Veneto: A Constant State of Evolution


As I sit and begin to put my thoughts together regarding the goings-on and trends throughout Veneto, it’s clear that any report on this region going forward will look very different from everything that has come before. Whether speaking about Valpolicella, Soave or any of the smaller growing areas throughout the region, Veneto has undergone a tremendous amount of change—mainly in a positive direction—in what seems to be a very short period of time. However, in a region like this, especially in Valpolicella, where some wines are released as much as a decade post-vintage, these changes have been taking place for much longer than most of us realize.

The barrel aging cellar at the Speri winery.

Valpolicella: The Great Divide

Winemakers tell you that the decisions they make are for many years in the future or for the next generation. We are now at a time when ideas conceived over a decade ago are finally coming to fruition. I recall tastings almost 20 years ago, where much younger versions of many of the same people I meet with today talked about a future in which Amarone would be brought to the dinner table. Recent tastings have revealed many wines that can do just that. Producers throughout the region now focus on reducing alcohol and residual sugar. Unfortunately, Mother Nature continues to challenge this idea with a string of warm and dry vintages that push ripeness and concentration. It certainly isn’t easy. Winemakers don’t want to change the principles and traditions of Amarone, their most admired wine, but finding balance can be a challenge. Producers who excel have been working toward this goal for many years, and their wines stand as a testament to what is possible.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for old-school, traditional Amarone, a wine of decadence and celebration—a perfect ending to an evening or a wine to be sipped by a roaring fire on a cold night. Plenty of estates remain firmly traditional and find a gorgeous balance between opulence and complexity in their wines. I would never want to see these wines disappear, but I question how much room remains for them in the market.

Valpolicella badly needs a reorganization and rethinking of how to market its wines to the world. In past articles, I exhaustively detailed the difference between the Classico and Valpantena subregions and the valleys of Marcellise, Mezzane, Illasi and Cazzano di Tramigna. This isn’t the organization I’m thinking of because it's clear that each individual area can produce superior wines. What I’m referring to is a divide between the producers who choose to create Amarone in its traditional style (often reaching 17+% alcohol, with residual sugars reaching into the teens) and those that aim for 15% alcohol and sugars as low as 1 to 1.5 grams. When tasting these wines together, it's very clear that they do not belong in the same category. However, to this day, I don’t hear any similar sentiments from producers or the Consorzio Tutela dei Vini della Valpolicella. 

This same logic now applies to Valpolicella Superiore as well. Producers throughout the region are pushing hard to elevate this category and show the world that they can produce dry reds, without appassimento, that communicate terroir. Appassimento was originally created to elevate an inferior wine into something special, yet as a result, it is no longer a product of nature—it is a fabricated wine. For this same reason, the Ripasso category has lost favor throughout the region (Ripasso, being a Valpolicella, passed over the sugar-rich pulp of an Amarone crush and allowed to go through secondary fermentation). While I find Ripasso to be a happy middle-ground between Amarone and Valpolicella, many winemakers confide that they only produce them to follow tradition. This brings us back to Valpolicella Superiore, existing beyond the fresh versions for easy and early drinking. These are far more complex and energetic than the Valpolicellas, bolstered through appassimento. The problem is: how can the consumer tell the difference?  

The only way Valpolicella can successfully move forward with these changes, no matter how positive they are, is to help consumers understand what they are buying. Is it an Amarone for the dinner table or the cheese course? Is it a Valpolicella Superiore for the cellar and contemplation or to absent-mindedly drink with pizza on a Tuesday night?

Luca Fedrigo of L'Arco winery in the Negara Valley.

A Vintage Paradigm Shift in Valpolicella

Every region has its learning curves. If I had to identify a specific point of complication for Valpolicella, it’s that it doesn’t follow many of the overarching vintage trends of the surrounding areas. For example, early in my wine-collecting days, starting as someone who followed the wines of Piedmont like a religion, I began to notice that most of the highly acclaimed wines of Valpolicella came from vintages that were considered too warm to create classic Barolo—a region located only 3.5 hours’ drive to the west. Vintages like 2011, 2012 and 2015 come to mind. Producers in Valpolicella love these vintages for their Amarone. 

