The Grand Tasting event held on the third day of VINO 2011 offered such a magnitude of producers, labels and brands that I decided to limit myself to the wines of Lombardy, an area in which I do not have much experience. Compared to regions like Tuscany, Trentino Alto-Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giuila, the Veneto and increasingly Apulia, Lombardy lacks name recognition and marketing value for the American consumer, and of course every winery in Italy, not to mention every other wine-producing country and region in the world, wants to sell wine in the United States of America.

Lombardy nestles right in the center of northern Italy, between Piedmont to the west, Emilia-Romagna to the south and Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto go the east; directly north is Switzerland. Lombardy is home to several of northern Italy’s celebrated resort lakes — Garda in the east, Como in the west, Iseo in the middle — and to the country’s major industrial and fashion center, Milano. The other important cities are Brescia, Pavia, Cremona and the incredibly quaint Bergamo, dense with Medieval atmosphere, where LL and I spent one night in the Summer of 1996 with a cat we rescued from Umbria. Lombardy has 15 DOC producing regions, 3 DOCG regions and 13 IGTs. These are categories created and governed by the grape-growing and wine-making regulatory arm of the Italian government. The abbreviations stand for Denominazione di origine controllata; Denominazione de origine controllata garantita, a theoretically higher category with stricter controls and “guarantees,” and notice that I say “theoretically”; and Indicazione geografica tipica, for a wine that does not fit into the traditional grape heritage of a region or vineyard area.

Here are summaries of three wineries some of whose products I tasted at this multi-faceted event, two from Garda and one from Franciacorda. I’ll look at other estates in a post coming soon to this blog.
“I hate wood,” said Lucia Zuliani, and I thought that was a damned fine way to start our conversation. She and her brother run this estate, which was founded by their ancestors in 1589 and is now part of the Garda Classico DOC. I tasted just two of Azienda Agricola Zuliani’s wines, but this is a producer that I hope finds an importer in the U.S., if only to introduce American consumers to the red groppello and marzemino grapes. The fairly obscure groppello is something of a specialty in eastern Lombardy, though it is also found in Trentino. Neither the Zuliani Groppello Riserva 2007 nor the Donna Lucia Rosso Superiore 2007 see wood aging at all. “I want the wines to be fresh,” said Zuliani, “and I want the personality of the producer in the bottle, not the inside of a barrel.”

The Groppello Riserva 2007, which ferments and ages in cement tanks lined with glass, is indeed fresh and vivid, very spicy and a bit exotic, with dark, seductive aromas and flavors of black currants, mulberries and blueberries wrapped, in the mouth, in plush, dusty, graphite-laced tannins and bright, lively acidity. The structure and character are here to allow drinking through 2015 to ’17. I have no idea what a retail price in the U.S. would be, but this would offer great value if it were under $25. Donna Lucia Rosso Superiore 2007 is a blend of 60 percent groppello with the remainder made up of barbera, sangiovese and marzemino grapes. Again, there’s more than a touch of exoticism, along with a tremendous sense of depth and dimension in this wine packed with finely-milled tannins that lend weight and substance but also an irresistible sort of talc-like softness. Donna Lucia is a more serious wine than the Groppello Riserva, but it gains seriousness not by having French barriques thrown at it or by utilizing cabernet sauvignon grapes but through the nature of the grapes themselves and in a winemaking process that trusts the vineyard and grapes to do their job.
West of Lake Garda is the industrial city of Brescia, and just west of Brescia lie the rolling hills of Franciacorta, Italy’s premier region for sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, the process that produces the all-important bubbles. The elevation of Franciacorta to such status happened with lightning speed, at least as time is reckoned in the slow seasonal progress of making wine; vineyards and winemaking in the region go back to the days of the Roman Empire. Until the early 1960s, sparkling wine was unheard of in the region; it took the vision and determination of a young winemaker named Franco Ziliani, who produced Franciacorta’s first sparkling wine in 1961, to ignite the phenomenon. Franciacorta received DOC ranking in 1967, its regulations specifying that the sparkling wines had to be made by the metodo classico, the first such requirement in Italy. In 1995, DOCG status was conferred on Franciacorta’s sparkling wines; still wines are now produced under the Terre del Franciacorta DOC.

Az. Ag. Fratelli Berlucchi is owned by five siblings, Francesco, Gabriella, Marcello, Roberta and Pia, whose grandparents established the vineyards. While the family makes a couple of pleasant still red and white blends under the Terre di Franciacorta DOC — chardonnay and pinot blanc for the white; cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, barbera, nebbiolo and merlot for the red — the heart of the production is a series of metodo classico sparkling wines of which I tasted three.

