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Montonale wines: loss, rebirth, prize & theft

Monte Baldo from the vineyards at Montonale
It's just 2 miles north to Lago di Garda and on the far side sits Monte Baldo

A few months ago on the last day of September in a vineyard near the southern shore of Lago di Garda, the Turbiana grapes were looking gorgeously ripe. After a summer of perfect weather they were plump and full of juice and it was just about time to start the vendemmia. The next day, Friday October 1st, dawned bright and clear and Valentino Girelli, one of the three brothers who own and manage Montonale, arrived early to inspect the grapes one last time before getting the harvest underway.

a foggy morning in early December in Lombardy
Early December in Lombardy on the way to Montonale

Valentino is the agronomist for the family winery and most of his days are spent in the vineyard so when he arrived that morning he immediately noticed that something was horribly wrong. The entire first four rows of the vineyard were completely shorn of their fruit and where the day before there were lovely heavy clusters of grapes hanging down like cow’s udders, now there was not a single grape, nothing but twigs with broken ends.

Sometime during the previous night persons unknown had arrived in a truck and methodically stolen every single bunch of grapes from these rows, estimated to be about 15-20 quintals in total, equivalent to between 1,500 and 2,000 bottles of wine.

The Montonale tasting room near Desenzano del Garda
The Montonale tasting room above the winery looking out onto their vineyards and the mountains beyond

Someone clearly knew what they were doing and choosing Montonale for this crime was no random decision. When I read about this theft in the Brescia Today online newspaper my first reaction was to arrange a visit. It was obviously an unpleasant and completely unexpected event for Montonale, and I trust that they were insured, but it’s hard to think of a better recommendation for a wine than to be so good that professional thieves want to steal your grapes.

It also serves to underline the point that we hear from winemakers all the time, that good wine is made in the vineyard not the cellar. I only hope the thieves knew how to actually make wine from these wonderful grapes.

Montonale vines

It’s not as if we’re talking about Chateau Petrus here or Domaine Romanée Conti or even Sassicaia, but rather white wine grapes from Lugana that most people reading this article have probably never heard of.

This story reminds me of a weekend visit we made to Castagneto Carducci a few years ago; when we asked the owner of our ground floor apartment whether we should lock the door on our departure she simply shrugged and pointed to all the security cameras a few yards away that blanketed the Ornellaia vineyards surrounding her property.

But in Lugana or anywhere around Lago di Garda this was the first ever event of its kind and a little bit sad; agriculture is a hard enough profession without having to worry about the theft of your crops. Still, there is a good advertising campaign in here somewhere because it certainly made me want to take a closer look at their wine.

Decanter Award

But in fact Montonale has something much more conventional and prestigious to brag about and it may well have contributed to this unfortunate theft because it was also a unique and equally surprising event for a Lugana winery and it took place four years earlier.

In 2017 the highly qualified jury of the Decanter World Wine Awards tasted 17,200 wines in the arduous process of determining their various awards for the year. The panel was headed by the late Steven Spurrier who should need no further introduction given that he made his name as the arranger of one of the most famous tastings in history in 1976, now simply referred to as ‘The Judgement of Paris’. If you don’t know it, look it up, because it was a defining moment for California wine.

At the end of this lengthy tasting process Montonale’s Orestilla 2015 was selected as the best mono varietal white wine in the world by Decanter Magazine (a magazine by the way that I used to subscribe to 45 years ago and which nurtured my precocious interest in wine). This was a truly staggering achievement for a Lugana wine given that most of the world’s great white wines are also mono varietals, like the great White Burgundies of Montrachet and Corton Charlemagne and any number of other famous and these days famously expensive wines.

Montonale responded to the sudden media attention by saying that they had simply complied with Decanter’s earlier request by sending in a few bottles without knowing much about the event and thinking no more of it, and in fact were just as taken aback as everyone else by the result. “It is a prize to the great potential of the lands of Lugana”, said Roberto Girelli, the oenologist at the family firm.

Stainless steel vessels in the cellar room at Montonale winery
Stainless steel is the preferred container for fermentation and aging of the white wines

Predictably the announcement caused a frenzied hunt for the remaining Orestilla bottles still in circulation by all the usual score-obsessed people who pretend to be wine lovers. A futile search because only 4,000 bottles of the Orestilla were produced versus over 70,000 bottles of its sibling, Montunal. Strangely however, the high-falutin restaurants in Milan remained unmoved by this prize and to this day remain a tough market for Montonale to crack.

