Sue and I recently returned from a week in Northern Italy as guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio. We joined a small group of multinational wine bloggers to test out a nifty new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices) and visit a number of wineries and winemakers. We had a great experience (thanks so much to the Consorzio, our guide Federica Schir and to the winemakers) and learned a lot.
We accepted a generous invitation from my wine economist colleague Prof. Luigi Galletto to visit the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region, meet with officials of their Consorzio, tour the famous Wine School in Conegliano and visit Prosecco makers.
We capped the trip with a visit to Venissa, the vineyard and winery on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian Lagoon, to taste both the wines of this special place and the sparkling wines made by the Bisol family who created the Venissa project. I’ll be reporting on our trip over the next few weeks. Here is a brief introduction to the series.
Contrasts: The Red and the White
The visit was full of contrasts, some more obvious than others, starting with red and white. Valpolicella is home to many powerful red wines while Prosecco is known for its crisp sparkling whites. And the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene vineyards are sometimes so steep that they make the more rolling hills of Valpolicella seem like tabletops (which they definitely are not!).
But the biggest contrast was about shifting market focus, not color or geography. Not so long ago the Veneto (which also includes the major regions of Soave and Bardolino) was all about quantity not quality. Vast lakes of undistinguished wine were produced here, something that challenged the reputations of the quality producers back then and to a certain degree colors market perception today.
But the pendulum has swung from quantity towards quality and, while there are still undistinguished wines produced here, the focus is clearly on what we call today “premiumization” and a race to the top is under way to make better wines and to draw consumers towards more precisely defined premium products. We saw evidence of much new investment in the wine sector here. It’s a brave new world for Valpolicella — not without challenges, of course (since this is wine), but poised to grasp new market opportunities.
The swinging pendulum takes different paths in different regions. Besides rising quality in general in Valpolicella, for example, there is growing emphasis on the premium Amarone and Ripasso wines as well as distinctive wines that do not play by the DOC or DOCG rules, qualifying only for the less prestigious IGT geographical designation.
Some of these IGTs — such as the Dedicatum from Terre di Leone — were among the most interesting wines we tasted here. Dedicatum is made from a blend of 14 grape varieties — some of them rare heritage varieties — grown on the estate’s terraced hillside vineyard. Delicious and distinctive — good enough stand tall with the winery’s other fine wines — it is one of several notable and innovative IGT wines we encountered.
Prosecco is moving upmarket in its own way, with special emphasis on the premium Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone, then on “grand cru” hillside vineyards (“Rive” in the local dialect) with the luxurous Cartizze at the top of the pyramid. The “IGT” phenomenon is at work here, too, with wineries producing attention-grabbing new wines (different grapes, different winemaking methods) alongside their DOC and DOCG products.
Venissa is a special case in every way, but it can be seen as the ultimate premiumization play — distinctive terroir and innovative winemaking closely tied to Venetian history wrapped in a luxurious combination that includes wine, lodging, gourmet food and lifestyle — the complete package. Can’t wait to tell you all about it!
Discoveries: Three New Grape Varieties
The movement towards quality and innovation is only part of the story of our Veneto visit. We were also able to add three grape varieties to our lifetime list. At Venissa we tasted the white wine made from the Dorona grape found on the lagoon vineyard. In Valpolicella we discovered Oselata vines at Villabella and tasted the very concentrated wines that the tiny red grapes produce both at Villabella and at Zýmé. A very intense experience!
Finally, we were able to sample wine made from the Manzoni Bianco grape made by the team at the Conegliano Wine School where Prof. Luigi Manzoni taught. Manzoni experimented with several grape crossings (much as Luther Burbank did with different crops in the U.S.) and the Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 that we tasted is a cross of Riesling and Pinot Bianco (or maybe Chardonnay based on DNA analysis, according to Ian D’Agata’s excellent book Native Wine Grapes of Italy).
Aromatic, crisp and refreshing — like a lighter style of Riesling — not something I remember tasting before. but perhaps I am wrong since D’Agata says that it is a widely planted variety in the Italian Northeast. Great to taste it at the source (the “6.0.13” designation is an index of the original plant’s location in the test vineyard we visited).
We were also able to try sweet but balanced Recioto wines, both red (in Valpolicella) and white (from the Garganega grape), made from air-dried grapes. Not everyone in our group enjoyed these wines as much as I did — the fashion against residual sugar is very strong — but I found the best of them to be very much worth seeking out. Recioto della Valpolicella is underappreciated these days, we were told, and the only market is local, which is a shame because without Recioto the world would not have Amarone and it is good to be able to taste them both.
Airline Wine: Code-Share Conundrum
I’ll end this rambling introductory column with report on the importance, from a wine consumer standpoint, of reading the airline code-share details carefully. Our journey from Seattle to the Veneto and back presented two distinctly different 35,000 foot wine experiences.
The outbound Lufthansa flight provided industry standard international quality in our economy cabin, with decent complementary red and white wines poured from the bottle — we liked the Riesling best. Almost everyone had wine with dinner — why wouldn’t they? — and there was even a little Cognac (but, alas, no Port) after the meal. Not luxurious — the usual plastic glasses, etc. — but welcome and civilized and what we have come to expect from international air travel.
The flight back was on Lufthansa’s code-share partner United Airlines, home to the “Friendly Skies” but not very friendly when it came to wine in the economy cabin. Little bottles were offered for sale at $7.99 each. No one had wine with dinner — why would they? — and the flight attendant seemed a little bit surprised when I ordered and paid just to see what it was (a decent Sauvignon Blanc from the Pays D’Oc as I recall). Can you guess which code-share partner I will look for on our next trip if faced with the same choice?
Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella and Prosecco tour
Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:
Valentina Cubi, Fumani
San Rustico, Valgatara
Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella
Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese
Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar
Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar
Cesari, Cavaion Veronese
Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano
Santa Sofia, Pedemonte
Secondo Marco, Fumane
Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano
Wineries we visited in Conegliano Valdobbiadene
Scuola Enologica Conegliano, Conegliano
Sorrelle Bronca, Colbertaldo di Vidor
and in the Venetian lagoon,
Venissa, Isola Mazzorbo, Venice