Once upon a vine: the wines of the Italian lakes
Think ‘wine’ and Italy’s one of the first countries that comes to mind. The area around its northern lakes is dotted with vineyards that make world-famous wines, plus plenty of regional favourites you might not have heard of. Here’s our round-up of the must-try varieties and where to find them.
The wine-making regions
Italy makes more wine than anywhere else in the world, and the northern regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino and Veneto are some of its biggest wine-making areas. They also cover three of Italy’s most popular lakes – Garda, Como and Maggiore – where the shorelines and nearby hillsides are covered with over 130,000 hectares of vineyards. So there’s no better place to visit local producers and sample everything from reds like Barolo to pink, sparkling chiaretto.
With its mix of warm Mediterranean winds and cool alpine air, the mild climate west of Lake Maggiore is ideal for growing grapes – particularly the nebbiolo variety, a name that you’ll spot in some of the finest reds around.
Barolo: Nicknamed the King of Wines, a full-bodied Barolo is what one in five Italian households choose to serve with special meals like Easter and Christmas. Packing rich notes of liquorice, rose and truffle, it’s the perfect pick if you’re sitting down to a steak dinner or venison stew.
Moscato d’Asti: For something totally different, try this lightly sparkling dessert wine – low in alcohol, it has a crisp, sweet flavour. But the sweetness isn’t overpowering either, so it’s pretty versatile and goes well with all kinds of desserts, from fresh sorbet to creamy panna cottas.
Covering the whole of Lake Como, as well as the town of Sirmione on the southern shore of Lake Garda, Lombardy has some of Italy’s oldest vineyards. Look out for wines made from the centuries-old turbiana grapes that thrive in the heavy lake soil.
Lugana: The most well-known of the turbiana wines, it’s been produced in Italy for over a thousand years. Nowadays, you’ll find this dry, white wine served as an aperitif in bars all over the country. It also pairs well with antipasti, like cured meat and sheep’s cheese, or try it with freshly caught trout in a lakeside restaurant.
Groppello: Made from the groppelli grapes that only grow in the Valtènesi hills above Lake Garda, this is a real rarity. A medium-bodied red, it has hints of bitter almonds that complement spicy food. Try it with punchy pasta sauces like arrabbiata and fra diavolo – a fiery number flavoured with chilli flakes and cayenne pepper.
The climate between Lake Garda and the Dolomite mountains is cooler than elsewhere in Italy. And that suits pinot grapes just fine – the areas around the towns of Riva and Torbole are some of the best places in the world to produce this sought-after variety.
Pinot grigio: This is one of the most popular wines in the UK thanks to its fresh, fruity flavour. There’s nothing like trying it in the place where it was made though, and it’s a go-to pick whether you’re savouring seafood risotto or tucking into some of the best pizza around Lake Garda.
Gewürztraminer: Originally from the Alsace region of France, these grapes flourish in the alpine climate and clay-rich soil north of Lake Garda. It sits somewhere between a sweet and a dry white wine and is great to drink as an aperitif. And its distinctive lychee flavour means that it matches well with Middle Eastern dishes too.
Marzemino: One of Italy’s oldest wines, marzemino even gets a mention in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. It’s known for its rich, dark colour and light, plummy taste, and you can enjoy it with Italian favourites from pizza to polenta, as well as strong cheeses, like gorgonzola.
When it comes to litres of wine produced, the Veneto region leads the way. The vineyards from the west of Lake Garda all the way to the Adriatic Sea are the most productive in northern Italy, and you’ll find everything from reds and whites to bottles of fizz here.
Prosecco: Made from the region’s glera grape, and with over 600 million bottles made each year, this sparkling wine needs no introduction. It often sits next to Champagne in the shops, but it’s made using an easier process, so it’s cheaper to buy. Sip it by itself or enjoy it as a mixer in an Aperol® or Hugo Spritz, two of Europe’s must-try drinks.
Chiaretto: Italy’s take on rosé, chiaretto comes from the vineyards near Bardolino. Sometimes sparkling, the pale pink wine has hints of strawberries and citrus fruit, as well as touches of bitter tannin that should appeal to red wine drinkers too.
Bardolino: One of the region’s best-loved varieties, this red was the first Veneto vintage to be given the prestigious DOC label – the official Italian mark of high-quality wine. It’s made from a blend of local grapes, and is fresh, fruity and very drinkable.
