I don’t think there will ever come a time in my life when I feel like I have a comprehensive grip on all the wines of Italy. One of the reasons I love Italian wine so much will always be the sheer, staggering diversity of what the country produces. Pretty much every nook and cranny of Italy hides a new wine grape or regional wine style, making for what is almost a neverending list of things to taste and discover.
This week we’re going to explore an Italian wine that gets very little attention in America, being much better-known in Europe, where it sells like hotcakes to Germans and Austrians looking for a reasonably-priced bottle of predictably good Italian white to go with their dinners.
While the wine may be obscure, the place it comes from most certainly is not. Most Americans have heard of Lake Garda and Lake Como, the two stunning glacial-carved lakes that are famous for being playgrounds of the rich and famous in northern Italy.
The hillsides surrounding Lake Garda, in particular, have hosted grapevines since Roman times, exploiting the moderating climatic influence of the lake and the well-drained morainic soils that remain the gift of the region’s glacial past.
The growers in this area, now known as the north-central part of the Veneto wine region, have made their fortunes primarily on their red wines, the famously popular Valpolicella and Amarone. But they’ve long grown white grape varieties as well, primarily Garganega (famously the basis of Soave wines), Trebbiano Toscano, Cortese (known locally as Bianca Fernanda), as well as Trebbianello, the very confusing local name for a clone of Tocai Friulano from nearby Friuli that has no relation to Trebbiano.
Somewhere around the late 1700s, historical records begin to reference wines with the name Custoza, which happens to be a small village about 12 miles to the southwest of Verona. By the mid-20th century, Custoza was known for a strong tradition of making primarily dry white wines (but also a bit of sparkling and sweet passito whites) leading to one of Italy’s earlier DOC designations for the wines of Custoza in 1972.
Custoza‘s roughly 3500 acres of vineyards are tucked between the southern tip of Lake Garda and Verona to the southeast. The porous, rocky soils that underlie most of the vineyards tend towards the calcareous, while the lake’s influence ensures temperatures a few degrees warmer in the winter and a few degrees cooler in the summer than the surrounding countryside.
Bianco di Custoza is a blended white wine, made up of at least three of the region’s four traditional grape varieties, none of which can make up more than 45% of the total blend. A further 30% of the wine can be comprised of a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Malvasia, Riesling, or Monzoni Bianco (a cross between Sylvaner and Riesling). Bianco di Custoza has a minimum alcohol level of 11%, must be fermented in steel, and aged for at least 3 months before sale. Custoza Superiore is traditionally made with older vines with lower yields and must have a minimum alcohol level of 12.5% and be aged for 5 months before release. Custoza Superiore has the option of being matured in oak barrels, though not all winemakers choose to make their Superiores this way.
Beyond these basic strictures, producers have a great degree of latitude, some choosing to explore techniques such as air-drying or flash-freezing some of their grapes before fermentation, others exploring longer periods of maceration, or aging in concrete.
I was recently given the opportunity to taste a bunch of Bianco di Custoza wines when the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tasting came through San Francisco. While I have tasted a Custoza wine here and there over the past decade or so (usually at the same tasting), this was my first opportunity to sit down and compare a number of wines.
While there are some significant variations in how the wines are made, it’s safe to say that most Bianco di Custoza wines have a nice freshness and a pleasant fruity quality that features apple, pear, and citrus notes. The most successful and interesting wines have a deeper mineral character and even a slight salinity that makes them particularly mouthwatering and satisfying.
In my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience, I have yet to have a truly profound bottle of Custoza, but on the other hand, I can also say I have yet to find a bottle that I would not happily drink, properly chilled, on just about any occasion. Like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Weiner Gemischter Satz, Bianco di Custoza is pretty close to a sure bet for deliciousness at a reasonable price if you come across it.
2021 Cantina di Custoza “Val dei Molini” Bianco di Custoza, Veneto, Italy
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple, green grapes, white flowers, a touch of lime. In the mouth flavors of candied green apples, and lime with hints of star fruit predominate with a faint salinity. Excellent acidity. A blend of Friulano, Garganega, Trebbiano Toscano, Cortese, and Chardonnay fermented in steel. A large cooperative of more than 250 growers in the eastern part of Valpolicella. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2020 Cantina di Castelnuovo del Garda (Vitevis) “Ca’ Vegar” Bianco di Custoza, Veneto, Italy
Near colorless in the glass, with a hint of green, this wine smells of lime pith and unripe apples. In the mouth, crisp and bright citrus pith and green apple mix with a stony mineral core. Faint salinity, great acidity. Less primary fruit, nice steeliness with a touch of herbs. A blend of 40% Garganega, 40% Trebbiano Toscano, 10% Trebbianello, and 10% Cortese. This is a massive cooperative winery operation with more than 6000 acres of vineyards managed by more than 1350 winegrowers. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20.
