Valpolicella Revisited: What’s the Story?

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So, what’s the story? That’s a question that Sue and I frequently ask each other after a tasting or winery visit. We’ve learned a lot, tasted interesting wines, met fascinating people. But what’s the takeaway message?

Sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward choice but to be honest I think we live for the complicated narratives– the experiences that really make us sit down and think. What is the story!? Our recent visit to the Valpolicella region was like that. We didn’t find a story — we found a lot of them and the other members of our merry media band — Mauro Fermariello, Michelangelo Tagliente, Michelle Williams and Mads Jordansen — who shared the same experience with us, found many different stories, too, and different ways of telling them.

(Click on the names above to see our colleagues’ work. Mauro Fermariello’s video, which I have embedded above, is a particularly striking account of our journey.)

We’ve already told several of the stories we found in earlier columns and  I’m using this final post to fill in some gaps and sum up. What are the stories? Here are three of them chosen to say something about the winery business models we encountered.

The San Rustico Story

Let me start with San Rustico, a winery with a long history that it wears proudly and gracefully. As you can see in Mauro’s video, the tasting room is decorated with artifacts that give a sense of the past. Touring the cellar we were struck by the wooden grape drying racks, key to Amarone production, that spoke to us of time and tradition. Great atmosphere.

A visit to the winery is a warm and friendly experience here — very personal. Sort of like tasting wine with a family friend in a farmhouse kitchen. And while the wines honor tradition they do not seem especially  trapped in it. Wines are made in two ranges and Amarone in particular in several styles.

One wine we tasted for example was made to appeal to new world export markets, a bit sweeter and with more new oak  (60 percent of the winery’s 170,000 bottle annual product is sold outside of Italy). The premium Gaso Amarone, on the other hand, is made in the traditional style. It was delicious — our favorite glass in the line up.

The two brothers who are responsible for San Rustico (one works in the vineyard and the other in the cellar) have purposefully focused on their traditional production base, limiting output while looking outside the region for sales.

Sartori di Verona

History is also a strong theme at  Sartori di Verona, but the business strategy is much different. Andrea Sartori is the fourth generation of the Sartori family to lead the winery and he has taken it in a different direction from San Rustico. Actually (and this fits into the theme of this column), Sartori’s strategy involves moving in several directions at once.

Go big or go home is one part of the story. Seeking the resources needed to expand production, Sartori entered into an agreement with the Cantina Colognol cooperative in 2000 that gave it secure access to 6200 acres of vineyards in the Valpolicella and Soave regions. This base allowed a three-fold expansion of production necessary to fill an increasingly export-oriented pipeline. About 80 percent of production is exported today. The well-regarded Banfi firm imports Sartori into the U.S. market.

At about the same time that the volume push began a super-quality brand was also established. Sartori partnered with consulting winemaker Franco Bernabel, who began to work with both vineyards and cellar practices, raising quality and drawing out the characteristics of the different vineyard terroirs. Four years later, in 2006, the I Saltari line of super-premium wines was launched. Sartori has also expanded its reach beyond the Veneto, establishing relationships with Cerulli Spinozzi in Abruzzo and Feudo Sartanna in Sicily. There’s also a partnership with Mont’Albano, a pioneering organic estate in Friuli.

Sartori reminds me a bit of the Mondavi strategy of years past. Mondavi moved upmarket with Opus One and also mass market with the Woodbridge wines. The story did not end happily for everyone, as Mondavi went public to raise expansion capital and eventually lost control of the business (wine giant Constellation is the current owner).  The stories differ here: there’s no indication that the Sartori strategy will have anything other than a happy conclusion.

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The Cesari Story

One of our favotie stops was at Cesari. We loved the wine, the people and the story.  The fact that we like the wines is perhaps not an accident. The U.S. is a prime export market for this winery and it is not impossible that the style was evolved over the  years with American tastes in mind — rounder, fuller wines, but still striking the authentic classic notes.

The Americans in our group were all familiar with the Cesari brand so I was a little surprised when someone told me that it is not as well-known within Italy. The strong export focus makes it different even among wineries (like those above) who sell more than half their production abroad.

Cesari was founded in 1936, during a particularly turbulent period for wine in Italy and Europe. Many private firms failed and cooperatives went bankrupt. Some of the wineries that emerged (or simply survived it) were led by supremely talented entrepreneurs. This sprit in part drove Cesari to push dramatically into global export markets in the 1970s and guides them today to produce the distinctive wines that are needed to attract discerning customers.

