Lake Effect(s): Making New Friends + Keeping the Old

Lake Garda has QUITE the effect. Both on the grapes and the soul. In the morning, the grand glacial lake glimmers with good tidings. At lunch, the sun bounces off the swells, vibrating with potential energy. It agitates towards writing or napping. As blinding lake light does. At sunset, as I walked towards the sailing ship I’d spend the next few hours on, Lago di Garda sparkled, indefatigable. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and therefore strode into a pole. I opened a flesh wound and righteously stubbed my toe. Making eyes with a lake trumped watching my step. It gets richer. In the afterglow, as the sun descended, judicious cloud cover rolled in, and the reflected light was softer, and possibly even sparkle-ier than it was right before sunset, as if the night sky was making its bed in the lake. It’s a helluva pond. Northern Italy is rife with lakes. West to East we have Maggiore, Lugano, Como, Iseo and then…Lake Garda, the largest in the country. It was carved by glaciers more than a (literally) cool 1.5 million-ish years ago. And now, beyond causing rapturous writers to maim themselves, it has a profound effect on the viticulture. Scenery aside, I didn’t know what a kettle of fish (or lake full of ducklings and cygnets, as the season happened to serve), I’d be jumping into when I ventured to the Garda Wine Stories gathering. For the unfamiliar, the Garda DOC cradles Lake Garda. Duh. It lies mostly in the Veneto, spanning into a bit of Lombardy. Within the vineyards that qualify are ten historic appellations – Valpolicella Amarone and Soave anyone? But many of these smaller DOCs are blends. Whereas the Garda DOC was created with the goal of amplifying single varietal wines. There were two things that made me itchy—one of which is the size of the region. A DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is typically for smaller areas. The expanse of the Garda DOC made me wonder if it shouldn’t be split up into more DOC’s, or be labeled as IGT given the large variety of wines made within it, single varietal or not. Furthermore, what of the smaller and more exacting of the ten historical DOCs? If making great wine, why not just label with the well-known moniker? And why the push for single-varietally labeled wines? Is it because they are in fact making great ones? Or is it that in a great deal of the new world, and some of the old world, the bottles many understand are labelled varietally? These were some of the questions that crossed my mind after the initial presentations I attended given by, amongst others, Paolo Fiorini, president of the Garda DOC consortium. The presenters stressed that although the garda DOC is large, the quality control is up to snuff. They also admitted the region is in flux. They’re studying everything from climate to the biodiversity that will influence the DOC going forward. As for the historic appellations, Fiorini assured us that he has a fondness for them and that the Garda DOC wants to work in synergy with them. They want to be our new best friend. But we can still keep the old. Bring on that Amarone. Granted, it’s not like each winery must pick one appellation or another. To wit, I tasted with a winemaker who makes Garda DOC Trebbiano, but also a Lugana DOC which also is Trebbiano. Same grape, but different labeling and different style. Their Garda DOC focuses on freshness, while the Lugana is aged longer. Before I go on, what are these varieties? In whites you’ll find (among others): Trebbiano (di Soave or di Lugana), Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Riesling, and Garganega. Reds include (also among others): Corvina, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to still wine, the denomination makes Charmat and traditional method sparkling wines, and although not approved yet, they are hoping to be able to label those varietally too. So, what’s the deal? Do these wines deserve to be DOC wines? Are they that different? Is there a throughline in the Garda wines, despite the varied terroir and varieties? Well, there are those lake effects. After a day in the fields, soaking up the sun reflecting off the crystalline blue-green waters, I myself felt lake effects. Me and the grapes. I’m pretty sure (I couldn’t ASK the grapes) we both benefited. I enjoyed cooling breezes that crossed the lake, keeping me fresh even as the sun ripened, er, warmed me. There is the diurnal range that contributes to the grapes ripening jussssst right—they get those juicy fruit flavors built as the sun reflects off the lake, but the chill at night keeps acidity in the game. And as for humans, it gets you ready to play even after a full day in the sun. After three hours sampling mostly white wines on a sailing ship as the sun went down, a few other journalists and I couldn’t resist the urge to close the night on a red wine at the hotel bar. There is something to be said for heady sunlight and refreshing night breezes. The lake ripens, the lake freshens, the lake giveth life and energy. The proof is in the wine pudding. What makes a Garda wine, and is it delicious? Stylistically, I found the wines had a particular rich ripeness of fruit, with a nice hit of refreshing, but not overwhelming, acidity. And then there was the je ne sais quoi (or however you say that in Italian) factor. They were unique, and I don’t know how to explain it any more than I can explain that I know it’s my dad calling before I look at my ringing phone but…the wines had their own frequency. As for quality, I tasted quite a few gems. I particularly think the region has a