However, it’s essential to consider that Amarone is a wine made more in the drying room and winery than in the vineyard. I’m sure this comment will ruffle some feathers, but it's a reality that only a small number of producers are willing to admit. Granted, quite a few single-vineyard Amarone wines are being made in a way that shows distinct details of individual terroirs. These tend to be wines made at much lower levels of residual sugar and alcohol compared to the majority of wines made in the region. Another critical factor here is the producer and the importance they place on quality over quantity. Modern-day tastes inform the emergence of this new style. 

The fact is that a warm and abundant vintage will be seen as an excellent year by any producer that relies more on their winemaking than what Mother Nature delivers. With that said, I’m finding much more to like from vintages that producers are less enthusiastic about. Two thousand sixteen is an excellent example, having produced complex, cool-toned wines of regal structure and intense fruit. In my tastings, I often find more excitement from the producers seated across the table over 2015 (not a bad year, but undoubtedly warm) or even 2017 (a hot and arid year).

It’s interesting to consider that the most significant topic of debate in Valpolicella is how to produce more palatable, gastronomic wines with lower alcohols, while at the same time, producers often prefer warmer vintages. Luckily, the number of producers who agree with my vintage assessments seems to increase with each passing year. Part of this, I believe, is due to the recent, drastic climatic changes. “Everything has changed after 2019. Since then, we have had all difficult vintages, resulting in lower quantities due to either heavy rain, hail, heat waves or drought," commented Maddalena Pasqua Di Bisceglie of Musella.

She’s not the only one talking about the lack of water, or at least well-timed water, in Valpolicella. Most producers, including those in Soave, have set up irrigation throughout their vineyards for emergency use, which is becoming a regular occurrence throughout both regions. However, even with irrigation, the combination of extreme heat and drought makes it so that a producer can only relieve a small amount of stress from the vines. Don’t get me wrong, 2019 will certainly not be the last exciting vintage to look forward to—the region continues to excel despite many of these issues.

Marine fossils are found throughout the Inama vineyards.

Soave’s Quality Revolution

Like a mirror image of Valpolicella’s quality pyramid, classifications make a world of difference in Soave, especially between the Classico zone and the appellation’s expanded growing areas. Simply looking at any regional map tells the tale, as the Classico region of Soave encompasses high elevations, steep inclines and a mix of volcanic and densely stratified limestone and clay soils known as Scaglia Rossa. Outside of the Classico area, while outcroppings of superior terroir and elevations that can create great wines, most of the Soave DOC exists on plainlands, with alluvial soils rich in clay, sand and limestone. Can good wine be made here? Certainly. Can great wine be made here? That’s questionable. However, in my opinion, what is absolute is that the world has not yet realized Soave’s potential. 

Soave remains poised for greatness, with terroir capable of creating some of the best white wines in Italy. Several iconic producers have already proven what’s possible here, while the Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave e Recioto di Soave has gone through the work and expense of mapping the region, studying its soils and identifying its greatest vineyards. The problem remains that the name Soave, with its long-time branding and past success, guarantees that a producer can sell their wines without care to elevate them beyond an average level of quality. As a result, any tasting of Soave reveals a cast of standout producers pushing the limits amongst a sea of mediocre producers that pull the entire region's reputation down with them.

Soave remains one of the best sources in Italy for world-class white wines at a reasonable price point; the problem is that readers must look to the producer before pulling a Soave bottle off the shelf. Each year, I find new and exciting projects to follow here, showing that there’s still much more to uncover. A quality revolution is slowly taking place. 

The Volcanic hills of Soave Classico.

