With all due respect to the impressive wine country of Chianti or Barolo, if you want to combine the very best of wine, travel, food, olive oil and culture all in one very compact location then look no further than the hills of Valpolicella sweeping down to Verona and Lago di Garda. This area of Veneto really does have everything you could wish for on an Italian vacation and there’s a host of other interesting and underrated cities within a short drive of Verona and of course Venice itself is not very far away.
But there’s much more to Veneto wine than Valpolicella because the entire region has the largest wine production as well as the greatest variety of wine types in Italy.
Furthermore, Veneto wine exports measured in euros are twice that of Tuscany or Piedmont though these statistics are heavily skewed by the enormous amount of Prosecco produced in Veneto and sold into overseas markets. A staggering 500 million bottles of Prosecco were produced in 2020, of which 80% were exported. Ten years prior there were only 142 million bottles made so the growth in such a short space of time has been on a scale unprecedented anywhere else in the wine world, probably ever.
Describing Veneto wines can get a little complicated because of the different methods used to make some of the red wines in particular, so the goal of this article is to provide some background context for the various upcoming tastings as well the winery profiles of Le Fraghe and Corte Adami which have been published separately. Geographically, the parts of Veneto that interest us most are all within a few miles of Verona, which lies just over half way from Milan to Venice so this is a very accessible part of Italy.
North of Verona and east of the river Adige (which separates Valpolicella Classica from Bardolino) the entire Valpolicella area is not particularly large at about 15 miles wide and 8 miles north to south. The Classico core is, as always, the most important sub-zone within Valpolicella and makes up about 40% of the total DOC. The main grape in this area is Corvina and is often as much as 80% of the blend with Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara usually making up the rest. There are four different types of Valpolicella red wine that are produced: regular Valpolicella (basic DOC and Superiore), Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella.
Let’s start with the last two. Both Amarone and Recioto are made from grapes, mostly Corvina, that have been left to dry (the appassimento) for up to 4 months before being pressed to start the fermentation. The difference between the two is that for Amarone most of these extra sugary grapes are fully fermented to make a big, powerful, mostly dry red wine whereas the Recioto fermentation is cut short to leave a sweeter, less alcoholic red wine.
The Valpolicella Ripasso gets its name from the fact that after fermentation the simple Valpolicella wine is put into a tank with the pomace (crushed grape residue) of the Amarone or Recioto winemaking process to give it more body and color through a partial second fermentation. In addition, some of the Ripasso grapes may also be dried for a short period before the first fermentation, hence its moniker as ‘baby Amarone’.
Regular Valpolicella and Valpolicella Superiore are generally made in the normal way that red table wines everywhere are made but increasingly the grapes even for the Superiore wine are now being dried briefly before fermentation by some producers to pump up the color and body because traditional Valpolicella has always been a fresh, juicy, low tannin wine that is relatively light and easy to drink.
But that is apparently no longer what people want these days, especially in newer wine consuming countries in Asia and also Scandinavia, and simple Valpolicella can’t command the higher prices that producers seek. Therefore more of the grapes that would have previously gone into making lovely fresh Valpolicella are now going into Ripasso wines instead and production of the regular Valpolicella without any appassimento at all is declining fast.
Perhaps no wine area in the world has changed as fundamentally as the Valpolicella area in recent history. Amarone didn’t even exist commercially until the 1950s and even by the mid 1990s there were less than 2 million bottles produced each year. Then it just exploded as the wine world everywhere indulged in a competition to produce big brawny alcoholic behemoths. Fifteen million bottles of Amarone are now produced annually and while both of us enjoy Amarone occasionally and it certainly has its place in the wine firmament, it’s not a wine that you can drink every day.
This spectacular growth of expensive Amarone had the same effect that it always has when there are big profits to be made. The first result was to stimulate Amarone production right across the extended Valpolicella zone north-east of Verona almost all the way to the town of Soave, and the second result was to increase the production of Ripasso, the baby Amarone.
Valpolicella Ripasso was virtually unknown 20 years ago but as Amarone grew in popularity and price and there was suddenly all that pomace available, the same explosion in production took place for Ripasso wines.