What’s in a name: understanding the wine label
Frizzante vs spumante
Frizzante and spumante are both words to describe how sparkling a wine is – frizzantes are gently sparkling while spumantes have stronger bubbles. Prosecco is the most famous frizzante and if you’re searching for a spumante, Asti is one of the most popular.
DOC vs DOCG
The DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin) certificate was introduced in the early 1960s to classify the very best Italian wines. Over time, more and more wines were given DOC status so, in the 80s, a higher category was added – the DOCG (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin). At first, just five wines were awarded this top status – including Barolo from the Piedmont region – but today, the list has grown to 73.
If you see this on a label, it means the wine has come from the region where that specific variety was originally produced.
Superiore varieties have an alcohol strength that’s at least 0.5% higher compared to regular wines.
Where to go wine tasting near the Italian lakes
These wines are served in restaurants and bars all over the region, but you can also visit lots of vineyards to try the wine and get to know the people who make it.
Over on the shores of Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, many of the vineyards have been around since Roman times. And if you head north of Lake Garda, you’ll find some of the most high-profile wineries in Italy – like Cantina Ferrari, whose award-winning trentodoc is used to toast sporting victories from F1 to tennis. Or if you’re staying near the lake’s southern shore, visit the wine museum at Cantina Zeni near Bardolino to learn more about the Bardolino red.
Fancy leaving the legwork to someone else? One of the easiest ways to get out and explore the wine-making culture is to go on one of our handpicked trips.
Piedmont: Wine tasting on Lake Maggiore
Take a leisurely stroll through the streets of Stresa to the characterful Al Buscion wine bar. Tucked down a cobbled side street, this local favourite runs tasting evenings twice a week. Get to know the best wines with your expert hosts and learn the art of pairing wine with food, while you sample a selection of regional specialities.
Available from: Baveno and Stresa
Lombardy: Wine tasting and tour of Piona Abbey
One of the best day trips from Lake Como, this starts with a guided tour to the medieval Piona Abbey on the lakeshore. After a morning of exploring its peaceful gardens and courtyards, you’ll spend the afternoon in one of Italy’s lesser-known wine-making areas, the Valtellina Valley. People have been growing grapes here since the Middle Ages, and the terraced vineyards are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can taste some of the local vintage in an authentic wine cellar, along with another traditional delicacy, bresaola – thinly sliced, air-dried beef.
Available from: Bellagio, Cadenabbia, Menaggio and Tremezzo
Trentino: Lake Garda wine-tasting tour
One of our most popular Lake Garda experiences, this all-day outing takes in two family-run vineyards – Cantina Secchi and Cantina Balter. During the visits, you’ll learn about the wine-making process, from growing the grapes to producing the finished bottles of trentodoc and prosecco. And of course, there’ll be plenty of wine tasting and nibbles along the way too.
Available from: Limone, Malcesine and Riva
Wine festivals in Italy
Celebrate the region’s wines in true Italian style and time your visit to take in a wine festival. Lots of towns and villages organise festivities, especially at the end of the summer when the grape harvest is in full swing. Here’s a round-up of some of the most well-known.
Chiaretto Wine Festival, Lake Garda
Taking place over a weekend at the start of June, this two-day celebration is dedicated to the chiaretto rosé. It’s free to attend, but you can pay a small amount for a keepsake glass and try wines from different cantinas as you wander along the promenade. The waterfront itself is decorated top-to-bottom in pink to honour the local vintage, and there’s a packed schedule of live music and dragon boat races, with a firework display on the final day to end the festivities with a bang.
Bellagio Wine Festival, Lake Como
Founded by a local restaurant owner who was keen to promote the area’s wines, this is a laid-back event hosted in one of his traditional trattorias. Look out for it during early September and head along to sample a glass or two and chat with the local producers.
Lugana Grape Festival, Lake Garda
Known locally as the Festa dell’Uva, this festival takes place at the end of September in the lakeside town of Lugana di Sirmione. The local trebbiano di lugana grape variety is the star of the show, and there’s a party atmosphere as corks are pulled and people enjoy the live music and dancing.
Bardolino wine festival, Lake Garda
Held at the end of September or start of October, this five-day celebration sees the summer out in style. All the local varieties are showcased, from fresh whites to the full-bodied and fruity Bardolino classico red. And as well as getting a taste for the wines, there’s lots to see and do, with exhibitions, craft stalls and outdoor concerts lining Bardolino’s promenade.
Have we tickled your tastebuds? Sip back and relax on your next Lakes & Mountains holiday to Italy.
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