In the same way that Lombardia doesn’t leap to traveler’s minds until Milan or Lake Como are mentioned, the wines of the region have yet to become well-known among American wine drinkers. But give them time. Lombardia is one of Italy’s richest regions, both physically and financially, and as such it has one of the more diverse wine cultures on the entire Italian peninsula.
From the precipitous vineyards along the Adda River in Valtellina, on Italy’s border with Switzerland, come wines from the nebbiolo grape that challenge the greats of Barolo and Barbaresco. Down south of Milan, in the pre-Apennine slopes where Lombardia meets Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, the vintners of the Oltrepò Pavese zone are turning out plump and spicy reds from the local croatina grape, known by its synonym, bonarda. On the shores of Lake Garda to the east, the local version of trebbiano is used in the fresh and fragrant whites of Lugana. And just west of Brescia, on the shores of Lake Iseo, are the vineyards of Franciacorta, where pinot noir and chardonnay are grown to produce Italy’s finest Champagne-style sparklers. There is truly something for everyone in Lombardia, though it has yet to be discovered-meaning that values abound for the adventurous Italophile.
Here are three gems from Lombardia to get you started:
CAVALLERI FRANCIACORTA BRUT NV
Franciacorta is a “place” name, and certainly a name to look for when you want a serious sparkling wine without the hefty price tag. The Franciacorta appellation is reserved for wines that are made in the methóde Champenoise, or “Champagne method,” where the second fermentation of the wine is done in the bottle. Moreover, the wines of Franciacorta are made from a predominance of chardonnay and pinot noir, the classic Champagne grapes. In this wine from Cavalleri, which is a “blanc de blancs” (all chardonnay), you’ll find depth and structure to rival the French stuff. It’s scents of green apple and pear are followed by good richness on the palate, and a characteristically cleansing, mineral finish. A great wine for parties (it’s usually less than $30 in the store), though it will certainly class up the dinner table as well.
VERCESI DEL CASTELLAZZO OLTREPO PAVESE BONARDA “FATILA” 1999
Okay, now it says “bonarda,” but in reality the grape is croatina. There’s actually a grape in Piedmont with the rights to the name bonarda, but for whatever reason the vintners of the Oltrepo Pavese (the little chunk of Lombardia wedged between southeastern Piedmont and northwestern Emilia) use the name as a synonym for croatina. Got all that? No matter, just check out this funky, tangy, exotically aromatic red. It’s a great choice for some of Mario’s spicier red-sauced pastas (although these aren’t necessarily Lombardian preparations), and has the crisp acidity and tannic adge to take on rich cheeses such as Robiola and Taleggio-two cow’s-milk specialties of Lombardia’s plains north of the Pò.
NINO NEGRI VALTELLINA SUPERIORE “INFERNO” 1997
Hugging the Swiss border is the northern Lombardian wine zone of Valtellina, known for spectacular terraced vineyards that run along the north bank of the Adda River. These seemingly inhospitable slopes are home to the notoriously difficult-to-ripen nebbiolo, which of course is more famous in Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco. This Valtellina wine from Nino Negri, the zone’s best-known producer, is sourced from the Inferno, one of four officially delimited “cru” vineyards in the Valtellina zone (the name is inspired by the fact that the rocks in the vineyard collect the suns heat and make it an “inferno” to work). Tasting this wine is like tasting a baby Barolo: the leathery, earthy, perfumy aromatics are there, but all of these complexities are wrapped up in a smaller package. This is most definitely a meat and cheese wine, as it needs some fat to dull some of its sharp acidic/tannic edges. But what flavor. This is real wine, not fruit juice, a wine that captures the true essence of the Alpine place it comes from.