The glittering, deep blue water of Lake Garda, with its seductive Mediterranean climate and lush vegetation, soft breezes and striking mountain backdrop is no stranger to many a traveller. A naturally refined yet easygoing atmosphere pervades the lake, offering the prospect of relaxed waterside drinks and dining; as much of a draw as the many charming towns and villages around its 158km perimeter.
While some of the area’s wines, such as Valpolicella and Bardolino, are famous worldwide, there’s another player on the wine scene that’s making a name for itself. With a fresh focus and new direction as crystal clear as the lake water itself, the Consorzio Garda DOC has succeeded in encapsulating that relaxed elegance in a new generation of still and sparkling wines that evoke the essence of carefree afternoons on the lake.
What is Garda DOC?
While the Garda DOC denomination has existed for over 25 years, the official Consorzio has only recently hosted its first event to present the DOC’s identity. Covering a vast area that coincides with no fewer than 10 historic appellations – largely in the Verona province, but with parts of Mantua to the south and Brescia to the west – including big names such as Soave and Lugana, as well as Valpolicella and Bardolino, there has understandably been confusion in the past.
As the Consorzio’s president, Paolo Fiorini explains, ‘Garda DOC complements the historic denominations by providing extra opportunities for wineries in this large area to work with varieties and styles not previously open to them; we are working together, not competing.’
The Consorzio is also carrying out studies aimed to benefit all the wineries, including research into which varieties are best suited to each zone’s terrain and microclimate.
Around Lake Garda
The Garda DOC area cradles the western, southern and part of the eastern shores of the lake, stretching eastwards past Verona to Soave and the Lessini Durello sparkling wine area, where delicious Monte Veronese DOP cheeses are also made.
To the west of the lake, morainic hills formed by ancient glacier movements are home to vines and olives grown on terraces overlooking the water; views from the Rocca di Manerba promontory are spectacular. Just beyond is the attractive historic centre of Salò, arranged around a sweeping horseshoe-shaped bay with cobbled side streets and some good restaurants including the old-style Osteria dell’orologio where you can enjoy lake fish dishes such as pike with polenta and an impressive choice of local wines. A curious, rather bizarre, villa to visit nearby is Il Vittoriale, which fully reflects the personality of its owner, poet-soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio.
This is the land of Valtènesi Chiaretto, an intense rosé made with Groppello grapes that are almost exclusive to the area. A fresh, spicy red version is also made and winemakers are getting superb results with sparkling Groppello too, including at the Pratello winery which has a gorgeous agriturismo restaurant and rooms. The winery’s young brother-and-sister team, Naike and Nathan Bertola, have taken the variety’s rosé theme one step further with their own parallel range of Groppello-based rosé wines under the Opera Roses label.
At nearby Tenute del Garda, the focus is again on traditional local varieties; Riesling, grown here since Austro-Hungarian domination, in addition to Groppello. A series of Riesling micro-vinifications is planned to allow each plot to express its purest character.
The southern shore
The flatter southern edge of Lake Garda is home to Lugana, the mineral-infused white currently surfing a crest of popularity. Named after a district of Sirmione, the wine is made with Turbiana (Trebbiano di Lugana) grapes that thrive in the calcareous-clay lakeside soils here.
One winery with an admirable range of Lugana and also achieving superlative results with international varieties, including Traditional Method Garda DOC Chardonnay, is Perla del Garda. It’s only a short drive from Lonato del Garda, where views from the castle are fabulous.
The pretty spa town of Sirmione occupies an unusually narrow, 4km-long peninsula stretching into the lake. Its 13th century castle with walls rooted in the water is spectacular and the ruins of a large ancient Roman villa, Grotte di Catullo stand at the tip of the peninsula where hot springs bubble under the lake. For fine dining and luxury rooms over the water, book at La Speranzina; a good budget option in a wonderful position by the castle is the simple Hotel Grifone.
The morainic hills of the Colli Mantovani, further south, are gentler than those west of the lake. Here, the Stefanoni family runs the energy self-sufficient Ricchi winery and Relais La Casina, the latter boasting 12 rooms, a restaurant and spa. The family embraced the Garda DOC denomination from the start for its top wines, and is among several producers here making dry wines with partially-dried grapes – echoing the Amarone tradition from nearby Valpolicella – to bring extra depth and complexity.
Other wineries using the technique to produce exceptional Garda DOC Merlot include La Prendina and Cascina Le Preseglie at Desenzano, which offers beautifully-restructured farmhouse apartments plus yoga and wine experiences.
For more family-oriented self-catering accommodation, the multiple facilities at the San Leone wine estate include independent chalets in a handy location for the riverside cycle path between Lake Garda and Mantua. Near here it passes through Borghetto sul Mincio, an enchanting cluster of 15th century watermills with restaurants and rooms in beautifully converted mills.
The path follows the Mincio river from Lake Garda at Peschiera where the Garda DOC consortium’s boutique is the place to pick up some bottles. This is the traditional area for Custoza, one of the lake’s classic whites, a blend of principally Garganega (the same as Soave) and Trebbiano.