way with white wines. I had some stunning aged Chardonnays, quality Pinot Grigios…and at Azienda Agricola Pratello I had Rieslings that reinforced my love of the variety, but these had that Garda kick of richness and freshness that made them stand out. As for reds, we tasted less of those, but given my still-limited experience, Garda does particularly well by Merlot. I can stand behind the high quality of the Garda DOC. Given the admissions that the DOC is still sorting itself out, I think it will be interesting to see where it goes in the coming years. In addition to having goals like varietally labeled sparkling wines, there are other unique plans they have, such as championing lesser-known grapes like Rebo and Muller-Thurgau. And what of the historic appellations within the Garda DOC? Once home, I lucked out that a shipment of wines from some of the historic regions had been sent to me. I tasted my way through some excellent stuff. I think there is room and opportunity for all of it, so long as all the appellations really do adhere to DOC (and/or DOCG) standards. I’ll ramble no longer and share a few of my most favorite-est of vinos. First up—my top three Garda DOC picks: Azienda Agricola Prendina Garda DOC Pinot Grigio Blinded on this I’d be more apt to call it a Pinot Gris than a Pinot Grigio—same grape but different style. It’s a gorgeous wine, yellow with flecks of gold. There’s a hint of minerality and gunflint on the nose. On the palate, it is rife with fleshy peach and quince, and there is a lemon curd finish. It’s rich for a PG but also dry as can be and refreshing. Winner winner. Perla del Garda Millesimato Garda DOP Extra Brut 100% Chardonnay. Everyone was going gaga for this! Aged 72 months. Riddled by hand! And just exquistite. Caramel and nuts. But also…pine cone? Gob-smacking freshness for something with a smidge of age. 2015 Azienda Agricola Ricchi Meridiano Chardonnay "There is no Ricchi without Garda” we were told, gazing on Ricchi’s sun-drenched vineyards, as sour cherries ripened in the shade. Then we saw the cellars, and eventually found ourselves in a dark and goth-y cellar with aged Chardonnay and plates of Parmesan to salt the deal. The Chardonnay had a bit of gunflint on the nose, then on the palate it was the perfect savory-sweet breakfast wine, rife with caramel corn notes, with a squeeze of lemon. Possibly one of my favorites of the trip. ANNNDDD now for a couple of historic appellations: 2021 Le Morette di Valerio Zenato Bardolino Chiaretto Bardolino Chiaretto love manifested around the same time as my Tavel infatuation. When I found out I was going to Lake Garda, and that I’d be staying in Bardolino, my heart leapt with visions of glass after glass of compelling Bardolino Chiaretto. Chiaretto means “pale” in Italian, but it is not a pale rosé. We could call it a pale red, perhaps. This one was medium minus salmon pink. Wet stone, saline, and peach/raspberry vibes on the nose. Tart on the palate—it hits with pink grapefruit, more of the peach/raspberry vibe and a tingle of sparkle (I don’t know how else to explain that) then a swath of cooling stone, like entering a dark stony museum on a hot summer day. The perfect seesaw of acidic uppers and dripping granite chill. 2019 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore 80% Corvina/10% Rondinella/10% Osleta. I’ve long had a sweet spot for Valpolicella. They are lighter and chiller—full of ripe red fruit. And some spice. And just cheerful lesser-on-the-tannin-higher-on-the acid cheer. And then the finish speaks to ripeness and possible bachhanalia and again a pinch of spice. Before my trip I’d never (in my immediate memory) had the wines of the Garda DOC. I did have fondness for the historical appellations within. The trip make me gain appreciation for Garda. Retasting several of the smaller appellations reinforced my love for them. There’s a place for all. Sometimes in life you have to let new people in—even new groups, if your newfound love has a solid friend group—but also there are the friends who have been there and always will be. Whether thrilling because they are new, or heart-binding because the roots you’ve put down with them are so deep they are impenetrable, you need them. To affirm you as a cohesive human, and allow growth, I assure you there’s always room for more. More wine, more life, more lakes. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: Solstice Drinks for All! Goode Work, If You Can Find It Rosé All May and June, and July, and… May the 4th Be With You Cocktails Lodi Rules Rock Kosher Wine: More Than Manischewitz Academy Wine You can also listen to Ellen's podcast , The Wine Situation here . Check out her recent transcripts of the Final Five questions: Wine Situation Final Five! Mike Stone Wine Situation Final Five! Kathleen Willcox


Valpolicella Superiore Corvina Blend 2019

All the ripe red fruits you want! With a smidge of spice. Juice all day. — 2 years ago

Paul, GV and 8 others liked this

Azienda Agricola Ricchi

Meridiano Garda Chardonnay 2015

Caramel corn. Sun drenched salted and mineral. One of my top wines from my Garda trip. — 2 years ago

Paul, Eric and 11 others liked this

Perla del Garda

Lugana Millesimato Extra Brut

The toast and nuts of aged bubbles plus like…pine cones? Believe. — 2 years ago

Paul, Eric and 10 others liked this

Le Morette di Valerio Zenato

Bardolino Chiaretto Classico Rosé 2021

Wet stone, saline, tart and tingly. Chiaretto di Bardolino is unnnnnnderrated — 2 years ago

Paul, GV and 7 others liked this
MaJ CappS

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Such a great wine house!