Lake Como: Romance, Gossip and…Wine

img_4914bRomance and gossip, love and stars, and starlets. Lake Como is known worldwide for being a main stage of jet-set life. Ever since the times of the Grand Tour, back in the late 1700s and the whole of the 1800s, when the young heirs of the best European families, as well as the lads of those families who longed for making it to the top spots of society in Europe, the shores, the valleys, the mountains of this area have struck the hearts and the minds of would-be entrepreneurs, bankers, writers, painters, historians, philosophers, men and women of the most different origins and affiliations, all coming to Como and its lake as if a magnet were attracting them. Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, Shelley, Wordworth, are but a few of the names of renowned artists who loved Lake Como and its landscapes. To come closer to our times, President Kennedy spent a few days in Bellagio, Winston Churchill even painted his own vision of the lake, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer was a habitué of the lake. Today, the area is most known for being the hide-out for several Hollywood stars (one name for all: George Clooney), for Arab sheiks and their many wifes, and more recently for young Russians with lots of zeros on their bank account statements. There is one more reason the Lake Como area is worth a visit, and that is wine.

Yes, you got it right: wine. Lake Como might not be Chiantishire, yet it can offer the visitor a broad choice of interesting wines, mostly made by small producers, sometimes smaller than small. There are some one hundred or so wine producers, in the areas and territories around Lake Como, and many of them do not even reach 10,000 square meters in size!

You can understand production is artisan-like: each and every grape of the vineyards is cared for with the highest of passion and attention. From start to end, these growers could tell you anything and everything about each and every one of their plants, how many leaves, how many grapes, if they are growing left or right. These vineyards are like sons and daughters, to them, and as such they care after them.

img_4977The history of vineyards and wines in the area goes very back in time: its roots go deep down into history, to early Roman colonization of Northern Italy, and maybe even further back, when these territories were inhabitated by peoples of Celtic blood and culture, who lived in wooded, forested areas, worked the land, hunted for boars, and drank wine, lots of good wine. It is only recently, though, producers around Lake Como have started working together: IGT Terre Lariane, an organization that groups some of there producers under its umbrella and brand name, was only born in 2008. It is only as old as a second grade kid, we might say. But eager to grow.

“We’re small, but growing and will grow more. And we dream big in the future”, that is what Claudia Crippa, President of IGT Terre Lariane, told me while leading me to a tour of La Costa, her own family winery. Located on the gentle slopes of the Montevecchia hills, one of the main wine making areas around Lake Como, La Costa is by far the largest of the IGT Terre Lariane wineries, and someway the true engine of the organization. The Montevecchia hills host several members of IGT Terre Lariane, while another important area for wine making is Alto Lago (Upper Lake). More producers are scattered in Valle San Martino, near Lecco and along the Adda River, and on the hills to the West of Como.

“We started in seven, we are now sixteen and two other farmers will join in with this 2016 grape harvest”, Claudia tells me. What is more important, IGT Terre Lariane has established itself as a reliable representative of the world of viticulture in Brianza and Lake Como, its two target areas, for their ability to retrieve traditional vineyards that once flourished here, but always with a keen eye for innovation and a vision of the future.

img_4857b“Despite having a great tradition in wine making, as witnessed by the many testimonies left by travellers over the centuries, Como and Lecco have always had the reputation of areas where you do not produce good wine”. A bad name my guide claims derived from a combination of causes: “People in the area are traditionally used to working alone, not much collaboration and working together. Estates are usually small, many a time below 10,000 square meters in size, which also means there was a great gap in the resources each and every farmer could dispose of”.