I’ve embedded a Cesari video above to give you a sense of the winery and its vision and also to show you how effective they are in telling their own story. Story-telling is almost as important as wine-making when it comes to the business of wine today. Fascinating that the global market’s demands appear here, don’t you think. And I agree with the narrator — all kidding aside, the wines really are good.

Eight Million Stories?

Years ago there was a U.S. television series about life in New York City called “Naked City” that closed each week with the line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City — this has been one of them.” (Scroll down to see a video clip.) There may not be eight million stories in Valpolicella but there are sure a lot of them. Some, like the three above, about different business models and different historical evolutions. Others, like my earlier posts, are about wine tourism, weather problems and  the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a luxury brand for the region in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are very personal stories too, like two of my favorite wineries (Zyme and Secondo Marco) that exist today more or less because of family issues that caused a younger generation to start out in a different direction. Reminds me a bit of the story of Robert Mondavi and  the family disagreements that led to the founding of his eponymous Napa Valley winery.

Lots of stories and not enough time or space to tell them all. Maybe that’s what makes a wine region really great. I realize that wine marketers are attracted to the idea of a silver bullet story — a signature grape variety, an iconic brand or rock star winemaker — that can make a region’s reputation in a single stroke. There are good examples for each of these strategies, but I have my doubts about this as a general theory. Maybe real strength comes from diversity and not from a monolithic approach?

I’m glad there are millions of stories to tell and not just one because that means a world of different and distinctive wines … and job security for story-tellers like me! Thanks to everyone who made our Valpolicella visit so rewarding.

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella tour. See if you can identify each one of them in Mauro’s video. At the end of the list I have embedded a bit of the old “Naked City” television show for those of you too young to have seen the original. Cheers!

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, 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

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

Bisol’s Venissa: A Golden Wine of Venice

venissaLots of images come to mind when you think of Venice — the art, the architecture, and canals and gondolas. Vineyards? Not so much. Can’t imagine vineyards in Venice, although historians tell us that they were there — some even in the San Marco quarter — in earlier days when the city was less crowded and more concerned with self-sufficiency.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there are still vines and wines in Venice today? Not on the cluster of islands that we think of as the city of Venice proper, but out in the busy lagoon? The photo above shows the island of Burano (the island of lace-makers to distinguish it from Murano, the island of glass-makers) and just below it, connected by a short bridge, is the island of Mazzorbo and the one hectare vineyard of Venissa.

Golden Grape

Dorona di Venezia is a grape of the Venetian lagoon. — its natural resistance to fungal diseases is a plus in this humid place.  Known since the 15th century, it is a natural cross of Garganega and Bermestia Bianca (according to my copy of Wine Grapes) that is popular as a table grape  because of its big sweet golden (D’oro) grapes.

You can find Dorona here and there in the Veneto (easy to mistake it for Garganega, the grape most associated with Soave) but until recently not so much in Venice and its lagoon islands, the challenges of maritime grape-growing being what they are. But Gianluca Bisol, of the famous Prosecco house, discovered a few vines on the island of Sant’Erasmo and used them to establish a Dorona vineyard on the old ScarpaVolo estate property on nearby Mazzorbo.

Golden Wine

Golden grape, golden wine. The wine really is golden due in part to fermentation on the grape skins to give it special character. The bottles of hand-crafted glass display rich decorations of hand-beaten gold foil (thus honoring two traditional Venetian crafts). The name Venissa and a number are carefully hand-etched on each bottle.

What does it taste like? The note in Wine Grapes talks of minerality and dried peach and apricot.  Only two vintages have been released so far — 2010 and 2011 — and Ian D’Agata writes in his excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy that he prefers the freshness of the 2011. Winemakers Desiderio Bisol and  Roberto Cipresso apparently pulled back from some of the extreme cellar practices after the first vintage, yielding a fresher wine, although not something that you would ever mistake for Soave!

We loved the color of the wine and were surprised by its delicate aromas. I found a certain saltiness very appealing, although maybe that was the power of suggestion since we were tasting the wine with Matteo Bisol looking out at the vineyard and the lagoon just beyond. If there really is a salty character, the wine comes by it naturally. Salt water floods the vineyards during periodic tidal surges and a good deal of effort goes into drainage. I preferred the more intense 2010, but maybe that’s to be expected of the author of  a book called Extreme Wine.

