Italian winemakers have a storied history of developing grapes that are symbiotic with their climate and soil conditions. The characteristics of each grape have been tailored to the land and to the local cuisine – and vice versa.
Until recently, many Italian wine producers were more interested in quantity than quality; American consumers were more interested in price than quality. The result was just like those 1960s movies about Italian marriage: dysfunctional, apoplectic relationships masked by hedonistic lifestyles. We were in wine hell and didn’t even know it – or care.
Over the last few decades, the American market is enjoying the new Italian renaissance of fine wines at affordable, even bargain, prices. One Italian wine region stands out as a producer of wines that have made a significant turnabout.
In this fourth installment of our reprised virtual tour through the wine regions of Italy, in search of less widely known grapes, we’ve landed in the northeast of Italy, and the region of Veneto.
The first stop is Venice. Steeped in a long history of world trade dominance and the opulence that signifies such wealth, Venice in the 21st century has become a theme park for me, a city frozen in time. Its aura of millennia of history, culture, trade and conflict envelopes you as you walk the narrow passageways of this cosmopolitan city, constantly losing your way, only to turn a corner and be confronted with a 12th century palazzo and the neighborhood trattoria of your destination.
But venture west from Venice and you will come upon a countryside of gently undulating hills that produces a number of the most prestigious wines of Italy. The Veneto region is home to 80 grape varieties, many of which are “quaffing” wines, consumed in the enotecas and trattorias in the tiny hamlets that dot the landscape.
We begin our virtual tour with the Veneto’s ubiquitous white wine: Soave. Like many Italian wines, Soave is the name of the wine, not the grape. Typically composed of the Garganega and Trebbiano grapes, the area’s northern latitude and low altitude produce a wine with aromas of apple and elderberry, always light on the palate and in the alcohol levels. It is at its best with appetizers or light seafood dishes.
A tantalizing and versatile white dessert wine is Torcolato, produced in the Breganze region, primarily from the Vespaiolo grape. It offers the richness and complexity of a fine Sauternes.
On to the reds.
The reincarnation of Bardolino, as a light, food-friendly wine, is a perfect match for lighter meat dishes. Grown since the Bronze Age, its name of Germanic origins, it is not a grape, but a blend including the three core grapes of most Veneto red wines: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Think young Beaujolais with a touch of spiciness.
Next in the hierarchy of red wines is Valpolicella (a region, not a grape). Also a blend including the three core Veneto grapes, it is always a crowd pleaser at my wine tasting events. It varies from one hillside vineyard to the next, but is typically mid-bodied and fruit-driven, with rich cherry aromas and flavor.
The undisputed champion of the Valpolicella region is Amarone, typically a blend of the three core Veneto grapes. It is made from very ripe grapes, which are dried for several months and then pressed, producing an opulent, concentrated, full-bodied, complex wine with notes of black cherry, dark chocolate, ripe plum and leather. This is a wine for robust game dishes and pasta topped with newly harvested truffles.
A subset of the Amarone is Ripasso, fondly referred to as “Baby Amarone.” Vinified in the traditional fashion but then subjected to a partial secondary fermentation (“ripasso,” or “to pass again”) with dried Amarone grapes, it is characterized by its concentrated fruit and depth of flavor. Try it with rich sauces and roasted game.
Whether partaking of the sights of Venice or the wines of the surrounding area, you will never forget the unique attributes of the Veneto region.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.