Wines of the Veneto

Triveneto Part III: VENETO

The largest and most famous wine region of the Tre Venezie is the Veneto. Located between the Adriatic Sea and the southern border of the Italian Alps and Austria, and dotted with culturally iconic cities such as Venice (Venezia, for which the “Tre Venezie” is named) and Verona (think Shakespeare), it is truly one of the iconic areas of Italy. As well-known as it is for historical significance, tourism and natural beauty, wines of the Veneto are every bit as worthy of their international renown. From Prosecco and Pinot Grigio to the complex, time-intensive Amarones of Valpolicella.

No Moscato, Thanks– I’m Pro-Secco

Prosecco has always been a quality export from this region, but it has grown in popularity in the United States especially in the last few years. With the economic downturn, Prosecco sales saw a significant rise as a cheaper alternative to Champagne. In fact, the wine gained 24% from 2012 to 2013 alone. Those who give Prosecco a try tend to stick with it!

It’s easy to see why. Prosecco is usually dry, but even a “Secco” (the Italian equivalent of “Brut,” the word associated with labeling dry Champagne) wine will have notes of flowers and peaches and other fruit flavors that can make this bubbly very appealing to a variety of palates. There are “Extra Brut” examples that contain 0-6g/L of residual sugar (twice as dry as is required for “Secco” or “Brut” designation), but if you come across a bottle of Prosecco (or any Italian sparkling) named “Extra Dry” or “Dry,” those are actually the sweetest. “Extra Dry” is the label for 12-17g/L and “Dry” goes for anything between 17 and 32 grams. Obviously, the more grams per liter of sugar, the sweeter the wine in the bottle! The main takeaway is that there is a Prosecco for every type of wine drinker!

The Prosecco DOC zone, including DOCG landmarks of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano

Prosecco is often confused as the name of the wine AND the name of the grape that makes it. Until 2009, that would have been correct, too. Before 2009, the definition of what “Prosecco” had been was a little muddied by other countries (like the United States) making “Prosecco” wine, but obviously not that had been grown in Italy. Partially as a result, the Glera grape, which was casually known as the “Prosecco” grape, became the official name and no one could call their wine “Prosecco” unless it came from either a Prosecco DOC or DOCG region.

Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco from Casalini

In 2009, the area between Valdobbiadene and Canegliano became home to 15 small hillside communes, elevating the previous D.O.C.s established in 1969 to D.O.C.G. level, and promoting all previous Prosecco IGTs to D.O.C. status. In this way, Italian producers ensured the future value of their wine by rendering null and void all other Prosecco pretenders around the world.

Looking for another use for Prosecco? It makes a great champagne substitute in classic cocktails, as well as in Aperol or Campari Spritzes, Bellinis, and Mimosas!

Famous White Wines

Like the rest of the Tre Venezie, the Veneto is home to one of the most well-identified Italian wines in terms of American consumers: Pinot Grigio. When the casual American drinker thinks of Italian white wine, there is no question that this international variety is the first to come to mind. Pinot Grigio offers a light, crisp, option that is not so strong in acidity and fruit as Sauvignon Blanc, but is also different from Chardonnay. The Veneto style of Pinot Grigio follows with the old world style of dry and minerally common in Austria and Trentino-Alto Adige (which is practically half-German), as opposed to the dry but fruitier styles found in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and New World regions like Australia and Oregon.

But Pinot Grigio isn’t the only renown Italian white from Veneto; just the one most known by Americans. Soave has also been produced and exported in massive quantities over the last half-century, and Pinot Grigio is really the only other white wine that can compare.

Soave is a crisp, dry, fruity white wine made from mainly Garganega grapes in a small area east of Verona. It was part of a massive explosion of Italian wine imports in the United States following World War II, and many millions of barrels are still produced today. However, like Chianti and other highly-exported Italian wines, the massive quantity led to a dilution of quality which had to be remedied in the last couple of decades. As with many other high-quantity Italian wine styles, the DOC/DOCG system was a big help in re-defining higher standards for producers and clarifying quality through labeling for consumers.

Garganega grapes on the vine

Prior to modern times, “Soave Classico” wines were made of no less than 70% Garganega, with the remaining 30% coming from Pinot Bianco, Trebbiano Toscano (aka Ugni Blanc in Cognac, France), Chardonnay, and Trebbiano di Soave (also known as Verdicchio). To provide a truer sense of place in Soave wines, DOC regulations dropped the Pinot Bianco and Trebbiano Toscano and required that only the latter two be included in the official blend. To further distinguish the newly re-focused Soave product from the bulk wines of the past, a DOCG designation was created, including some hillside vineyards not included in the original Soave DOC (as the alluvial plains were seen as more beneficial for vineyards). The new DOCG also required 3 months aging in the bottle and for the wine not to be released before September 1st of the year following the harvest.

