“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty.” Shelley
“When you write the story of two happy lovers, let the story be set on the banks of Lake Como.” Franz Liszt
By Patrick Hunt –
For millennia Lake Como in the foothills of the Italian Alps has offered so many incomparable experiences in the most beautiful and dramatic settings – its landscapes showcase both horizontal lake and vertical montane vistas in contrast so one’s soul is very much fed by the balance. Even subtropical lakeside gardens flourish under the protection of steep alpine slopes to its north, and it’s been this way as long as highly cognizant people have lived here in succession, from the Neolithic lake communities to Bronze Age Orobii and Iron Age Celtic Vennonetes and Lepontii tribes to the Romans – who named the city Comum – with many subsequent cultures right up to the present. Like other North Italian lakes of Lombardy, Lake Como was carved by Pleistocene glaciers more than 30,000 years ago with its deep northern channel that splits into its dual southwest and southeast valleys.
Lario is another ancient Roman name for the region and many of its local names reflect its Classical heritage. Because of Como’s long history and Classical antecedents, it is no accident that both viticulture and olioculture are long established here, although they may not be obvious at first, nor as famous as Lake Como’s other amenities, and viticulture elsewhere in Italy is so well known. In the middle of the lake where it forks, the ancient Roman site of Bilacus is now the village of Bellaggio.
I have been coming to Lake Como for decades, drawn by its beauty like so many others. Both Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman encyclopedist and his nephew Pliny the Younger, whose acute description of the volcanic event of Vesuvius in CE 79 is memorialized in the geologic term Plinian eruption, are famous native sons of Roman Comum two millennia past; a more recent Como native son is Alessandro Volta, the 18th century scientist who invented one of the first batteries, and these are only a few of the famous citizens of this old villa-studded lakeside through the centuries. Sculptures of Pliny the Elder and Younger are featured on either side of the main portal of the medieval cathedral facade of Como. It’s almost impossible to note all the famous artists, writers and composers long attracted to Como’s stunning gifts; Leonardo da Vinci, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the poets Goethe, Byron and Shelley, novelists Stendhal, Manzoni and Dickens, the composers Franz Liszt, Vincenzo Bellini as well as Rossini and Puccini along with more moderns like Artur Schnabel all have found paradise in Como at various times and places. At least 34 Nobel Laureates in Physics from Enrico Fermi onward have presented seminars at the Villa Monastero in Varenna, to name but a few luminaries. Even Winston Churchill could not live here without his watercolors. The modern glitterati worlds of fashion and cinema continue to bring residents and repeat visitors to Lake Como’s music and art festivals and culture. The Italian silk fashion industry has also long been associated with the lake with many local fabbriche di seta and may have contributed to Milan’s textile fashion history since the early 19th century. Silk scarves remain one of Lake Como’s main commodities as can be seen especially in Como and Bellagio; the best venue for silk is the elegant merchant “Azalea” at Salita Serbelloni 31 in Bellagio for over half a century, a lovely promenade up a picturesque staircase off the Via Roma past Franz Liszt’s historic residence.
Last August I was lucky to informally perform a few new compositions in the Chamber Music Hall of the Teatro Sociale – Como Opera House on a vintage piano for our National Geographic group. Liszt performed here around 1837; I have visited his residence in Bellagio many times and have stayed for weeks in Moltrasio next door to Vincenzo’s Bellini’s lavender-hued villa, a lakeside landmark. Liszt was my music teacher’s teacher’s teacher in Leipzig in the late 1880’s so Como is a touchstone in my own life.
In the past few years I’ve been able to explore both wine production and olive oil production around Lake Como. Olive oil production here appears to go back to colonial Greek veterans of Roman legions who planted olive groves around Lenno on the west side of the lake under Mt. Tremezzo and in Ossuccio and Ceresio villages nearby. On the other hand, at least 29 communities around the lake now produce olive oil, including communes above Varenna such as Gittana (Perledo). Lenno’s name may derive from the Greek island of Lemnos from where the original Greek colonists came around 59 BCE, possibly even with baby olive trees wrapped in cloth root balls. Many olive groves can still be seen in the hills above Lenno and vintage olive presses many centuries old can be found around Lenno.
But the viticulture of the Lario or Como region (Terre Lariane) certainly deserves notice, however unknown it might be to the greater Anglophone world. Although at least 18 other commercial wineries exist across Lake Como communes, my favorite – with added spectacular views – is on the northwest Lake Como slopes above Domaso with its steep southeast facing hand-built drystone ronchi terraces 300-400 meters high above the lakeside commune town. This Sorsasso Domasino family operation began in 1997 when Daniele Travi and his wife Roberta Beltracchini started acquiring several hectares for viticulture and olioculture, although the Travi family has apparently been involved in oenology since the eighteenth century. Sorsasso means “on the rock” as huge bedrock outcrops intersperse with vistas toward the lake east and south and across the lake to the Adda River Valley directly east – a region itself also famous for Valtellina wines on its steep south-facing slopes. The Sorsasso Domasino Winery (Azienda agricola Sorsasso) has the guarantee of IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica in Italian ) quality classification.
The slopes of Domaso profit locally from the Breva thermal dry wind through Como Valley that helps keep moisture at bay. The Familia Travi-Beltracchini also produces an extra-virgin olive oil from their same Domaso hillside property above the lake, oil blended with different olives including Frantoia, Leccino and Pendolino. Domasino bottles around 30,000 bottles of wine annually, including the award-winning Domasino Rosso (merlot 65%, sangiovese 20%, barbera 10%, and rosseia 5%) – it has been named to the 100 Best Wines of Italy and also 3 stelle Viniplus 2013 – and the Domasino Bianco (verdesa 50%, sauvignon blanc 50%) – awarded 3 stelle Viniplus 2013 and Silver medal in Cervim 2013 – along with a Domasino Rosato (merlot and sangiovese) and a Grappa Mirtillo. Some Como oenologists claim the local white verdesa grape has been planted here since the Romans.
On one of my National Geographic Expeditions last year in 2019 where we annually spend a week on Lake Como – I function as the National Geographic Expedition Expert on cultural history and natural history working alongside my wonderful Italian NatGeo logistics colleague Paola Pieracino – we had another perfect lunch and superb wine degustazione here at Sorsasso Domasino to accompany the meal, where all three above wines were tasted along with a grappa finish. The wine experience was managed by Silvia Travi, lovely daughter of Roberta and Daniele, who currently oversees the winery and is fluent in several languages including English. Typically, the Sorsasso Domasino winery ristorante-cantinetta also provides memorable ambiente for wedding parties and many special occasions to celebrate over much of the year. This wine, food and vista experience is highly recommended by Lake Como tourism and their multiple spaces can accommodate up to 30 persons both outside on the sunny terrace under umbrellas and in the cellars. Silvia’s winsome smile will welcome all who appreciate beauty.
The address of Sorsasso Domasino is Via Gaggio 1/Bis
22013 Domaso, Lago Como IT
Tel: (+39) 0344 910022
Fax: (+39) 0344 910849