for many years before Renee and her husband Bob Stein purchased it in 1992. The couple, an interior decorator (land and sea) and yacht designer, respectively, learned grape growing "from the bottom up,'' says Renee, and for 20 years sold them to the likes of Williams Selyem and Dutton. Then in 2012 Renee re-designed and re-invigorated the Balverne label and introduced their Notre Vue (French for 'our view') label. 

Notre Vue and Balverne wines cannot be pigeon-holed into a category, as the varieties they grow cover the wine map. There's Sauvignon Blanc, GSM blends (rose and red), Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Cabernet, among others. All are made to high standard, and the winery has won numerous awards and, if you're into point systems, they've earned some high marks from the likes of James Suckling and Wine Spectator. Winemaker Alex Holman introduced low-intervention winemaking and the farm is now organically certified, and it says so on its label. 

Renee, who lost her husband in 2020, is now sole proprietor and takes great pride in putting her stamp of approval on all winery decisions, but with a trusted team, including her Estate General Manager Geoffrey Thompson, winemaker Holman, and vineyard manager Lupe Ruiz, who oversees the 700 acre estate, 176 acres of which are planted to vines and 350 acres of which are a "Forever Wild" protected open space. The winery also has a permanent year-round crew of 30 individuals. 

As a sustainable property, the winery uses no pesticides, and sports an open space in the center of the property, from which insects "eat the bad critters," says Renee. Other good critters on the property include foxes, bobcats, 300-400 turkeys, geese, deer, rabbits, and "lots of lady bugs."

When asked about her wines, Renee glows when she talks about sparkling. A sparkling program was introduced when Holman took the reigns in 2019. It's obviously her pride and joy (among many) and she can go on and on when discussing the wine and the all-important bottle shape, color and label design all of which are gorgeous (see bottom middle photo below). 

While I have yet to visit the property, I'm looking forward to doing so.

Kaena, Buellton, Calif.

It had a been a long time since I'd tasted the wines of Santa Barbara County's "Grenache King," Mikael Sigouin. He and his wife Molly have poured at many a Garagiste Festival over the years, which I've either attended or volunteered for, and I've seen his wines leave people swooning. So, when my friend from San Francisco wanted to meet up somewhere between LA and San Francisco, I suggested Buellton for it's easy access to all of Santa Barbara County wineries, from Los Olivos to Los Alamos. And lo and behold, on this trip I saw that Kaena Wine had opened a second location!

In addition to a tasting room in downtown Los Olivos, across the street from Tercero, Kaena now has the 'ranch' on the main road from Buellton to Solvang, called Kaena at the Ranch. It's been open two years now, so interesting timing, as they opened during Pandemic. The ranch is beautiful, simple, rustic, and idyllic, and is a nice mid-afternoon stop where you can sip wine leisurely surrounded by well-spaced chairs and picnic tables, and enjoy the view. 

The tasting room is a large barn, which the couple stripped and refurbished simply, but elegantly. It has a gallery of enlarged photos of Mikael's family, depicting his Hawaiian ancestry (hence the name Kaena, and the hibiscus flower label), some of which are just mind-blowing. His grandfather was a surfer, who caught waves with the famous Duke Kahanamoku and even made surfboards. These photos alone are worth a stop at this winery.

Also worth the stop are a few other things, most importantly the wines! Kaena makes lots of Grenache, and makes it well. The Reserve from 2021 is divine, but the 'regular' Grenache is also a keeper. The Grenache Blanc is crisp and refreshing, perfect for al fresco dining, or any other occasion!

Kaena also makes wonderful Syrah, bone-dry Riesling, Cab Franc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and host of other varieties. But it's the Grenache that always draws me in, whether red, white or rose. 

Molly was a super hostess on the day we visited, pouring us a range of wines and answering our myriad questions about the wines, the location, the mountains behind the ranch winery, and the vineyards on the property. We found out that the vines are old Sangiovese plants that the team at Kaena is reviving. As you can see from the photos below, the vines look healthy, and will someday be a new variety of wine at Kaena. Like Larry of Tercero, Mikael (who was not present on the day we visited) is also staying curious!

