The Italian Lake Region, sitting at the foothills of the Alps, and stretching from Piedmont to Lombardy and the Veneto, is an area with some of the most awe-inspiring bodies of water in the world. For centuries, writers and poets have been inspired by the crystal clear waters, dramatic mountainous backdrops, and picturesque villages to pen some of the most passionate prose of all time.
During the warmer months, travelers descend upon the region to partake in numerous sporting and leisure activities found on both the water and the land. The athletic choices range from swimming, sailing, and windsurfing, to mountain biking, rock climbing, and horseback riding. Or visitors can simply stroll the ancient towns — like Sirmione with its imposing medieval castle overlooking the lake — stopping in at a cafe for gelato or espresso, or at a restaurant for a romantic lakeside meal.
And while each lake has its own special charms — Lake Como, for instance, has George Clooney, one of many gorgeous sights around the lake (if you’re lucky enough to spot him!) — it is Lake Garda, named in Wine Enthusiast’s “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations of 2019,” that attracts wine lovers who are keen on sampling the unique Garda wines at their source. And Lake Garda is easy to get to — just a one to two hour drive from Milan and Venice.
The Wine of Lake Garda
Wine has been produced on Lake Garda’s hilly shores since prehistoric times, most notably in the southern area, where the lake is divided into two distinct regions: Lombardy on the western side and Veneto (famous for Prosecco, Soave, Valpolicella, and more) to the east.
The Garda DOC wine appellation (DOC refers to the guarantee of a wine’s origins and quality) was created in 1996. Its wine production is concentrated around Lake Garda, where it intertwines with 10 appellations: Valtènesi, Colli Mantovani, and San Martino della Battaglia in Lombardy, and Bardolino, Custoza, Valpolicella, Soave, Valdadige, and Durello in Veneto, with Lugana divided between the two areas. Read my article about Lugana white wine here.
It’s interesting to step back and note that Italy, as a unified country, is only 160 years old, and most Italians still tend to think of themselves as, for example, Tuscan or Sicilian, or whatever region they grew up in, rather than just Italian. Today there are about thirty-four native languages and related dialects spoken in Italy and most Italians don’t speak or understand local dialects outside of their own.
The fact that two distinct regional areas, Lombardy (where they speak the Eastern Lombard dialect) and Veneto (where Venetian is spoken), came together to create one wine appellation shows a strong desire to promote and pay homage to this unique winemaking area centered around beautiful Lake Garda.
When talking about the wines of Lake Garda, it’s important to note that during ancient times, massive glaciers came down from the alps and carved out the lake, depositing tons of rocks (see photo) and mineral-laden soil onto the lake’s floor as well as the surrounding lands. The best vineyards rest on this morainic soil and Garda DOC wines, mainly made from native grape varieties, tend to express a variety of mineral notes like chalk, crushed stone, iron, and steel.
In addition to the the fertile soil, the region is blessed with a warm and sunny mediterranean climate. The heat is moderated during the growing season by cool nighttime temperatures and constant daytime breezes that come off the lake — perfect growing conditions for grapes.
Lake Garda’s Food and Wine
When talking about Italian wine, food is always a part of the equation. Lake Garda’s rich agricultural area includes vineyards, olive groves, and lemon trees, and its world-renowned cuisine consists of many fine, locally-produced products. Traditional dishes in the area include black ink risotto, buttery polenta sprinkled with grated alpine cheese, meat-stuffed handmade pastas, lake fish drizzled with the special Garda DOC olive oil, and, at Christmastime, the famous panettone, a sweet cake studded with dried fruits.
Garda DOC wines are made in a variety of styles and can suit just about any meal. Around Lake Garda, you can find light and mineral Bardolino reds, refreshing Chiaretto rosés (from both Bardolino and Valtènesi), fragrant Soave, Lugana, and Custoza white wines, and the famous Valpolicella red wines, like amarone, made from dried grapes.
Following are some wines to look for at restaurants and on your wine store’s shelves. And if you are traveling to Lake Garda, many wineries welcome visitors for tours and tastings — a fun way to spend an afternoon. Click on the red links below for more information about visits.
Sparkling Garda DOC
As of 2017, sparkling wines made within the ten noted appellations have been designated as simply Garda DOC. These fruity, yet dry spumante (sparkling) wines are a great alternative to Prosecco.
Averoldi “Octavius” Brut
Perla del Garda Extra Brut
Ricchi Essenza Metodo Classico pas Dosé
Cantina Castelnuovo Garda DOC Brut
Bulgarini Perlage Brut
Riondo Garda DOC Brut
Cantina Gozzi Rugiada Garda DOC
White (look for younger wines, like the 2017 and 2018 vintages).
Pratello Lugana Cattuliano
Bulgarini Lugana 010
Cantina di Custoza Val dei Molini Garganega
Cavalchina Amedeo Gargenaga
Pieropan Soave Classico
The name Chiaretto (Key-ah-RHET-oh) derives from the Italian word "chiaro" meaning "light" or "pale.” During vinification, the juice is only allowed to sit briefly on the skins, resulting in a wine with delicate color, aromas and taste that are meant to be drunk within a year or two of the vintage.. Chiarettos come from Bardolino on the Veneto side of Lake Garda, and from Valtènesi, in Lombardy.
Benazzoli Bardolino Chiaretto
Cavalchina Bardolino Chiaretto
Pratello Valtènesi Chiaretto
Avanzi Valtènesi Chiaretto
Red (from lightest to heaviest)
Benazzoli Bardolino Dafne
Ca’Vegar Bardolino Classico
Castelforte Corvina Veronese
Ricchi Ribo Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvigon
Pratello Mille 1 Garda Rosso
Rocca Sveva Recioto di Soave, a sweet wine made from moscato and garganega grapes that have been dried for 90 days.