The Best of Northern Italy

by Antonio Galloni

Veneto: Focus on Amarone

Veneto is one of Italy’s most fascinating and diverse winemaking regions. Along with Piedmont, I can’t think of another region in Italy that produces so many different and compelling wines, at all levels. The sparkling Prosecco is a delicious, budget-friendly choice for an aperitif. The white Soave is experiencing a resurgence as a number of growers exalt the unique qualities of the finest hillside vineyards. In the Valpolicella district, home to Valpolicella, Amarone and Recioto, readers will find an amazing number of terrific wines loaded with character.

 Veneto’s most famous wine is Amarone, one of the most unique and noble wines of the world. I spent a few days in Veneto in April and came away deeply impressed with much of what I saw. To be sure, tasting Amarone from cask is exceptionally difficult and tiring, but ultimately very rewarding. Amarone is made by first air-drying the freshly picked grapes for several months, which serves to concentrate the aromas and flavors. The dried grapes are then vinified, and the wine is aged in oak, just like most other important red wines. The drying process lends the finished wine a level of textural richness, weight and alcohol that is unique to Amarone. One of the challenges with Amarone is finding the right occasion and/or food match that highlights the unique qualities of these wines. There are essentially two styles of Amarone; the first consists of rich, extroverted wines exemplified by producers like Quintarelli, Dal Forno, Bussola and Marion, while the second is composed of producers such as Allegrini, Roccolo Grassi and Speri who aim to make Amarones that are more similar to normal dry red wines, and therefore perhaps more versatile at the dinner table. Readers will find plenty of delicious wines in both camps. In my view, though, great Amarone - just like any other important wine B is its own occasion. To be sure, Valpolicella and its producers face the same challenges as most of the world’s wine regions, among which are pressure from low-cost, high production commercial wines that debase the reputation of the entire zone, and generally lackluster demand at the high end. That said, the best Amarones and Valpolicellas are exceptional.

   The most significant recent Amarone vintage is 2004, many of which were reviewed last year in Issue 178. Vintage 2005 in Veneto was wet, damp and challenging as it was in many parts of northern Italy. A number of benchmark producers opted not to bottle their 2005 Amarone, including Marion, Dal Forno and Roccolo Grassi, among others. That is not to say that the 2005 Amarones are bad, but just that quality is irregular. The 2006s appear to be quite promising. Readers can get an early sense of the vintage by tasting some of the outstanding Valpolicellas that will be appearing on retailers’ shelves over the coming months. The handful of early-release 2006 Amarones I have tasted, along with the wines I have sampled from barrel, all point to another important vintage for the wines of Valpolicella.

Trentino - Alto Adige: Beyond the Whites

Trentino and Alto Adige are best known for crisp, minerally whites, and with good reason. These are some of the most varietally expressive wines to be found in all of Italy. Alto Adige, in particular is, notable for the abundance of high-quality cooperatives producing delicious wines that also offer terrific value. But there is so much more to the local wine scene than just steely, mineral-driven whites. In Trentino, the Teroldegos of Foradori, the sparkling wines of Ferrari and the Bordeaux-inspired reds of San Leonardo are equally compelling. Further north, in Alto Adige, it is the native red Lagrein that is increasingly convincing. In Mazzon, Pinot Noir reigns supreme with wines of rare elegance and richness. In conclusion, the oenological variety of Alto Adige - one of Italy’s most pristinely beautiful regions B continues to impress for its diversity and quality. This year as last, I tasted a number of exceptional wines from small producers with limited US representation. It is my hope the best of these wines will find their way into our market, as the wines deserve a wider audience.

Friuli: A Thumbnail Sketch

Friuli remains one of Italy’s most fascinating regions, as it is here that the cultures of Italy, Slovenia and Austria are fused in a rich melting pot of unusual depth. This year’s new releases focus on the 2008 whites. Like most northerly regions in Italy, 2008 was a challenging harvest in Friuli as a result of a wet spring, an irregular crop set and frequent bouts of peronospora. Broadly speaking this is an average vintage of good, but not great, quality. As always, the region’s top producers found a way to overachieve within the context of the year.

The Collio remains Friuli’s best known appellation. These gorgeous, hillside vineyards around Gorizia straddle the Italy-Slovenia border and are home to many of the region’s leading producers, including Gravner, Radikon, Damijan, La Castellada, Borgo del Tiglio and Toros. Further south, the Isonzo plains yield richer, riper wines. While vineyards in this district have historically been considered less important than those of the Collio, a number of inspired, artisan producers including Gianfranco Gallo (Vie di Romans) and Alvaro Pecorari (Lis Neris) craft gorgeous wines.

One the most exciting emerging regions in Friuli over the last few years has been the Colli Orientali, which lies closer to Udine. Whereas the Collio and Isonzo tend to excel most with whites, the Colli Orientali is proving capable of yielding both important whites and reds. The number of top producers with established track records of excellence continues to grow and includes Miani, Moschioni, Scubla and Dorigo. Younger properties like Meroi and Bastianich are well on the path of building top-notch track records of their own. Last, but certainly not least, is the rugged Carso mountain range above Trieste. These harsh, rocky terrains are capable of great wines built on a solid core of minerality that keeps bottles fresh for years. Edi Kante, Beniamino Zidarich and the Vodopivec brothers lead the way in this small, emerging wine-producing zone.

‘Orange’ Wines

Much has been written in recent years about Friuli’s whites made with contact on the skins. In some circles the wines are being described as ‘orange’ to differentiate them from more conventional whites and reds. These wines are vinified with anywhere from a few days to a few months of contact on the skins followed by extended aging in large, neutral oak, much in the way structured red wines are made. The contact with the skins gives the wines intense color that can range from deep yellow to bronze-hued shades of orange, and everything in between. A few producers including Gravner and Vodopivec ferment their wines in terra cotta amphora buried in the ground, reviving an ancient winemaking technique imported from the republic of Georgia. Both Gravner and Vodopivec age their wines in oak, but several months in amphora renders the wines incredibly delicate and complex. Most of the producers who work in this style also follow a non-interventionalistic approach in the vineyards and cellar, which is to say minimal treatments in the vineyards, fermentation with indigenous, ambient yeasts without temperature control and no fining or filtration prior to bottling. To be sure, this is high-stakes winemaking as there are no safety nets that technology affords other producers. That said, when the wines are well-made, they can be breathtaking.

‘Orange’ wines also happen to be great food wines, as the tannin from the grape skins cleanses the palate and provides the stuffing for the wines to pair exceptionally well with a number of foods. That said, the wines can be challenging for readers who aren’t quite prepared for what is in the bottle. The best way to experience these wines is to open bottles several hours in advance, use glasses suitable for important red wines and to serve the wines at cellar temperature or slightly warmer, but never chilled. For readers willing to try something adventurous and off the beaten track, ‘orange’ wines offer a whole new vision of what wine can be. Friuli’s top producers in this school are Gravner, Radikon, Vodopivec, Zidarich and Damijan.

Readers should be aware that members of my wife’s extended family owns three estates in Friuli; Jermann, Vie di Romans and Lis Neris. I have always viewed education as an important component of wine criticism. An article on Friuli without these properties would have been incomplete and ultimately the consumer would have been poorer for their exclusion. For those reasons I have chosen to include these estates in this report. I have no financial or other interest, direct or indirect, in any of these properties.