If you're driving into Solvang on Highway 46 going East, you will find Kaena at the Ranch on the road right after the Ostrich Farm. I recommend you stop in.

Until next time, Cheers & Mahalo!


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Lugana Winery #3: Cà dei Frati

This is the third and final installment on Lugana wineries that I visited last fall as part of the 2022 Wine Media Conference to this stunningly beautiful land in Lombardy, Italy. The other two wineries already presented are Ca'Lojera, a small family run producer, and Ottella, a larger producer with extensive art-filled facilities.

Winery #3 Cà dei Frati, is one of the benchmark producers in the Lugana DOC, with 280 hectares of vines located in Lugana and another 10 hectares in Valpolicello, where Amarone is produced. The winery receives close to 40,000 visitors each year, mostly from Germany. German tourists were in abundance during our visit to Lombardy in fall 2022.

While the winery was purchased in 1939 by Felice Dal Cero, whose descendants own the winery today, the grapes on the land date back to 1046, when the property was a monastery, hence the name Cà dei Frati, which is Italian for 'home of brothers.' The current owners represent four generations of the family, including grandmother Santa Rosa; children, Gian Franco, Anna Maria, and Igino; and grandchildren and now great-grandchilden, all working various areas of the business.

Our tour guide was Stefano Fioranzato, who married into the De Cero clan and is Export Manager for the winery. Below, he's pictured top center, and the surrounding images are of the main tasting room, which is converted from the original monastery building, with gorgeous architectural details. The more modern design of the winery building displays stain-glass-like windows that mirror the older windows, but the glass is actually wine bottle bottoms in a multitude of different colors. The tunnel into the cellar, pictured bottom right, has a fresco-like painting of the night sky, with gold stars ... just stunning.

Ca d'Frati winery
Cà dei Frati's Stefano Fioranzato and some of the winery's beautiful architectural features.

Like Ottella, Cà dei Frati is a super-modern, well-funded winery, with the latest in gravity flow equipment, harvesters, barrels and tank rooms, and just about any other up-to-date wine production gadget you can think of. We happened to be visiting during harvest, when red grapes were being brought in, as you can see in the images below. Everything was pristine in this facility and the barrel room is enormous. 

All top-of-the line equipment at Ca d'Frati!

As I did in my two previous posts, I'll repeat the facts about Lugana DOC, see below. Cà dei Frati produces wines in all the DOC categories, from Lugana DOC entry level wines, to various sparkling wines, all based on the Turbiana grape. Turbiana blends are also made, such as Pratto Vino Biano, a blend of Turbiana and Chardonnay, and Tre Filer, a Turbiana, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc blend. Additionally, as noted above, red grapes are also grown, and the winery has red blends, including Ronchedone Vino Rosso, composed of Marzemino, Sangiovese and Cabernet, and Pietro Dal Cero Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, from Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Croatina. And finally, there's the winery's Grappa, called I Frati Grappa da vinaccia di Lugana, which is 100% Turbiana. 

Important Facts About Lugana DOC

  • The Lugana appellation is located on the southern end of Lake Garda, with some land going right up to the lake, some of it more inland. 
  • There are about 200 producers in Lugana DOC, from large to tiny.
  • The grape is Turbiana, and most producers use 100% of it in their Lugana Whites. 
  • The soils in Lugana region are morainic, composed of clay topsoil over rock, red soil and iron.
  • Proximity to the Lake Garda influences how much clay is in the soil, and it can be anywhere from 20% to 40%. 

The Five Types of Lugana Wine 

There are 5 levels of Lugana DOC wines: 

Lugana DOC these are the the 'everyday' drinkers, fresh, fruity, and lively.

Lugana DOC Superiore  these must age for a least one year.

Lugana DOC Riserva   must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle.

Lugana DOC Vendemmia Tardiva  these are Lugana's late-harvest wines. 