While the wines of Valpolicella, between Lake Garda and Verona, need no introduction, one high-profile producer in the area to have joined the rising trend for Garda DOC wines is Santa Sofia whose Garda DOC white Croara, made with Trebbiano di Lugana, is highly enjoyable.
Beyond Verona, Soave was recently elected Italy’s village of the year 2022 (‘Borgo dei Borghi’). Soave is surrounded by crenellated stone walls leading to a fairytale hilltop castle, and the celebrated volcanic terrain here brings a unique structure to the Garganega-based wines.
Thanks to its fresh acidity and complexity, Garganega has become Garda DOC’s leading grape, making almost one-third of the denomination’s wines, including an increasing number of spumante versions. Even top Prosecco producer, Valdo has joined in with their century-long sparkling-wine expertise, sourcing the best Garganega for excellent Garda DOC brut. Bottles proudly bear the elegant blue colour scheme for capsule and label that’s a recurring theme among Garda DOC wines, recalling the seductive shades of the sparkling blue lake water.
Rocca Sveva, housed in a medieval complex adjacent to Soave’s picturesque walls and part of the Cantina di Soave cooperative, has atmospheric cellars and botanical gardens offering stunning views over Soave and its castle. Their Garganega-Chardonnay brut, one of the ‘Maximilian I’ range of sparkling wines, is perfect for sunset sips in such a striking context.
Currently permitted for blends, Garganega is one of three varieties that will be authorised to be named on spumante labels under the forthcoming updated Garda DOC regulations (expected by 2024) along with Corvina for rosé and Chardonnay – a step forward in today’s world of informed consumers who like to know what they’re drinking.
The eastern shore
Back on the lake, the eastern shore is known as Riviera degli Ulivi for the abundance of olive trees grown for Garda DOP olive oil, a prime product that matches the delicate lake fish perfectly. There’s a fascinating – and free – olive oil museum just outside Bardolino, the appealing lakeside town well known for its fruity reds and Chiaretto rosé (not to be confused with Groppello-based Valtènesi Chiaretto). Both Bardolino wines are made with Corvina, also the major grape in neighbouring Valpolicella and now showing its versatility in Garda DOC wines.
A fun moment to see Bardolino is during the annual wine festival (the 91st edition takes place from 29 September to 3 October 2022), while a good way to explore the surrounding vineyards is by walking or cycling through them on the Cammino di Bardolino, a 100km trail divided into stages. There are plenty of opportunities for active types on the water too, including pedalos and sailing, but if you’d rather just relax, opt for a skippered trip with Garda Tours or enjoy the spa at Bardolino’s Hotel Caesius.
Surrounded by vines and ideal for a special stay in this area, Villa Cordevigo offers luxurious accommodation, a pool, spa and bistro, as well as a Michelin star restaurant with an extensive wine list including the owners’ own labels. For more traditional meals and a charming location in nearby Lazise, offering waterside tables, a stone interior and five bedrooms, try the family-run Taverna da Oreste which specialises in seafood and lake fish dishes such as tench risotto. In Garda’s old town, local wines and fish are the order of the day at the low-key Il Cicheto wine bar.
Just beyond Garda, the Punta San Vigilio promontory is a gem of a spot with a timeless atmosphere, centuries-old olive trees and a renaissance villa where artists, poets and heads of state have stayed. In addition to rooms and a restaurant, the more informal – though no less atmospheric – Taverna is a delightful spot, overlooking the rippling water of the historic marina.
As Italy’s largest lake, Garda, together with its surrounding lands, offers so much to explore that it can be overwhelming. For wine lovers, the Garda DOC denomination provides the perfect key for a journey of discovery, both real and sensorial, through a new generation of wines that reflect the fresh and joyful soul of the glittering lake itself.
Garda DOC wineries to visit
Designed for sustainability, this contemporary winery makes exquisite Garda DOC spumante and red wines. Thematic tasting experiences include sparkling wines, the reds or Lugana verticals and picnics among the vines too.
Visit the extensive wine cellars carved into the hillside and book a tour combined with horse riding or a sunset tasting in the botanical gardens overlooking Soave’s stunning castle and walls. There’s a traditional restaurant too.
A tour of the cellars, parts of which predate the estate’s 16th century villa that was initially designed by Palladio, adds to the enjoyment of a visit to this 100-year-old Valpolicella producer, now also making elegant Garda DOC whites.
With vines in a panoramic spot overlooking the lake, stylish accommodation and a pool, bio lake and restaurant serving traditional dishes made with their own produce as well as memorable wines, olive oil, vermouth and gin, you just won’t want to leave.
Factbox: Garda DOC
Date founded: 1996
Number of historic DOC areas covered: 10 (Valtènesi, Lugana, San Martino in Bataglia, Colli Mantovani, Custoza, Bardolino, Terra dei Forti, Valpolicella, Soave, Lessini Durello)
Total hectares under vine in the Garda DOC area*: 31,100ha
Hectares under vine for Garda DOC wines: 1,839ha
Number of bottles per year: 19,428,933
*Including for the same area’s ten historic denomination wines.
Source: Consorzio Garda DOC (2021 data)