North by Northeast…Wines of the Veneto
Veneto is a substantial and increasingly important wine region in the north-eastern corner of Italy. Administratively it forms part of the Triveneto zone, along with its smaller neighbors Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In terms of geography, culture and wine styles, it represents a transition between the alpine, Germano-Slavic end of Italy and the warmer, drier, more Roman lands to the south.
Veneto is slightly smaller than Italy’s other main wine-producing regions – Piedmont, Tuscany, Lombardy, Puglia and Sicily – yet it generates more wine than any of them. Although the southern regions Sicily and Puglia were for a long time Italy’s main wine producers, this balance began to shift north towards Veneto in the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, southern Italian wine languished in an increasingly competitive and demanding world, while Veneto upped its game, gaining recognition with such wines as Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave and Prosecco.
With fruity red Valpolicella complementing its intense Amarone and sweet Recioto counterparts, Veneto is armed with a formidable portfolio of red wines to complement its refreshing whites such as Soave and sparkling Prosecco. Although much of the new vineyard area which supported Veneto’s increased wine output was of questionable viticultural quality, today more than 25% of the region’s wine is made and sold under DOC/DOCG titles.
The Veneto region can be roughly split into three geographical areas, distinguished by their topography and geology. In the north-west the foothills of the Alps descend along the eastern edge of Lake Garda, their path mirrored by the Adige river as it descends from the heights of Alto Adige. Here in the cooler, alpine-influenced climate, fresh, crisp whites are made under the Bianco di Custoza and Garda titles, while refreshing, unassuming Bardolino from the shores of Lake Garda makes the case for Veneto’s lightest reds. Just east of the lake and north of Verona is Valpolicella and its sub-region Valpantena: the fabled ‘Valley of Many Cellars’ produces half a million hectoliters of fruity red wine every vintage. In terms of production volume, Valpolicella is the only DOC to rival Tuscany’s famous Chianti. Immediately east of Valpolicella is Soave, home to the eponymous dry white wine which now ranks among Italy’s most famous products, and beyond that Gambellara serves as an eastern extension of Soave, both geographically and stylistically. Garganega and Trebbiano are the key white-wine grape varieties here, while Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella are behind the vast majority of reds.
In central Veneto, around Vicenza and Padua, are the Colli Berici, Colli Euganei and Breganze. Although the plains below these hills produce vast quantities of wine, only the better-quality wines from more elevated areas have gained DOC status. International varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero here) and even Carmenere have proved successful here, as has northern Italy’s flagship white Pinot Grigio and Veneto’s own Tocai Friulano.
In the northeastern corner of the region, on either side of the Piave river (which has its own Piave DOC covering the land between Conegliano and the coast), sparkling Prosecco reigns supreme. Still wines are also made here (Lison, Lison-Pramaggiore, Montello e Colli Asolani and Colli di Conegliano), but the common factor which unites almost all viticultural zones in north-eastern Veneto is the Glera grape (typically known as Prosecco), and the foaming spumante and semi-sparkling frizzante wines it creates.
Whatever the future holds for the region and its wine, the Vs of Veneto have made their mark on this era of wine history. The names Veneto, Verona, Vicenza, Valpolicella, Valpantena and Valdobbiadene have emerged with vigor into the 21st century, and now even the historic canal city of Venice has its own DOC (Venezia).
Soave is arguably the most famous white-wine DOC in Italy. Granted in 1968, the DOC title covers wines made from Garganega grapes grown on the hillsides east of Verona, in the Veneto wine region of northeastern Italy. A dry, crisp, fruity white wine, Soave’s naturally refreshing appeal led it to phenomenal popularity in the second half of the 20th Century.
Ask any wine drinker to name a well-known Italian white wine, and their answer will almost certainly be either Pinot Grigio or Soave. Names such as Gavi, Orvieto and Frascati might also figure on the list, but the sheer volume of Soave, which has made its way out of Veneto in recent decades, has drowned out the competition. The fact that Pinot Grigio figures alongside Soave as one of the most famous Italian wines is a sign of the times. It is a sign of the power shift from Old World to New World, a change in focus from village to vine, terroir to varietal. For now, though, the DOC system survives, and is adapting year by year to the demands of the variety-led modern wine consumer.
Lugana is a picturesque, white wine-specific viticultural region in northern Italy, its vineyard area straddling the regional border between Lombardy in the west and Veneto in the east. It is located at the southern end of Lake Garda, the vines a relatively new addition to a landscape of fishing villages and castled towns.
The name Lugana is thought to derive from the Latin lacus lucanus (‘lake in the woods’); up until the 12th century, the area’s dense woodlands extended right up to the lake’s edge. Monastic influence from the Middle Ages is evident in town names such as San Benedetto di Lugana, San Vigilie di Lugana and San Martino di Lugana.
