Lago di Garda has everything it seems. Breathtaking scenery, ancient Roman villas, every type of wine nearby in all directions and the most northerly olive oil in the world. Sitting almost on the 46th parallel, Riva del Garda would seem to be an unusual place for olive trees to grow because you certainly won’t find any olives cultivated in Montreal or Mongolia which both share a similar latitude. Olives have been cultivated around Lago di Garda for at least 2,000 years because at the Roman villas in Desenzano and Sirmione there is evidence of the existence of olive trees going back that far.
This area doesn’t just have the most northern olive trees in the world but probably also the most northern lemon trees as well because there are stone limonaie dotted all around Lago di Garda, particularly near the town of Limone sul Garda on the western side of the lake.
Limone is also famous for the longevity of its native people so just like with the Cilento in Campania, a diet rich in olive oil, fish and lemons makes for a long healthy life. Sounds like a good excuse to go out and buy a whole fish for the grill, put a few slices of lemon inside and serve drizzled with olive oil.
The lake itself is of course the reason why these crops thrive on its shores. It’s huge size, in conjunction with the high alpine mountains immediately to the north, creates the perfect microclimate for certain types of olive trees. In particular, as the temperatures fall in winter the lake cools down much more slowly than the surrounding land giving the immediate vicinity of the lake a more temperate Mediterranean climate than the latitude would otherwise dictate.
We first came across the Agraria Riva del Garda enterprise four years ago on a visit to their retail store (above) at the northern tip of the lake where the town of Riva del Garda sits. At that time Elena had just completed her final course work and exams to qualify as a Level III Maestro d’Olio so we drove around the lake specifically to buy the Agraria olive oils. The town itself is a little different to the other communities around the lake because the big mountains begin here and dominate the town making it a very windy place, well suited to all manner of sporting activities on the lake and also beneficial for the health of the olive trees.
The Agraria enterprise is in fact a large co-operative, first organized in 1926 and with its own olive mill production facility since 1965. Today there are 300 member farmers who cultivate olives and/or vines because Agraria is also an important winemaker locally. It was the first mill to produce extra virgin olive oil labelled DOP Garda Trentino in 1988 and since 2009 its oil from locally grown olives has been certified organic, including certification by the USDA.
Agraria is today a very large operation responsible for about 65% of the olive oil produced in the northerly Trentino part of Lago di Garda and its mill presses the olives of 1,200 local olive growers. There is a uniquely Italian aspect to the last sentence because ownership of the land here is everything and many of these 1,200 growers have day jobs. But their land and the olive trees growing on it have been in their families for generations and are irreplaceable in terms of their age and location on the lake. In many cases 75% their olives are retained by them to serve their own olive oil needs for the year and the remaining 25% are sold to Agraria.
The olive trees actually controlled by Agraria number about 85,000 on 670 acres. To put all these numbers into perspective, in an average year their total production across their full range of olive oils would be approximately 1.5 million half liter bottles, but as with other agricultural products, the size of olive harvests can vary considerably from year to year.
Over the years Agraria has acquired a richly deserved reputation for its world class olive oil and just about all of their oils have won various prizes from Slow Food, Bibenda, Flos Olei, Gambero Rosso and others. Their most recent award, and the one that they seem most proud of because it currently adorns every single bottle, is being named Olive Mill of the Year for 2021 by Gambero Rosso.
Now that we have started to write more about olive oil we were keen to revisit the subject of Lago di Garda olive oil and buy some of the different Agraria oils to taste again, compare and use ourselves. The opportunity arrived in the shape of a recent olive oil symposium in Pietrasanta (photos above and right) where we sought out the Agraria stand and were guided through their current range of olive oils by the very knowledgeable Massimiliano Consolo. These olive oil exhibitions are always a great way to talk to producers, sample some different regional oils and come away with a few bottles for home consumption. We bought 4 quite different olive oils from Agraria and their characteristics and our tasting notes are shown below.
The main olives cultivated on the shores around Lago di Garda are Casaliva, Frantoio and Leccino. The latter two will probably be familiar to those who buy Tuscan olive oil but the first one, Casaliva, is indigenous to Lago di Garda and rarely seen elsewhere. It is also known by the name drizzar locally.
At the last count there are approximately 530 distinct olive cultivars in Italy and new ones are still being discovered; the Lago di Garda shoreline seems to figure prominently in new discoveries, probably due to the 2,000 year history of olive trees in this area.
Olive Oil Tasting Notes:
46 Parallelo Olive Oils
Green bottle: Blend of Casaliva, Frantoio and Leccino cultivars, primarily picked by hand at an early stage of ripeness.
This is a medium intensity oil that is quite delicate with notes of herbs, green apples and bitter almonds. Only slightly peppery on the back end, it has a persistent, lingering finish on the palate. A good, very versatile olive oil.
White bottle: Organic blend of the same three olive cultivars as the green bottle and the olives are also primarily hand picked early. As all of the contributing olive groves are organic, this oil is labelled and certified organic. There are attractive grassy notes and some spice on the finish. A superb olive oil for our tastes and for us it's definitely in the top two of this tasting with the Uliva below.