Lugana DOC Spumante these are sparkling wines. 

Final Thoughts on Italy

Attending the 2022 Wine Blogger's Conference in Lombardy, Italy, last fall was one of the highlights of last year for me. I had never explored northern Italy in depth, and had never really heard much about Lake Garda. My husband accompanied me on this three-week adventure, as we decided to travel around Italy, a country he had never been before. So, we did a loop of Milan to Venice to the Adriatic Coast to Rome, back up north to Cinque Terre, and finally Milan again. 

It was a trip full of wonders and joys. The food was outstanding, inexpensive for the most part, and freshly made everywhere we went. The people, especially at the wineries we visited as part of the WMC, were very friendly, welcoming and eager to please, so thank you to them!

Valtellina, So Close Yet So Far!

One major disappointment was our truncated trip to Valtellina, which I was especially psyched to visit. Even though we got there, we were struck with COVID once we arrived and I did not get to visit the steep, breathtaking vineyards of this Italian Alps region. I do, however, want to recognize the wonderful Isabella Pelizzatti Perego of Arpepe, who I managed to dine with, and who is the most lovely and talented winemaker. 

Our group had lunch at a converted post office restaurant in downtown Sondrio, which is a charming town very close to the Swiss border. At this luncheon, a handful of Valtellina wineries and a plethora of wines were served. Afterwards, there was another reception of Valtellina wines at a beautiful underground, vaulted space (pictured top right in photo below). So I at least got a 'taste' of the area before leaving town. And I did manage to capture the town in a few photos.

The Alpine town of Sondrio, where Valtellina wines are made. Top center is Isabella Perego of Arpepe.

You can read more about Valtellina from others on the trip with me, as follows:

A Visit to the Birthplace of Nebbiolo in Valtellina by Liz Barrett of What's in that Bottle

Crushed Grape Chronicles has excellent videos of Valtellina, by Robin and Michael Renkin.

That's it for my Italy trip! I do want to return to Northern Italy, especially to Valtellina, and other areas like it in the future. And Lake Garda (read my Love Letter to it) will always be a special place for me.

Until next time,


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Lugana Winery #2, Cantina Ottella: Where Wine & Art Come Together

In the 16th century, all of the area around the current Cantina Otella winery in Northern Italy was called Otella, which is named for four sets of twins born there. These eight, or "octo," became the namesake for the area. Stepping out of the bus last fall on my visit to Otella, in the town of Peschiera del Garda, during a Wine Media Conference 2022 excursion, our small group was greeted by current fourth-generation owner Michele Montresor ...  and his winery dog, of course! His family has owned this land since 1905. He quickly pointed to the encased 'coat of arms' (see right) on display in front of this magnificent and oh-so-modern winery/art museum.

Truth be told, I took very few notes on my tour of Cantina Ottella, as I was entranced by the art and good vibes all around me. I was an art history major in college, and I have a tendency to get lost in art when I'm around it, When you combine art with my other love, wine, it's just a beautiful sensory overload for me! Fortunately, I have very strong recollections and some pretty good pictures to share from this stellar winery visit. And, the Cantina Ottella web site captures it best, saying the winery is a place where "wine, art, nature and culture come together in perfect harmony, creating emotions that touch the heart."

Otella's wines fall into the Lugana DOC, and they are a member of the Consorzio Lugana, whose goal is the protection of Lugana DOC wines. As this is the second of three Lugana wineries I visited (see my previous post on Ca'Lojera), I'll repeat some key facts about the area and the wines produced there.

Important Facts About Lugana DOC

  • The Lugana appellation is located on the southern end of Lake Garda, with some land going right up to the lake, some of it more inland. 
  • There are about 200 producers in Lugana DOC, from large to tiny.
  • The grape is Turbiana, and most producers use 100% of it in their Lugana Whites. 
  • The soils in Lugana region are morainic, composed of clay topsoil over rock, red soil and iron.
  • Proximity to the Lake Garda influences how much clay is in the soil, and it can be anywhere from 20% to 40%. 

