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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 "secessione" 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 Grandi Concorsi di Vinitaly competition (featured in last week's 30 Second Wine Advisor), 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.
Oltrepò Pavese 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 Barbera. The top wines here are red, and include Bonarda (also known as Croatina), 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; Buttafuoco, a blend of Barbera, Bonarda, Uva Rara and other red grapes, and Sangue di Giuda, 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 Pinot Noir, known in Italian as Pinot Nero.
Franciacorta, 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.
Lugana, 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 Trebbiano, a variety that usually gets little respect in the nearby Veneto or in France, where it's known as Ugni Blanc and is mostly used as the base wine for Cognac. The Luganese, though, insist that the local grape is Trebbiano di Lugana 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.
Discovering Gold with The California Wine Club!
Take a side trip nine miles east of Napa Valley and stumble across award-winning wines in Suisun Valley. You may not have heard about Napa's quiet neighbor to the east, but one sip and you'll be anxious to learn more.
This month's selection from The California Wine Club features Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards in Suisun Valley. Ledgewood makes just 15,000 cases per year and these two award-winning wines showcase this artisan winery's quest for perfection:
2003 Estate Grown "Suisun Valley" Merlot – A lush burst of blueberries, black cherry and mint lead to a chocolatey finish. Gold Medal, Silver Medal, Four Bronze Medals.
2003 Estate Grown "Suisun Valley" Chardonnay – This classic Chardonnay boasts toasty oak, melon, tropical fruit and a buttery mouth feel. Two Silver, Two Bronze Medals.
This month's selection is $32.95 plus shipping. Click below to order or call 1-800-777-4443:
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Because of my wine judging trip and travel in Italy, we've been publishing only limited updates on WineLoversPage.com between March 19-April 2.
More than 150,000 visitors attended Vinitaly during its five-day run in Verona. I've captured some of the sights and sounds of the event, and offered a glimpse into a day's work for a wine judge, in the short videos "Sights and sounds of Vinitaly" and "Judging Wine at Vinjitaly," on our Wine Video Watch page,
Then, just for a chuckle, I evoked the spirit of all the wine makers' dogs that played bit parts in the film Mondovino, grabbing about 30 seconds' worth of canine fun at Ca' Montebello winery in Montebello. You'll find this short video here:
I'll also be on hand in taped interviews on tomorrow's interactive Internet radio TalkShoe, talking about matching wine and food, with emphasis on the odd and offbeat pairings. You can call in live at 12:30 p.m. Monday, April 2, US EDT (17:30 in Western Europe), or download programs from the TalkShoe archives to your iPod or other listening device. See our TalkShoe page for details:
I've been publishing The 30 Second Wine Advisor only on Mondays while I'm away, but regular news and features will resume this week. Here's a link to last Monday's column and to the archivess:
Judgment in Verona (Mar. 26, 2006)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive: