The Wines of Lombardy: An Eclectic Cornucopia with Some Original Gems
On June 22nd I had the pleasure of tasting the wines of Lombardy at a media/trade event in Washington, D.C. About two dozen producers attended, and the wines ran a fascinating, eclectic gamut from international varieties to Italian varieties to rare local varieties; from world-class methode champenoise to a range of dry whites and reds, to an exquisite dessert wine, an amarone-style wine made from the local red moscato de scanzo grape, which also forms the smallest DOCG in Italy.
Like me, you probably have a hard time coming up with a pithy wine descriptor for Lombardy (“and where the heck is it?”, you may ask (north-central Italy, south of the Alps and northeast of Milan). Lombardy is an enigma of a wine region; on the one hand, it is quite large for Italy with 28 million gallons of wine produced annually, more than many of the more well-known regions like Friuli-Venezia.
On the other hand, because it is a geographically large region and quite viticulturally diverse, using both Italian and international varieties more famous elsewhere, the region as a whole doesn’t have a strong identity in the minds of American consumers, such as Tuscany would have tied to sangiovese, or Piedmonte would have with nebbiolo, barbera, and dolcetto (maybe that would be different if most American wine consumers knew that the red fizzy lambrusco originates from Lombardy).
Due to the region’s obscurity and the promise of the U.S. market, some of the region’s producers are now traveling the U.S. holding these media and trade tastings, trying to raise the awareness of their region and its many wines.
I liked the variety of grape varieties, blends, processing styles, and entirely new wines like the moscato de scanzo which I’d never tasted before. Seemingly predictable categories like chardonnay/pinot noir methode champenoise produced fresh, lively yet complex and terroir-driven sparkling wines. The IGT red blend category, rather than producing over-extracted Super Tuscan knock-offs, produced some gutsy but original blends and flavors.
The local clone of trebbiano (“lugana”) produces a rich, unctuous white which actually needs a few years of bottle age to show its true potential. Barbera and nebbiolo, better known to the west in Piedmonte, makes brighter, fresher reds in Lombardy, and gentle aging in large, neutral oak shows these wines off with a cooler climate Burgundian style of fresh fruit and crisp acidity. Aside from the smoky yet richly fruity moscato de scanzo, I was also highly impressed with a lemberger-like local grape gropello ruberti (labeled just as “gropello”), which I’m told is genetically related to pinot noir. The wine has smoky briar fruit nuances like lemberger, vibrant crisp cherry/berry notes like pinot noir and a cool-climate crisp acidity.
Here are some tasting notes of my favorite wines from the tasting:
Lantieri Brut 2006, Tenuta degli Angeli, Franciacorta DOCG This very elegant cool-climate methode champenoise from the Franciacorta sub-region of Lombardy, which produces the best dry sparkling wines in the country, showed finesse but also a kind of lively minerality and sense of place I found in other Lombardy wines but still different from what you’d find in Champagne, Cava or the Loire Valley. The nose was lively and fresh with pear/apple notes, just a hint of yeast, with focused, lively apple/pear flavors and a long firm crisp finish; stylish but not over-done. Est. U.S. retail: $29.95
Tarti pinot nero di bianco (blanc de pinot noir) sparkling NV, Oltrepo Pavese DOC: A lovely sparkling wine showing that high-quality and fruity sparkling wines need not be made be made in the champagne method. The nose is bursting with passion fruit and juicy non-fermented grape juice. On the palate, passion fruit, pineapple and kumquat carry on a tropical mardi-gras, and the round juicy texture is balanced by a vibrantly fresh and clean finish. Throw a summer party with a case of this, and you may not remember it all but the guests will be talking about it for months if not years.
Perla “Madonna de la Scoperta” Lugana superiore DOC 2007: This is a fine white wine made from the lugana trebbiano clone mentioned before which needs some bottle age to gain its potential. Nose shows some oak components, but grows in the glass to reveal yellow apple, hazelnut, dried flowers and minerality. On the palate…wow! The single varietal intensity and integration of concentrated viscocity, fruit and mineral elements grows, and resembles nothing as much as fine white burgundy. This shows the potential for whites from this region.
Cantina di Villa “Tinaia” 2005 Sforzato di Valtellina: A compellingly original interpretation of nebbiolo (100%) from the Valtellina sub-region. The grapes are dried on straw mats as with vin santo, and pressed at the end of January, followed by a long maceration and careful temperature control. The relatively high (14.5%) alcohol softens the typical nebbiolo acidity some and rounds the palate nicely, but the wine is very smooth and neither hot nor sweet. The wine is aged in large neutral oak for 3 years followed by 6 months of bottle maturation, and the mellow nuances are all about fruit and terroir; a must for top-notch northern Italian cuisine. U.S. retail: $40.00
San Michele ai Pianoni “Pynos” pinot noir 2004, Oltrepo Pavese DOC: a lovely cool-climate pinot noir reminiscent of Volnay, with a perfumed bouquet of violets and spicy briar fruits. Medium-bodied; it starts slow, but grows to a full-bodied finish with firm tannins, while remaining elegant with lots of finesse. Aged 24 months in French oak and an additional year in the cellar, this is a refreshing alternative to big syrah-like pinots from the West Coast, with lively fruit and bottle maturity despite 14% alcohol, and no obvious oak flavors in sight.
Monte Cicogna “Don Lisarder” 2001, Largo di Garda classico superior DOC: A world-class wine, a uniquely local blend of the indigenous gropella with sangiovese and barbera, this wine spent a year and a half in small oak and has matured impressively in the bottle. The nose is full of rich truffle and forest floor notes, with dried plums and cherries. On the palate the wine is smooth yet full-bodied and powerful, with earth, truffle and spicy dried black fruit flavors. This wine is like a combination of Cotes de Nuits Burgundy, Chianti Classico riserva, and gran reserva Rioja. While rich and powerful, like the other fine Lombardy wines, it retains an original sense of place and stylish elegance.
Fejoia moscato di scanzo NV, moscato di scanzo DOC: As described above the moscato di scanzo is a red muscat variety unique to this part of Lombardy. The wine is made in an amarone style and is not fortified as with many dessert muscat wines; the grapes are dried on straw mats for 40 days and vinified and aged entirely in stainless steel to preserve fresh aromatic fruit character. The bouquet is spicy/smoky cherry and muscat notes, slightly pungent with dried cherry nuances. On the palate, it is richly viscous but drier than you expect, a bit pungent, with a perfumed and complex mix of dried fruit and earth elements and lingering finish. A perfect match for gorgonzola cheese or dried cherry tart.
The good news from this tasting is that if you know where to look you can find highly original and rewarding wines from this large and diverse region of Italy. The bad news is that it may be a challenge knowing where to find them, and whether the trade in this country will purchase enough of these gems for you to find. I didn’t get all of the U.S. retail prices for these wines, but the ones noted above won’t be cheap, and whether the trade will buy at these prices in this economy is an open question. Also, a number of the wines not reported above were not very compelling, or made in a reductive style (the opposite of fruit-forward and aromatic). Hopefully these producers can focus efforts on specialty markets like the many high-end Italian restaurants on the East Coast where discriminating connoisseurs can be delighted and surprised by these unique and terroir-driven wines.