Venissa has just released a red wine, Rosso Venissa, its handcrafted bottle suitably adorned by copper, not gold. It’s a blend of Merlot and Carmenere from 40-year old vines located on an island near Torcello.  Sworn to secrecy, we tasted this wine prior to its official release and noted its richness, intensity and, well, salty personality.

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 Golden Opportunity

Not everyone would have seized the opportunity that those few stray Dorona vines presented, but Gianluca and now Matteo Bisol have done so and it is interesting to see the extremes that have resulted. The vineyard is a bit rustic, for example. Not the vines but the landscape, surrounded by stone walls, cut by drainage ditches and featuring a large rambling  garden where local senior citizens grow vegetables that they sell to the Venissa restaurant.

The restaurant and inn are as luxurious as the wine and present a strong contrast to the natural element that is appropriate for Venice. We dined at the restaurant and our waiter made the point that what came out of the kitchen (he pointed to the busy glass-walled show kitchen to our left) first came from the island and the lagoon to our right. This locavore idea appeared in each plate we were served, perhaps most of all in a soup of sea-snail (garusoli) and sea fennel in what tasted like the rich reduced essence  of the lagoon itself. Another extreme experience.

Making a Statement

On the ferry ride back to San Marco with the full moon above us, Sue and I talked about Venissa. I was suspicious at the start that it was a platform to promote the Bisol brand, but my hypothesis didn’t hold up. It really seems to be a sincere attempt by the Bisol family to honor the history and traditions of Venice and Venetian wine.P1090289

What makes Venissa so interesting is the ambitious approach. It would be possible to draw attention to Venetian wine culture with a museum exhibition of some sort — many wineries display collections of  winemaking implements, historical documents and wine and vine art. They are always interesting, but it seems to me that they usually lack the lasting impact that I see at Venissa. Why?

One factor is that Venissa is a living exhibition — the actual vineyards are right here in the lagoon, not just dots on an old map and the actual wine is in your glass not a just label on the wall. This obviously creates a more intense sensual experience. And the total project reinforces this by drawing on all the senses through the packaging, the location, the inn and restaurant and so forth.

Matteo told us that there are plans to further extend the experience through a sort of deconstructed hotel project on the neighboring island of Burano. The “hotel” would actually be a collection of rooms scattered around in various of the buildings that line the colorful canals of the little island, giving visitors an opportunity to intimately experience a different side of Venice and of course to enjoy the short stroll over the little bridge to Mazzorbo, then on through the vineyard and to Venissa itself.

Venissa is a wine, a destination and a statement, all made with impressive clarity and commitment. Congratulations to the Bisol family on this achievement.

A Field Guide to Prosecco’s Many Faces

P1090234Prosecco sales here in the U.S. are surging — up 34% in the first half of 2014 according to one report. At 1.27 million cases, the U.S. is now the #3 export market for Prosecco trailing only the UK and Germany.

Quantity is one thing, but quality is often something else entirely. Last week’s column talked about Prosecco’s upmarket move and the premiumization pyramid that lies at the heart of the strategy.  Is premium Prosecco real or just a marketing gimmick?

Mionetto’s Impressive Line-up

We tasted the wines from three producers during our quick business trip to the Veneto and if there is truth in wine, then premium Prosecco is real.

Our first stop was at Mionetto, a large producer that is the U.S. market leader with their popularly priced, crown capped “IL” Prosecco line of wines. “IL” is great fun and has attractive packaging — we like it a lot — but it doesn’t especially strive for upmarket status. But wait, there is more …

We tasted through several Mionetto wines that showed the true potential for premium Prosecco wines. We started with Prosecco made from organic grapes – the idea came from the growers not the marketing department — that was perhaps the most effective presentation of an organic wine that I have seen. This wine should appeal both to enthusiasts seeking something different and to dedicated green wine fans. The wine, the messaging, the packaging — they all come together in a very impressive way.

Opulence and a German Bet

We then moved up the pyramid to a single vineyard “Rive di Santo Stefano” DOCG Prosecco and into the “Luxury” series of wines, then reaching the summit with the Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG. The luxury wines really were opulent both in the glass and to the eye. Very impressive. Will wines like this some day challenge Champagne? No future tense needed — I think they already do so, providing that memorable feeling (isn’t that what Champagne is really all about for most people?) at a more attractive price point. Here is a list of the Mionetto wines we tasted with links to more information about them.