The Decanter award was certainly a great accomplishment but I don't think anyone else was seriously suggesting that Orestilla was actually the best white wine in the world and the Girelli brothers took it all in their stride.

That being said, one of the main issues that the Lugana Consortium is wrestling with today is how to better position Lugana wines in the international market so that they can raise their prices to more adequately reflect the quality of Lugana wine.

The barrel room at Montonale winery near Desenzano
Wooden barrels are used for the La Conta red wine and for 30% of the Orestilla Turbiana white wine

Ever since Roberto took his first tentative steps in 2002, joined later by his brothers Claudio and Valentino, the Girelli brothers have driven themselves like real entrepreneurs in building a successful business from scratch. But perhaps they wouldn't have been so motivated if they had simply inherited the business, as they in fact might have done because the original Girelli winery was started in 1911 and grew substantially for decades. But then family disputes and inheritance problems brought it to an unfortunate end in 1998 when the last harvest of the original family firm took place, and with it went the final Girelli connection to wine.

Two years later a great uncle gifted Roberto's father 5 acres and the 27 year old Roberto took it as a sign that despite everything that had happened, it was his destiny to be a winemaker. He produced his first 800 bottles in 2002 that he sold to friends and then enrolled in college to study oenology, recruited his two brothers to help him and three years later bought an additional 12 acres. In 2008 the Montonale label became a reality.

Almost 100 years after great-grandfather Francesco began making wine here the Girelli family were vineyard owners and winemakers once again.

Montonale winery rice-husk walls

Their vineyards today extend to about 80 acres on gravel-rich calcareous-clay soils that are the legacy of the glacial formation of Lago di Garda. These vineyards are spread out around their new cellar and tasting room facility which was also constructed in keeping with their philosophy of low impact, sustainable viticulture and cellar practices. The walls are filled with rice-straw (above photo) and the solar panels on the roof give them total energy independence and a very low carbon footprint.

Harvesting the fruit is carried out manually in small baskets to avoid bruising the grapes and they make several passes through the vineyards, picking only the ripest fruit each time. It's a labor-intensive process that drags the harvest out for a full month but the results justify the extra attention. In the cellar they use the vineyard-specific wild yeasts, employing a pied-de-cuve starter and adding sulfur in the smallest amount possible at the fermentation stage but none at bottling.

Montonale however is not formally certified as being an organic winery, ironically because they choose not to spray their vineyard with the permitted sulfur and copper mixture due to pollution run-off concerns near the lake and instead use a non-permitted substitute, but which in their view is actually more ecologically friendly.

In fact all of the protocols employed by many environmentally friendly wineries and olive oil producers in Italy, including Montonale, and something we should have perhaps mentioned and explained in previous articles, come under the Italian heading of lotta integrata which is loosely translated into English as 'integrated pest management' and refers to a range of sophisticated techniques, all completely natural and benign to the environment.

The fight against harmful insects includes biological control (ie. inserting other insects that are natural predators and not harmful to crops), pheromone diffusers (tactics of sexual confusion), sterile insect technique (the employment of self-killing techniques) as well as pesticides that can be easily denatured by the biochemical action of the soil and the air. It's not easy or cheap being green these days and something worth remembering when you reach for the cheapest bottle of wine on the shelf in a supermarket.

Montonale wines

A word about the Turbiana grape is probably in order here as many people will not have heard of it before. There are different views as to the level of genetic similarity to other better known grapes so, as always, I will default to Ian D'Agata's conclusion because it's the most throughly researched, relies on the most recent DNA testing and his analysis runs to several pages in his book 'The native Wine Grapes of Italy', which is perhaps why so few casual wine commentators seem to have read it.

In a nut shell, Turbiana (or Trebbiano di Lugana) is a biotype of Verdicchio, and Verdicchio and Trebbiano di Soave are in fact one variety, being completely identical. The close relationship between the Turbiana cultivated here by Montonale and the Verdicchio grape is critical in understanding some important qualities of the resulting wine.

