Lessini Durello – Exciting Fizz from the Veneto
Between Verona and Vicenza in Northern Italy lies a currently obscure DOC, based on a little known Italian white grape variety called Durella. Eclipsed by Venetian vinous heavyweights such as Valpolicella, Soave and Prosecco, the small enclave of Lessini Durello nevertheless makes unique sparkling wines. Now, some thirty years after becoming a DOC, the limelight beckons for it in a time of rapid change. Not only is the quality of their sparkling wines extremely high; demand for crisp, lower alcohol sparkling wines continues to accelerate. In other words, right place, right time.
The influence of Geology
The Lessini Durello DOC has a unique terroir. Aeons ago, this area, like much of modern-day Veneto, was under the sea, so bequeathing limestone rocks when the old sea bed rose up. However, volcanic activity in this area also pushed up vast quantities of lava which cooled under water; it created the black basalt rocks which today overlay the limestone. Some of this basalt solidified as interlocking hexagonal columns, and those familiar with the Giant’s Causeway or Fingal’s Cave in the UK will appreciate both their rarity and natural beauty.
These past geological events manifest today as the Lessini mountains, fissured from roughly north to south by a series of deep and narrow river valleys. Much of this stunning landscape is a National Park; an area dotted with tiny villages and an abundance of cherry and chestnut trees.
Winegrowing here dates back to Roman times. And while the Durella grape variety may well have Roman origins, records show it has been here since at least the 13th century.
It’s the unusual combination of Durella with predominantly black volcanic soils which shape the resulting wines. Get up close with those soils, and there’s still a sulphurous whiff.
Not only is Durella a native Italian grape. 95% of it grows in the Lessini mountains, with nearly a thousand years of adaptation to local conditions. This ancient vine yields golden berries with extremely high acidity, delicate aroma and flavour. Its thick skins are also unusually rich in tannins. Indeed, its name means “hard”. It undoubtedly has an aggressive personality that needs taming. Research has identified nine biotypes, variants where the vine has adapted to specific vineyard sites. While there are small amounts of still wines, Durella’s vocation is now sparkling; that high acidity is ideal for fizz.
Lessini Durello DOC
The grape is called Durella. However, since 1988, the DOC is called Durello, which overlaps with parts of Soave and Gambellara. This DOC is about to have a significant revision, more of which later. Currently, this DOC is purely for sparkling wines made with Durella. All the still wines in the Lessini region have a separate DOC called Monti Lessini.
The minimum amount of Durella used must be 85%. Hence there is an allowance for blending it with a choice of up to 15% of Chardonnay, Garganega, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Nero vinified white. While there are blends, most wines are now 100% Durella. They best reveal personality and, in these days of climate change, ensure the preservation of acidity needed for sparkling wine.
The designated coverage of the DOC is some 13,000 hectares, yet the actual Durella vineyard area is only 400 hectares, buoyed by new plantings for fizz. Historically, phylloxera ravaged the Durella vineyards. Some suitable land also went to the expanding cities of Verona and Vicenza. Previously, other varieties such as Glera (for the ubiquitous Prosecco) or Garganega (for Soave) were preferred. All this means Lessini Durello production started from a small base.
Despite this, the forward-thinking Consorzio of 35 producers has undertaken a zoning project, so identifying 15 different crus. These are small subzones which reflect the various elements of the Lessini territory such as grape biotype, altitude, aspect, gradient, soils (mostly volcanic but occasionally limestone) and microclimate.
These terroirs may come to the fore in future years. For now, what sets this DOC apart from most other sparkling wines, whether in Italy or elsewhere, is the unusual combination of volcanic soils and Durella. In so doing, Lessini Durello has a unique identity.
Winemaking and sparkling wine styles
The late-ripening Durella grows on the traditional pergola system. The shade of the pergola protects the grapes from the heat of the summer sun. It also ensures that the vine shoots are above spring frosts and the grapes above summer humidity. After the autumn harvest, the usual first fermentation creates the base wines. Some wineries are using inert nitrogen in winemaking because Durella is prone to oxidation. Otherwise, the primary fermentation is notable only for the fact that the acidity is so high that the malolactic fermentation that can soften the sharp acids isn’t usually possible.