An interesting sidebar to the Mionetto story is that the Italian firm was purchased a few years ago by Henkell, the German sparking wine producer, and everyone worried that the usual layoffs and cost-cutting measures were in store. Instead the new parent company kept all hands on board and hired more workers while investing in plant modernization and expansion. They are betting on the premium future of Prosecco and based on the “cards” we tasted it seems they have a winning hand.

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A Different Prosecco: Sorelle Bronca

Sorelle Bronca is a very different enterprise that illustrates Prosecco’s many dimensions. A small firm run by two sisters, all its wines are organic. Total production is much smaller than Mionetto, but the wines are perhaps equally diverse in the experiences they present the curious wine enthusiast.

We tasted through several excellent organic DOCG Proseccos and some still wines, too, including a white blend featuring the Manzoni Bianco grape and a Colli di Conegliano DOCG Riserva “Ser Bele” red blend of Cabernet Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux grape varieties have long been planted in the Veneto) that received Gambero Rosso’s  top “3 glasses” rating. Red wine from Prosecco-ville? Maybe. Really great red wine?  Apparently yes. I didn’t see that coming.

The “normal” Proseccos we tasted here were delicious as was the Sorelle Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Particella 68  made from grapes from a specific vineyard bloc. But the hit of the tasting was Sorrele Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG “Difetto Perfetto” Sur Lie. Difetto Perfetto? Defective and perfect at the same time? Well, yes. This cloudy wine (see photo) had its secondary fermentation in the bottle not the pressurized tank as is typical for Prosecco. Then it was left on the lees for a period and then not disgourged, so the lees were still there.

Cloudy, a bit like a hefeweizen beer. I think “foggy” is the best word — look at the photo. Unfiltered, but not Difetto in my opinion. The first taste was just the wine, taking care not to disturb the lees at the bottom of the bottle. Good! Then we shook up the bottle and tasted it all together. Wow! Even better, Sue and I agreed.  Champagne-like but still clearly Prosecco without the strong leesy taste you might expect because the sur lie period was so short.  And quite an interesting mouth-feel. A Prosecco to surprise and delight. What fun!P1090311

A Bisol Mosaic at Venissa

We spent the night in Venice and set out the next day to visit Venissa, the ambitious vineyard project of the Bisol family that is located on an island in the Venetian Lagoon (see next week’s column for a full report). The Bisol Prosecco house is behind Venissa and as part of our visit Matteo Bisol arranged for us to taste several of his family’s wines along with dinner at the restaurant.

Usually, Matteo said, he would serve just one Bisol wine as part of a multi-course / multi-wine tasting menu, but he decided to use the opportunity to show us many difference faces of Bisol and Prosecco. It was quite an experience.

We started with the classic Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.  Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

The Dry and the Sweet

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 – Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG -- from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita – dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either. Matteo wanted to show us the variety of Prosecco expressions and he certainly succeeded.

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Final thoughts? The Prosecco mosaic caught me by surprise — Prosecco is not one thing, but many things and hopefully consumers who start with cheerful wines like the Mionetto “IL” bottlings can be persuaded to move up the Prosecco Pyramid to the DOCG and Rive wines and perhaps even summit with Cartizze and beyond to some of the truly unique wines we were fortunate to be able to sample. Thanks to the everyone who hosted us and to the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consortium for arranging the winery visits. Next time: the story of Venissa.

Prosecco Bubbles Upmarket: The Premiumization Pyramid

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Our stay is the Prosecco region of Northern Italy was short but very intense. It left us impressed with the work going on there to refine Prosecco’s image and to raise quality so that Prosecco will be on the lips (both figuratively and literally) of consumers who seek a premium sparkling wine. It is a tale told in three acts.

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Wine (not water) makes history at the Conegliano wine school.

Act 1: The School for Wines

First was a visit to the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano, Conegliano’s famous wine school, which was founded in 1876 . It was then and is now an important center for the scientific study of enology and viticulture. The school’s impact through its graduates and research extends throughout Italy and in fact around the world. To give just one example, Romeo Bragato, who might be said to be the father of winemaking in Australia and New Zealand, trained at Conegliano.

We toured the original school building, visiting the first professional tasting arena, and then moved on to the famous test vineyard, the teaching winery and the ultra-modern labs. We met professors devoted to training the next generation of winemakers and scientists diligently addressing a range of important winemaking issues.

