Welcome to the 21st century!
Valpolicella was one of my first wines, along with Chianti, drunk with pizzas as a student in Milwaukee – the cheaper the better. You can’t really blame the Verona area, home to these wines, for my youthful folly in drinking some of the worst of its products. This was 40 years ago and the US wine market barely existed.
College students with no cash were keen to show they were sophisticated enough to be the first wave of wine drinkers. Italian wineries looking for a quick money fix (they weren’t the only ones) exported wines that no sensible wine-savvy Italian would drink.
Older, much wiser about wine, and interested in seeing what born-again Valpolicella is like (thankfully, most of the plonk makers faded away, leaving room for good quality wines), I accepted an invitation to spend a few days in and around Verona, a part of the Veneto region. See my travel report, Treat yourself to Verona, for suggestions for your own visit.
Visiting Verona area wineries
A few months earlier I had taken part in a vertical (several vintages) tasting of Amarone wines in Geneva. I love them and they are from the same region so Verona had been high on my list of places to visit. Note for anyone wanting to explore the wine: a car in the city of Verona is not fun, but you will find it useful to have one to visit the wineries that ring the city. The region consists of a series of valleys. Count on trips that are 20-40 minutes from the centre by car. Consider staying in some of the B&Bs or small hotels that wineries have been opening; charming countryside at night plus good food plus good wine and no driving equals a happy combination.
Verona as one of the Great Wine Capitals of the World
Verona is one of the Great Wine Capitals of the World, a network of regions working to develop wine tourism. Some of the region’s new projects offer several alternatives to visiting by car. Small group tours in vans or renting bikes and e-bikes are among your options. Veronality and the Valpolicella Wine Route Association are two good starting points; both were finalists for the Best Wine Tourism Award in the region. The Verona Chamber of Commerce publishes a lengthy guide in English and Italian, “Verona Wine Tourism”, with many suggestions and quality contacts for wine tourism, centred around the annual awards.
Lausanne is the newest member of the Great Wine Capitals network and I was in Verona as part of its delegation, to see the Swiss wine region welcomed, but also to observe and learn more about successful wine tourism, the buzz phrase in the wine world at the moment.
I’ll be going back in June 2019 with family who will be visiting from the US. Verona charmed me, my sister loves opera and has long dreamed of seeing one (“La Traviata” is our choice) in the city’s famous arena, and we want to explore the vineyards and cellars. Buy your tickets to the opera before 24 December, like the locals, and you’ll get discounted ticket prices.
What follows is a primer on wines from Verona today, for you and for my sister. If your earlier impressions are like mine, let’s scrap those notions and move straight to Verona’s contemporary good stuff. To get your bearings, I suggest you open the Amarone Tours web site’s useful map. The site is also a good reference for details about how Amarone is made.
Wine styles and grapes
Reds: Bardolino to the West around Lake Garda (also Chiaretto rosé here); closer to Verona you find Valpolicella, Ripasso, Recioto from dried grapes and its stronger form of dried grapes wine, Amarone. Bardolino tends to be lighter than Valpolicella and is made from three main grapes: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, but up to 15% in total of four other grapes is allowed – Rossignola, Barbera, Sangiovese, Garganega.
Valpolicella’s main grape is Corvina, which gives rich cherry notes when grapes are picked fully ripe, but it cannot be used on its own – see the grapes listed below for some of the others you’ll find in these blends. Ripasso can be very good, although some I found too rich: Valpolicella is passed a second time – thus the re-passed name – over the warm sweet skins that were part of a batch of Amarone. A second alcoholic fermentation takes place, giving a wine that is less acidic, rounder, richer than Valpolicella. In the hands of a good winemaker, it is a fine accompaniment to meat dishes in particular.
Recioto has been made for millennia, or so the story goes, because the only way our forebears knew to get the alcohol level high was to increase the sugar level by harvesting late and drying the grapes. It is a sweet and heavy wine, best with desserts.