2020 Corte Gardoni “Mael” Bianco di Custoza, Veneto, Italy
Light gold in the glass with hints of green, the wine smells of warm hay, bruised pear, and a hint of herbs and grapefruit. In the mouth, herbal, savory notes mix with pear skin and yellow herbs. There’s a hint of yeastiness here and a faint grip, with a touch of salinity on the finish. A somewhat mysterious wine. Great acidity. A blend of 40% Garganella, 20% Trebbiano, 20% Trebbianello, and 20% Riesling vinified separately in steel, and then blended. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2020 Le Vigne di San Pietro Bianco di Custoza, Veneto, Italy
Pale gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of honeysuckle and Asian pear. In the mouth, floral notes, crisp and fresh Asian pear flavors are stony, even steely, with great acidity. There’s a light tannic grip and brightness to this wine that are quite appealing. A blend of Garganega, Trebbianello, Trebbiano, Cortese, and Manzoni Bianco aged for 6 months in steel tanks. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $16.
2020 Gorgo “San Michelin” Bianco di Custoza, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of Asian pear with a hint of white peach. In the mouth, salty notes of Asian pear, white peach, and hints of dried herbs predominate. Faint grip, excellent acidity, and balance. Very fresh. A blend of Garganega, Cortese, and Trebbiano. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.
2020 Seiterre Tenuta San Leone Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of white peaches, vanilla, apples, pear, and white pepper. In the mouth, peach, apple, and Asian pear have a nice saline quality. Excellent acidity. Some bitterness, like pear skin on the finish. A blend of Garganega, Trebbiano, Trebbianello, Bianca Fernanda, Chardonnay. Spends about 3 months in oak barrels before bottling. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??
2020 Tamburino Sardo “La Guglia” Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish-gold in the glass, but with a real green hue, this wine smells of Asian pear, a hint of membrillo, and dried fruits. In the mouth, flavors of bright sultana, bruised pear, and apple mix with a hint of dried apricots and faint citrus notes. There’s also a bitterness and faint grip along with excellent acidity. A blend of Garganega, Fernanda (a clone of Cortese), Trebbianello, Trebbiano Toscano, and Incrocio Manzoni, all of which are dried for 25-40 days before being made into wine. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20.
2019 Calvalchina “Amedeo” Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of white peaches and pears. In the mouth, fantastically bright and juicy white peaches, green apple, and pear flavors mix with a stony steeliness and a lovely saline quality. Juicy, even mouthwatering, with a faint tannic grip. Excellent acidity. A blend of Garganega, Fernanda, Trebbianello, Trebbiano Toscano. The grapes are briefly frozen upon harvest and then thawed to be whole-cluster pressed. Some maceration on the skins is allowed and then a long(ish) lees aging. Malolactic conversion is deliberately blocked. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $16.
2019 Monte del Frà “Ca’ del Magro” Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, Asian pears, and vanilla cream. In the mouth, crisp flavors of white peaches, creme anglaise, and white flowers mix with poached pears. Unique and quite distinctive with a sweet egg cream quality. Great acidity and a hint of salinity. A blend of Garganega, Trebbiano Toscano, Cortese, Incricio Manzoni. 13% Alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2019 Villa Medici Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of pear skin, white peaches, and white flowers. In the mouth, this wine has a fantastic salinity, like seawater tinged with white flowers, Asian pears, white peaches, and rainwater with hints of basil. Excellent acidity, deep minerality, great depth. A blend of 30% Trebbiano Toscano, 30% Garganega, 30% Bianca Fernanda, and 10% Trebbianello aged in steel for 6 months or more. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20.
2018 Menegotti “Elianto” Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of a touch of vanilla, white flowers, apples, and Asian pears. In the mouth, Asian pear, peach, and green apple mix with white flowers. Crisp and bright minerality, faint salinity, and a hint of bitterness linger in the finish like pear skin. Ages for at least 8 months on the lees. A blend of 50% Fernanda (despite, it seems, regulations prohibiting any single grape from making up more than 45% of the blend), 40% Garganega, and 10% Trebbiano. Aged for 8 months in concrete. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16.
2017 Ronca “Ulderico” Bianco di Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of poached peaches, wax, and dried apricots. In the mouth, dried apricots, Asian pears, vanilla, peaches, and wet stone have great acidity and brightness, but also a parchment-y quality. Two harvests are made, one quite late, and both batches are given some skin maceration, adding a bit of a tannic grip on the palate. Faintly saline. A blend of Garganega, Trebbiano Toscano, Tocai Friulano, and Riesling Italico grown on both traditional trellising and pergola. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??