Wine Route: Gastronomic Lake Garda

Lake Garda

© Shutterstock

Gardasee

Lake Garda

© Shutterstock

Ripe lemon fruit and the silvery foliage of olive trees set the scene and immediately signal that despite being in northern Italy, despite being in view of the Alps, this is the south – this is where Mediterranean flair begins.

Lake Garda straddles three regions: Trentino in the north, Veneto in the east and south, Lombardy in the west and, accordingly, it shows many faces. While the landscape on the north shore is alpine, the lake’s south shore with its sandy beaches almost feels like being by the sea. Along the eastern shore, picturesque villages line the lakefront like a string of pearls. The western shore is hilly in the south, with extensive olive groves and vineyards, it becomes progressively rockier towards the north where lemon groves bask in the heat reflected by steep rock faces. Food, wine and local specialities reflect these differences perfectly.

Gastronomic traditions

Until 1919, the northern shore of Lake Garda around the towns of Riva and Torbole belonged to the Habsburg Empire. Thus, it should not come as a surprise to find dishes like canederli, i.e. dumplings, or strudel on the menu. Carne salada is a local speciality: marinated beef, served either raw as carpaccio or braised. You will find these dishes perfectly executed at Ristorante Acetaia del Balsamico Trentino on the road towards Lago di Tenno. The view of the town of Riva and the northern tip of Lake Garda alone is worth a visit.

North of Riva, the Sarche Valley is the home of an indigenous Trentino grape variety: Nosiola. Cantina Toblino not only turns Nosiola into a fresh white wine, but also into a formidable Vino Santo, a sweet wine made from Nosiola grapes dried on straw, that has a long tradition here. Hotel Monastero Arx Vivendi in Arco is the perfect place to stay. Here, a former monastery has been turned into a tasteful hotel, two of the former nuns’ cells each now make up a room. Halfway between this hotel and the lakeshore, you will find Peter Brunel’s restaurant. A modernised villa is the perfect setting for Brunel’s nuanced, Michelin-starred food – the service and the wine list are remarkable, too.

The Venetian stretch of the shore extends from Malcesine on the eastern lakefront to Peschiera, the southern tip of the Lake. The restaurant Locanda San Vigilio between the towns of Torri del Benaco and Garda is a magical spot. Built on a promontory jutting out into the lake, small boats bob in the tiny harbour with picture-book views of 16th century buildings. Its suites and rooms are stylish and dinner on the terrace at sunset simply remains one of the most romantic settings ever.

Bardolino, just a little further south, is not just the name of a lovely little town, but also of the most important regional red wine. Bardolino is made from the grape varieties Corvina and Rondinella and other indigenous varieties, a similar blend to neighbouring Valpolicella. Bardolino wines are fragrant with cherry and raspberry fruit. Their subtle tannins and medium body make them so easy to drink – their relative lightness has meant that they have had less hype compared to bigger, bolder wines, but their charm really is under-appreciated.

Likewise, Bardolino and Lake Garda’s shore also is home to one of Italy’s most successful rosé wines: Chiaretto – the pink version of Bardolino. Sipping a chilled glass of it while overlooking the harbour in the small town of Lazise is one of those quintessential Italian moments. The Guerrieri Rizzardi estate in Bardolino makes exquisite versions of both. Their shop is an ideal place to stock up – and besides Bardolino and Chiaretto, you can also buy Valpolicella, Soave and delicious olive oil. The olive oils from around the Lake are considered amongst the finest in Italy, their subtlety is ideal for delicate dishes based on lake fish and vegetables. Another address for exquisite olive oil is Gianfranco Comincioli in Puegnano on the opposite lake shore.

Unusual white wines

But staying on the Venetian side of the Lake, an ideal base – and hiding place – is Villa Cordevigo Wine Relais in Cavaion. Located in the hilly hinterland, this cypress- and olive-seamed resort is a wonderful oasis while its Ristorante Oseleta offers Michelin-starred fine dining. A simpler but equally charming overnight stay can be had at Agriturismo Al Vajo. Landlord Emilio Fasoletti headed the Valpolicella wine producers’ association for years before opening this B&B on the outskirts of Lazise. The newly built rooms offer dreamlike views of the Lake – and Fasoletti will happily supply both insider tips of places to go and insights into local history. But back to wine. The Cavalchina estate in Custoza makes fruity and fresh Bardolino – but is more famous for its Custoza white, made from the grape varieties Garganega (which you may be familiar with from tasting Soave), Trebbiano Toscano, Friulano, Fernanda and other local varieties. Custoza whites are supple and slightly aromatic – easy-drinking wines that nonetheless can mature into great complexity. A fact amply proven by Cavalchina’s Amedeo bottling. 

Not far from Custoza you will find Valleggio sul Mincio which should definitely feature on your itinerary. It boasts an old mill village called Borghetto as well as the traditional restaurant Alla Borsa, famed for its tortellini which are said to be shaped like the navel of the goddess Venus…one of Italy’s most imaginative and lucullan creation myths out there.

Lugana

The most famous white wine on the Lake here is Lugana, its delimited zone runs westward from Sirmione on the southern shore to Desenzano. Lugana is made from the local grape Trebbiano di Lugana, also known as Turbiana. Lugana wines convince with beautiful generosity that is combined with surprisingly racy acidity – they also age most gracefully. The Zenato estate in San Benedetto di Lugana is a great place to find out more, also about Valpolicella, Custoza and Amarone. Founded by Sergio Zenato in the 1960s, the estate today is run by siblings Nadia and Alberto Zenato – their Custoza and Lugana Riserva Serio Zenato are great examples of both these local white wines. 

Another leading producer of Lugana is Ca’ dei Frati. When Igino dal Cero took over the estate from his grandfather 40 years ago, he called four hectares his own. Today this has grown to 200 hectares – but despite the size Ca’ dei Frati is still a family-run business. Their main wine is I Frati, it is fermented in stainless steel and enjoys a long maturation on fine lees. Their Brolettino is a step up, made from selected vineyard parcels that are known for their generous, full-bodied nature which helps this wine to age. You can buy both wines at their shop which has been fashioned after an old monastery. However, the best spot to enjoy a Lugana by Ca’ dei Frati is in the Esplanade restaurant on the lakeshore in Desenzano.  Another great producer of Lugana, located right in Desenzano, is Montonale. Here the Girelli brothers produce two outstanding wines; Montunal and the selection that is called Orestilla. Both wines can be sampled in the tasting room above the newly constructed cellar.

Sophisticated holiday destination

The western shore of the Lake from Salò to Limone is beguiling and has been a favourite destination for artists and the well-heeled alike since the 19th century. The concentration of luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants remains extremely high to this day. One of the longest held Michelin stars, conferred in 1980, belongs to the traditional restaurant La Tortuga in Gargnano. The Filippi family continue to pull off a perfect stylistic fusion of local and international accents. 

Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation but we recommend two spots: the tasteful and quiet Villa Giulia and Villa Feltrinelli – both offer hospitality at the highest level. It is rare that so much variety and beauty coincide – but this is Lake Garda for you. Definitely worth a visit.

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