Amarone is its modern cousin. Its name comes from its accidental birth, when the wine was left too long and became slightly bitter. Its century or so of history includes a complicated history of ageing. Early Amarone wines were matured in large casks of oak or chestnut or cherry wood – whatever was locally available – for 8 to 10 years. In the 1980s there was a rush to use smaller French barrels, 225 litre oak barriques that allowed the wine to mature much more quickly, thus allowing the winery to get the product to market faster. There was an abrupt shift in Amarone style, with wines where the oak covered the aromas of the grapes; these were also wines that would not age as well, for the most part. Today, oak barrel use has been adapted in the best wineries and many are returning to maturing Amarone in larger containers, often letting it mature for 8 years. For more on this aspect of Amarone, refer to the Amarone Tours web site.
Whites: Soave and the relatively uncommon, sweeter Recioto di Soave: these are the main wines from the area east of Verona. Lugana, from the Turbiana grape (Verdicchio), is made on the southern end of Lake Garda to the west of Verona. It is less well known and produced in smaller quantities than Soave; I very much liked the pale crisp dry Luganas I sampled. Expect notes of pineapple and mandarin orange, with the finesse of bitter almond. Soave’s main grape is Garganega but it can include Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay.
DOC and DOCG are Italy’s quality labels, similar to the French AOC system. DOCG wine regulations include sampling by government officials before the wine is bottled. There are nearly 80 DOCG wines and more than 320 DOCs. In addition, Italian wines use Superiore and Classico on labels, with the use of the second one reserved for wines from a restricted area where the wines were traditionally made. Both Valpolicella and Soave saw rapid expansion in the second half of the 20th century outside what are now called their Classico areas; some of these wines, in areas less suitable for quality grapes, accounted for the plonk I once knew. But to simply say all Classico is better and all Superiore worse would be a gross oversimplification of the situation today. Replanting, strong interest in organic wines and sustainability, a more competitive world market and a drop in wine consumption have helped improve quality overall.
I shared lunch during one of my days in Verona with an Italian who had a remarkable knowledge of Geneva’s AOC wines, to my surprise. It turns out that he spends a great deal of time in Geneva at the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) defending Italy’s 474 PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) wines and its 129 PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) wines and the huge number of foods that are also protected, such as Parma ham. Confused? These are the European Union’s overarching names for its registrations; for a reasonably clear explanation of this vast and daunting system of labels, and how these have changed in the past decade and how to understand wine labels in today’s context, read this good background article in Wine Searcher.
My table partner bristled as he pointed out that he spends much of his time fighting with Americans in particular and some other non-Europeans over Italy’s huge number of registrations – Italy has far more than any other country. “They think that our food and drink is generic! But we believe it’s important to protect the link between a product and where it comes from, the traditions and the terroir that give it quality, that gave it its famous name in the first place.”
We spent half a day on a city centre food-oriented walking tour and the protected foods and wines we sampled were top quality. The labelling system to differentiate the best of what Verona creates is in fact helpful.
The main grapes
Red: Corvina, Corvinone, Molinara, Rondinella, Oseleta, Croatina, Cabernet Sauvignon
White: Garganega, Chardonnay, Trebbiano di Soave, Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), Trebbiano Toscano, Turbiana
I tasted some 85 wines from 15 wineries during my three days, including some fine Val d’Adige wines from that neighbouring region (northwest). I visited seven wineries. Overall, the quality of the wines was good and some were standouts.
Some personal favourites:
Tommasi estates, a very fine Lugana white, served with cheese and prosciutto starter. I’ll be keen to visit one of the family’s wineries next time.
Serego Alighieri and Masi winery visits, loved hearing the history of various barrel solutions that were tried here and elsewhere for oaking Amarone, starting with chestnut wood, then the period when wineries in the area were sold “crappy” quality French barrels and saw a marked improvement when they switched. An experiment that gives the wine a short passage at the end in cherry wood, which is more porous, is part of this continuum of developing Amarone. This wine makes more sense when you see the old drying room; the grapes are harvested in September or October and raisined for three months on racks in cool, well-aired rooms. Twice the amount of grapes, which are by now sweet and with 30-40% less water content, are needed compared to a Valpolicella. Masi is a large and famous winery, one of the oldest in the region; this is a collaborative venture and while the wines are good, they were not among my top ones, although Masi was named 2018 Winery of the Year by the respected Gambero Rosso guide.