The Five Types of Lugana Wine 

There are 5 levels of Lugana DOC wines: 

Lugana DOC these are the the 'everyday' drinkers, fresh, fruity, and lively.

Lugana DOC Superiore  these must age for a least one year.

Lugana DOC Riserva   must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle.

Lugana DOC Vendemmia Tardiva  these are Lugana's late-harvest wines. 

Lugana DOC Spumante these are sparkling wines. 

Otella: Art + Wine = Divine

Otella is a brand I've been long familiar with, as I've sold much of it at my sales job at The Wine House. Like most Lugana DOC whites, these are refreshing, highly drinkable, everyday wines that usually come in under $20 a bottle. They pair well with many different foods, as they have lovely acid and a clean, crisp palate. I think of them as a Northern Italian Chablis. As you go up the ladder in quality, where the wines age longer, the prices go up, but they're still reasonable.

I tasted through Otella's line and they were well made, totally enjoyable wines. But there were a few that Michele was especially proud of, including a 'natural' wine that he ages in amphora, which he calls "Back to Silence," which is an homage to his father.

From upper left: Ottella owner Michele Montresor in his amphora room; Michele welcoming visitors in his art-filled garden; Otella barrel; (bottom left) modern and pristine tank room; slick, art-filled tasting room; Ottella's 'rain room'

There's no question that Ottella is a high-end winery, with a major investment of Euros in the product and the property. The extensive art collection alone is worth a fortune, and the tasteful display of the art makes a visit to Ottella well worth it. I did learn that in Italy, a work of art is referred as an 'opera,' which originates in the  Latin, meaning 'activity, effort, attention, work.' I really like that, and Michele used the word often on his tour, referring to the paintings and objects scattered throughout the extensive, multi-leveled property. The doors alone to the barrel room were an 'opera,' larger and more artistic than any I've ever seen!

Ottella's gardens are inviting, and a great place for selfies!

A few of Ottella's many works of art, or 'operas'

(top row) Lunch at Ottella was all local specialty dishes, including a pasta in a broccoli puree; (bottom row) Ottella
 has a sophisticated and modern facility, with artwork tiles even on the floor of the production facilities.
Ottella is one of the few wineries with it's own full bottling line.

Cantina Ottella is stunning, well worth the visit, for both the wine and the "operas"!

Read Lugana Winery #1: Ca'Lojera

Until next time, Ciao!

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Lugana Winery #1: Ca'Lojera

As part of the Wine Media Conference 2022, held in Lake Garda, Italy, in early October, I was on a pre-conference excursion that included on-site visits with three outstanding Lugana DOC wine producers.  Two of these wineries were state-of-the art, with such amenities as gravity flow production facilities, an amphora room, deep cellars full of hundreds of barrels, well-appointed tastings rooms, and exquisite and pricey artwork throughout the facility. And one was a mom-and-pop type winery, with some of the modern touches, but on a smaller, less grand scale. This latter was just as impressive and interesting to visit, however.

In this and my next two posts I will focus on each of these wineries individually. First, here's a recap of what Lugana DOC is all about:

Important Facts About Lugana DOC

  • The Lugana appellation is located on the southern end of Lake Garda, with some land going right up to the lake, some of it more inland. 
  • There are about 200 producers in Lugana DOC, from large to tiny.
  • The grape is Turbiana, and most producers use 100% of it in their Lugana Whites. 
  • The soils in Lugana region are morainic, composed of clay topsoil over rock, red soil and iron.
  • Proximity to the Lake Garda influences how much clay is in the soil, and it can be anywhere from 20% to 40%. 

The Five Types of Lugana Wine 

In my last post, the 5 levels of Lugana DOC wines were discussed. Briefly, they are:

Lugana DOC these are the the 'everyday' drinkers, fresh, fruity, and lively.

Lugana DOC Superiore  these must age for a least one year.

Lugana DOC Riserva   must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle.

