Elegant, structured and delicious, wines from the tiny Italian region of Lugana are some of the country’s premier white bottlings. Made from Turbiana, a unique native grape grown on the southern shores of Lake Garda, they are crafted in five distinct styles, and all are loaded with personality.
Lugana Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines account for about 90% of total production, while the rest are either designated as Superiore or Riserva releases, or produced as sparkling or late-harvest selections.
For years, the Lugana region was a secret shared among the thousands of tourists who flock annually to the delightful villages that surround Italy’s largest lake. But thanks to a continuous rise in quality, Lugana’s fame has finally spread beyond northern Italy.
Of the more than 17.5 million bottles produced in 2018, nearly 70% were exported around the world. The U.S. was the denomination’s fourth-largest market.
Some of the top names in Italian wine have bought land and vineyards recently in the area. The list includes Amarone powerhouses Allegrini, Tommasi and Cesari, as well as the Santa Margherita group, which acquired the Cà Maiol firm in 2017.
Read on for everything you need to know about this cool, classy white.
The Growing Zone
With borders that span the Veneto and Lombardy regions, Lugana’s growing zone encompasses five towns: Peschiera del Garda in the Veneto region, and Desenzano, Sirmione, Pozzolengo and Lonato in Lombardy.
According to an analysis of ancient grape seeds found in Peschiera del Garda, vines have grown here since at least the Bronze Age. The area’s white wines were also lauded in Andrea Bacci’s 1595 book, De Naturali Vinorum Historia (On the Natural History of Wines).
One of the main factors behind Lugana’s vinous success is its mild microclimate, unusual for northern Italy.
“Lake Garda mitigates the climate, so we have less scorching summers and more temperate winters,” says Nadia Zenato, co-owner of the Zenato S. Cristina estate with her brother, Alberto, and mother, Carla. “Thanks to the lake, spring frosts are rare, and there’s a constant breeze that keeps the vineyards ventilated and grapes healthy right through the harvest.”
In 1960, Nadia and Alberto’s father, Sergio, was among the first to believe in the potential of the area and its native grape, then called Trebbiano di Lugana. The winery’s crisp and persistent San Benedetto bottling is a quintessential Lugana.
Another crucial component in Lugana’s winning formula is its soil. A large part of the denomination’s approximately 5,436 acres under vine are on low-lying plains with dense soil that covers a bed of mineral-rich moraine.
“Lugana’s territory is largely made up of light-colored clay soil of glacial origins tied to the creation of Lake Garda,” says Michele Montresor, who runs the Ottella winery along with his brother, Francesco. “This soil confers extraordinary minerality to the wines, as well as savory notes, longevity and structure that give the wines a strong identity.”
A large part of the denomination’s approximately 5,436 acres under vine are on low-lying plains with dense soil that covers a bed of mineral-rich moraine.
Ottella, like many of the region’s top producers, is a strong defender of its old vines. Its stunning, focused Le Creete bottling is made with fruit from vines that are more than 50 years old.
The compact, nearly white clay soils, widely considered the best in the area, force vines to produce fewer berries. The lower yields lead to fruit with more concentrated flavors and wines that are richly textured and full in body.
Besides a reduction in the grapevine’s vigor, the clay also drives roots down far below the surface.
“Our oldest vines, planted in 1961 and 1967, have roots that reach down 20–22 feet below the surface,” says Paolo Fabiani, the winemaker/manager at Tenuta Roveglia. “At this depth, they reach even whiter, more calcareous clay that’s rich in minerals.”
The firm’s full-bodied and concentrated Vigne Catullo Riserva, produced from vines that are more than 55 years old, shows this mineral depth and complexity.
While various amounts of clay are everywhere here, some of Lugana’s higher vineyards climb up to about 400 feet above sea level and have sandier clay and considerable amounts of gravel, like the vineyards of Selva Capuzza.
“While all of Lugana’s soils have a certain amount of clay that impart an intense minerality, the gravel components lend the wines added finesse,” says Luca Formentini, owner of Selva Capuzza. Formentini currently serves as a vice president of the local consorzio, and was president for six years prior to his current tenure. His winery’s Selva bottling shows saline mineral notes alongside remarkable elegance.
The Sole Grape: Turbiana
Aside from its distinct growing area, Lugana’s identity is defined by a unique native grape—Turbiana.
Until the early 2000s, the grape was called Trebbiano di Lugana, sometimes known as Trebbiano di Soave. But local producers and wine experts believed it impossible that the variety behind Lugana, a wine with depth and structure that needs at least a year or two in bottle to fully develop, was really Trebbiano, a workhorse grape that typically produces simple wines.
And to add another layer of confusion, the grape was also confounded with another native white variety, Verdicchio, from the Marche region.
Recent DNA testing, however, has finally provided the answer that Lugana’s growers long suspected: The grape’s genome boasts characteristics inconsistent with other Trebbianos.
“Professor Attilio Scienza, of the University of Milan, conducted an in-depth genetic analysis of the DNA of our grapevine and compared it to other white varieties,” says Formentini.
“The results of the studies show that, while a close relative of the Verdicchio grape, Turbiana is different from that cultivar in its aromatic characteristics, as well as from a phenological, agronomical and oenological point of view, and is a unique and separate grape variety,” says Carlo Veronese, director of the Consorzio Tutela Lugana DOC.
As a result, the grape was officially renamed Turbiana, the local name for this indigenous variety. It’s a late ripener that thrives in the lake microclimate and yields less than many other varieties, another factor in quality winemaking. While the denomination allows up to 10% of other non-aromatic white varieties in Lugana, nearly all producers use Turbiana exclusively.