But as Ripasso wine demand now starts to outstrip Amarone because of its relative value in price terms how do you grow Ripasso production further without the pomace from more Amarone production? You can’t and the recent tightening of Ripasso DOCG regulations were designed to control the relationship between the two wines. So if more Amarone is produced into a flattening demand curve the price will have to decline and this is what concerns winemakers in this area as they try to increase Ripasso production further.
Given the high price of Amarone multiplied by the massive increase in sales that producers have enjoyed over recent years, this is not a problem that elicits much sympathy from us.
We also have some concern about the massive growth in Ripasso wine production because it is cannibalizing perfectly good regular Valpolicella and it is teaching new wine drinkers everywhere that this is what table wine should taste like. But it’s not actually table wine in the traditional sense because it’s produced with the help of dried grapes and has certain reductive and slightly stewed or ‘burnt’ flavors that are only attractive in small quantities. It’s interesting that in other wines many people find this flavor profile to be a flaw in the winemaking process.
This was made clear to me by the Burgundy wine expert Allen Meadows at a red Burgundy tasting event many years ago. In Burgundy these flavors are caused by a lack of oxygen when the red wine is aging in barrel on its lees. In Ripasso there is often a quite similar flavor but for a different reason, which is the use of the Amarone pomace.
It’s simply a question of degree and whether producers in Valpolicella want increasing amounts of their wine to have a flavor profile where the slightly reductive notes of raisins or prunes are dominant. In which case wine drinkers like us who like to drink the lower alcohol traditional fresh fruity red wines of Valpolicella through a long hot summer will have to look further west to Bardolino or outside Veneto.
Traditional regular Valpolicella has often been dismissed as ‘pizza wine’ (in fact Italians mostly drink beer with pizza) and it is true that there is a lot of very ordinary Valpolicella but a well made simple Valpolicella can be a lovely summer wine with flavors of bitter cherries and bright red fruits and refreshing acidity that can be enjoyed young. Does all Veneto red wine have to be complicated?
So just as Ripasso has become ‘baby Amarone’ the danger is that too much regular Valpolicella, especially Valpolicella Superiore, will become ‘baby Ripasso’ with the addition of more and more dried grapes or if not actually dried then fresh grapes deliberately picked late to achieve a similar result.
Producers will tell you that they are simply responding to changing consumer tastes, but in fact they are actually influencing consumer tastes. For example, the entire Scandinavian market fell in love with Amarone and Ripasso wines over the last 20 years, perhaps because they had no real wine drinking history or experience to judge these wines against or perhaps because these fuller more alcoholic wines are more suited to colder weather, but the danger is that every normal wine will now taste weak to them and they will mischaracterize an elegant wine as one appearing thin and a little diluted.
The growth and success of Ripasso in Valpolicella has now spawned imitators, especially from the huge wine production area of Puglia that has few fine wines. There is now a doppio passo from Puglia using the same process and across southern Italy winemakers see an opportunity to turn very average wine into very profitable ripasso type wine through the grape drying process.
In 2009 Ripasso was awarded DOC status and Amarone given DOCG status with the usual complicated rules regarding the percentages of the various grapes that can used etc but there was no attempt to differentiate the various sub-zones by designating official cru across all the hillsides. The incredible statistics regarding bottles produced over the last 13 years tell the entire Valpolicella story much better than mere words. Regular Valpolicella production has been cut in half since 2007, Amarone and Recioto production has doubled in the same period and Ripasso production has quadrupled.
If Valpolicella is all about change and confusion in terms of geography and style of wine, then the Soave story has recently become one of clarity and demarcation. Before we get to the current situation, some history would be useful to give perspective and the history here is a familiar one that has played out in many other Italian wine areas.
Soave had a very successful period of increasing sales, peaking in popularity in the important US market in the 1960s and 70s before the same story unfolded of a production expansion geographically into unsuitable flat lands, poor grape selection (too much Trebbiano Toscano) and a concentration of production in the hands of co-operatives who were more interested in quantity than quality.