Lugana DOC Vendemmia Tardiva  these are Lugana's late-harvest wines. 

Lugana DOC Spumante these are sparkling wines. 

Ca'Lojera: Multi-Generational Family Winery

Ca'Lojera, or 'House of the Wolves' in the local dialect, was founded in 1992 in the town of Sirmione, just a few steps from Lake Garda, by Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi. The couple bought the property in 1980 and grew fruits and vegetables before venturing into wine. The property itself dates back to the 13th century, as the summer home of the bishop of Verona. The wolves reference comes from a local legend that the animals protected the houses of smugglers who traded weapons and black-market salt along the coast of Lake Garda. 

Marta, the founder's granddaughter and our tour guide at Ca'Lojera, offered two explanations for the wolf lore, with one being that the wolves refers to the animal, as per the above, and the second being that the smugglers themselves were the wolves. Either way, it's a good story, and adds historical dimension to the winery and its labels.

From top left: Ca'Lojera's Lungana lineup; Marta, grandaughter of founders; tasting in the former on-site restaurant; Second row, from left: Ca'Lojera shipments; the modern winery building; Ca'Lojera's 1999 late-harvest wine;
Third row: the 13th century building, where plans include a new tasting room; caricatures of Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi on a special magnum bottle.

The land on which Ca'Lojera sits was once the La Garda seabed, so the soils are full of sea minerals, which impart a characteristic flavor profile to the wine, with notes of salinity and chalkiness. The winery produces all its own grapes, with 18 hectares of Turbiana in Sirmione, plus an additional 2 hectares of hilly, moranic vineyards, dedicated to Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet. Note that these grapes are not approved under Lugana DOC; Ca'Lojera sells them under the 'della Guardia' label.

The modern winery building was built just 10 years ago, but the original cellar is 30 years old. With production ramping up for the current 200K bottles they produce per year, it's becoming a tight squeeze, and Marta informed us that more modern and spacious production facilities are in the works. With the winery in full harvest mode during our visit, it was not the top priority at this time!

Until recently, the winery had a home-style restaurant on the property, which is where our tasting took place. The room was full of family memorabilia, and was a cozy place to do some wine tasting. Marta says her plan, when she has the time, is to build a tasting room in the currently unoccupied original building (see photos above). 

Ca'Lojero's lineup included a fresh and fruity entry-level Lugana DOC, with an herbal nose (some of the tasters smelled marijuana!); a Superiore, which is harvested a bit later; a Riserva, which is a late-harvest wine that spends 1.5 years in tank and 6 months in the bottle, which makes it more complex; and a 1999 'Anato Historico' which was aged in small wooden barrels for two years. This last wine had a deep gold color, with notes of honey. Ca'Lojera uses oak only on its sweet wines. 

This is a fun winery to visit, and should you be in the Lugana area, visit the quaint and lovely tasting room.

Until next time,

Friday, November 4, 2022

Lugana: Land of Sunshine and White Wine

“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” 

— Galileo

Several years ago, I attended an Amarone tasting in Los Angeles, where there were just few white wines being poured. What was this grape, I asked, and was told it's 'Turbiana.' I'd never heard of it. It's not Trebbiano, the ubiquitous white wine grape of Italy, it's Turbiana, which is the grape grown in the Lugana region of Northern Italy. (Turbiana is a distant relative of Trebbiano, of which there are 30 total.) Turbiana makes white wines, from young and crisp versions to lovely sweet versions, and it also makes a sparkling wine. I was impressed by these white wines at the Amarone tasting, and I truly loved what I was tasting. I dubbed these Lugana whites the 'Chablis of Italy.' Subsequently, at my sales job at The Wine House, I became the biggest pusher of Lugana whites, and would like to think I raised their reputation with our clientele (as well as sales). One year at the "Great Whites Fest" that I've hosted a Lugana white was the best-selling wine. 

I guess you could say I'm a true believer in the lovely white wines of Lugana! 

