Lombardy Wine Region Guide
Savor the Secret of Lombardy: Italy's Uncharted Elegance in Every Glass
Last updated: November 26, 2023
Northern Italy means Piedmont to most wine lovers and little else. Yet the Langhe and Monferrato hills to the southeast of Turin are not the only great vineyards of the country’s industrial powerhouse. To the south and east of Milan are a clutch of dynamic appellations that, until recently, languished in obscurity. Indeed, it is very ironic that glamorous – and achingly trendy – Milan should be at the center of such an unknown region, overshadowed by Piedmont, Tuscany, and even Trentino-Alto Adige. Nonetheless, some superlative wines are being made in Lombardy today: voluptuous reds, structured whites, and exceptional sparkling wines. The northwest has always bowed less to tradition and more to contemporary ideas than the rest of Italy, not least due to its multicultural past. After sampling a bottle of Franciacorta, based exclusively on French grapes, you’ll understand why.
Winemaking and regional classifications
Northwest Italy is a powerhouse of diversity: there are five distinguished DOCGs in Lombardy, in addition to 21 DOC appellations and 15 Indicazione Geografica Tipicas (IGPs). Wines of all three colors are made here, ranging from the juicy Barbera of Oltrepò Pavese to the toasty sparkling wines of Franciacorta. But, without question, Lombardy’s best and most powerful wines come from Valtellina, in the far north. The Valtellina stretches from west to east along the Adda River near the town of Sondrio and the spa town of Bormio.
The main grape cultivated here is the Chiavennasca, the local name for Nebbiolo and Piedmont’s leading red variety. When handled sensitively – whole bunch fermentation and maturation in used wood – the resulting wines offer a mix of Barolo’s grip and Barbaresco’s ethereal perfume. Valtellina Superiore DOCG’s heartland includes the Grumello, Inferno, Sassella, and Valgella subzones. It produces Lombardy’s finest expression of the Nebbiolo grape – occasionally a rival to the best of Piedmont.
Meanwhile, Lugana is probably northern Italy’s biggest secret. Yet it is one of the most picturesque wine regions in Lombardy, located on the southern end of vast Lake Garda, with its many fishing villages and castle-studded towns. The vineyards spread from the village of Desenzano, past pretty Sirmione, up to Peschiera and, Pozzolengo and Lonato. The signature wine style is a Trebbiano-dominant (locally known as “da Lugana”) white blend, typically fermented in stainless steel to produce something fresh and fruit-driven. It is perhaps more commercially successful than the esoteric Chiaretto; this traditional wine of Lake Garda can be either an aromatic rosé or light red wine made with Groppello, Marzemino, Sangiovese, and Barbera grapes.
The DOC Oltrepò Pavese also relies heavily on the innate charm of Barbera. However, it is usually blended with Croatina (Bonarda) and/or Uva Rara, a grape with a most appropriate moniker. Croatina, Uva Rara, and Pinot Noir are also used in the region’s rosé wines; single-varietal Pinot Noir from the zone is among Italy’s best. But the real local curiosity is the lightly sweet and frothy “Sangue di Giuda” (“Judas’s Blood”- local lore is that it was named by local friars who found the effects of the aphrodisiacal wine far too tempting). For the traditional-method sparkling wines made here, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Nero, and Chardonnay are used; lightly sparkling (Frizzante) red wines are made with Bonarda, Buttafuoco, and Barbera grapes.
Nonetheless, there is only one true king of sparkling wines in Lombardy. That honor goes to Franciacorta: traditional-method wines that borrow heavily from the Champagne formula with an Italian verve that is all their own. Since the 1980s, the appellation has forged a strong reputation for the quality of its fizz, based on long-aged blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and occasionally Pinot Bianco. The vineyards are found south of Lake Iseo, planted on a chain of hills that benefit from a long and relatively cool growing season. The finest wines, sparkling and still, exhibit a finesse seen only in Champagne’s greatest cuvées. The varietal reds and whites are sold as Terre di Franciacorta. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Merlot are all cultivated here.
Geography and terroir
Center of fashion and business, Milan is also the gateway to unspoiled countryside that is simply breathtaking. Lombardy’s famous lakes are already the stuff of legend. Yet, this is just an amuse-bouche: landscapes range from the hills of Brescia to the Valchiavenna and Valtellina’s alpine scenery. It is a landlocked region, bordered by Piedmont to the west and Veneto to the east. If you head north in winter, you’ll discover a surfeit of chocolate box villages in the Italian Alps; day trips to Switzerland are another popular pastime. Therefore, generalizing about such a broad range of terroirs and mesoclimates is challenging.
However, most of Lombardy enjoys (in broad strokes) a mild continental climate: fairly chilly winters and relatively warm summers. Nevertheless, much depends on the vineyard’s proximity to northern Italy’s great lakes: Como, Iseo, Maggiore, and Garda. These bodies of water help to protect against the risk of frost attacks in late winter/early spring – they also moderate the summer heat in July and August. As a result, the warmest climats (vineyard sites) are found on the lower slopes that shadow these magnificent wonders.
But altitude varies dramatically in the wider region: the vineyards of Valtellina rise to above 700 meters above sea level and are cooled by alpine breezes from the east. This natural phenomenon, combined with the diurnal temperature variation, is responsible for the vibrant acidity that defines so much of Lombardy’s wine output. Whether discussing Franciacorta’s sparkling wines or Valtellina’s seductive reds, crunchy fruit, and mouthwatering freshness are general characteristics of local styles.
