Italy Part 2: The Rest of the North ! (or at least most of it!)
Last night I drank sour beer, ate rice cakes and immersed myself in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, as one does on a Saturday night. The book is a tomb, and though it looks like a dictionary and is substantial enough to cause harm to one’s enemies if launched with enough velocity, it is pleasingly not boring at all.
Jancis is a smart, good looking British academic and her text - the standard for all wine professionals - is sprinkled with snarky sass that makes me guffaw and often release a single “ha!” in public places. Being of the digital age, I immediately want to share these saucy morsels, before realizing that no one cares/ understands esoteric wine jokes. In the future, I am going to share her sass here! So get ready to be underwhelmed by that.
Speaking of sass, this morning I read Jamie Goode’s “How to succeed as a Wine Writer”, which I highly recommend. Basically, most wine writing is the worst advertorial written by hung over journalists on fully funded trips. I will try hard to not fall into this trap, which should be easy as not that many people read my blog and no trade body has ever flown me anywhere ("How to Not Succeed as a Wine Writer" will be my addendum. You're welcome guys.).
But enough of that, we have a massive amount to cover - Northern Italy! (minus Piemonte which is here). I will focus on the things most of us have the possibility of drinking and seeing – Valpolicella, Soave and Trentino Alto-Adige.
Veneto is Italy’s most productive wine region, if productivity is defined by quantity produced, which it is. Since the mid 90s it has overtaken Puglia and Sicily to become Italy's largest producer of wine. In theory, a large percent of this wine is good – over ¼ qualifies for DOC - what the fuck is a DOC and why it is good/ the worst here.
And yet. The DOCs of the North East are inflated and often include flat, fertile plains where cereal once grew. The DOCs also sanction absurdly high yields, which lead to dilluted, bland wines. Together these factors (way too big area, way too big yields) negate any supposed quality the DOC would give. Happily “Classico” exists in Soave and Valpolicella and does indicate a much smaller region, hillier plots better suited to viticulture and less fertile soil. When it comes to the North East, always choose Classico.
As a nerdy aside, the region's notoriously high yields are helped by trellising. Instead of using Guyot, which is the pretty, low arms most people imagine when they think of vineyards, Veneto is planted mostly with Pergola vines that are so tall you can walk under them and crop super high. High cropping = less intensity and more bland flavours.
A region north of Verona famous for a grape you’ve never heard of and a production method you may or may not understand (yet!). Corvina is the region’s star grape, which creates fruity red wines with a sour cherry finish. The co-stars are Molinara and Rondinella. Molinara is generally agreed upon to create bitter garbage juice and is being phased out. Rondinella crops super high and doesn’t make terribly interesting things, but it still allowed.
Valpolicella is quite unique as it makes many different wines from the exact same grape (Corvina). You've totally heard of them. The most famous AMARONE. It's silky smooth nephew RIPASSO. And the second cheapest wine on every wine list VALPOLICELLA. They range from light and fruity (high yields on the valley floor) to brooding and intense to viscous and sweet. This is a region known for drying grapes and a wine's style depends on the amount of dried grapes in the blend and how they are fermented. Valpolicella is a massive DOC so choosing "Valpolicella Classico" is key.
Here are the four DOCs you will see and what you need to know:
Valpolicella - no dried grapes. light, fruity style. High acid. Fresh. Often beaujolais nouveau-like -- think tons of fresh fruit, no oak. Classico indicates better quality from the original area of production. Valpolicella Superiore is aged at least one year and has a minimum alcohol of 12%. Great, cheap easy, breezy option.
Amarone – made entirely from dried grapes. Amarone, the region's most famous wine was first created as a mistake. Amarone is made from hand picked grapes left to dry in small boxes for about 120 days. As the grapes dry they loose water and concentrate flavour. When the dried grapes are crushed, they have a very high sugar content and intense flavours; historically fermentation was stopped to create a viscous, sweet wine Recioto. A barrel of Recioto 'got away' and fermented to dryness leaving a full-bodied, intensely flavoured, deliciously bitter wine, things were never the same. Amaro means "bitter" in Italian and Amarone literally means the great bitter, which is badass.
These wines are intense with big fruit (often raisiny, very ripe quality), big oak, big alcohol and big savoury leather and sweet spice with a long finish. Traditional Amarones were almost port-like in viscosity, sweetness and alcohol levels, but more efficient drying techniques have created fresher flavors. Like Cali Cab, Zin or lush Rhone blends? Amarone. You're welcome.