'Refined Lakeshore White Wine'

The Wine Media Conference 2022 was held in Lake Garda, Italy, in late September, and the main sponsor was Ascovilo, which is the Association of Consorzi Tutela Vini Lombardi, encompassing all the DOCG, DOC and IGT areas of Lombardy, Italy. Consorzio Tutela Lugana DOC is a member of this association, along with the following: Oltrepo Pavese, Vini Mantovani, Valtenesi, Garda DOC, Valcamonica, Moscato di Scanzo, San Colombano, Terre Lariane, and Valtellina. (Noticeably absent from the group is Franciacorta, which is still being wooed to join the group.)

While at WMC, I elected to attend the pre-conference excursion to the Lugana area, as I wanted to see where these wines I had discovered years before were from and what Lugana was all about. 

Facts on Lugana

The Lugana DOC sits on a Morainic plane south of Lake Garda, Italy, and extends across two provinces, Brecia and Verona, as well as two regions, Lombardy and Veneto, and encompasses five villages: Peschiera del Garda in the Veneto region, and Desenzano, Sirmione, Pozzolengo and Lonato in Lombardy. The area's viticultural history dates back to Roman times, but the appellation dates just to 1967. It's a fairly small one, about 2500 hectares (about 6200 acres) total.

(Left) Aerial view of Lake Garda today, with the Sirmione peninsula at bottom; (right) drawings from museum at the Grotto of Catullus depicting the glacial flow from the Alps that formed Lake Garda. The Lugana DOC is on the southern shores of the lake.

The area has temperate climate due to the "lake effect," and most vineyards are oriented north-south. The glacier pushed down the soil as it moved and melted, and it's clayey, with rock, red soil, and iron below. The amount of clay varies from 20-40%, depending on closeness to the lake waters. 

Beautiful poster on display in Milan.
The DOC produces 27.5 million bottles per year, 90% of which is still wine, 10% is sparkling. Per Fabio Zenato, the newly elected president of the Lugana Consortium, and a host and speaker at WMC, about 70% of Lugana's wines are sold outside of Italy, with Germany the main market. Note that Lake Garda gets close to 7 million tourist per year, many of them German. Only 5% of Lugana wines make it into the US market. That's something Zenato and the consortium are trying to change. I was really impressed with the marketing materials the Lugana folks have put together, featuring the hashtag #luganalover. Light and lively (like the wines) posters were prominently displayed all around the town of Desenzano, where the conference was held, and even in Milan (see an example, right).  

About 90% of all production in Lugana is using the Turbiana grape, and to be labeled as Lugana DOC, the wine must be a minimum of 90% Turbiana. The other 10% can be any other non-aromatic white, including both local and international varieties.

There are approximately 200 producers in the Lugana, some of them large scale, many of them small scale family owned wineries. Lugana is a "quiet, very strong machine of quality," says Zenato. 

Categories of Lugana DOC Wines

There are five types of Lugana DOC wines, as follows:

Lugana DOC wines are the everyday drinkers, fresh, aged in stainless steel, made to be drunk in their vintage year. They are straw-colored with greenish highlights, and have delicate aromas of flowers and almonds, and on the palate they are light, lively, fairly full-flavored, and quite elegant. They are, to me, the perfect wine to drink while on a beach chair gazing out on Lake Garda (see photo above).

Lugana Superiore wines must age for a least one year from the time the grapes are harvested. They are richer and more complex as a result, with wild herbs, ripe apples, tangerine, hazelnut and spices. These wines can be cask aged, and the choice for most producers is large capacity casks. Like the DOC wines, they have great acidity, with minerality and savory notes. Note that each winery "has it's own interpretation" of oak aging, per the consortium's Zenato.

Lugana Riserva must age for 2 years, with 6 months of that in the bottle. The color on Riservas is deeper, and the wine is even more complex and elegant, with smoky and flinty notes, balsamic, and even more minerals on the palate. 

Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva are Lugana's late harvest wines, which are high acid and not unctiously sweet, like many 'dessert' wines can be. The grapes are 'over-ripe,' left on the vine till late October or even later, and the wines are rich, soft, and dense, just delicious! Think Alsace VD or German Spatlese.

