Birth of a blockbuster

Lugana, a fresh white wine from the Lake Garda region, became popular thanks to wine tourism. Elisabetta Tosi charts its rise.

Lake Garda
Lake Garda

Italy has many beautiful places, many of which are also great wine production areas. Few, however, are as able to convey the authentic spirit of Italy as the Lugano region. Or, at least, this seems to be the belief of those millions of German consumers who have for years continually bought and drunk the region’s white wine, known simply as Lugana.  

Now, the big Italian companies are looking to invest in the wine. Will other consumers embrace it as enthusiatically?

A German passion

Lugana is a white wine made from Turbiana, an autochthonous grape that is a relative of both Verdicchio and Trebbiano, albeit genetically different from both. While the commercial success of this wine appears to be a recent phenomenon, the love of Germans for Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, and its white wine dates back far into the past. Johann von Goethe visited in 1786 for the first time and was seduced. Since then, it’s not only German travellers who have been captivated by the beauty of the region, of which the wine seems to be the perfect mirror. “People love Lugana from the first sip. It’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t appreciate it,” says Carlo Veronese, the general manager of the local Consortium. “It has everything you wish for today: not too much acidity, not too much salinity. It’s perfumed but, again, not too much.” He says that it matches well with many different cuisines, from Asian fish dishes to, of course, German cooking.

The Lugana production area extends into two regions, Lombardy and Veneto, and has 1,800ha under vine, mostly in Lombardy. Last year, the region produced 149,265hl of wine, or 16m bottles; in 2008, only a decade ago, production was just 66.55hl. As for value, in 2008 it was €23.4m ($27.5m); in 2017, it reached €77.7m. The average price (ex-cellar) of a bottle of Lugana was €3.20; by 2017, it was €4.80.

When a category expands this fast, slower sales often follow, but not with Laguna. Bavarian consumers in particular are so used to drinking the white wine during their holidays at Lake Garda (a particularly popular destination, where many Germans own holiday homes), that they are not willing to forego it once back home. This is one of the reasons that the price keeps increasing, and the strong relationship with tourism is certainly one of the keys to the success of Lugana in Germany. As of 2016, Lake Garda was Italy’s third largest tourist destination, with more than 23m overnight stays across the three shores of the Lake – Trentino, Lombardy and Veneto – more than half of which were from Germans. The bond with Germany, particularly with Bavaria, has been built over decades and is so strong that it’s usual to hear people in Munich say “unsere Gardasee”, or “our Lake Garda”. Moreover, many Garda municipalities are twinning with German towns: Verona itself is twinned with Munich. 

“Germany still accounts for a very large proportion of our exports today,” says Luca Formentini, president of the Lugana Consortium  and owner of the Selva Capuzza winery. He says Lugana’s traditional market was always Bavaria and the south of Germany, but that “in recent years we have seen a spread of Lugana increasingly to the north. That’s why in May 2018 we organised our first event in Berlin. We are realising that Lugana is a product with an important potential.”

So wedded to the wine are they that Germany’s price-conscious consumers stick with it even as prices increase. “Importers and distributors couldn’t do without it even if they wanted to,” says Veronese. “They have looked for alternatives, such as Custoza or Soave.” But the customers want Lugana. “If he doesn’t find it in a shop, or in a restaurant, he looks for it elsewhere. In Germany there are many excellent whites, the local ones included, but the consumers don’t perceive other wines – like, say, Pinot Grigio – as an alternative.” Unlike in the US, the Germans don’t consider Pinot Grigio the archetypal Italian white wine.

Hard work pays off

The German love affair with Lake Garda aside, Lugana also owes it success to the tireless communication and promotion work done by the producers and the Consortium. “The Consortium was founded in 1990 and the following year we attended ProWein for the first time,” says Veronese. “We were just a dozen wineries and nobody knew us. People looked at our sign on the booth, ‘Lugana’, and asked if we came from Lugano, Switzerland.” Veronese says they had to explain everything from scratch, “and so we did, organising plenty of tastings also in the following years and always talking to the people about our region, the lake, the landscape, the grape.”

For their part, the producers spent time doing comparison tastings with the best white wines from around the world, partly to understand their own product better, but also to work out ways to improve. Over the years, such efforts have paid off both in terms of sales growth and awareness of the appellation. Now, companies from other regions are vying for a piece of Lugana’s success. One of those is the Santa Margherita Group, which in 2017 acquired control of CàMaiol, a renowned winery in Desenzano del Garda, Lombardy. “For a long time we have been keeping an eye on the Lugana area,” says Ettore Nicoletto, CEO of Santa Margherita, which almost singlehandedly built Pinot Grigio into the international success it is today. “Pinot Grigio is an important asset of our business and still is going very well, but we can’t deceive ourselves that its success will last forever. We needed to identify one or more products that can take up the challenge from the Pinot Grigio; Vermentino di Sardegna and Lugana responded to our need, thus in 2017 we acquired a winery in both the areas.” Nicoletto doesn’t hide the fact that Lugana’s numbers are very different from those of Pinot Grigio, but the plan is not to replicate Pinot Grigio. “We cannot compare the two wines,” he says. “Lugana is a niche appellation. The big bet in the next years will be to define its identity in an even more precise way.”

Paolo Fabiani, general manager of the Tenuta Roveglia winery, agrees with him. “I think that we have just been scratching the surface of the potential of the Lugana wine so far,” he says. “From now on, our main goal should be to go deeper, to know better and better this product in order to improve it and always remain competitive.” 

Despite the limited quantities, Lugana is exported to 80 countries. Italians themselves get only a few crumbs: 3m bottles. And the arrival in the region of famous companies – not only Santa Margherita, but also Allegrini from Valpolicella, which recently bought 40ha in Brescia on which Turbiana will be planted – will no doubt introduce the wine to new markets. 

For producers though, it’s not yet time to rest on their laurels. “We are already looking ahead, to offer something more to our consumers,” says Luca Formentini. “It’s time to try something new.” He says that producers are already experimenting with new styles of Laguna, including producing classic method sparkling wines. “Our greatest satisfaction today is that more and more frequently the consumers says they love aged Lugana. Finally, they are realising that this is not only a modern and pleasant fresh wine, but overall a great white wine for ageing.”

The question, of course, is how much of this popular white will be available for ageing once the rest of the world discovers it.

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