Wine importers are often the ones who will react quicker to declining sales than the winemakers and in the 1990s the US market turned to Pinot Grigio in a big way and Soave was taught a lesson. Unlike Frascati however, whose story was very similar, there remained throughout this period a few high quality wines from the core Soave Classico zone of hillside vineyards above the town of Soave where the soils of limestone and decomposed volcanic rock are perfect for the Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave grapes.
Although the DOCG rules mandate a minimum of 70% Garganega, most of the good Soave producers choose to use 100% Garganega for their wines but there is one very good wine made with 100% Trebbiano di Soave (the same grape as Verdicchio), called Massiffiti from the excellent Soave producer confusingly called Suavia.
There is also a Recioto di Soave sweet white dessert wine made in Soave from dried Garganega grapes in a similar fashion to the sweet red Recioto di Valpolicella.
In 2001 Soave Superiore achieved DOCG status but it was not limited to wines from the Classico zone where the unique volcanic soil, elevation and wealth of old vines of 50-100 years old is a better indicator of quality. The producers Gini and Pieropan (two of the best and most famous names in Soave) don’t use the Superiore DOCG designation because they both feel that their Soave is more refined with less alcohol and less extraction than the DOCG rules mandate. Knowing their wines well we are certainly not about to contradict them.
The recent developments in Soave alluded to above have been to now formally designate 33 grand cru, all of which are hillside plots, after a 20 year period of deliberation and consultation. The consumer will now have much more information on the bottle as to where exactly their Soave comes from.
Bardolino and Chiaretto di Bardolino
The Bardolino production area is the narrow strip between the Adige river on its eastern boundary (where Valpolicella starts) to the Lago di Garda shoreline on its western boundary.
Good Bardolino red wine has been under appreciated for many years because of all the cheap rubbish served up to the 12 million tourists who flock to Lago di Garda every year.
But if you seek out a good producer from the hilly area away from the lake like Le Fraghe, you’ll realize why this wine merits a place on your table in summer.
It’s made from the same grapes as Valpolicella but the soils and scree left behind by the retreating glaciers that carved out the massive and impressive Lago di Garda create a very different wine here; the Corvina grape being highly sensitive to terroir.
Two very different wines are produced in Bardolino from the Corvina and Rondinella grapes. The red wine known simply as Bardolino and the rosato known as Chiaretto di Bardolino and they both have their own distinct DOC designations. The Chiaretto is typically made very light in color with only a few hours of skin contact, it’s always a dry wine and, like most rosato type wines, best drunk very young.
The recent history of these two wines from Bardolino is not dissimilar to that described above for Valpolicella and its more sought after siblings of Ripasso and Amarone. In 2008 there were 4 million bottles of Chiaretto produced and 20 million bottles of Bardolino. Since then Chiaretto has exploded almost threefold to 11 million bottles, making it by far Italy’s largest volume rosato wine and the regular red Bardolino table wine has shrunk by a quarter to about 15 million bottles.
In similar fashion to the developments in Soave, the recent designation of cru to the three historic red Bardolino sub-zones of Montebaldo, Sommacampagna and La Rocca should enhance quality through lower production, longer maturation and an oversight panel which will conduct annual blind tastings to determine whether the specific cru can be put on the label each year.
All of the red wines of Bardolino and Valpolicella are blends of two or more grapes, with Corvina being the dominant one but there are several curious and intrepid winemakers who make single grape wines.
Two that we know well are Matilde Poggi at Le Fraghe who makes a Rondinella in purezza called Chelidon and Giovanna Tantini near Castelnuovo del Garda who makes a Corvina in purezza called Greta.
Moving just a few miles south and a little west from Bardolino takes you to the southernmost point on Lago di Garda at Peschiera del Garda. This is close to the border with Lombardy and though 75% of the Lugana vineyards are actually in Lombardy about 60% of the winemaking is carried out in Veneto. It’s not a big area with only 5,500 acres under vine producing about 17 million bottles every year.