The fact that it tends to ripen slowly and evenly with high levels of tartaric acid even in fully mature grapes with their high sugar content means that the wine can be both crisp and refreshing as well as very age-worthy. This is an often overlooked aspect of the Verdicchio grape by those non-Italian wine drinkers who mostly drink Chardonnay, because the Chardonnay grape does not have this attribute as anybody knows who has tasted one of the many flabby hot climate Chardonnays of the New World with their unfortunate lack of acidity.

Tasting Notes:

Montunal 2017 - Lugana DOC (100% Turbiana, 13.5% alcohol)

Fermentation and aging for 6 months on its lees.

The resemblance to a Verdicchio wine from le Marche is quite obvious in this wine. There's a very powerful nose of white orchard fruits that is also crisp and quite floral. It's quite a viscous wine (much like Verdicchio) but with good acidity and a finish that really stimulates the taste buds. 11.50 euros

Montunal 2020 - Lugana DOC (100% Turbiana, 13.5% alcohol)

Fermentation and aging for 6 months on its lees

This much younger Montunal is quite different to the 4 year old version above. Perhaps there was some variation in the weather conditions because the 2020 has a much more powerful nose of citrus, gorse and aromatic herbs that gives it a very attractive slightly musky quality. Very full and fruity on the palate with no 'thickness' to the texture of the wine that was noticeable in the older version. This is a very fresh, mouth watering wine at a very good price. 11.50 euros

Montonale vineyard with snow capped mountains in the distance

Orestilla 2019 - Lugana DOC (100% Turbiana, 13.5% alcohol)

A single vineyard cru with 8 months on its lees (30% in wood and 70% in stainlesss steel) and a further 10 months in bottle. This is a later vintage of the famous wine of the Decanter prize and there is no disputing its quality. Rich notes of apple and fig on the nose with some spice and hints of tropical fruit. On the palate there's a zippy acidity here which balances and supports the fruit and a fabulous very long finish.

Montonale thinks that top quality Lugana wine is generally undervalued by consumers and underpriced, but at 21 euros at the winery that wouldn't be my view. Perhaps they're talking about the discount that they have to offer both to Italian retailers and in the export market because at prices available for the consumer in Italy there are three other wines that I would compare this to in terms of price/quality: Mario's 46 from Terraviva in Abruzzo, the Vertis from Borgo Paglianetto in Matelica (same grape) and the Il Montino from La Colombera in Piedmont. All these wines are priced around 20 euros (but often with good discounts for visitors to those wineries) and we'd have to conduct a blind tasting to determine the winner but from memory and tasting notes it's not clear that the Orestilla would come out on top so the pricing looks fair to me; certainly not underpriced versus the competition.

Furthermore, on the subject of pricing, I think wine prices at the winery door should always be slightly cheaper than buying the same wine from a retailer. Otherwise why bother going.

Primessenza 2018 - Metodo Classico Brut - Lugana DOC (100% Turbiana, 12.5% alcohol)

From hand selected grapes aged in steel for 6 months on its lees. Wine must is then added to re-start the fermentation in bottle, after which it ages for a further 30 months prior to dégorgement.

This is a real beauty. Hints of yeast on the nose and lively and fresh on the palate with measured acidity and a sapid finish that whets the appetite. Well worth the 20 euros price tag. I am increasingly impressed with the quality of Italian spumante and the Lugana grape seems particularly well suited in terms of flavor for a metodo classico wine, though we were told at the winery that it is in fact not an easy grape with which to make a traditional sparkling wine.

La Venga 2019 - Vino rosso (60% Marzemino, 40% Barbera, 13% alcohol)

Fermentation and aging in stainless steel for 8 months.

We almost didn't buy this wine on our visit because we went there for the white wines but I'm glad we did because it's a blend that works very well. I don't know the Marzemino grape at all (Elena does of course because Sommelier courses seem to cover everything!) but adding it to the mix here has accomplished the work of 3 years in barrel for the Barbera so it was a pleasant surprise to find such an appealing red wine in a traditional white wine area. Soft and round but still quite focused with just the right amount of acidity and a little hint of balsamic to stop it being boring, this is a well balanced easy drinking wine that's impossible not to like. To be considered very good value however it needs to be a couple of euros less than the price we paid of 13 euros.


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