It’s clear that the school is a very strong force in assuring quality in Prosecco (it is here where the DOCG panels meet to verify wine quality) and to see that the bar is raised higher and higher. We brought home a few bottles of the school’s wine including an IGT Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 made from the Manzoni Bianco grape variety developed here and a Conegliano DOCG still Prosecco called Celebre. Can’t wait to try these wines when they’ve had time to settle down from the trip home.

Act 2: The Prosecco Pyramid

Our next stop was lunch at Antica Osteria di Via Brandolini in Solighetto with officials of both the Conegliano school and the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Consorzio.  The main topic of conversation (when we were not distracted by the menu of outstanding local dishes) was the program to establish a hierarchy of Prosecco wines that consumers can understand and that will draw them in and allow them to effectively explore premium possibilities.

The Prosecco production zone is very large, including parts of both the Veneto and Friuli, and the growing conditions and wine qualities vary a good deal. You can get cheap and cheerful Prosecco wines and also sophisticated products. The Consorzio’s plan, which I think it a good one, is to help buyers understand the different quality levels by creating a sort of premiumization pyramid.

DOC Prosecco forms the base of the pyramid — the vast majority of Prosecco wines you will find fall into this category. Next up are the DOCG Prosecco Superiore wines from the Congegliano Valdobbiadene zone — an area stretching basically from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, which includes some spectacular hillside vineyards. The Consorzio has applied for the this area to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look at the video at the top of the page and you will see why.

DOCG wines are not necessarily better than individual DOC wines (just as IGT wines are not necessarily inferior to those with more prestigious designations), but they are held to a higher certified standard. One of the goals of the premiumization push it to help consumers understand the difference between DOC and DOCG (unfamiliar concepts to most Prosecco drinkers in America who think mainly in terms of brands) and to encourage them to look for and to try the DOCG wines.P1090240

The next step is to focus on terroir in the form of certain “grad cru” vineyard areas known as “Rive” in the local dialect. There are 43 designated Rive in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone and the idea is that they are very different from each other in terms of soil, aspect, altitude and the individual wines reflect their distinct terroirs. Terroirst wines, if you will.

At the top of the premium pyramid sits Cartizze DOCG. The 106 hectare Cartizze zone is one of the most valuable vine patches on the planet with valuations in the neighborhood of €1 million per hectare (just under $500,000 an acre)! The Cartizze wines are meant to be the ultimate Prosecco experience — products for consumers with a taste for luxury sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular.

The hierarchy provided here is very useful — starting with the DOC and DOCG concepts and going a couple of steps beyond. Easy concepts for Europeans to understand, but it will take some effort to make them part of the New World consumer’s lingua franca.  And of course it is necessary for the wines themselves to meet the quality expectations.P1090224

Act 3: In Vino Veritas

Which brings us to Act 3 and the wines themselves. We were fortunate to be able to taste three sets of Prosecco wines. Luigi Galletto, Sue and I visited a large producer — Mionetto – and tasted through the top line of wines available in the U.S. market. Then we visited a smaller producer specializing in organic wines — Sorelle Bronca.  Finally, Sue and I were fortunate to sample wines from Bisol at a tasting arranged by Matteo Bisol at his Venissa restaurant.

In vino veritas they say and in this context we might take it to mean that marketing and messaging are one thing, but the wines will tell you the truth. Is there truth in Prosecco’s premiumization push? Come back next week for our report.

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Thanks to everyone who made the Prosecco part of our Veneto giro such a rewarding experience. Special thanks to Professors Luigi Galletto and Vasco Boatto, Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio, Giulia Pussini, the Consorzio’s communications officer, Alessio Del Savio, Managing Director of Mionetto, and Matteo Bisol of Venissa.

The video at the top of the page was produced by the Consorzio and features several people we met during our stay. It tells the story very well and I think you will understand most of the points even if you are not fluent in Italian. I like the scenes in the original school building, including the old tasting room, the vineyard scenes and the explanation of the production process, which features secondard fermentation of the base wines in the pressurized autoclave tanks. The natural images of the Rive and the Cartizze zone give you a strong sense of the beauty of the zone. Enjoy!

What’s Ahead for Amarone? Looking Beyond This Year’s Soggy Vintage

P1080942It is a soggy vintage in Valpolicella and the Veneto generally. Rain, rain and more rain on through harvest. This is problematic and also a bit ironic for wines like Amarone, Ripasso della Valpolicella and Reciotto that are defined by dry not wet — that are made with grapes carefully air dried for weeks or months before being made into wine.