Lugana Spumante was a surprise to me. These sparkling wines are made using the Charmat Method. They are simple, crisp, citrusy and just fun to drink. 

So, what really makes a Lugana white so special? According to Zenato, it's the way the Turbiana grapes responds to the unique soils that were deposited hundreds of thousands of years ago by the giant glacier that formed the lake. The soils impart a minerality to the grapes, a 'sipidity' that, combined with the natural acidity of the grape, and its fruitiness, creates a special and unique expression of a white wine. I like to think of it as refined lakeshore white wine! Most producers now make their wines with 100% Turbiana as its a more realistic and authentic expression of a Lugana white, says Zenato.

The average price on the export market for a bottle of Lugana white ranges from $22 to $26. Check out the wines currently in stock at The Wine House.

One more thing: I watched an episode of Italian Wine Podcast where Zenato was interviewed by host Stevie Kim (and a speaker at this year's WMC), and I highly recommend it if you want to hear the facts directly from the President of the Lugana Consortium. He's a charming man, well spoken, and a staunch proponent for Lugana. I was especially pleased to hear him say that the wine that comes closest to Lugana in style and character is Chablis! 

In my next post or two, I will profile some of Lugana's producers.

Until then,

Ciao and Cin Cin! 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Love Letter to Lake Garda


"The shores of this lake with its contrasts between beautiful forests and
quiet waters maybe create the most beautiful landscape in the world."  

-- Marie-Henri Stendahl, 19th century French writer


I recently returned from a three-week tour of Italy with my husband, celebrating our wedding anniversary. When the Wine Media Conference (WMC) announced in 2021 that the 2022 version was to be held in Lake Garda, Italy, we jumped at the chance to both celebrate the longevity of our union and to visit the land of 1000+ wine grapes. 

And we both fell madly in love with Lake Garda! For many reasons ...

Fish, Castles, Cheese, and Small White Boats

Lake Garda, in the north of Italy in the province of Lombardy, is Italy's largest lake, formed from an ancient glacier. The Hotel Aquaviva del Garda, which hosted the WMC and where we stayed for five nights, is located in the town of Desenzano del Gardo, on Lake Garda's southernmost shore. Waking up each morning to the view above was a treat (Italians love their sailing), and the hotel's facilities were top notch, with a generous and delicious breakfast buffet as well as reasonably priced spa services in the well-appointed basement-level spa. (I had a facial, my husband a massage.)

Outside the hotel, a well-maintained walkway circles the southern shore of Lake Garda, allowing strollers to stop at a café for a coffee or glass of the ubiquitous Lugana wines (more on these to come), stop and enjoy the view, and to walk into the village of Desenzano, a couple miles to the west. We did all of these things, enjoying our views of the beautiful lake-front homes and hotels, as well as the lake itself, with lots of birds and sea life actively going about their business. And oh, the people watching is so good, and you can hear many languages, particularly German.

Desenzano is a cobble-stoned and lovely village, with a castle, a museum, and other historic buildings, making for a worthwhile stroll. With tourism the main attraction these days, the town can be bustling, which it was on this late September day, with cafes and gelateria (Nocciola is to die for!) doing a robust business, as well as a plethora of touristy shops. The dollar was doing well against the Euro, so I did a bit of shopping!

