Lombardy, strategically placed at the top center of the boot-shaped map of Italy, surrounds the great city of Milan and is widely admired as a European center of design, fashion and high finance.
But Lombardy isn't such a big name for most wine enthusiasts, for whom it is overshadowed by its more famous neighbors: Piemonte with its big, Nebbiolo-based Barolo, Barbaresco and others; Tuscany with its ancient Chianti and other fine Sangiovese-based wines, and the Veneto with its wealth of familiar wine names from Soave to Valpolicella and its magisterial Amarone.
It's named after the Longobards, or Lombards, an ancient Germanic tribe that was subdued if not entirely vanquished by the Romans, and if the occasional graffiti calling for "<i>secessione</i>" seem unlikely, there's nonetheless a tangible sense among latter-day Lombards that they consider themselves just a little different from their Italian neighbors.
Outside of Milan, tourists perhaps know Lombardy best as the home of Northern Italy's spectacularly scenic Lake District, a series of long, lakes scratched between soft mountains by retreating glaciers after the last ice age, a setting not entirely dissimilar to New York's Adirondacks and Finger Lakes.
Across Lombardy's southern flank, though, where the mountains drop down toward the fertile Po Valley plain, where we get away from Milan to smaller cities with less familiar names such as Pavia, Brescia and Mantova, there's a series of excellent wine regions whose names for most of us stop well short of being household words.
During the short break between my recent duty as a wine judge in <I>I Grandi Concorsi di Vinitaly</i> competition (featured in last week's <I>30 Second Wine Advisor</I>
), the 30 international wine-writer judges had the opportunity to tour Northern Italian wine regions. My group drew Lombardy, and I'm glad we did. Although I've enjoyed and reported on Lombardy wines on occasion in these pages, it was a special treat to be able to visit a number of top regional wineries and dine in some of the wine region's top restaurants. I'll publish more detailed wine and dining reports and photos after I get back home. Today, in quick overview from west to east, let's get familiar with the three Lombardy wine regions that we visited.
<b>Oltrepò Pavese</b> is named for its geographical location, "across the Po from Pavia." The smallish southwestern corner of the region, it's just adjacent to Piemonte and shares some of its neighbor's wine-grape varieties, including <b>Barbera</b>. The top wines here are red, and include <b>Bonarda</b> (also known as <b>Croatina</b>), a grape that has traveled to Piemonte and even Argentina but got its start in this wooded hill country and is made here in a variety of forms, from light and fizzy to big and bold; <b>Buttafuoco</b>, a blend of Barbera, Bonarda, Uva Rara and other red grapes, and <b>Sangue di Giuda</b>, a similar blend vinified as a light, sweet and slightly fizzy low-alcohol red wine not unlike Lambrusco. Some producers here are also making persuasive <b>Pinot Noir</b>, known in Italian as <b>Pinot Nero</b>.
<b>Franciacorta</b>, on the shores of Lake Iseo, one of the Lake Country's smaller but very pretty lakes, is known almost entirely for its sparkling wines made by the traditional Champagne method of individual fermentation in the bottle, using the traditional Champagne grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Nero. I'm going to come right out and say it: The best Franciacorta is not merely as good as Champagne, it would be difficult to distinguish it from Champagne.
<b>Lugana</b>, on the south shore of Lake Garda, is a region where fresh fish is plentiful and good, and it may be no coincidence that Lugana is almost entirely a white-wine producer. By far the dominant grape is <b>Trebbiano</b>, a variety that usually gets little respect in the nearby Veneto or in France, where it's known as <b>Ugni Blanc</b> and is mostly used as the base wine for Cognac. The Luganese, though, insist that the local grape is <b>Trebbiano di Lugana</b> and that it's a completely different grape. I'll leave the botanical details to the ampelographers, but the proof of the tasting is in the bottle: Rich, textured and showing substantial fruit and minerality, capable of developing surprising richness and depth with a decade in the bottle, top Lugana deserves to be ranked among the world's great white wines.
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