Not that all the news is bad — some winemakers told us that grapes from higher elevations and steeper hillsides held promise for good quality. Others noted that the old fashioned looking pergola-trained vines were doing better (better air circulation) than the conventional Guyot-trained vineyards.

Lots of concern about mildew and rot, and some grapes, like the ones pictured here, were almost blue, we were told, from Bordeaux mixture spray (an approved organic anti-mildew treatment) they had recently received.

(See the photo below to gauge the rainy season’s impact on the first of the white grapes being harvested — probably mechanically — for use at a high-volume winery.)

That’s Where the Money Goes!

Amarone and Ripasso are key elements of the  upmarket Valpolicella premiumization strategy. Although the more popularly-priced wines of the region — Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore — are often delicious, they are light in body and even sometimes in color in a world that seems to be searching for deeper, richer wines. Luxurious Amarone, made from those air-dried grapes, fits the bill very well and has established a strong global following. When I told my friends I would visit Valpolicella, “Amarone!” was the uniform initial response.

Ripasso, which is made by refermenting “ordinary” Valpolicella on the pressed skins left over from Amarone, also has a strong following among those who see it as a more affordable “baby Amarone.” It is sometimes a better wine and might even be a more profitable wine for some producers, but you can’t make Ripasso unless you have made Amarone, so they are joined at the hip.

Amarone and Ripasso are the money wines of Valpolicella, even if a bottle of good Valpolicella Classico Superiore is difficult to beat paired with mushroom risotto. High prices are an imperative here because of high costs — high vineyard valuations (€400,000 per hectare in some areas, we were told), high grape tonnage prices, and expensive long aging periods in tank, wood and bottle before release. Plus the obvious volume losses that come from the air-drying process.

Yes We Have No Amarone (in 2014)

This makes the rainy vintage even more problematic. Quantity will be down for those producers who carefully sort through the grapes, but quality is likely to suffer, too. How much? Enough to drag down price? Enough to damage the wines’ and region’s reputations?

A thin veneer of confidence about quality masks some real concerns and fermenting disagreements. Bertani, one of the big players in the game, announced that they would pass on Amarone  Classico this year rather than accept lower quality. A producer  I cannot name revealed during our visit that he had that morning signed a contract to sell off his Amarone wines to the bulk market rather than release an inferior product under his own label. No Amarone, maybe no Ripasso, no money wine this year … for some.

How can someone just walk away from their money wine? Well, the first answer is that wine is agriculture and Mother Nature often makes the call for you (something that growers in Valpolicella already know since they live an area with frequent sporadic catastrophic hail storms). A deeper reason is that for some producers a year without Amarone might actually be a good thing. The Amarone boom of recent years was always worrying to those of us familiar with busts. Maybe a year without Amarone would help rebalance supply and demand?

Declaring a Vintage? Or Not …

P1090059Given the soggy year and what may well be a substantial inventory over-hang, a case might be made for treating Amarone like Port and “declaring” a vintage in the best years while focusing on other types and styles when quality is in doubt. Amarone, like Vintage Port, is a luxury product and you can see the logic of not wanting to undermine its reputation.

Given the choice, I think some producers would give the “Vintage Amarone” idea  a try although others would prefer a half-way measure — none of their finest Amarone, but maybe still produce some lesser wines.  Hmmm … I wonder if that would really work?

But expanding the focus beyond Amarone to other wines might have some benefits apart from the obvious one of supporting quality. More attention to the conventional Valpolicella wines would be welcome if the broad trend I sense of a shift to lighter and more balanced wines is correct. And then there are the innovative IGT wines that I talked about in a recent column.

When I asked one winemaker why he was making a proprietary IGT wine in addition to his DOC and DOCG traditional products, he replied honestly that it was an upmarket thing — he wanted to have something that wasn’t Amarone or Ripasso for his Valpolicella customers to move up to.

Lots of room for great wines in this category, without the restrictions of the DOC rules. Lots of opportunity for interesting products in “non-vintage” years.

Life without Amarone? Impossible?

But passing up on the money wine in off years is a luxury that not everyone can afford.  We saw many new and impressive wineries that may well have been built on the expectation of Amarone-style returns. If the business model is built on Amarone, a bad year (which would be a year without Amarone) could be devastating.