Crisp and enticingly floral, Lugana DOC wines have flavors of juicy citrus, white stone fruit and almond. Rounder, fuller-bodied Lugana Superiore bottlings are aged for one year and show wild herb and saline notes. Riserva selections, poised and complex, are released after two years of aging and boast flinty mineral and spice.
Today, most producers vinify in stainless steel with prolonged skin contact on the lees. For Superiore and Riserva bottlings, many producers age in both steel and wood to lend complexity without overwhelming oak sensations.
Lugana can age for two to three years, while Superiore and Riserva selections can develop well for several years or more.
There are also vibrant sparkling versions and opulent Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva, or late-harvest Lugana wines, made from overripened grapes. These small-production offerings are soft, rich and concentrated, but rarely excessively sweet.
Innovation and Sustainability
The work of growers and winemakers is as essential as the grape and terroir, and technical advancements have shaped current Lugana releases.
“The technology that arrived in the area 20–25 years ago greatly helped raise quality, starting with the pneumatic press for soft pressing,” says Fabiani. “Temperature-controlled fermentation was equally important, as it significantly helps concentrate the few aromas that Lugana has.”
In the vineyards, producers have increased planting densities for new vines, from roughly 7,500 plants per acre in the 1980s and ’90s, to 12,500 plants per acre today. The higher density naturally reduces yields per plant, which results in more concentrated wines.
Producers have increased planting densities for new vines—the higher density naturally reduces yields per plant, which results in more concentrated wines.
Many top Lugana producers have also taken a sustainable approach to vineyard management and winemaking. This includes the reduction or elimination of herbicides and the embrace of greater biodiversity both within the vineyards and regional environment.
Of the denomination’s 116 producers, there are currently eight certified organic wineries, a roster that includes Marangona. The winery’s range of Lugana bottlings exhibits great depth and purity, and the firm’s Tre Campane is aged in unlined concrete tanks.
“Our microclimate and particular grape variety don’t offer the most favorable conditions for organic farming,” says Alessandro Cutolo, Marangona’s owner/winemaker. “It’s very humid here and the clay soil retains water, so it’s difficult to get a tractor into the vineyards when the ground isn’t dry. Turbiana has compact bunches and is susceptible to diseases like downy mildew and botrytis, so organic grape growing isn’t easy, but it is possible.”
Modern Day Threat
Although Lugana is currently thriving, the denomination is threatened by the expansion of Italy’s high-speed train service, TAV, into the area. While the Consorzio Tutela Lugana DOC and its members have been fighting for years, as of press time, it appears that construction of the new tracks will begin in October 2019. According to the consorzio, an estimated 173 acres of vineyards will be destroyed during the seven-year process; at this point, they don’t know which exact vineyards will fall victim to the project.
Eight Wines to Try
Tenuta Roveglia 2016 Vigne di Catullo Riserva (Lugana); $25, 94 points. One of the benchmark bottlings for the denomination, this opens with enticing scents of fragrant white flower, white stone fruit and botanical herb. On the creamy, polished palate, fresh acidity brightens flavors of juicy honeydew, white peach and citrus while white almond and mineral notes accent the finish. John Given Wines. Editors’ Choice.
Marangona 2018 Lugana; $18, 93 points. White spring flower, ripe orchard fruit and saline aromas waft out of the glass on this fragrant, elegant white. Made with organic grapes, the smooth, savory palate possesses charm and tension, delivering flavors of creamy apple, tangy citrus and mineral before a white almond finish. Oliver McCrum Wines. Editors’ Choice.
Ottella 2018 Le Creete (Lugana); $24, 92 points. Fragrant aromas of white flower, tropical fruit and citrus mingle together with crushed wild herb on the nose. The vibrant, focused palate shows an understated elegance, offering flavors of grapefruit, pineapple and saline set against bright acidity. Lyra Wine. Editors’ Choice.
Selva Capuzza 2018 Selva (Lugana); $30, 92 points. Aromas of citrus, spring flower, herbs and yellow stone fruit shape the nose. On the succulent, elegant palate, fresh acidity accompanies flavors of honeydew, grapefruit, white almond and a hint of ginger. A saline note lifts the finish. Made from the estate’s oldest vines, this shows good midterm aging potential. Drink through 2023. Ambrosia Wine Group. Editors’ Choice.
Le Morette 2018 Vigneto Mandolara (Lugana); $20, 91 points. Enticing scents of spring blossom, white orchard fruit and bread dough float above the glass, along with a whiff of botanical herb. The linear palate has an understated elegance, delivering flavors of white peach, green melon and citrus alongside refreshing acidity. It closes on a white almond note. Uva Imports.
Cà Maiol 2018 Prestige (Lugana); $21, 90 points. Citrus, wild herb and white stone fruit aromas come together in the glass. On the vibrant, linear palate, crisp acidity accompanies green apple, tangerine and lemon thyme before a tangy finish. A hint of white pepper marks the close. Santa Margherita USA.
Feliciana 2018 Felugan (Lugana); $20, 90 points. Aromas of tropical fruit, jasmine and botanical herb are front and center. Savory and tangy, the juicy palate doles out Granny Smith apple, grapefruit and peach before a white-almond finish. Martinicus Wine.
Zenato 2018 San Benedetto (Lugana); $20, 90 points. Bright citrus, aromatic herb and spring blossom aromas take center stage on this refreshing white. The crisp, savory palate delivers Bartlett pear, peach, lemon zest and a hint of ginger before closing on a white almond note. LLS–Winebow. Editors’ Choice.