Perhaps one of the most ironic things about the wine of Italy’s Lombardy (Lombardia) region is that while this area is the industrial powerhouse of the country you will find some of the most artisan, small production wines made here and surprising pockets of beautiful unspoiled wine country. Nestled in the northwest of Italy, Lombardy is situated just below Switzerland and to the northeast of Piemonte. The main center of commerce is bustling Milan and the region has an array of beautiful “art cities” including medieval Bergamo, Cremona (home of the violin where Stradivarius had his workshop) and Mantova (famous for its literary festival). Lombardy is blessed with spectacular lakes, from chic Lake Como to exuberant Lake Garda to darling Lake Iseo and peaceful Lake Maggiore. Landscapes range from lakeside Grand Tour villas and lush gardens to the Alpine scenery of the Valchiavenna and Valtellina.
Lombardy is a major 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. Famous local recipes include Risotto Milanese (with saffron) and Ossobucco. Olive oil made on the shores of the Garda and Iseo lakes is particularly prized in Italy. You can visit many of the olive mills and learn about the process. There is even an olive oil museum in Cisano del Garda.
History of Wine Making
Wine has been made in Lombardy since even long before the Ancient Romans. Milan has been the main marketplace for Lombard wine producers to sell since medieval times. As in other regions throughout Italy, wine production was often tied to religious orders and many monasteries and abbeys ran a wine business on the side. Today many wineries are indeed located in converted monasteries. DOCGs in Lombardy include Franciacorta (Italy’s best bubbly), Valtellina Superiore (high altitude wines) and Sforzato di Valtellina. Some famous DOCs here include Lugana and Garda, while lesser known DOCs include Botticino (near Brescia), Moscato di Scanzo and Valcalepio (both near Bergamo), and Oltrepò Pavese (south of Pavia).
Valtellina, Home of the Lombardian Reds
Without a doubt, Lombardy’s best and most powerful red 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 (which makes Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont). The vineyards are completely unique in that they are located on extremely steep hillsides and terraced. Wineries have to send their staff nearly mountain climbing at harvest time! Famous producers include Nino Negri and Triacca, as well as Conti Sertoli Salis, Rainaldo, Mamete Prevostini, Arpepe, and Sandro Fay. Winemaking here is done on a small artisan scale and is quite high-end and high quality. Wine tourism as a concept is only starting to take off and the region is a delight for wine loving tourists looking for “undiscovered gems”.
While Prosecco is deservedly famous for its easy-going bubbly (it’s one of the key ingredients of the Venetian Bellini cocktail), Franciacorta is well known to wine lovers for its ultra-premium and much more expensive bubbly (more akin to Champagne). The DOC Terre di Franciacorta is for dry red and white wines, while the DOCG is for the bubbly. The main town here is Brescia, with its pretty historic center, and the main wine hamlet is Erbusco. Many of the wineries are beautiful and historic and in all of them, you will see the “Pupitres” with the upside down bottles of Franciacorta waiting to be “riddled” by the cellarmaster. Pretty Lake Iseo is surrounded by vineyards growing Pinot Bianco, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Merlot. Big names in the Franciacorta wine world include Ca`del Bosco, Bellavista, Cavalleri, Monterossa, Contadi Castaldi, Mosnel, and Bersi Serlini.
Lugana happens to be one of the most picturesque wine regions of 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 and up to Peschiera, as well as in Pozzolengo and Lonato. Expect dramatic lake scenery here and some truly fabulous white wines, made with a clone of Trebbiano called “da Lugana” which is used in 90% of the white wine blends. Certainly, the flagship wine estate in Lugana has to be Cà dei Frati, well loved for their captivating and refreshing still white and sparkling wines. Chiaretto is another traditional wine of Lake Garda, which can be either an aromatic rosé or light red wine made with Groppello, Marzemino, Sangiovese and Barbera grapes. Producers of Lugana and other Garda wine estates include Cà Lojera, Provenza, Pasini, Zenato Cantrina, Cascina La Pertica, Costaripa, and La Basia.
Oltrepò Pavese is the wine region actually closest to Milan and is considered to be the most traditional winegrowing area in Lombardy. This region was ruled for centuries by the House of Savoy who also ruled Piedmont, and in fact, many winemaking practices are similar. The main town is Pavia and the main wine hamlet is Santa Maria della Versa. The Po River flows through this region and is another reason why winemaking flourished here as this main river was a major asset for trade. The Croatina, Uva Rara and Pinot Nero grapes are used in the region’s red and rosé wines as well as the local 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 naughty). For the sparkling wines made here (Spumante Metodo Classico), Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Nero, and Chardonnay are used. Lightly sparkling (Frizzante) red wines are made with Bonarda, Buttafuoco and Barbera grapes. While in Oltrepò Pavese, don’t miss the gorgeous Certosa di Pavia (located a few miles from Pavia town), a Gothic-Renaissance monastery with an amazing art collection.