Elsewhere, the topography is conducive to more stable temperature ranges, particularly in the low-lying hills and plains of Oltrepò Pavese and Mantovano. Due to the warmer conditions, many of Italy’s best Pinot Noirs are made here in the province of Pavia, which lies beyond the River Po. Yet it is sufficiently cool enough in certain places to produce high-acid base wines to produce fine fizz.
Every year brings more excitement and innovation to the vineyards of Lombardy. Undoubtedly, the most important development of the 21st century has been the emergence of smaller, quality-minded, and terroir-focused wineries in this once-neglected region. Indeed, new investors appear with each vintage, attracted to the range of soils and mesoclimates available. Clay, limestone, alluvial deposits, sand, gravel – it’s all here. Moreover, wine growing in Lombardy is increasingly a lucrative proposition, particularly if you’re involved in the production of Franciacorta. With Champagne prices reaching stratospheric levels, premium alternatives from Italy have never looked so attractive.
Then, there is the great diversity of grape varieties. In addition to providing exceptional base wine, Pinot Noir is blossoming in the calcareous soils of Oltrepò Pavese, catching the attention of leading buyers and sommeliers. “My family planted Pinot Noir in 1850; we were the first estate to plant this grape in Oltrepò Pavese and to discover the great potential our terroir could have. Now there are about 3000 hectares planted with Pinot Noir in Oltrepò,” said Ottavia Vistarino, owner of the Conte Vistarino wine estate.
He continued: “However, thanks to the new generation’s aim for quality, we are also gradually being discovered as a new terroir with a very important past and a probable good future. One of the most important aspects is the climate: here, it is cold at night and warm during the day, meaning a big thermal excursion occurs, preserving the grapes’ skin. Our soil is calcareous and rich in clay, and we rarely have high yields. Obviously there can be several minor differences between each parcel of land, which translate into various fabulous Pinot Noir wines with sundry organoleptic characteristics. Pinot Noir is a delicate variety, and it’s amazing to see how it changes in each parcel.”
But many other varieties also thrive in Lombardy – a healthy mix of international and indigenous grapes. Look out for seductive concoctions of Barbera, Croatina, Uva Rare, and other curiosities. Also, look for brilliant varietal wines based on Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay, matured in wood, to add a dash of richness and structure to these very food-friendly whites. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot continue to impress; Barbera can be impressive, but it still performs best in a blend. Top-of-the-range wines garner awards for their bracing freshness, beautiful aromatics, and ripe fruit; however, there is quality to be found in the entry-level segment. Most importantly, most wines are ready to drink on release, although the better labels improve for up to ten years or more – the hallmark of any great wine region.
Lombardy is a significant gourmet epicenter with the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy and many famous and cherished foods such as Bresaola, Panettone, Taleggio and Gorgonzola cheeses, Polenta, and Mostarda. Head to Milan to sample the best local cuisine: roasted pumpkin with robiola, risotto Milanese (with saffron), and osso buco. But remember to make time for the veritable institution, the aperitivo, where all and sundry gather to sip Aperol Spritz and feast on a smorgasbord of tasty morsels. It can be more fun than dinner!
Lombardy has no single cultural identity. Wedged between Switzerland and Piedmont to the northwest, it is responsible for Italy’s place among the world’s top industrial nations, a success achieved by global brands Fiat, Zanussi, and Armani. Yet the region was once a provincial backwater, inhabited by Celtic tribes in the ancient era. But, the Romans changed everything, conquering a settlement known as Mediolanum (Milan) in 222 BC. From its humble beginnings, Mediolanum flourished as an important center of agriculture and commerce – vineyards soon carpeted the surrounding landscape. Meanwhile, the Western Empire continued to expand into southern Europe and North Africa, exporting its language and customs to over a quarter of the world’s population. Mediolanum remained a key strategic and cultural center during the latter stages of Rome’s power; it was here that Christianity was declared the empire’s official religion in AD 313 AD.
Then it all fell apart. The collapse of the Western Empire in AD 476 created a massive power vacuum in Europe, filled by warring Germanic tribes. A key player in northern Italy was the Lombards – they conquered most of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century, maintaining control for over two hundred years. However, the Lombards selected Pavia as their regional capital, so Milan retained its independence. By the Middle Ages, a provincial town had morphed into a powerful city-state (hence the Lombards’ inability to assert their authority over Milan), able to begin its campaign of territorial expansion. Under a series of powerful dynasties – the Torrianis, the Viscontis, and the Sforzas – Milan was a force to be reckoned with. Thus, Lombardy became one of Western Europe’s most prosperous and cultured regions; winegrowing reached its medieval zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, revered by the Italians and foreigners alike.
However, in the 1500s, Italy’s competing kingdoms fell prey to the armies of Spain, although the north subsequently came under the control of Austria. Milan lost much of its power during this period, although neighboring Piedmont managed to keep its independence from Spain. This would be a major game changer in the 19th century as calls for a united Italy grew. Indeed, the birth of this political project occurred in the region, spearheaded by Victor Emmanuel II, and was achieved thanks largely to the heroic military exploits of Garibaldi. Tragically, the Fascists seized power in the 1920s, dragging Italy into the Second World War. In its aftermath, the monarchy was abandoned for today’s republic in 1946.
Milan has since cemented its role as Italy’s financial and industrial capital. Recognition is slowly growing for its myriad of appellations and diverse wine styles. With the tourist economy buoyant, this momentum can only increase.
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