And some wineries are so closely identified with Amarone that skipping a vintage is nearly unthinkable for them. Take the cooperative winery in Negrar — Cantina Valpolicella Negrar. This is where Amarone was born in 1936 when the cellarmaster lost track of a tank of Recioto (in theory a sweet wine made from air-dried grapes), which fermented dry by accident instead of the yeasts being stopped with some residual sugar remaining.  A catastrophe — except that it was really good. Not bitter “Amaro” but smooth and dry “Amarone.”

Negrar makes many wines today under its own label and the premium Domini Veneti brand, but for obvious reasons its identity is tied to Amarone. It is difficult to imagine that it could pass on an Amarone vintage for any reason and so certain tensions are inevitable between those who for one reason or another cannot or will not miss an Amarone vintage and those who for different reasons are willing to take the risk.P1090036

Victim of Amarone Success?

Our visit to Cantina Valpolicella Negrar showed their focus and continuing commitment to Amarone.  A line of single-vineyard wines, Domini Veneti “Amarone Espressioni,” were presented at lunch.  The five wines  were as different as their origins — I liked the wines from higher elevation vineyards the best, although I think I might actually prefer the multi-vineayrd blend that I tried with dinner the next night.

So what’s in the future? More rain, if past is prologue, but it is difficult to say beyond that. Valpolicella is in a way a victim of its own success. Great wines that earn a premium in the market — no doubt about it. But also expensive wines that play in a very competitive luxury wine league along with heavyweights like Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco. Finding the right solution is no simple matter.

The people we met are smart and while they will disagree about how best to move forward I’m pretty confident that they will find a way to sustain the good thing that they have got and maybe even kick it up a notch as they have done in the past. In the meantime, pray for a break from the rains!

Valpolicella: Time for Wine Tourism to take Center Stage

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Stunning view from the terraced vineyards at Terre di Leone

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Valpolicella is well known for its great wines — Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Ripasso della Valpolicella and of course Amarone. (It should also be known for its sweet wine, Recioto della Valpolicella, but that’s another story.)

But what about wine tourism? Sue and I were guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio earlier this month and one of our tasks was get a sense of Valpolicella as a wine tourist destination using a new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices).  Here is a brief report.

There’s an App for That!

Whenever I asked the winemakers we met if wine tourism was an important part of their business the answer was “yes!” but I think it is fair to say that for many of the actual tourists wine is at best a secondary reason for their visit.

The fact is that most tourists come to this part of Italy for non-wine reasons — for the history, culture and opera of Verona to the east, for example, or the resorts of Lake Garda to the west. Lying between these two attractive poles, Valpolicella is the perfect “day out” diversion (especially if it is a rainy day as has too often been the case in 2014) but not always the primary destination.

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Postmodern meets tradition at Zymé

Come for Opera, Stay for Wine

Come for the beach or opera, stay for the wine! That could be Valpolicella’s wine tourism motto, but it would be selling the region short. What do dedicated wine tourists look for? Well, these days they want the complete experience — the wine and wineries, of course, plus beautiful scenery, great food, comfortable lodgings and that something extra to tell their friends back home about. Valpolicella would seem to tick each of these boxes.

The vineyard scenery is certainly spectacular — I really wasn’t prepared for the beautiful vistas.  What a stunning setting! A great opportunity for fit cyclists with a nose for good wine or anyone willing to pull off the road and take in the panorama.

The wineries we visited using the Consorzio’s app showed the great variety of experiences available, which ranged from the super-modern architecture at Monteci to the classic and traditional at Valentina Cubi (one of our favorite stops).  The sense of history was particularly strong at Santa Sofia, which is located in a villa designed by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century.  You cannot dig much deeper into the soul of the Venteo  than that!

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Tradition at Santa Sofia

Zymé, Celestino Gaspari’s  ambitious winery in Pietro in Carlano  deftly balanced the very old and the very new. The winery building features cutting edge architecture — see the photo taken looking out from the structure towards the nearby hillside vineyards. Wow!

The Zymé  cellar and caves are carved into the hillside and touring them gives a sense of both history and nature. One of the best surprises was in the cavern than has become the working part of the winery. A spring that was discovered during construction was incorporated into the design and you can actually look down dozens of feet into the crevasse that the water has carved out over the years. A stunning sensory experience (and great for the humidity needed for barrel storage).