Most of the Lugana vineyards extend from the village of Desenzano up to Peschiera, including parts of Lonato, Pozzolengo and Sirmione. This forms a relatively small production zone of just 1482 acres (600ha). The Verdicchio grape variety (aka Trebbiano di Lugana) is the essential ingredient in the area’s bianco (white) wines. It thrives in the zone’s calcareous clay soils, which are rich in mineral salts and help the fruit to reach high levels of ripeness and organoleptic (sensory) complexity. All Lugana wines must comprise at least 90% of this variety, and are often praised for their balance, structure and fragrance, similar to that of Soave Classico. They are also characterized by a freshness and agreeable flavor thanks to the soil characteristics, and a fruit concentration, underlying floral and spice notes and delicate acidity.
Valpolicella is the most famous wine district in north-eastern Italy’s Veneto wine region. It’s not hard to understand why, given the easy-drinking appeal of regular red Valpolicella, coupled with the prestige of its powerful and intensely flavored counterpart Amarone della Valpolicella. The valley even produces white wines – both dry and sweet – under the various Soave titles.
Everyday Valpolicella wine is a bright, tangy, fruity red with aromas of blueberries and banana, and the distinctive ‘sour cherry’ note found in so many northern Italian reds. It is as enjoyable at room temperature as it is slightly chilled, making it ideal as a refreshing red for warm summer afternoons. As a refreshing, medium-bodied wine it is quite different from the district’s Ripasso, Amarone (‘big bitter’) and Recioto (‘little ear’) wines.
Stylistically speaking, Valpolicella might easily be viewed as the Italian answer to Beaujolais. The comparison extends beyond just style, however; in the past few decades Valpolicella has suffered from the same poor reputation as Beaujolais, the result of ever-increasing yields and inconsistent quality.
The Valpolicella production area ballooned in the late 1960s when it was granted DOC status, resulting in a dramatic see-saw of quality and quantity which lasted for approximately 40 years. The prices fetched by Valpolicella wines reached their nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, when the low price paid per kilo of grapes led more quality-focused producers, particularly in the finer Valpolicella Classico and Valpantena zones, to abandon their vines altogether. This increased the percentage of Valpolicella which came from the poorer sites, and the downward spiral continued, only to be halted by a sudden spike of interest in Amarone della Valpolicella during the 1990s.
The grapes used to make Valpolicella are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Corvina is generally regarded as the finest of the three, and is certainly the most traditional. Rondinella proved popular in the 1960s and 1970s because of its generous yields, while pale, over-acidic, oxidation-prone Molinara has declined dramatically since its early surge. Corvina remains the grape of choice for higher-quality Valpolicella, and particularly Amarone della Valpolicella, Recioto della Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso. On warmer, well-drained slopes, Corvina produces wines with more body than is traditionally expected of Valpolicella, which explains the huge quality differential between regular Valpolicella from the plains and Amarone from the hills of the traditional classico zone.
Amarone della Valpolicella is an intensely flavored dry red wine made from dried (passito) grapes. It is made in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, and is arguably the region’s most prestigious red wine.
The amarone style developed as Veneto’s winemakers searched for a way to increase the body, complexity and alcohol content of their wines. As demonstrated by modern-day reds Valpolicella and Garda, wines made from locally grown Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara can sometimes be too light to give satisfaction. These three mainstays of the Valpolicella vineyard are not renowned for their inherent depth (only Corvina is able to produce wines with much body), a deficiency compounded by the cool growing conditions of western Veneto. In order to concentrate the natural sugars and aromatics in Valpolicella wines, local producers began drying their grapes after harvest, to remove water from the berries while retaining sweetness and flavor.
Corvina grapes undergoing ‘appassimento’
This technique proved very successful, although initially it was used to produce sweeter styles of wine, such as those now known as Recioto della Valpolicella. The early amarone wines were seen as mistakes –recioto left to ferment for too long – but eventually the style gained recognition and respect. Amarone comes from the Italian word amaro (“bitter”), completed by the -one suffix which denotes impressive size or volume. When compared to the sweet recioto which the early amarones were supposed to be, this name is entirely logical.
The grapes used to make modern amarone wines are of the local Corvina variety and its sub-variety Corvinone. They are picked in whole bunches and kept in drying rooms (with warm temperatures and low humidity) where they stay for anywhere from three weeks to three months. Traditionally the grapes were dried on straw mats (they are a member of the “straw wine” family) in the warmest part of the house or winery, but modern technology has replaced straw with steel and lofts with pallets. When the drying process (known as appassimento in Italian) is complete, the grapes are gently pressed and the must is fermented to dry. The grapes’ high sugar content means a higher potential alcohol, so a complete fermentation results in a strong wine of 15 or 16 percent alcohol by volume. This is then aged in barrels (traditional large botti are now being replaced by smaller Slavonian oak barriques) for at least two years before commercial release.
Standard Amarone della Valpolicella can be made from anywhere within the wider Valpolicella zone, but those from the viticulturally superior classico and Valpantena sub-zones may be labeled as such.
The amarone production process creates a vinous byproduct, of sorts. Rather than discard the dried grape skins (or use them for distillation into grappa), resourceful winemakers use them to add depth and complexity to their standard Valpolicella wines. The wine and grape skins go through a second fermentation together, during which tannins and phenolic compounds are leached out into the wine, creating Valpolicella Ripasso.
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