It may be just one of 20 regions in Italy, but Veneto’s abundance when it comes to wine production can’t be beat.
Seeing the amazing view of Venice with the prominent Campanile di San Marco reaching toward heaven from 10,000 feet before landing at Marco Polo Airport is an amazing sight. It has been more than 10 years since I had visited Italy, and that view brought back many memories. I spent part of my second honeymoon amongst the grand facades, gondolas, water taxis and charming bridges and walkways. Th e romance that Venice exudes through its canals, architecture, museums and cuisine is reflected in and complemented by the wines that come from the surrounding area, the Veneto and their diversity.
The Veneto is home to no less than 14 DOCGs (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata y Garantita), Italy’s highest classification for wines, the second most of any region in Italy. And there is a dizzying amount of other Denominazione and Indicazione (38 if you are wondering) represented here. I do not intend to detail each one here, without first buying you a double Illy Espresso. But the Veneto is also the most prolific wine-producing region in the country, which is saying a lot (both good and bad). However, I want only to introduce you to the finest that the Veneto has to offer.
Without question the three most important wine regions in the Veneto are Valpolicella, Soave and Prosecco. They are most important in terms of total production for the region as well as in terms of first on the minds of wine drinkers. Let us start with the libation that begins any meal in the Veneto—Sparkling Prosecco.
The Glera grape is the main ingredient and workhorse for Prosecco DOC, and Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG is the most widely planted white grape in the Veneto, occupying almost 50,000 acres. Glera can be blended with up to 15 percent of other various grapes and is made sparkling by the Charmat Method where the secondary fermentation is done in bulk in tank rather than in bottle as in Champagne and Metodo Classico. By some accounts this is perhaps Prosecco’s detraction where wines made by Metodo Classico are much more refined and finely beaded. But on the other hand, it is also what makes Prosecco so approachable, fun and more accessible. Prosecco is not meant to be pondered over or for meditating. Prosecco is not just a mood wine or celebratory toast. It is for everyday consumption.
Some of the ones that best express the exuberance and joy with which one should drink Prosecco include Ruggeri and Nino Franco. At Ruggeri, the Bisol family take care of some of the finest vineyards in the Prosecco zone as well as the more highly regarded Valdobbiadene sub region which focuses on the higher elevation hillside vineyards that give a more complex and aromatic wine. Th eir “Gold Label” bottling is a textbook example of prettiness and the “Giustino B” cuvÃ©e is simply remarkable. Nino Franco is one of the oldest estates in the Valdobiaddene, in fact all of their fruit for their wines come from this superior zone. Stylistically these are deeper and perhaps more serious than most, but they are also more complex and sophisticated. Th e Primo Franco bottling is simply one of the best Proseccos available, anywhere.
On the A4 driving west we pass the Soave exit. Soave vineyards are everywhere in a myriad of training methods— and I mean everywhere. They are next to the autostrada, up the hill and around the bend.
It is virtually a sea of vines in the Soave DOC planted on a myriad of exposures and soils. The challenge with Soave is that the quality ranges from beautiful examples such as Pieropan, Gini and Anselmi to watery, vapid wines that are still labeled with the Soave name which is one of the reasons that top-quality producers such as Anselmi refuse to use the name Soave on their bottles. But they all agree that the Garganega grape grown properly in the Soave district can make some terrific wines.
Pieropan is the stalwart, in the best sense of the word. The vineyards are all within the “Classico” heart of the area and the winemaking is impeccable. Even the Soave “normale” is a joy to drink, vibrant, refreshing with glints of green and herbs but the “La Rocca” single vineyard Soave Classico is dreamy: intense with bass notes of nuts and bordering on tropical fruits; this is a wine worth the search. At Gini modern melds with tradition. Always 100 percent Garganega, the wines come from organically grown vines. My fave is the single vineyard ‘La Frosca’ vinified in stainless steel this is an unbridled expression of Garganega in its purest form. The airy aromas and intensity of flavors are beguiling. And no discussion of great Soave would be complete without the “rogue” Roberto Anselmi: uncompromising in quality. His Capitel Foscarino is super intense, mineral driven and may be one of the most powerful expressions of Garganega bar none.
And let us end with the red: Valpolicella. This hilly region surrounds the beautiful historic city of Verona. There are actually several iterations of red wine within the Valpolicella zone. There is Valpolicella which is a typically easy-drinking red made from perfectly ripe grapes and made in a dry style. Then there is Amarone della Valpolicella which is a very special wine made from grapes that are harvested at peak ripeness, then the wine is left to dry on straw mats in the attic or special room of a winery over the course of 30 to 90 days during which they lose their water and concentrate all the components in the grape. The resultant wine is dry but exceedingly rich and can be some of the most long-lived red wines in the world. Some would just make grappa from the pressings of Amarone, however in this region some producers pass the regular Valpolicella wine over the pressings of the Amarone in a process called ripasso. This is the essence of Valpolicella Ripasso which is somewhere between an Amarone and a normal Valpolicella. And lastly, there is the sweet dessert form Recioto della Valpolicella which is made only from the ‘ears’ of the dry bunches which produces very little juice but unctuous stuff that makes 10-year-old Aceto Balsamico taste thin.
There are a host of world-class producers in this region including Bertani with their reference standard Bertani-Secco and extreme library of mature Amarone, Masi with their single vineyard Amarone and Zenato’s excellent Ripasso. But the two that are most dear to me are Dal Forno and Quintarelli. These two share the summit of greatness and both are extremely rare and collectible. Dal Forno’s wines are about power and extract. When they are young, Dal Forno’s wines—especially the Amarone—are luxurious to say the least and require years to fully expand their wingspan. And when they do it is like a Boeing 787 taking flight. Quintarelli is an intimate wine—a more classical expression of the vineyards and the region. These come about through the combination of meticulous vine growing matched with traditional yet precise methods in the cellar. The late Guiseppe Quintarelli who started the estate was recognized as the ‘Maestro’ of Amarone. His grandson Francesco now leads the family-run estate.
The wines here are classics in every sense of the word. They release their wines later than any other estate and are currently on the 2003 vintage whereas most are now on 2008.
This trio of Veneto’s wines is the crown jewels of a diverse area filled with romance and beauty. The Veneto’s first son Marco Polo was one of the world’s finest and most curious explorers. I wonder if he had the chance to taste his region’s finest wines, these listed here. Would he have ever left?
TERMS TO KNOW
CORVINA: The main variety used in Valpolicella et al.
SUPERIORE: Means it has one more degree of alcohol in the wine but may not translate into being a more superior tasting wine.
APPASSIMENTO: Drying of the grapes, especially for Amarone.
BELLINI: A blend of Prosecco sparkling wine and fresh peach juice.