Blue bottle: Monocultivar from 100% Casaliva olives. Quite an intense oil with heightened notes of leafy greens rather then grassy notes, and very little bitterness or pepper on the finish which makes it suitable for delicately flavored dishes.
Uliva DOP Garda Trentino:
First produced in 2009, this has become their (self-described) flagship olive oil. It's from 100% Casaliva olives grown at an elevation of between 500 and 1,100 feet above sea level, which is getting towards the upper limit of olive cultivation here. (The surface of Lago di Garda itself is at an elevation of about 200 feet). All of the olive groves for this oil are located in the region of Trentino which, if you consult a map, only lays claim to a very small section of the lake right at the northern tip.
This is much deeper and richer than the other 100% Casaliva oil in the blue bottle. Distinctive aroma of freshly mown grass and green apples, this oil has some notable artichoke flavor and spice on the back end. This is a complex olive oil fully deserving of its flagship status.
We also came away from Pietrasanta with three Agraria wines to try, never having had any of their wines before. And also some delicious black olive dust that they make by slightly drying the olives and then fragmenting them. They call it a dust but in fact it's much more granular in texture which allows it to stay slightly moist and retain more of the rich black olive flavor with just a hint of bitterness. This is a very well made product and useful for sprinkling on all sorts of dishes when the olive flavor needs to be quite subtle.
We put it to immediate use on a plate of fusilli tonno, melanzane e mandorle.
Wine Tasting Notes:
Vigna Loré 2019 – Chardonnay Trentino DOC
(85% Chardonnay, 15% Manzoni Bianco, 13.5% alcohol)
Manzoni Bianco is an interesting 'crossing' grape that has Riesling as one parent and either Chardonnay or Pinot Bianco as its other parent and it exhibits floral Riesling characteristics. Vigna Loré is made from grapes grown at 800 feet above sea level.
This is an easy wine to like and on the second evening it really shone. It's a fascinating grape combination because the wine has some of the usual Chardonnay characteristics with acacia flowers, golden delicious apples and a note of honey on the nose but lurking in the background are some very pleasant Riesling aromatics. I would have liked a little more acidity because there's some richness in this wine together with vanilla, toasted hazelnuts and a very velvety texture that for me would have benefited from additional acidity. Perhaps it's the malolactic conversion or the use of wood. However, Elena disagreed and liked it just as it is. This is very much her type of Chardonnay
We do agree on one thing however, 17.60 euros in Italy is a very fair price for a wine of this quality.
Maso Élesi 2017 – Pinot Nero Trentino DOC - Superiore
(100% Pinot Nero, 13.5% alcohol))
From a vineyard just a couple of miles north of the town at the foot of Monte Baone that experiences significant day to night temperature changes.
Ruby red in the glass turning to amber and fading at the edges. Very mature nose of sweet red and black fruits with tertiary notes coming through and ever so slight reduction. Soft and complex in the mouth with some spice and attractive notes of fresh roses, the sort of wine that just gets better in the glass for a couple of hours. It has a certain lightness and ethereal quality with acidity in perfect balance and not a trace of tannin. The very definition of an elegant wine.
On the second evening it had all of the sensory aspects of a wine twice as old, together with a long finish and a hint of cacao. This really is fabulous Pinot Nero and I've had plenty of red Burgundy over the years that exhibited half the quality at twice the price.
Equally, many New World Pinot Noir wines can be much too powerful and jammy with elevated alcohol levels especially in California, even in the cooler regions of Russian River valley and Santa Rita Hills. Some Oregon Pinot Noirs can be similar to this Maso Élesi in style and would certainly match this in quality but not at less than $50 or more per bottle. Good Pinot Noir is never cheap and this unquestionably merits its 25 euro price tag. If you're a Pinot Noir fanatic (and I've met a few over the years) track this wine down wherever you are.
While the 46th parallel might be a long way north for olives it's right in the sweet spot for Pinot Noir with Beaune in France just one degree further north and the McMinnville and Salem area of Oregon just one degree further south. Central Otago too is at 45 degrees. Perhaps therefore they should seriously think about growing much more Pinot Nero around Riva del Garda, though it could be that there's just not enough physical space left at the lower elevations.
As I was typing these tasting notes I wanted to better convey the gorgeous color of this wine in the glass when illuminated by the screen on the MacBook Air so I took this photo.
Maso Lizzone 2017 – Rosso Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT
(80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot)
Very intense red in the glass. Deep, rich nose of blueberries and red fruits which carry through on the palate with the addition of some spice. Velvety texture but for me not yet in its prime because of the noticeable tannins. I think at this latitude more Cabernet Franc and less Cabernet Sauvignon might be better. It's very much like a New World Bordeaux blend and for me at this stage of its development lacks just a little personality. Elena however loved this wine, especially the balance between softness and freshness and the mineral notes. No question it's well made and enjoyable with food but at 21 euros I'd much rather pay a little more and have the sensational Pinot Nero above.