So, until very recently, a few decades ago, wine making was still a matter of ancient processes and doings, a home-made business: grapes were squeezed and pressed by hand (or maybe we should say by feet!), the wine would be moved from one barrel to the other with buckets, with the problems of oxidation and contamination we can expect. Vineyards would not be renovated or substituted, and as a consequence productivity and quality followed a declining trend over time. Given the size of the estates and the basic processes used, production was small and mainly for homestay consumption. No actual contribution to the well being of a family. If you add the phenomen of deep industrialization that in the post-WWII years transformed the economy of the area from agricultural to industrial, we can understand why Lake Como has lost its appeal in terms of wine making. As a result, vineyards on the flat lands were scratched, and farming estates turned into industrial sites. The slopes of the Montevecchia hills and Valle San Martino, and of the Upper Lake that had hosted vineyards ever since pre-Roman times were left to themselves and swiftly turned wild again. The wood soon afterward overwhelmed the vineyards reclaiming whole control of abandoned lands and estates.

“IGT Terre Lariane was born out of the need to change this state of things and conquer back our place in the world of wines”, says Claudia. “Less than a decade later, we can say that we have been able to accomplish our goals: we have retrieved the Verdese vineyard, typical of the area, you won’t find it anywhere else in Italy, implemented quantity and quality of our wines which, today, ook good even on the best tables and are starting to be rewarding in terms of economics”, the President’s proud words.

With her, we rode a little ‘history of this small reality of even smaller winemakers – some do not even get hectare of vineyard – that in a few years has managed to erase decades of ill fame. And the eyes are increasingly pointing towards the future, towards new developments, towards innovation that has deep roots in tradition.

“One of the first jobs that we did as the consortium was to take the cooperative Ager, who collaborates with the University of Milan, who made a mapping. Not a truen zoning: the work carried out by Ager and the University of Milan was rather a monitoring and a photograph of the different types of climate and soil in the area”.

“We are all small wineries, some really micro, actually, even below one hectare. But in development. All working with love and passion, and an eye for the future. Because in wine making you have to think in terms of ten years at least: a vineyard is not a short term bond, you are not going to get financial results in a very short time, we talk about years and years of work, hard work”.

And these last few years have put a strain on the Consortium’s ability to ‘make the group’. “2014: a disaster; 2015: super vintage but quantitatively few grapes. 2016: not easy to manage. I must say we have been put severely to the test: in July, the mood was not the best, I assure you, but in the end we all made it through”, admits Claudia Crippa.

A major step was finding a common character for all IGT Terre Lariane members. “Traditionally – she goes on saying – each of us had planted several vineyards: Pinot noir, Riesling, Syrah, Merlot and so on. The territory, though, is definitely marked by a Merlot with organoleptic characteristics and common tastes different from those of every other area”.

A characteristic found mostly in whites but also in the red wines, a common factor for all IGT Terre Lariane wines, although distributed on soils far away by geography and climate.

“Here in Montevecchia, the flavor comes from the calcareous marl; in Alto Lago by the presence of soil of volcanic origin, also characterized by a mineral note”.

Space for future developments?

“The Como and Lecco vineyard registers report more than a hundred wineries, so there is room to increase the size of IGT Terre Lariane. We offer free courses to help raise the level of training and skills of all the wine growers of the area. We are carrying out a project for a common cellar that we believe will give future to the area. We already offer our members a chance to make their wine in the IGT Terre Lariane production site: a resource for all our members, who are not large enough to have their own vinification machines”.

Innovation is another important aspect for this group of small producers. Innovation in terms of vineyards – “Many of us are exploring new farming techniques, or introducing new grapes, with the supervision of research institutes” -, but also in terms of exploring new ways to make wine.

“I remember especially the project of a common wine, a very special cuvee, with our wine making friends in Fellbach, Germany. Their wine producer organization has a long history and an excellent organization, from soil to marketing. They take deep care of every single aspect of the vineyard, planting new stakes every year, mowing herbs all the time. They are very strong on the commercial side, too: their store is always full of people who buy and drink heir wine. We have a dream: they have got Stuttgart, large and wealthy city, just down the hill of the vineyards; we have Milan, Como, Lecco in a half an hour drive… who knows, maybe one day”.


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