Looking at Recent Vintages

It is prudent to spend some time discussing the recent vintages in Veneto from Valpolicella's perspective. Each year, I update the vintage chart for Veneto based mainly on the results in Soave and then extrapolate that to how I think wines from Valpolicella will show over time. The issue is that most Amarones are not released for another three to four years following that update, and in many cases, even later. The 2020 vintage is represented primarily by Valpolicella Superiore, which, going forward, will be a good indicator of the overall quality of the vintage, considering the new importance placed on this category. From there, tastings of recent vintages include 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 Amarones, Riservas from 2013, 2012 and a small amount from 2011. This creates a unique problem from the standpoint of assessing quality early; however, it’s fantastic from the perspective of understanding a vintage over time. Imagine if each year presented a chance to revisit a vintage repeatedly through the lens of a different producer—it only solidifies opinions over time. What follows is a rundown of the last decade. 

The 2022 vintage, which I mainly assessed through the results in Soave and the young and freshly styled Valpolicellas, is a year of glycerol richness and intense, ripe fruit. Retaining acidity was key to achieving balance. Finding complexity in this vintage may prove difficult as the more important wines are released. A combination of heat and drought defined the year; from December 2021 through the harvest of 2022, the region saw little to no rain. This was compounded by extreme heat, with 100- to 102-degree days starting in late June and lasting through mid-August. This resulted in less vegetative power in the vines, sparse foliage and dehydrated berries. Emergency irrigation was necessary throughout most of the region. Expect much lower quantities across the board. 

Speaking of exciting vintages, 2021 has serious potential. My recent tastings of Valpolicella Classico, Superiore, Ripasso and top-tier Soave revealed cool-toned, crunchy wines with depths of complexity. I am genuinely excited to see many of these wines with more bottle age, and I look forward to the release of the Amarones in the coming years. This was a warm (not hot) vintage that got off to a cool and rainy start through the middle of June. Despite some heat spikes in August, the harvest season presented ideal conditions—warm, sunny days and cool nights. Both reds and whites excelled in 2021. 

The word variable comes to mind when considering 2020. The wines show the effects of a warm vintage. These days, when producers in Italy try to describe a vintage like 2020, they often use the word “elegant”. For me, in the words of wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, “That's like pouring perfume on a pig.” The wines are rich and fruit-forward yet often possess bright acidity that lends them early accessibility. Soave lovers should be checking in on these wines sooner rather than later. The summer of 2020 was warm throughout, with a dry spell in July and rains in August.

Sisters, Meri and Alessandra Tessari of the Suavia winery.

Two thousand nineteen is a year I am genuinely excited about, as it inspires me to delve deeper into past vintages. The 2019s are dark and radiant wines, often possessing a solid core of ripe fruit, perfectly balanced by a mix of stimulating acidity and a stream of tactile minerality. They are balanced and structured for a long and steady evolution. Frankly, I didn’t expect to be as impressed as I am today with the current releases of Amarone. The Soaves and Valpolicellas always exhibited lovely balance, but the Amarones brought the power. By definition, 2019 was a warm and dry year, but not by the standards of recent vintages. It was also a year of ups and downs, with a cold and rainy spring, a hot and dry summer and a warm fall offset by cool nighttime temperatures. While I expect many collectors will gravitate toward Amarone, this is a perfect year to experiment with Valpolicella Superiore as well. 

When it comes to Valpolicella, 2018 remains one of my least favorite vintages from the last decade. There is something about most of the Amarones from this year that leaves me longing. While floral and aromatic, they lack depth and persistence, often coming across as watered down. I recommend drinking most 2018s on the early side. This warm vintage saw heavy rain in the spring and periodically through most of the season, including during harvest. It was a generous year, resulting in higher yields than both 2017 and 2016. Soave Classico performed significantly better due to steep inclines and well-draining soils in the best sites.

I’m happily surprised, yet not over the moon, with wines from 2017 in Valpolicella. In my opinion, this year was determined by the winemaker and is an excellent example of how appassimento can mitigate specific vintage attributes. While large-scale, rich and fruit-forward, there is a sheer pleasure factor to these wines that cannot be denied. Most are already drinking well, and I expect them to continue to do so for up to a decade. This was another drought year marked by excessively warm temperatures. Thunderstorms and hail in the fall created disease risk yet also brought more balanced conditions that lasted through harvest. I wouldn’t pass on offerings from my favorite producers in 2017, but I also wouldn’t go deep. 

