Land of the V
In the middle ages, Veneto dominated the Italian wine trade. Even today, Veneto produces the largest amount of wine in Northern Italy, eclipsing the more famous Tuscany and Piemonte in terms of volume. It’s also extremely varied as a region: from its steep mountains that border Austria to the swampy canals of Venice, Veneto offers a wide range of wines styles.
You can’t say you’ve been to Venice without spending at least a half hour sipping a sparkling wine in one of her delightful piazzas and gondolas. The Veneto region produces one of the world’s few varietally labeled sparkling wines: Prosecco, made from the Prosecco grape (recently rechristened Glera by the spoil sports in Brussels). Try widely-recognized brands Zonin or Bisol for classic examples.
Veneto’s best known white wine is Soave, a simple, typically bland wine made from a grape called Garganega. Some winemakers blend other grapes in with to give it more zip, like the fragrant Trebbiano di Soave (not to be confused with the very generic Trebbiano that is also known as Ugni Blanc in Armagnac). Zenato’s Soave is Garganega with a non-traditional dollop of Chardonnay that gives it seductive fruit flavors with a refreshing citrus finish. However, Pieropan, arguably the most iconic producer in the region, has remained dedicated to the traditional Garganega, eschewing international varieties.
If gondola romance is not your boat, traipse westward across the region with a cheap and cheerful Bardolino to accompany a bowl of pasta. Bardolino’s exuberant fruit and high acidity balanced with a touch of sweetness is just the ticket with Ragu. Veneto’s most popular red wine is known as Valpolicella, made from the same handful of native grapes as Bardolino but traditionally quite different in style (Valpolicella was always more structured).
However, Valpolicella is the largest wine district in Veneto and the wine quality can vary, so as with Soave, Chianti and other regions that have experienced the wine version of urban sprawl over recent decades, look for “classico” on the label. In Italy, “classico” denotes the finest vineyards within a historical district. “Superiore” usually indicates the wine has a higher alcohol level, while “Riserva” indicates a longer period of aging. This guarantees a superior party, not necessarily a superior wine.
Veneto’s crown jewel is a red wine called Amarone, made from grapes that have been laid out on straw mats or hung from rafters to partially dry them. After the grapes are shriveled and wrinkled like raisins, they are pressed and fermented. Because all of the sugars are fermented out by particularly robust yeasts, the resulting wine is dry, not sweet. Amarone Classico is aged in oak barrels for about five years, allowing flavors and tannins to soften.
Along with this Amarone technique, winemakers have all sorts of tricks in their barrels: ripasso is a wine-making technique that cranks up the flavor of an ordinary Valpolicella. After an Amarone is finished fermenting, the winemaker fishes out the grape skins and adds them to a vat filled with Valpolicella, giving the new wine extra colour and tannins.