Anyone been to anywhere in the Veneto apart from Venice? It's a great place to visit, particularly if you base yourself in the gastronomic centre, which is Verona. Here you'll find a pile of restaurants and trattorias to suit all pocket sizes plus all the nosh and wines are great. It's completely walkable, so you can simply base yourself in the centre and mill around, soaking up the atmosphere. For me, the trick it not trying to do too much touristy stuff, just get into the swing of the life there and meander about. Go for a passagiata at about six o'clock with the locals - when they come out following their afternoon hibernation - all dressed up, just strolling around and browsing the shops with a gelato. It's great hanging out in places like this in Italy. You can just sit in a bar and pick at some olives and almonds whilst sipping a glass of local white wine in the early evening sun. Hard life. But enough longing for a holiday, let's get back to the vino.
In wine terms the Veneto is one of the giants of Italy. One of the most well-to-do regions in Italy, it produces more 'Quality' wine (as opposed to Country wine or Table wine, an official EU distinction) than any other region in Italy. It accounts for 25% of all Italian quality wine and is third in overall wine production only after Puglia and Sicily (the two powerhouses of production). But where is it anyway? Well, as you can see from my rather fetching hand-drawn map the region is in North-East Italy, starting at the Alps in the North and running down to the West Coast and the Po plain to the South. As is nearly always the case in the world of wine, the best wines zones are found on hillsides with poor soil, which in the Veneto means in the foothills of the Alps. There are two centres for quality wine in the region (which is where we want to go of course), one around Verona and another around the small town of Conegliano.
Further South the vast Po plain is reserved for a sea of bulk wine, typified by the infamous wine-bar quaffer Pinot Grigio. Pretty much every other international variety is represented in the plain too, made in a range of price points but rarely aspiring to much. So let's forget that stuff and look at the wines from the two areas of quality production.
The most important vineyards of the region are found in a long strip immediately to the north of Verona, running from Lake Garda in the West across to the town of Vicenza in the East. These rolling hills are effectively the very first ripples of the Alps and are the perfect terrain for quality wine.
The key wines in this strip running from West to East are Lugana, Bardolino, Valpolicella and then Soave. All of them apart from Lugana (which is a comparatively new appellation) were cynically expanded in the late 60s with the original much smaller zone having the word Classico appended to the name. It’s the original Classico heartlands where nearly all the good stuff comes from (much like Chianti in Tuscany). Although most people generally know cheaper and simpler examples of these appellations, they all make excellent wines when from the right area and a good producer.
Who drinks Valpolicella? I certainly do. You shouldn't poo-poo it, as although it has a bit of rep for being cheap and basic, in fact it's a fascinating wine made in range of styles and at all quality levels. As well as regular Valpolicella, you also have Ripasso della Valpolicella, Recioto della Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella. What a lot of Valpolicellas! Especially when all of them can have Classico appended to the name if they're from the heartland. Don’t panic though, it’s quite easy, here’s what they all mean:
- Valpolicella (hopefully Classico), or normale, is the basic level red wine that’s made in the normal way for red wines around the world. At its best it’s fresh, fruity and with crisp and crunchy cherry flavours. A good Valpolicella Classico is a truly lovely thing, especially with a bowl of pasta or perhaps a pizza.
- Amarone della Valpolicella is made from grapes that are dried for up to four months in the lofts around Verona, losing up to 35% of their weight. This creates a much richer and stronger wine, which is then fermented fully dry. As it has been concentrated the alcohol level is high (a good 15%) but it’s still well balanced. One of the world’s great wines when in the best hands and capable of ageing for decades.
- Recioto della Valpolicella is from the same dried grapes as an Amarone, but with a limited fermentation time, thus creating a naturally sweet wine. It’s rare and fabulous. But when would one drink it you might ask? Well, how about whenever you might otherwise have Port (which is also a sweet red wine). It's actually much more suited to the modern world than Vintage Port, as you don't have to wait twenty years to drink it (just buy it and drink it) and it's not fortified, so it doesn't give you a stinking hangover! A bottle of recioto with a fine blue cheese is a wonderful thing, especially when the weather starts to draw in.
- Ripasso della Valpolicella is a process unique to the area. The wine is made as a normale, but then is passed over the lees of an Amarone or Recioto, starting up a bit more fermentation. This creates a stronger and richer wine than a normale. It's like half-way house between regular Valpolicella and Amarone.
