6 Discoveries From The Veneto

While I am still jet-lagged and the memories are also somewhat fresh in my mind, I’d like to offer a few takeaways from my recent trip to northern Italy that found me mostly in and around Verona. This trip was all about discovery and my wandering eyes (and palate) were swiveling in search of overlooked diamonds in the rough to bring home and share. And it did not disappoint.  

First, a baseline. The Veneto region’s most notable wines are Soave and Amarone, and for good reason. Soave’s star has been rising for some years now, and I have noted in prior posts that my experimentation with this white almost has a 1000 batting average in terms of over delivering on QPR. Amarone, by contrast, is an exceedingly distinctive wine made from grapes that are dried for an extended period of time prior to pressing. This results in unmistakable potency and complexity. Neither of these two wines are much of a mystery to seasoned wine drinkers, but drinking my way through the enchanting city of Verona provided the opportunity to make some terrific finds, and I also learned a thing or two about wines I thought I already knew plenty about.  

So, in no particular order, following are six discoveries I made this time around:
  1. Sparkling wine. In Italy, sparkling wine almost invariably means Prosecco, at least from the outside looking in. But there’s much more to it than pedestrian bubbly. Fraciacorta, Italy’s high end response to Champagne, sits at the elite end of the spectrum, but in a part of the country where aperitivos are a daily ritual, affordable and refreshing quaffers are in demand. In the many piazzas and street corner caf├ęs where orange-hued Aperol spritzes are the norm, older clientele (with no gender bias, either) tend to favor energetic, low alcohol sparkling wines. One in particular that was a real surprise and has haunted me since first tasting it is Buglioni’s Lo Spudorato (the shameless one).  It's a blend of garganega (the dominant grape in Soave) and durello. Light and fleet-footed, this gorgeous wine has microscopic bubbles and an intensity that refreshes and engages simultaneously. It was being poured, amazingly, for €2.50 a glass.  Another local white grape to look for: custoza.
  2. Grape drying.  This part of the winemaking world is fairly unique in its exhaustive use of both drying and byproduct. While most of the world races its harvest from picking to crush, drying red grapes is very common here. Amarone, for example, is made from the pressings of grapes that have been laid to dry for months after picking. The pomace, or leftover skins, seeds, and whatnot, are then used to make ripasso, which is regularly-vinified Valpolicella filtered through the richly-concentrated Amarone byproduct. Lastly, pomace is also used as the raw material in the distillation of grappa, a potent spirit enjoyed as a digestivo. What I had not realized until sitting down to a meal at the excellent Roberto Mazzi winery, is that winemakers variably use drying of grapes in non-Amarone Valpolicella wines to add a little extra density and oomph to the wines. Mazzi’s Poiega bottling, for example, uses 20% dried grapes in the mix. Having dried grapes at their disposal in the cellar only increases the versatility of winemakers’ tool boxes. Only in Italy, man.   
  3. Grappa. Prior to this trip, my long-held impression of this post prandial spirit was that it had more in common with formaldehyde than brandy. Our accommodations at the winery, however, included a communal bottle of the grappa della casa in the kitchen. Though it was far from spectacular, it was good enough to plant a seed for further experimentation in Verona’s watering holes where an education (and a couple of rough mornings) awaited. Like other liquors, grappa comes in many varieties and quality levels, including beautifully honeyed grappa di Amarone and, more specifically, Bonaventura’s 903 Barrique grappa. A very fine way to cap off an evening, indeed.   
  4. Internationalization. The term “international”, when used to describe stylistic inclination, is polite shorthand for wines made to appeal to American consumers (or big-assed wines.) This is as alive in the Veneto as elsewhere in Europe, which means that consumers need to really pay attention to what they are ordering/buying. Valpolicellas used to be lighter-bodied and more fragrant than corpulous, but that is no longer a dependable rule of thumb. I learned this the hard way at a fancy dinner one night when I asked the sommelier to recommend a wine that was not too overpowering or heavy. The bottle he brought was a Valpolicella Superiore clocking in at 14.5% and, while very well made, was both strong and intense. When I pointed out the alcohol level to him, he shrugged and told me that all his better wines were that high. (Sigh.)  Thankfully, there is still plenty of drinking delight to be had with Valpolicellas in the 12-13% range.
  5. Accessibility. I have praised modern supply chain sophistication time and time again, and here is yet another example of why we live in a gilded age of wine drinking. I brought back zero bottles of wine from this trip, having had faith that most of the good stuff I had while in Italy I could also procure stateside. There was one small tavern in Verona, however, it served wines from its own vineyard and I thought, "no way will I have a chance to enjoy this stuff again." This led to a bit of overindulgence at that particular tavern - when in Rome and all that - but wouldn’t you know that I found two bottles of their wine at an Italian grocery less than 10 miles from my house shortly after returning. I have brought back countless cases of wine from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, and I am happy to help travelers navigate the regulatory waters to do the same, but knowing what I know now about global accessibility of products, I have skipped the hassle of lugging heavy boxes through customs the last four times I’ve been to Europe.   
  6. The Peeps. Finally, and though this hardly qualifies as a new discovery, one cannot have even a fleeting conversation about Italy without talking about it’s number one asset: the people. Engaging, hospitable, and incredibly forgiving of our bull-in-a-China-shop presence on the world stage, Italians are irrepressibly eager to share in everything that makes their culture so wonderful. The smallest enthusiasm or curiosity for their food and wine opens many doors and conversations, invariably leading to memorable experiences. Grazie a tutti per tutto!