Beyond the Wine

Wine tourists need a place to stay and there seem to be many attractive options (this part of the Consorzio  app is still under development). Although we stayed in a basic business hotel on this trip, we encountered a number of options, including very appealing apartments at Valentina  Cubi.

If you want luxury, well there seem to be a number of five star experiences available. SalvaTerra’s beautiful estate includes vineyards, the winery, a small hotel and what must be a fine restaurant (judging from the number of chefs we saw working the kitchen as we passed by).

We have no doubt about the food at Villa Cordevigo  since we were fortunate to have dinner at this estate that includes the Villabella winery, its vineyards, a fantastic hotel and spa and the sorts of amenities that make you want to linger forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us as we looked out over a garden to the pool and the vineyards j8ust beyond with a full moon in the distance.

It’s the Food, Dummy

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Foodie attraction: Cappelletti di coda, fonduta di Parmigiano, ristretto al Cordevigo rosso at Villa Cordevigo, served with Villa Cordevigo Rosso 2007

People talk about coming to Italy for the art and architecture, but let me tell you the truth. It’s the food! And we were fortunate to sample many typical dishes of the regional cuisine and they are worth the effort to seek out. Typical is an interesting word in this context — you see it everywhere in Italy and that’s a good thing. Here in the U.S. “typical” is sometimes a term of derision — Big Macs are “typical” fast food, for example. Ordinary. Unexceptional. Nothing to write home about. That’s typical for us.

In Italy, however, typical means “true to type” or authentic. And that’s why we Americans go gaga over Italian food — the authenticity just blows us away. And the authentic or typical dishes of Valpolicella, many prepared with the wines themselves, are enough to make any foodie go gaga. We enjoyed great meals at the Villa Cordevigo,  Ristorante La Divina  (overlooking Garda from high on a hill), Locanda 800 and the Enoteca Della Valpolicella.

We also appreciated the lunches that several wineries put together for us including a wonderful (typical!) meal of local meats and cheeses with polenta  at Scriani, a satisfying buffet at Santa Sofia and a rather elaborate multi-course feast of typical dishes at the Cantina Valpolicella Negrar.  All the food was wonderful — the meats and cheeses at Cesari  and the completely addictive “crumb cake” we had with Recioto at Secondo Marco. Foodie paradise? You be the judge. And great wines, too.

That Something Extra

Valpolicella seems to have all the elements of a great wine tourism experience and I think the Consorzio’s  app ties things together into a functional package.  It will be even more useful when it has time to fill out with more wineries, restaurants and hotels.

Is the app alone enough to bring Valpolicella to center stage? Of course not. Some of the wineries obviously embrace wine tourism more completely than others, for example. It is important that three or four true “destination” wineries emerge that will make it easy for wine tourists to see that a two-day or longer visit can be fashioned that will sustain their interest and enthusiasm —  with dozens of other wineries providing rich diversity (and reasons to return again and again) as happens in Napa, for example. And finally there must be even closer ties among the elements of the hospitality sector — wine, food, tourism and lodgings — which is not always easy to achieve.

It takes a village to build a wine route. But all the pieces are there and the app is a good way to bring them together.

But what about that “something extra” I mentioned earlier.  What does Valpolicella offer that will push it over the top? Well, the towns and villages have the churches, squares, museums and villas that Italian wine tourists expect — it takes only a little effort to seek them out and I must confess that I actually enjoy the “small moments”  more than the three-star attractions, so this suits me very well.

But maybe I am making this too hard. What’s that something special? Maybe it’s the chance to tack an evening in Verona or a day on Lake Garda on to your Valpolicella wine tour experience?  Perhaps its time for the wine tail to wag the Veneto  tourist dog and not the other way around! (Gosh, I wonder how that will sound in Italian?) Food for thought!

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This is the second in a series of reports on our Veneto wine tour. Come back next week for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing the Valpolicella wine industry.


Here’s a musical tribute to the merry band of wine bloggers on our Valpolicella tour.

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Mauro Fermariello has created a beautiful video of our Valpolicella wine blogger tour, which can be found in his website, www.winestories.it .

Valpolicella & Prosecco: The Pendulum Swings to Premiumization in the Veneto

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!).P1090025

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.P1090240

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?

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella and Prosecco tour

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, 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

Monteci, Pescantina

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

Mionetto, Valdobbiadene

Sorrelle Bronca, Colbertaldo di Vidor

and in the Venetian lagoon, 

Venissa, Isola Mazzorbo, Venice

 

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