The Fratelli Berlucchi “25” Brut (non-vintage) is the earliest of the family’s sparkling wines to be released, the “25” referring to the number of months that elapse between harvest and selling the wine. Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, harvested a bit early to maintain acidity, this is a charming and immediately appealing sparkling wine with a lovely bead, though there’s nothing frivolous about it; there’s plenty of size and substance, a beguiling balance between crispness and creaminess and roasted citrus flavors, spice and toasty qualities. (About 6,600 cases) The Berlucchi Brut Rosé 2006 is comprised of a 70 percent blend of chardonnay and pinot blanc with 30 percent pinot noir made as a rosé wine. From its shimmering pale copper color, to its tempest of tiny glinting bubbles and its crisp, dry, minerally nature, this sparkling wine epitomizes elegance and refinement. (About 2,500 cases).

The flagship product for Fratelli Berlucchi is the Brut Casa delle Colonne, now from the 2001 vintage. It’s a blend of 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent pinot noir from the estate vineyards Mandola and Tre Camini. This is a world-class metodo classico sparkling wine, utterly suave, confident and mature, surprisingly delicate and transparently structured for its age and displaying a reticent amount of roasted almond, jasmine and cinnamon toast qualities laved over deep reserves of limestone-like minerality. (About 983 cases)

Fratelli Berlucchi is looking for an importer in the U.S.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ One tastes a lot of wine, you understand, and some is terrible, some merely bland, some really good or even excellent — and then there’s the wine that sneaks up and blows all conceptions to hell and back. Such were the wines of Ca’ Lojera di Tiraboschi, an estate situated to the south of Lake Garda in the Lugana DOC for white wines. The only grape allowed for this DOC, created in 1967, is trebbiano, of which Oz Clark, in his Encyclopedia of Grapes (Harcourt, 2001) says, ” … boredom is the state most often induced” by the grape. There are, however, different sub-varieties of trebbiano, and one capable of more expressiveness and character is trebbiano di Soave, also known as trebbiano di Lugano. The fact that so many Soave wines are innocuous and insipid is not so much the fault of the grape as it is a result of huge yields and allowing the vineyards to spread into inappropriate geography. In Lugano, matters are regulated more thoroughly or perhaps more thoughtfully or at least by some producers, among whom are Franco and Ambra Tiraboschi, the name of whose winery means “Ancient House of the Wolves.” It’s a small estate, only 14 hectares, about 36 acres; all their wines are made from estate vineyards.

Innocently, I sniffed and sipped and squinched around in my mouth and spit out about a tablespoonful of Ca’ Lojera Lugano 2009. Lord have mercy, what a powerhouse of stones and bones that practically grabbed me by the collar and demanded to be taken to the nearest oyster. Yes, the wine is very dry and very crisp, steadied by towering acidity and fathomless limestone- and shale-like minerality, though with some swirling in the glass I teased out hints of roasted lemon, baked pear, sage and dusty acacia. This is made in stainless steel. Next came a taste of the Lugano Superiore 2006 — yes, four years old — and my first note was “whoa, ferociously dry!” Again, though, with some coaxing, the wine gently unfurled and unfolded touches of lemon and lime peel, a kind of leafy/brambly quality and hints of grapefruit peel, lemon balm and limestone. The Lugano Superiore ages more than a year in small oak barrels, yet somehow avoids feeling woody or overdone; in fact, it’s a model of crystalline clarity and natural intensity. Finally, there was the Lugano del Lupo 2006, a late-harvest wine made from grapes affected by botrytis yet fermented to dryness (and only 14 percent alcohol). We’re back to all stainless steel with this wine, which evinces tremendous vibrancy and presence while managing to balance innate delicacy and elegance with its sense of power. In my brief encounter with this beauty, it peeled back layer upon layer of ripe and dried citrus flavors, almond and almond blossom, waxy white flowers and bee’s-wax, and a slightly grassy dusty herbal character. The Ca’ Lojera Lugano 2009 will drink nicely through 2013 or ’14; the Lugano Superiore ’06 could also go to 2013 or ’15; while the Lugano del Lupo 2006 seems ageless, though realistically it should retain its vitality through 2015 or ’16, well-stored.

Small quantities of the wines of Ca’ Lojera di Tiraboschi are imported to a few states in the U.S.