Verdicchio of a lesser god? Let Lugana have its day in the sun!

Above: Turbiana vines on Zenato’s Sansonina estate in Peschiera del Garda.

If given a quarter for every time they’ve recently heard the line did you know that Lugana is actually made from Verdicchio?, Italian-focused American wine professionals would all be wealthy today.

In the light of this “recent” discovery, many would be surprised to learn that the genetic kinship between Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Lugana, otherwise known as Turbiana, the primary grape used in Lugana production, was actually identified nearly 30 years ago.

And they might also keen to learn that leading Italian ampelographer Ian D’Agata has not so recently proposed that Turbiana, however related to Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Soave (another genetic family member), should be considered its own, distinct biotype.

Over the last couple of years, Lugana has become fashionable among the American wine glitterati, in part thanks to laudable efforts by the Lugana consortium to raise awareness of the wines. But those who have spent any significant time in Brescia province already knew that it has always been the still white wine of choice for those who inhabit the lands that stretch from the banks of Lake Garda to the Oglio river in the west, a tributary of the Po.

Yesterday, I published “Is Trebbiano di Lugana (Turbiana) the same grape as Verdicchio? Or is it a distinct biotype?” on the Zenato-Sansonina blog, where I take a look at D’Agata’s call to reconsider Turbiana’s genetic legacy. It’s a small and perhaps insignificant detail in a much bigger viticultural picture. But it’s also an example of how we are ill-served by pigeonholing Italian grape varieties within a strict (and restrictive) genetic hierarchy.

Verdicchio = Turbiana, the status quo syllogism goes; Verdicchio is used to produced some of the greatest white wines in the world (that much we should all agree on); therefore Turbiana must be capable of producing some of the greatest white wines in the world.

Given some of the extraordinary bottlings of Turbiana I’ve tasted over the last decade, I concur that Turbiana can deliver spectacular white wines with depth, nuance, and rich minerality (the savory character is particularly popular among au courant enohipsters).

But I would argue that it’s not the genetic kinship that creates Lugana’s potential to impress on a world stage. The best Verdicchio grows in predominantly sandstone soils in central Italian mountains that overlook or are in close proximity to the Adriatic. Turbiana, on the other hand, is cultivated in clay- and morainic-rich soils that lie — literally — on the mostly flat southern banks of Lake Garda. On my palate, the wines couldn’t be more distinct from one another, especially when you compare Lugana and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, the former with a more savory character, the latter with a more fruit-driven flavor profile.

The toponym Lugana comes from the Latin lucus meaning a wood, grove, or thicket of trees sacred to a deity. The Romans considered modern-day Lugana and neighboring Valpolicella to be magical places where vineyards and olive groves flourished thanks to the great “protector,” Lake Garda. The knew that the immense body of water, Italy’s largest lake, made Lugana a viticulturally unique growing area, in part because of the temperate maritime influence, in part because of the distinctive morainic and clay subsoils.

There may be a solid genetic link between the two varieties. And as D’Agata, notes, “clearly, further studies are needed.” But the growing conditions are so different from one another and the wines so distinct from one another that I believe it’s time to stop calling Lugana a Verdicchio of a lesser god and let it have its day in the sun.

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