By Frank Cipparone
“We opened in Venice, then next played Verona…then Mantua and Padua… and then…”
Those Cole Porter lyrics from a long-ago Broadway musical sound like a tourist’s itinerary of Veneto. A gondola ride and gelato in St. Mark’s Square. Standing under Juliet’s balcony in Verona, or exploring the museums and churches of Padua. Maybe even day-tripping to Treviso or Vicenza. Food, art, scenery, it’s all there. And wine. Oceans of wine.
Veneto is the engine powering the Italian wine industry. Tuscany is rightly more famous and Piedmont may be more prestigious but neither comes close to matching Veneto’s 233,600 acres of vines or annual production. Last year the region churned out an eye- popping 120 million cases. That’s over 1.4 billion bottles, enough to supply every resident of Europe’s wine producing countries with four.
Due to the global pandemic, that was actually a drop-off from a staggering 142 million cases in 2018. Even so, that was more than Sicily, Campania, Friuli, Lazio, Lombardy, Umbria, Sardinia and Marche combined. If Veneto was a nation it would rank fifth among the world’s wine producers.
Veneto is the birthplace of Valpolicella, Prosecco and Soave, DOC labels that can be found anywhere wine is sold. Throw in big ticket Amarone and you have 17 million cases per year, almost 206 million bottles of just those four wines.
The forces driving those statistics are giant commercial producers, behemoths like Bolla, Zonin, Santa Margherita and Gruppo Italiano Vini, the umbrella corporation for Lamberti, Folonari and other familiar names. Their successful business model is based on mass marketing wine that is recognizable, reliantly consistent, and fairly priced. You know what you’re getting for the money.
That’s not a knock on mass-produced wines. They are what they are. But when a wine becomes a brand like Coke or Pepsi it loses some of its identity. To maintain that level of large- scale production requires the financial resources to keep it humming and the primary material to function – grapes, bought from hundreds of growers who are paid for quantity. Quality control becomes secondary to keeping investors happy.
Though they may not have the means to compete with the big boys, there are family-owned properties and winemaking artisans who are making authentic, classical Soaves and Valpolicellas and other wines that reflect the traditions of Veneto.
The hills around the medieval town of Soave are home to two of the finest examples of that wine. Four generations of the Pieropan family have earned well-deserved accolades by growing, producing and bottling Soave and Valpolicella from their own vineyards. They were the first to make a single vineyard Soave and stick to the traditional Valpolicella formula that includes lesser- known local red grapes. The two to look for are “Ruberpan” Valpolicella Superiore and “Calvarino” Soave.
On the other side of the hill sit the organically farmed, biodynamic vines belonging to Balestri Valda, true artisans of the winemaker’s craft. Besides their range of outstanding Soaves, they are one of the few wineries that make a
100 perfect Trebbiano di Soave, an almost extinct variety that’s been around since Roman legions marched through the area. They mix it with Garganega for an offbeat old school Soave. I’ll vouch for their “Sengialta” Soave, the best I’ve had.
If you’re a Valpolicella fan you’ll appreciate those of Luigi Righetti, a small winery that’s been around for over 100 years. Tedeschi, a fixture in the region since 1630, crafts a range of outstanding reds. One of them utilizes obscure grapes like Oseleta, Dindarella, Negrara and Rossignola to add a traditional feel to Valpolicella and Amarone. They also make wines in the “ripasso” style that blends freshly fermented Valpolicella with the previous year’s grape pomace from Amarone before aging in bottle. For something unusual, try “Corasco”, a super ripe, cherry flavored winner of Corvina, Refosco and Raboso, two other Veneto red varietals.
Corvina, the primary grape for Valpolicella and Amarone, is fine on its own. A fine example is Gerardo Gaspari’s “Jema,” a rare single vineyard version form Verona. Combined with Corvinone and Oseleta in San’Antonios “Monte Garbi” Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso it becomes rich, smooth and savory enough to be an affordable Amarone, Jr.
At his Dolce’ property on the border of Veneto and Trentino, Albino Armani makes Valpolicella Classico and Amarone at the highest altitudes of the production zone. His Valpolicella “Recioto” is a thing of beauty, a classic blend of grapes air dried on trays in open air lofts. Armani has a passion for all but forgotten grapes with a historical connection to the Valdadige. Foja Tonda is rough and ready, a brawny tannic mouthful not for the faint of heart. Nera
di Baisi is gentler and fresher, but so little exists he is limited to a thousand bottles a year. Armani also has a unique twist on Glera, the grape associated with Prosecco. After fermenting in terracotta it goes through in-bottle fermentation that yields a “pet-nat,” a naturally created sparkling wine.
Still not convinced of Veneto’s diversity? Check out Villa Angarano’s “Torcolato,” an air- dried white wine made from Vespaiolo, or Ornella Molon’s late harvest Verduzzo dessert wine sourced from flatland vineyards near Piave. She also bottles two styles of Raboso, a Refosco, Schioppettino, and Moscato Rosa, a darkly colored wine that smells of red roses.