Tenute Salvaterra, interesting to visit, with large casks for maturing and some very good wines. I particularly liked the Amarone here. The entrance to the winery takes you through classic Italian grounds – cypress trees, lush gardens – of the 16th century Villa Giona.
Coffele Viticoltori, in Castelcerino, Soave Classico country, where a highlight was meeting Professor Giuseppe Coffele, a bit of a legend in the area, a Latin scholar turned self-taught wine producer. He and his wife Giovanna Visco, heiress to her family’s old wine estate, replanted and brought back the vines, built a winery centred around an organic approach to winemaking, before it was fashionable.
Beautiful white wines here, a good example of what you can do with Soave. The town’s castle is historically important and dominates the town. An underpass at the bottom of the street running down from the castle is popular with tourists – a fine way to store your bottles!
Villa Canestrari winery, also in Soave, a very small and personal museum that will interest mainly those who are interested in how viticulture and viniculture have evolved (I loved it), although it is worth noting that the winery encourages school visits to help Italian children understand their agricultural heritage. Some superb wines, notably the remarkable, velvety red Riserva 1888, 16 degrees alcohol which is described aptly as a “meditation wine”, and a Ricito di Soave, the uncommon sweet, late harvest white (floral, spicy) that the winery suggests you try with blue cheese or goose liver, which I think would be excellent.
Villa Cordevigo Wine Relais, I had lunch here and while it was pleasant, I was mostly envious of the guests staying in the rooms of this Relais & Chateau hotel, which is a renovated 16th century villa with spa and swimming pool and a beautiful park. A good place to explore Bardolino Classico wines; the relais is part of a wine estate.
Zeni winery, also Bardolino country, overlooking Lake Garda: I had mixed feelings. It was the end of the winery visits and perhaps I was just tired. It has won awards for its museum, olfactory gallery and tour with a visit to the large cellar, but despite a very helpful and enthusiastic staff, I didn’t care for the presentation/tasting. If you’ve never tried smelling and identifying aromas in wine, it is interesting, but some of the technology didn’t work well the day I visited and it was hard to hear the wine presentation in the large and echoing barrel room from a back table.
The museum is connected to the shop, with the latter busy, for this is a visit that is on many tours. The museum has very good educational information, so make time for it. Wines from here have won some top awards, and do try the Bardolino Chiaretto Vigne Alte from old vines, but I was happiest with the excellent Balsamic that I brought home from the shop.
I don’t think it is humanly possible to give a short overview of the food of any Italian region, such a wealth and diversity of wonderful dishes and local specialties is on offer. Here are a couple of things to look out for and to try. The city of Verona is famous for its fat spaghetti-like bigoli and its gnocchis, sometimes served with meats that are not for the faint of heart: donkey, horse, beef cheek. Polenta is another favourite accompaniment. I loved tiny tortellini from the minuscule La Bottega della Gina, which caters to Verona’s citizens who crave good homemade pasta but are too busy to make their own. You can dip in and buy a sampler to eat on the go.
For beautiful cold cuts and cheeses and packaged pastas and – the list is long even if the shop is tiny – head to Labotteghetta near the arena, which also offers food and wine classes and tasting sessions. Red wine risotto and Risotto all’Amarone are very rich and a bit overwhelming on a warm summer day, but a good match for a Ripasso wine. The Caffè Dante Bistrot on Piazza dei Signori,, a central square serves it and other dishes that I loved, including an extraordinary ricotta cheesecake with salty caramel sauce that somehow didn’t feel excessive. The wine list is good, not surprising since the restaurant is owned by the Tommasi family winery estates.
Another of the city’s specialties (I was not a huge fan) is polpette, fried balls with meat or potato centres at Osteria a la Cadrega, a fun trattoria for this local favourite. Don’t go for the cheap wine here, however.
I was the guest of Great Wine Capitals of the World/Verona as part of a delegation from Lausanne, with the Verona Chamber of Commerce as our host during the annual two-day Verona Wine Days. You can read the report in French of fellow Swiss wine writer, Pierre Thomas, who was also part of the Lausanne group on this trip.