The Five Tiers of Valpolicella

The Veneto is home to one of the most fascinating and prestigious red wine regions in Italy: Valpolicella. Located in the foothills just north of Verona and east of Lake Garda and the Lobardia border, Valpolicella is a mild-to-cool region between the Alps and Adriatic Sea. The region produces more wine than any other DOC in Italy aside from the famous Chianti. Five different DOC and DOCG wines are made here from the base grapes of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, but it’s the way in which these wines are made that sets them apart.

A common practice in world-class regions such as Piemonte (home of Barolo and Barbaresco) is to have “cash flow” wines– styles that can be sold and drank young while other time-intensive wines are maturing. In Piemonte, while the tannic Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco spend a few years in oak, they make Barbera and Dolcetto wines that can be consumed much sooner after the harvest. Valpolicella is different. Instead of harvesting entirely different grapes for entirely different wine, the same grapes are used but processed much less. The amount of time and resources that go into said grapes determine the finished product.

Tier I and II: Everyday Valpolicella Wines

Tier I: Valpolicella Classico DOC- This is the basic tier of Valpolicella and definitely the “cash flow” wine of the region. It is the basic blend of mostly Corvina, plus Rondinella, and Molinara with an ABV of around 11%, light-bodied and is often served slightly chilled. The base level of Valpolicella has a lot in common with Beaujolais. It is drank young, fruit-forward with a noticeable sour cherry note at times, with the acidity appropriate of a cool climate region like Valpolicella.

Tier II: Valpolicella Superiore DOC- Take Valpolicella Classico, age it one year in wood, bring it to a minimum of 12% ABV and you have Vapolicella Superiore, a darker and more concentrated wine. This is a good value wine that shouldn’t cost more than $20, but with a year of aging it’s not quite the “Nouveau” style of Valpo Classico.

Tiers III, IV, and V: Value-Added Passito and “Nose to Tail” Ripasso Wines

Tier IV: Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG- To understand the third tier of Valpolicella wines, it’s often easier to explain the fourth. Amarone is made from Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes that have been hung to dry indoors for up to four months, which evaporates 30-40% of the juice and creates a super-concentrated raisin-like grape for wine making. The concentrated grapes, increased skin contact, and extended aging for a minimum of 2 years (up to 5) create a very robust, dry red wine of about 14-16% ABV that will have a deceptive raisin-like “sweetness” and flavors of stewed fruit.

Shriveled grapes ready to be made into Amarone

These wines have plenty of tannins and acidity and as such can easily be aged for 10 to 20 years to bring out more complexity. Amarone della Valpolicella became a DOC in 1990 and (along with Recioto della Valpolicella– Tier 5) became a DOCG region in 2009, cementing its place as one of Italy’s finest wines. Of course, because of the extra time and labor that goes into their production, you can expect to pay extra for Amarone. A bottle will likely set you back at least $60-80 to start.

Tier III: Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso DOC- There are “cash flow” wines and then there are what I’d like to call “nose to tail” wines. Ripasso della Valpolicella (as it’s also called) is a wine that takes the leftover pomace (grape skins and seeds) from the bottoms of barrels of Amarone and enters them into an extended maceration of their own in a new wine.

Adding these “leftovers” to Valpolicella Superiore adds to the alcohol level and complexity of these wines, creating a medium-to-full bodied wine of great depth somewhere between Valpolicella Superiore and Amarone, with less time and labor and a much friendlier price to match ($20-40). These are probably some of the best values in Italian wine!

Grape pomace from Amarone barrels to be used to make Ripasso (“re-passed”) wine

 Tier V: Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG-  Normally, “passito” wines have a tendency towards the sweet, from Vin Santo in Tuscany to Recioto di Soave (also from Veneto of course), so it’s only natural that the final form of Valpolicella is a dessert wine. Recioto della Valpolicella uses the same process as Amarone, but fermentation is halted before all the sugars can be converted to alcohol. This produces an extremely concentrated and complex wine with a dried fruit sweetness, lots of tannin and bright acidity. These wines must be aged a minimum of two years in wood, often Slavonian barriques which do not impart much oak flavor, and can be laid down for 20 or more years with the proper care. Expect, like Amarone, to pay for all that special treatment though. A standard half-bottle (375ml) will probably set you back at least $40!