Three Faces of Veneto Wine: A Wine Economist Report

Titian’s famous painting Allegory of Prudence  (1565-70) is one of my favorite works of Italian Renaissance art. I stand before this painting and ponder it whenever I visit the National Gallery in London.

The three faces represent three sides of human nature: the loyalty of youth (represented by the dog), the courage of maturity (the lion) and the wisdom (or is it cunning?) of old age (the wolf).

It is a complicated painting that can be read on many levels, but one interpretation is that loyalty and courage much be tempered by prudent wisdom (hence the title). Or perhaps it is that wisdom is the product of loyalty and courage accumulated over one’s lifetime.

Whatever your reading, it seems that all three characteristics exist at once in most people, but since we are complicated folks, they come out in varying proportions at different times.

Wine has many faces, too, and this is especially true of Italian wine. The Veneto region of Italy is interesting in this regard because it is home to the big (it produces the most wine of any Italian region) and the small, the cheap and dear, the … well, you get the idea.

We were fortunate to be exposed to many different faces of the region’s wines during our recent visit. Last week I reported on the Prosecco producers we visited in Conegliano, where I lectured at the famous wine school. This week’s column looks at three faces of Vento wine we discovered on the next leg of our tour.

From Conegliano to Valdobbiadene

Our journey took us from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, the two poles of a wine zone officially knows as Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if they shortened this mouthful of a name to something simpler such as Prosecco Superiore, but I don’t really see this happening soon.

Someone told us that Conegliano Prosecco has more structure and Valdobbiadene Prosecco more fruit and, when I asked a friend if this is true he just shook his head and smiled. This is Italy, he said, and everyone is loyal to their locality, so everyone must be the best at something. And so  Conegliano-Valdobbiadene it is likely to remain, despite the marketing challenge, reflecting a certain combination of creative tension and political equilibrium.

The landscape of Valdobbiadene is quite stunning, with steep hillsides of vines. No wonder if is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage site status. And the wines are quite stunning, too.

Going Small at Silvano FolladorP1100182

A visit to Silvano Follador presented on intriguing face of Valdobbiadene wine personality. Silvano Follador inherited a few hectares of vineyards from his grandfather and produced wine from those vines and purchased grapes until, in 2004, when he made the choice to go small and to stick to estate fruit.

Now, working with his sister Alberta who met with us at the winery, he makes tiny amounts (about 2000 – 2500  cases) of beautiful wines working as naturally and sustainably  as possible. It takes courage to be small in a business where capital, technology and economies of scale are key factors.

Our interview and tasting with Alberta was conducted entirely in Italian and Sue and I were struck by the elegance of both the wines and the language Alberta used to describe them and the philosophy behind them. Tasting the wines with her was a very personal experience, which I suppose is what these wines are all about. The focus is very intense here — on the land, the seasons, the philosophy.

The wines deserve the global attention that they receive — they were featured in the copy of Slow Wine 2014 where we discovered them — but with production necessarily limited to estate fruit — and the idea of expansion or buying in grapes off the table — only a few of the world’s Prosecco drinkers will taste these wines. If you find them, do not hesitate!

Going Big at Bisol

Is going small the only way to preserve quality and a sense of place? It certainly works for Silvano Follador, but scale and quality are not mutually exclusive as we learned when we visited the much larger Bisol winery just up the road. The Bisol family has deep roots in Valdobbiadene, with evidence of grape cultivation going back as far as 1542. The business today is still all about family and, if the scale has grown the family-oriented philosophy remains.

We had our first taste of Bisol Prosecco from the iconic Cartizze zone last fall when we were in the Veneto on other business. Cartizze is the peak of the Prosecco pyramid, a small mountain covered in 106 hectares of vines that are divided up among 140 owners (Follador has a small plot of very old vines near the base of the mountain).

The Cartizze wines are so special and command such high prices that in the rare cases when vineyards go on the market they are exchanged for as much as 2.5 million Euro per hectare, or about a million dollars per acre. The vineyard scenes in the video above give you a sense of the territory. Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that we wanted to visit Bisol on this trip and learn more.

Bisol is both big and small, local and global, and this, along with the family philosophy, is the key to its success. Thinking big means thinking in terms of a portfolio of Prosecco wines that includes the popularly priced Jeio label and then moving up to Bisol Crede, a larger volume DOCG wine.

Quantity supports and enables quality and the smaller production Bisol wines really shoot for the stars. Here is a list of exceptional Bisol wines we tasted at Venissa in September 2014. We tasted many of these wines again in June in the company of Desiderio Bisol and export manager Stefano Marangon.

 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.

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.

The Bisol website proclaims that the family aims to be at the cutting edge of tradition, and I think this is a wise (or perhaps cunning) approach. They use the capital and technology and take advantage of the economies of scale, but without losing sight of first principles.P1100186The Colli Euganei and Maeli Estate

Loyalty seems also to be a characteristic of the Bisol family and it shows up in unexpected ways. Venissa, the vineyard, restaurant and inn on an island in the Venetian lagoon, is a project of Gianluca Bisol that aims to honor the deepest traditions of Venetian winemaking. At Gianluca’s suggestion, Sue and I drove from Valdobbiadene to Villa Vescovi in the Colli Euganei to visit another project that honors tradition: the Maeli  Estate of Elisa Dilavanzo.

We had never been to the Euganean Hills before and we found the geography quite striking. The hills seem to erupt from the plain in a way that suggests their volcanic origins. So close to Venice that you can see San Marco from the hilltops on a clear day (our day was not so clear, alas), this zone supplied Venice with traditional wines and agricultural products for ceP1100200nturies. Now, however, there is pressure to shift from traditional wines to international grape varieties that are sometimes easier to sell, which is understandable but a loss to wine’s diversity if the trend goes too far.

With Gianluca Bisol’s support, Elisa Dilvanzo has dedicated the hilltop Maeli estate to try to preserve some of the wines and traditions of the Colli Euganei and to develop markets for them, too, since one way to preserve tradition is to demonstrate its value.

We tasted a number of quite fascinating wines and walked the vineyards, too. The wine that stands out in my memory and that I will always remember is the wine shown here: a Fior D’Arancia DOCG made with indigenous Moscato Giallo grapes. The wine really does remind you of orange blossoms. It makes a strong statement that winemakers should be loyal to their heritage even as they reach out to the global markets that can support their efforts.

Maeli’s strategy is to begin by exploring Moscato Giallo in all of its many possible expressions, then continue the journey with other red and white wines that have deep roots in the region. These include Bordeaux varieties that were introduced by the French here long ago. We tasted a delicious wine called “D+” — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere — and joked about the name. In the United States “D+” is a poor grade — better than D- but worse than C-.  Here, however, it means “even more” and that’s what this wine (and the project) aims for while still staying loyal to the past.

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And so here are three faces of Veneto wine. Are these the three faces of Veneto wines? Oh my, no — just scratching the surface. But they show the rich diversity of this impressive region and, like Titian’s painting, represents three sides of Venetian wine character. Thanks to everyone at Silvano Follador, Bisol and Maeli estate for giving us a taste of their wines and a peek into their worlds. Special thanks to Michela De Bona for all her help. Photos by Sue Veseth.

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