All these wines are well worth exploring. Regular Valpolicella you should look to a quality producer (as there is a lot of very average stuff). Allegrini are probably the best bet in the UK market, their regular Valpolicella being about £10 and delicious. For a Ripasso (a bit fuller in style), there's a great bottle they sometimes sell at M&S, also for around a tenner. They don't currently have it but you should give a go when it comes back in stock. As for Amarone, Sainsburys Taste the Difference make a winning example, which has taken a few gongs in wine competitions. It's about £16, but it's a truly fine wine and most Amarone is at least £20, so it's a very fair price. Finally if you want to find a Recioto, then Allegrini are probably the best bet again. Be prepared to fork out £30 for a small bottle though. I appreciate that's very expensive, but it's real nectar and as a special treat (with blue cheese at Christmas say) it's worth every penny.
Soave and Lugana
Soave is made from the variety Garganega, which almost no-one has heard of. It's quite a light variety but with good structure, decent acidity and a fair amount of elegance and style. Quality Soave from the Classico zone can be a great drink. Honestly! It’s just such a shame the name has been sullied by so much overcropped cynical wine from the flatlands of the appellation outside of the Classico zone.
There are a couple of great examples of Soave in Majestic. There's one for about £13 from a producer called Inama and one that's perhaps the best Soave of all, called Soave La Rocca, from the magnificent producer Pieropan. It is £22, but for the quality it's actually really well priced (honest).
A small appellation on the Southern shores of lake Garda, Lugana makes dry white wines from 100% Trebbiano Lugana (an excellent low yielding variety which must not under any circumstances be confused with the vastly inferior, hugely cropping and ubiquitous Trebbiano Toscano, which is normally just called Trebbiano). Lugana makes some really lovely wines that are stylish and elegant; delicate and floral in youth they gain some richness and interest with a year or two in bottle. The wine is capable of oak ageing too with both excellent oaked and unoaked versions available. It’s generally a reliable appellation.
The best producer of Lugana is probably Cà dei Frati, who make both unoaked and oaked examples for around £15. Really excellent wines that make a great change from the ubiquitous white wine varieties that dominate the market.
The other hub for quality wine production in the Veneto is around the town of Conegliano, which is the centre of Prosecco Country. Very unusually the name refers to both grape and appellation. However, in a change about to come in to force the variety is to be renamed Glera, one of its historical local synonyms. Why are they doing this you may ask? Well, it’s actually very a sensible move that will prevent other parts of Italy and other EU Countries from making a ‘Prosecco’. Instead they will have to make a bottle of Glera! Basically they’re protecting their name.
Prosecco is sparkling wine made in the Charmat method, which uses a large pressurised tank for the secondary (bubble inducing) fermentation, allowing the light fruit flavours of the grape variety to shine through. This is a high quality sparkling production method that is most appropriate for wines with a light and delicate flavour that you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the more intense bottle fermentation method (á la Champagne), which gives much stronger biscuity and yeasty characteristics. As well as a full spumante version (minimum 3.5 atmospheres) there is also a frizzante version (much lighter fizz, at around 2 atmospheres), but most of that doesn't leave the area.
Like all the other wines in the Veneto, Prosecco comes in a wide variety of quality levels. Regular Prosecco can be decent from a top producer, but nearly all the best stuff comes from the superior sub-appellation Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. A good example is a lovely light and refreshing apéritif, totally different to Champagne and other bottle fermented sparkling wines. It’s best drunk young when the appealing fresh flavours can be most appreciated.
Prosecco's on a real roll at the moment in the UK market, having overtaken Cava as the second most popular sparkling wine (after Champagne, naturally enough). What it does really well is not try to compete style wise with Champagne (unlike Cava). Instead it makes fresh, immediately appealing crisp appley wine with a creamy fizz. Waitrose do a good one for under£12 and there's a fine example from Viavino (declaration of interest: my own online wine business) for £13.95.
I realise the wines discussed here are a bit spendy (not always the case with my recommendations by any means), but do try to give a couple of bottles from the Veneto a go, it's a great place to explore vinously and it's always worthwhile discovering new wines that aren't from the same old varieties.
Allegrini Valpolicella - £10.45 from Viavino (Harringay wine merchant, my own business)
Sainsburys Taste the Difference Amarone - £15.69 from selected stores
Allegrini Reciota della Valpolicella - £29.75 from Viavino
Inama Soave - £13 from Majestic
Pieropan Soave 'La Rocca' - £22 from Majestic
Cà dei Frati - i Frati Lugana - £14.95 from Viavino
Waitrose Prosecco 'Italian Collection' - £11.39 from Waitrose
Cà Morlin Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene - £13.95 from Viavino