Ripasso – Pomace of leftover dried grape skins and seeds from Amarone and Recioto is added to basic Valpolicella - get it ri-passo, "passed again". This maceration adds sugar, colour and a huge boost of Amarone flavour intensity (darker raisiny fruit, earth, leather, sweet spice) to a previously fresh and fruity wine. The wine then re-ferments adding texture, tannins and complexity, plus higher alcohol. The result is a silky smooth wine that is Amarone-light -- some of the sweet fruit and lushless of Amarone without the price tag. The first Ripasso was made by Masi in the 1980s and has since exploded as a category, increasing exponentially with the rise of Amarone.
Soave is a DOC most people have never heard of/ don't know anything about. As such, it is quite surprising that it is Italy’s second best selling wine after Chianti.
Soave can be super super good, or super super bland. It is a dry white wine region around Verona. Originally, it was composed of about 1000 hectares of hilly volcanic soil. In 1968, Soave DOC was created for 4000 (!!) hectares of land, most of it on flat plains not good for anything but cheap box wine on a warm day. Ever since, serious producers on the volcanic hills have struggled with their DOC indicating little quality.
This makes sense. The region's most famous grape is Garganega - I know, I can't pronounce/ spell it either. With a grape people don't know/ can't say, region is even more important. They created a DOCG in 2002, but it still includes a lot of land that isn't on the volcanic hills. "Soave Classico Superiore DOCG" is on the historic volcanic hills and will most likely be good, "Soave Colli Scaligeri Superiore DOCG" is on hills outside the historic region and may or may not be good. Not confusing at all, right?!
Some producers became so frustrated that they refused to associate with the flawed DOC. Famously, Anselmi calls his Soave "San Vincenzo" and classifies it "IGT Veneto", to make a stand. With 80% of the region's production controlled by co-ops with vested interest in keeping the DOC/G big and basic, he may have a point.
Best examples are fresh and beautifully floral with steely acidity and an alluring, delicate spice. I recently had the San Vincenzo and thought it tasted like "young gold" #drunkwinenotes. Unoaked and fresh. Perfect for best day drinking and light fare. It has super class when done right. Other than Anselmi (which is so good), look out for Pieropan, Gini and Pra.
(other close by regions you will only see at Italian restaurants/ obscure dusty corners of wine shops: Bianco di Custoza – “country cousin” of Soave, same grapes and style, more rustic overall, Colli Euganei volcanic hills in Padova planted to Merlot and other international varieties + Piave DOC also a bunch of Merlot and fresh, not so interesting whites.)
Ahhh Northern Italy is so big! All of the regions. Let's talk about one more because you see it a lot and they make lots of great wine. Trentino and Alto Adige combined to be more recognizable on labels. Together they are big and in the very North of the country, bucking up against Switzerland and Austria. In general, Alto Adige is more fine and expensive. Overall some delicious native reds (Teroldego, Shiava, Lagrein) and fresh whites.
Alto Adige: This is the northern, German speaking part of the region bordering Austria. It only ceded to Italy after the first World War and most residents principally speak German. You'll see "Sudtirol" on a lot of labels, which is the German name of the region. Viticulture follows the mountaineous topography and competes with apple orchards, which also proliferate the hills. Recently, there has been a real shift in quality, with Pergola vines abandoned for Guyot (lower yields, more intensity and better quality). Virtually all the wines produced are DOC with co-ops controlling 2/3rds of production. The regions most famous grapes are Shiava - light to medium bodied historic red varietal that creates fresh, fruity wines, Lagrein - native to the region producing deep, earthy tannic reds and increasingly lots of + quality Pinot Noir perhaps not surprising from this high-altitude, cool region. They also make a boat-load of fresh Pinot Grigio. Try Werner or Elena Walch.
Trentino: The Southern, Italian speaking zone around the town of Trentino. Despite its Northern latitude (46 degrees!) the region is warm; the cooler climate of Alto Adige is a result of higher altitude plantings. Trentino makes SO MANY things. All the things. The large regional DOC includes 17 (!) grapes from high cropped, neutral Pinot Grigio to full-bodied Chardonnay to big and rich Teroldego to spicy and viscous Muller-Thurgau. Big yields and less interesting wines overall than Alto Adige. Foradori is a great producer to look out for making super stuff. Their Teroldego like whoa.
GUYS! There are so many more regions in northern Italy! Fruili for one (flat plains, aromatic fresh whites and light reds) and Bardolino for another (cheerful, pleasant light wines from the same grapes of Valpolicella - Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella, all grown on a flat plain). Lombardia also makes a ton of wine in Oltrepo Pavese (lots of bulk wine, Barbera and other native grapes), Valtellina (Nebbiolo which is called Chiavennasca here, because that is fun and confusing and is sometimes dried in "Sforzato", which is also fun and confusing) and Franciacotra which produces amazing Champagne-style sparkling and international Bordeaux varietals.
PHEW! Okay, got that? Up next Central Italy and the land of Sangiovese.