Just a stone’s throw away from Venice is one of Italy’s most well known wine regions. Amarone, Valpolicella, and Prosecco all come from this northern corner of the country, and their unique drying process makes some of the most distinct wines in the world.
Veneto: An Overview
While historically the hot, dry and low lying south has been Italy’s source of bulk wines, the 20th century saw these poor farmers fall deeper into poverty as WW2 raged on. Since then, the majority of production has gone north and now Veneto is the most productive region in Italian winemaking, in terms of volume output.
Quite a feat in itself, except for that most of this wine is cheap and watery tasting. You’ve read my article about the difference between Italian Pinot Grigio and French Pinot Gris, so you should know how incredibly high yields are for big mainstream producers.
Fortunately, there are still some fantastic wines coming out of Veneto: reds, whites, sparkling, and even a sweet wine or two.
Up in this northern corner of Italy, the biggest factors are several bodies of water including Lake Garda, the Adriatic Sea, and the cool breezes coming down from the Alps mountain range. Even though Veneto is around the same latitude as Provence in Southern France, the climate here is much cooler, especially further inland.
This is one of the reasons for drying grapes out on straw mats to conserve flavours and sugars, producing fuller and richer wines. This tradition dates back to ancient Roman or even Greek times, as important and well known wines shipping from Greece and Cyprus used this technique. Today, there are dry versions (Amarone) and sweet ones (Recioto), but the process is pretty much the same as it was thousands of years ago.
Taking into consideration the wide range of wines made in this area, we’ll be looking at some of the most important appellations of Veneto: Valpolicella, Prosecco, and Soave.
One of the furthest inland appellations, sitting around Lake Garda, Valpolicella itself makes several different wine styles. In this area, three different appellations will be examined.
Made from a blend of Corvina and Rondinella (sometimes with a splash of Molinara), these blends are typical light red wines of cooler northern wine producing areas. Similar to Barbera d’Asti from Piedmont, or even Beaujolais wines, these are light bodied and are best enjoyed chilled.
While entry level stuff can be simple at best, look out for the original zones of production, that were the original and better parts of the appellation. Just like in Chianti, these will have the “Classico” tacked onto the their appellation name, making them “Valpolicella Classico” wines.
With sour cherry, grape, and violet notes all wrapped around a light frame with high acid and light tannins, these are great picnic wines or something red that can be enjoyed in the summer. Their light body and refreshing quality make them great thirst quenchers for when white isn’t wanted.
Ripasso, a style popularized in the 1970s by giant producer Masi, is very interesting and is something that is rarely seen anywhere else in the wine world. While Amarone is made from dried grapes, Ripasso is made by combining regular Valpolicella wines, and putting the already pressed Amarone grape skins into the fermentation tank.
The result is a wine that is amped up in terms of alcohol, flavour, and aromatics by the addition of the concentrated flavours of the dried grapes. This is seen as the little brother of Amarone, with many of the dark chocolate, fig, raisin, and savoury notes that come from it but in a more delicate way.
These wines will be medium bodied, with a mix of lighter red fruit and floral notes, along with the punch and chocolate/mocha forward style of Amarone along with its dried fruit.
Amarone della Valpolicella
Amarone, or “little bitter” is called this to differentiate it from the sweet dried grape wine, Recioto della Valpolicella. Amarone is made from the same grapes as Valpolicella and Ripasso, except that when the grapes are harvested, they are left out to dry for several months to concentrate sugars and flavours.
This does several things: just like Vin de Paille in Jura, the sugars concentrate, making the potential alcohol of the wine very high (especially if fermented dry). This also increases the flavours of the wine more as the water weight disappears, including acids.
The finished wine is then aged in oak casks for extended periods of time, picking up savoury nutty and chocolate flavours as it gets older. These Amarone are known for their high alcohol, high tannin, and high acids – high everything. This big structure is backed up by signature notes of chocolate, mocha, dark rum, fig, raisin, and clove spice.
Moving east from the Valpolicella area, Soave is a white wine producing appellation made from Garganega, along with small amounts of Verdicchio and some Chardonnay. Just like Valpolicella, quality has suffered over the years as vineyards extended far beyond the original borders.
In an effort to make good, Italian authorities also created a “Classico” zone, mapping out the original borders of the appellation. Unfortunately, its reputation suffered and still hasn’t quite fully bounced back.
But, while a regular Soave isn’t quite what it used to be, if you find yourself a quality bottle of Soave Classico or even Soave Superiore with high percentages of Garganega (the top grape of the area), you will be in luck.
These wines will be light bodied with high acid. Some flavours you might find will be wet stone minerality, lemons, bitter almonds, and mild white flower notes.
Finally, moving all the way across to the other side of Veneto close to the Friuli border is the famous Prosecco sparkling wine appellation. It seems that Veneto has a trend of extending their reach in terms of quality wine, as Prosecco also has a sub appellation for its higher quality wines.
Made from the Glera grape, Prosecco is known for its fresh and fruity style of sparkling wine, full of peach and stone fruit notes that make its use in the Bellini cocktail a natural match. Made of Prosecco and white peach puree, the Bellini is a classic sparkling wine cocktail that is also great to throw back during Sunday brunch. Check out this article for a simple recipe.
Aside from this, Prosecco is different from other premium sparkling wines in that it is not a traditional method bubbly. Using the tank method instead, the second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank, minimizing yeast contact, preserving all the fruity and white flower notes that it is known for.
Looking for something a little nicer? Check out the sub appellation, “Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore”. These vineyards are located on steeper hillsides, soaking up that extra sunlight to ripen grapes and flavours even more. The final wines will have pronounced notes of fresh white peaches, apricot, white flowers, and lemon zest.
Veneto Wine and Food Pairing
Venice, the capitol of Veneto, is known for its incredible wealth of seafood caught in the lagoon surrounding the floating city. The light whites and sparkling wines are a clear match for these types of seafood, but for the reds, look to red meats for greater food pairing matches.
Start off the meal with a bottle of light and fresh Valpolicella along with a spread of cured meats and cheeses. The high acid will be a great match for any fatty pork products, especially the salty sausages and salumi of Northern Italy.
For heartier reds like a Valpolicella Ripasso, look to equally meaty dishes like Pasta with Bolognese sauce. Ground beef cooked with tomatoes, red wine, stock, and some key vegetables will be a perfect match to a concentrated red like a Ripasso.
Whether you go full bubbly with Prosecco or stick with the crisp Soave, you will be in good hands with the delicate flavours of fresh sushi and sashimi. The high acid of both will wipe your mouth clean with every sip, and even cut through the fat or raw tuna and tempura battered meat or vegetables too.