From top left: strolling along Lake Garda; a glass of Lugana white; Descenzano del Garda scene; (second row, from left) Castle of Descenzano at night; Castle Scaligero in Sermione; Grotto di Cattulus; (third row, from left) Grotto di Cattulus, mosaic from Grotto; town of Sermione

A couple miles east of the hotel is the town of Sermione del Garda, which is on a peninsula that juts into Lake Garda. As part of one of our winery excursions, and to give us a break from an overabundance of food and wine (never!), we did a tour here. The entrance to the peninsula has an intact and imposing Castle, called Scaligero, which dates to the thirteenth century and is almost completely surrounded by water. After strolling through this colorful and charming (and very touristy) town, we ended at the tip of the peninsula at the spectacular Grotto di Catullo, which is the well-preserved ruins of a first century BC Roman Villa. Catullus was a Latin poet from Verona, and if there is a word to describe these ruins and this site it's "poetic." In my opinion, this tour and the ruins themselves, rivaled any tour we subsequently took in Rome. I hate to overuse this word, but this was spectacular, and stunningly beautiful! We had a terrific tour guide, Katerina, an archeologist with expansive knowledge of the ancient roman villa, now in ruins. Who knew they had heated indoor pools in the the first century AD?! 

There are about 30 different varieties of fish in Lake Garda, and with 90 miles of shoreline, fishing is a major activity, and commercial fisheries supply local restaurants and trattoria. Farm-to-table and sustainability were prevalent philosophies at many of the meals we had, both at wineries and at  restaurants.

Grana Padano cheese and logo; Isabelle Perego of Ar.Pe.Pe; souvenir book of Lake Garda

Additionally, there's lots of cheese in Lake Garda, specifically Grana Padano. A WMC session featured a tasting of three different 'vintages' of Grana Padana cheese at the Rambotti Civic Archaeological Museum. Grana Padano has its own D.O.P., or Protected Designation of Origin, assuring that only cheese made to its standards from cow's milk produced in the Po Valley can be labeled as such. The youngest is aged between 9 and 16 months, and is softer and creamer than the other two. The older cheeses, aged 16+ months and 20+ months, are harder, nuttier, and more suitable for grating. The oldest cheese can be individually tested for quality and marked with a fire-brand of "Reserva." 

A Side Trip

My husband and I had an unscheduled trip via rental car through the Alps, returning to Desenzano from the village of Sandrio in Valtellina, a valley area situated in the mountainous area north of Lake Garda, almost at the Swiss border. Valtellina is renowned for its Nebbiola-based wines (they call the grape Chiavennasca here), and I was particularly thrilled to meet Isabella Perego of Ar.Pe.Pe. This was a post-conference excursion set up by the WMC, but alas our trip was cut short due to illness, hence the drive back to Lake Garda over the Alps, which happened before I could visit her winery. (I will be linking to my colleagues' posts on Valtellina in the near future.)

(From top left) Aprica, high in the Alps; Medieval town on banks of Lake Iseo; (second row) snow-capped peaks in early October; downtown Aprica; (third row) mountains and forest everywhere; view of Lake Iseo

But making lemonade out of lemons, we chose to enjoy the car ride and took in the stunning (that word again!) views high up in the Alps. The drive took us along the eastern shore of Lake Iseo, Italy's fourth largest lake. The views here were breathtaking, as you can see from the above. The lake boasts several medieval towns on its banks, one more picturesque than the next. And speaking of lemons, I was surprised to learn that they are a staple here in Northern Italy, which, because of the lake effect from Garda and the other lakes, is the most northern area of Italy to experience Mediterranean climate. Lemon trees, olive trees, and agave are ubiquitous here.

To remember Lake Garda, I will always treasure the book, pictured above, which was a gift to all who attended the conference, full of beauty shots around the lake and recipes for the typical foods served from the bounty of the lake and its environs. 

If you're planning a trip to northern Italy, Lake Garda is a must see. It's a two hour train ride from Milan and the trains run smoothly and are comfortable. The wonders of Lake Garda are worth exploring, and the wines, which I will delve into in my next posts, are unique, well made, and delicious.

Until next time,


For more information, follow these links:


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Sweet Wines Myths Dispelled

My friend and colleague Melanie Webber says it all in her article about the pure deliciousness of sweet wines. I agree that they are often maligned and misunderstood, and she explains it all for you here, in her article From Nun to Nirvana: Dispelling Sweet Wine Myths and Putting the Sweet Back on Your Wine List! This is an informative and fun read, so make sure you read all three parts of this article! 

Until next time,