As mentioned above, most wines are 100% Durella rather than blends. All are white, and there is no Rosé. However, Lessini Durello sparklers come in two primary forms, defined by the method of second fermentation that creates the bubbles.
The first uses the Charmat (Martinotti) tank method, similar to that used for Prosecco. Here the wine undergoes a second fermentation that may take three months, though nine months creates the best quality examples. This method produces fruitier and more fragrant wines for early drinking.
However, the real potential for Lessini Durello is with the Método Classico method, just like in Champagne or Franciacorta. While 24 months maturation is the current minimum, the higher quality Riserva level stipulates a minimum of 36 months. These wines are more nuanced, structured and complex, with a volcanic minerality. Their natural acidity means they can improve and live for many years. You might expect that this method would add typical flavours of yeast, bread and dough. Instead, it adds a subtle and savoury umami flavour, derived from breaking down the tannins from the grape skins. That becomes ever more apparent the longer the wine is left to mature.
Most production is Spumante, in Brut or Extra-Brut style. Some are Pas Dosé, without any addition of balancing sugar as a dosage. There are a few sweeter (Extra-Dry and Dry) examples. They usually are vintage wines, as production isn’t large enough except at a few cooperatives to be able to keep a stock of reserve wines from previous years.
Quality not quantity
As mentioned previously, the area under vine is growing to meet increasing demand. Production growth is about 15% per year. Nevertheless, some 1.2 million bottles annually are all there is. As new plantings come on stream, the current potential is for 3.5 million. Hence this is a DOC that has firmly decided to compete on quality, not quantity.
While 70% of the wines are currently Charmat, the real growth is in Método Classico. New DOC changes will encourage graduation to Método Classico. It’s a significant investment, not least in terms of having sufficient cash flow to survive through longer maturation times.
The rules are changing again
From 2019, the DOC rules will split the existing DOC in two. Lessini Durello DOC will then apply only to production by Charmat. A new DOC, entitled Monte Lessini DOC, will be solely for Método Classico. The minimum maturation time will reduce to nine months, recognising producer cash-flow needs. However, the Riserva level will stay at the 36 months minimum.
As far as I’m aware, there are no plans to introduce Rosé in either DOC, unlike which is now happening in Prosecco DOC.
All-in-all, there’s a lot of change going on in such a small region, which can seem confusing or complicated. However, I think it’s a mark of the ambition of the wine producers here, making quality changes to compete in Italy and export markets.
All of the above is for nothing if the wines don’t have the wow-factor to encourage you to try them, buy them, and then buy again. Fortunately, Lessini Durello is a wine with, ahem, beve-bility.
Below is a personal selection some of the wines to discover, with food matching suggestions, from bottles tried in the UK and Italy. If you visit anywhere in the Veneto, but particularly in Verona, Soave, Vicenza and Venice, you’ll quickly find Lessini Durello. Or go and visit the area, as there is a well-signed Strada del Vino. However, there are bottles in the UK now. Regardless, my advice is simple: if you see it, buy it!
Casalotta Lessini Durello Brut, NV
Made by Adria Vini, a joint venture of UK importer Boutinot with the Araldica cooperative. 100% Durello given a three month Charmat fermentation. White flower aroma, zesty citrus and apple flavours, and a good volume in the mouth and balanced sugar and acidity, I’m guessing the dosage is 10-12 g/l sugar. Newbies start here! Booth’s supermarkets, £9.95
Palladiano, Lessini Durello Brut NV
Again made by Adria Vini, 100% Durello that’s given three months Charmat. Perhaps a slightly honeyed note sets it apart from the Casalotta above. Winner of The Wine Merchant Top 100 ‘Best Value Sparkling Trophy 2018’. Widely available, including Field & Fawcett, £9.35
Cantina di Soave, Settecento 33, Durello Brut, 2017
A Charmat Durello produced in nearby Soave by the huge (and excellent quality) Cantina di Soave. 100% Durello, with 10g/l residual sugar to keep it Brut. Elderflower and Hawthorne, a touch of grapefruit. One of my Christmas Fizz recommendations back in 2017. Oddbins, £10.00.
