Can a Revamped DOC Help Winemakers Find Success?

It's a tricky marketing strategy, but the members of Northern Italy's Garda DOC are optimistic.

Red wine is poured into a glass, along with other wines
Photo: Cook Shoots Food / Getty Images

On a breezy early summer day in Dogana di Lazise, a Northern Italian town on the edge of Lake Garda, sixty journalists from across Europe and the United States hunched over long tables as a geologist explained the inquired soil content and climate of the region. Wine correspondents scribbled notes seriously, frowning, wearing headsets so that a translator could interpret for non-Italian speakers. The room looked like a United Nations meeting, but the subject wasn't treaties or sanctions, but instead the Lake Garda DOC. The consortium covers a huge stretch of Northern Italy, about 370 square acres between Lombardy and Veneto, and they were vying to make their wines — mostly whites and sparkling with a luminous, easy-drinking quality — a household name not just in Italy, but around the world.

A DOC — or Denominazione di Origine Controllata — isn't unusual in itself. Italy has over 300 DOC wines, a system established in 1963, intended to prevent wine fraud. When a wine has a DOC label, it has to satisfy strict quality controls and be produced within a certain region, and depending on the DOC, follow certain regulations such a minimum alcohol content or harvest yields. It's a protected denomination of origin that's common in much of Europe, similar to the famous rule that a sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France.

But the announcement of the revamped DOC was splashy for a few reasons. The DOC itself wasn't new — it started in 1996 — but it had recently gained steam as a way for the smaller regional sparkling wines to compete in the UK market. It's unusually large for a DOC, and that's because it's made of a kind of super group from the DOCs of Valentèsi, San Martino Della Battaglia, Lugana, Colli Mantovani, Custoza, Bardolino, Valpolicella, Valdadige, Durello and Soave. Production from the region more than quadrupled in the last five years, from producing 4.5 million bottles in 2016 to 20 million last year. But Garda DOC is even more bullish than that — they're hoping to up production to 40 million bottles of wine from the region per year, largely to export. "We currently export 80 percent, but I want to increase that percentage," explained the consortium's director, Carlo Alberto Panon.

But using a DOC as a marketing strategy is a complicated choice in 2022. Yes, it's a good way to put a clear label on several wine styles that aren't as popular or recognizable in the states. And yet, as the experts at the panel made clear, so much of the qualities of the wines they're hoping to promote and protect hinges, like all wines, on biodiversity and climate. Those are, if you haven't noticed, pretty seriously in flux in 2022, thanks to rapidly escalating climate change. Wine is a product of place. When the characteristics of a place are liable to change, is a DOC something that helps protect wines, or pins them to a certain set of characteristics that may be increasingly difficult to reproduce?

One thing that is nearly certain is that the Lake Garda of 2022 will not look like the Lake Garda of 2032. "As a place goes from dryer to wetter, or vice versa, the composition is going to change, and it's going to change how the wine tastes, how the grapes grow," said environmental scientist Justin Herndon. The thing about climate change is that we're not totally sure how the climate will change, or whether a region will have more frequent bouts with catastrophic weather. Winegrowers can mitigate the effects to a certain extent, thanks to chemicals and weather controls, but it requires a great deal of intervention. "But at a certain point you're going to have to choose between a low-intervention approach and changing the characteristics of the wine all together," Herndon said.

Brian Freedman, author of Crushed: How Climate Change Is Altering the Way We Drink, agreed. "More than global warming, it's also global weirding. The soil chemistry won't change dramatically — it took millions of years to get there — but is that more important than weird downpours or wildfire or extreme heat? Will that supersede the underlying geology?"

The success of the Garda DOC, like all DOCs, depends on how nimbly it can navigate those future changes, and how flexible its governing members are about its parameters. "If it operates in such a way that the rules and regulations that are set forth in the very beginning are carved in stone from on high, that would harm a region," said Freedman. If the parameters are incredibly strict about the number of plants per acre, for example, or a certain altitude they need to reach, that can spell trouble down the road. "If that's unchangeable, like any rules, that's setting yourself up for failure," Freedman said. "There has to be the ability to pivot."

To their credit, the members of Garda DOC seem to see that in their future. As they work to promote their regional wine, they're also considering what makes their region distinctive, both now and in the future. "If the rules are unchangeable, that's setting yourself up for failure," Freedman adds. "But one of the things that impressed me most is just how open minded and willing to pivot and change so many producers around the world are, and I think that's going to really help them."

As for Garda DOC? "I applaud their optimism," Freedman said. "And boy, are those wines tasty."

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