The city of Verona is surrounded by the Adige River.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the 2016s in Valpolicella are exciting, gorgeous wines. They are intensely aromatic, hauntingly floral and dark, with cool-toned, sleek textures and masses of rich, mineral-drenched fruits. I recommend holding instead of drinking at this time, as many of the wines are still quite primary. This is also a year in which I witnessed a significant shift in producers aiming for a more savory and lower alcohol style, which makes exploring the wines even more thrilling. It could be considered one of the last classic vintages in the region, with a cool and rainy spring, moderate temperatures in the summer and a warm yet well-ventilated autumn and harvest. Many producers prefer their 2015s, but for me, 2016 is a vintage to talk about for decades to come. 

Showy, classy and full of energy, the 2015s are quite seductive, containing a mixture of richness and depth that keeps them interesting from start to finish. However, they are missing complexity and structure. Most 2015s are drinking beautifully right now and should continue to do so for the next five to eight years. This was a season of drastic ups and downs in temperature throughout the spring, coupled with an abundance of precipitation. Summer was excessively warm, with several heat waves and periods of drought. Cool nighttime temperatures and more balanced conditions in the fall are responsible for the bright acidity present in many of these wines, which is, frankly, the saving grace of the 2015s overall. 

Mention the 2014 vintage to nearly any winemaker in Veneto and watch them wince. While Soave managed to produce some interesting yet quirky wines, it’s rare to find a producer in Valpolicella who’s even willing to open one for visiting critics. This was an excessively cold and rainy vintage from start to finish, with only a brief break through the month of June. In August, the region witnessed 25 days of nonstop precipitation. The few 2014s I’ve tasted come across as diluted and advanced. 

The 2013s are on the cusp of their ideal drinking windows. This is another vintage that I find hugely appealing, even though many producers prefer the dark and rich 2012s. The 2013s are intense, deeply complex and structured, yet full of zesty energy–expertly balanced. This is a vintage for the cellar that’s sure to impress drinkers for the next decade or more, depending on the producer. Spring was rainy and cool, which built up water supplies for a dry, warm, not excessively hot summer. Drastic diurnal shifts helped retain acidity, as did cooler temperatures leading up to harvest. 

Looking out across Valle di Marano.


I’m usually not big on closing statements. Still, because of the emphasis placed on back-vintages in this article, a few “housekeeping” items deserve to be mentioned. 

For one, any wine lover who has previously shunned Amarone or even Valpolicella owes it to themselves to begin exploring these reds. Armed with knowledge and following tasting notes regarding the more savory and lower-alcohol wines that are being produced in the region today, readers can find an excellent selection that will likely change any preconceived notions. What’s more, while I’ve been talking about the positive developments regarding the Valpolicella Superiore category over the last two years, the only way that we, the consumers, can hope to see future progress is to vote with our dollars. Producers I speak with have a vision for what Valpolicella Superiore can achieve over time, yet they question how consumers will react. Admittedly, this category needs better regulation and clarification, yet the following notes single out many wines that deserve our attention. This is the perfect time to explore what’s out there, especially through vintages like 2019 and 2021. As for Soave, while the new vintage releases are primarily from 2022—an arid and hot year that produced many wines that don’t live up to their usual potential—that doesn’t change the fact that this region is pushing the boundaries of quality. Recent years have shown much positive growth and a large-scale movement toward achieving a new level of purity. In my opinion, Soave is the most underrated white-wine category in all of Italy. 

For a detailed explanation of the many valleys of Valpolicella and their terroir, I suggest looking back to my article: On the Cusp of Evolution: Amarone and Valpolicella (April 2022) . For detailed information regarding Soave and its diverse terroir: Soave – The Long Road Home (April 2022).

I tasted the wines for this article while visiting the region and producers in December 2023. In some cases, Pieropan comes to mind, I couldn’t taste their new releases as they were not yet ready. I will update this report as they become available. 

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