Cantina di Gambellara, Monopolio, Lessini Durello Brut, 2018
Cantina di Gambellara recently merged with the Cantina di Colli Vicentini. A classic Charmat Durello, with 10g/l residual sugar, keeping it fully Brut. A touch more elegance, Durello’s minerality is to the fore on the palate, with crisp green apples and a hint of umami. Maybe longer and slower Charmat here? Widely available, including Excel Wines, £11.95
Fattori, Roncà di Roncà, Lessini Durello Brut, 2017
Fattori has 3.5 hectares of Durella and makes one of the best Charmat wines, with 20,000 bottles per year. Three months second fermentation. 9g/l residual sugar. An elegant wine that has all the Durello hallmarks; fresh acidity, Hawthorne, citrus fruits, apple. Almonds and an almost balsamic, umami finish. Worth the extra cash. They also make Método Classico, see below. Sommelier’s Choice, £14.80
Fongaro has Durello vines dating back to 1975, makes only spumante fizz with Mètodo Classico and is organically certified. They make many different expressions of Lessini Durello, gastronomic wines that need food. Dosages are a low 5.5 g/l sugar or none.
Their entry-level Cuvée is technically not a DOC, having 80% Durello blended with Incrocio Manzoni and given 30 months maturation. Neither is the Gran Cuvée, with 80% Durello and 20% Chardonnay, given 30 months. Nevertheless, both are excellent elegant wines.
Their Brut is 100% Durello, with 36 months maturation, so technically a Riserva (£19.28). It’s mouth-filling with a lovely mineral edge and a long finish. Things get even better with the Riserva, 100% Durello with 48 months on the lees (£25.56), bringing extra length and an umami finish.
There’s a Pas Dosé wine with no dosage and 36 months, which is just the right side of tart (£20.18). However, the Riserva Pas Dosé 2010 is stupendous, with 60 months on the lees (£27.81). That has hints of caramel, balsamic flavours and minerals with a perfect balance. All these are available from Italvinus.
Fattori, Lessini Durello Roncà 36, Brut 2014
100% Durella, with no destemming at first press and 36 months on the lees. An austere wine, the palate has a pronounced salty mineral streak, hints of tannin and great freshness. Small bubbles. A little dried fruit and almond on the finish. More-ish. Sommelier’s Choice, £22.00
Sandro di Bruno
Their first Lessini Durello sparkling wine was made here in 2008. Unusually, the wines are 85% Durella and 15% Pinot Bianco. Also, the Pinot Bianco is fermented in large oak barrels and undergoes the malolactic fermentation. Consequently, these wines are stylistically different, being a softer, rounder and creamier. Expect freshness, citrus and a mineral streak. The 36 is given 36 months on the lees (£21.64), while the Riserva gets 60 months and is a leesy example with more bread and dough character (£25.01). Both wines are excellent examples, available from Tannico.
Lessini Durello is a versatile as well as exciting fizz. While the Charmat wines are more of a party animal, the Método Classico is best with food.
Let’s start with a local classic: Baccalà alla Vicentina is Dried Cod Vicenza-Style, delicious and often served with polenta. Baked fish is excellent, say trout with almonds or salmon wrapped in Prosciutto. Risotto is an obvious match, especially with asparagus. Same goes for gnocchi with a little fried sage.
Then there’s sushi/sashimi and tempura prawns, or even scrambled eggs. As an aperitvo, cold hams and salami hit the spot. Softer cheeses work well too. Or drink it with strawberries, especially with a little balsamic vinegar.
Footnote: I’ve only featured wines that are available to buy in the UK. However, some great artisanal Lessini Durello producers to look out for in Italy are Corte Moschina, Dal Maso, Dal Cero, Franchetto, Sacramundi, and Tonello. All are making superb examples in small quantities. Hopefully, their bottles will come to the UK in the future. I’ll do my best to let you know when they do.
I want to thank the Consorzio Tutela Vino Lessini Durello for their time and hospitality, especially Diletta Tonello, Vice-President. Thanks also to Chiara Mattiello of the Soave Consorzio. And finally, of course, to all the producers I met and spent time with when trying their wines.