Outside of Verona and the nearby Po valley you won’t see many Lugana wines in the rest of Italy and they are not very well known. This is because about 70% of the production is exported and Germany takes a huge share of that. For decades Lago di Garda has to a large extent been a German holiday resort because it’s an easy drive from Bavaria especially, and while on holiday Bavarians developed a taste for this wine and took it home with them, something we noticed at Il Pupillo too. In recent years the popularity of Lugana wines has spread to the rest of Germany as well.
Lugana wines are a 30 year success story, dating back to when the local wine consortium was founded in 1990. Quality steadily improved with reduced yields per plant and the introduction of organic practices. Now this area is attracting investment from some of the big Italian names that produce bland overpriced wines for the American market on the back of very aggressive marketing, which now includes product placement by social media 'influencers' for their mindless followers.
It’s easy to see why in the wrong hands Lugana could be the next overhyped and overpriced Italian wine because in the right hands it can be a very good, very refreshing and aromatic white wine with saline notes, citrus and peach flavors and a good streak of acidity.
It tends to be richer and less linear and austere than the nearby Soave white wines made mostly from Garganega and less viscous and full-bodied than a Verdicchio wine from Le Marche. The Lugana grape is called Turbiana and shares most if not all of its DNA sequencing with the Verdicchio grape (also known as Trebbiano di Soave) but is grown in different soils and a different micro climate resulting in a different wine.
Lago di Garda moderates both the heat in summer and the cold in winter and provides beneficial breezes for the vines. Below the difficult surface clay there’s mineral rich calcareous soil dating back to the formation of the lake so all of the ingredients are present here to make excellent white wines. Several excellent Lugana wines are being made today by Montonale, a winery just south of Peschiera del Garda that we visited recently.
This is yet another completely different white wine in Veneto with a completely different blend of grapes. It’s produced from a similar geographic footprint as Bardolino and the simplest way to describe Custoza is to say that it’s quite a few years behind Lugana and has yet to decide whether it wants to be a quality wine or a bulk wine.
It’s dominated by big co-operatives who will have a large say in the eventual direction but at the risk of being unfair to the few producers here who already make a quality wine, Custoza is not yet a wine that we are prepared to seek out or spend any time writing about.
Custoza does have another claim to fame however because it was the site of two famous battles between Italy and Austria. More accurately the first battle in 1848 was a defeat for the mostly Piedmontese forces because it was pre-unification.
The second battle in 1866 was completely unnecessary because under pressure elsewhere from Bismarck and the Prussians, Austria was prepared to simply hand over Veneto to the new Italy to avoid fighting on a second front. Out of arrogance and vanity King Vittorio Emanuele II insisted on a battle and duly got beaten again, mainly because through jealousy he had refused to give the recently retired Garibaldi a commanding role. And to rub salt into the wound, when the Austrians were later forced to abandon Veneto after their defeat by Bismarck's Prussians at the Battle of Königgrätz, they refused to cede it to Italy. Instead they gave it to Louis Napoleon who then condescendingly presented it to Italy as a personal favor.
The Ossario di Custoza monument is worth a visit if you're nearby as we were when visiting Giovanna Tantini to buy her very good Bardolino, Chiaretto, and the pure Corvina wine Greta.
As we discussed above, Prosecco is a big deal for Veneto but it’s not particularly important to us so we’re not going to cover it in this article. At this point we already have a couple of very good value Glera wines that we like from Bisson and the other producer we have recently come across that is worth mentioning here is Nino Franco who produces a range of different Prosecco wines that are all excellent and sell for less than 12 euros.
Once you exceed that price we’re more interested in the high quality spumante from Franciacorta in Lombardy or the equally good spumante wines from Trentino.
The world’s taste in Veneto wines has changed faster than anywhere else on the planet in the last 20 years and Veneto has adapted incredibly quickly to consumer preferences and indeed has had a hand in shaping them.
With Veneto wines the usual Italian wine drinking advice is probably even more relevant than for other regions - try a range of producers and wine styles and then stay with one or two who make a style of wine that suits you and who you then come to know and trust. The best place to do this of course is near Lago di Garda, a lovely part of Veneto which has just about everything you could wish for on a vacation.