Veneto Wine Region Guides

From Dilute to Divine: The Renaissance of Veneto's Vineyards

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Last updated: December 21, 2023

Introduction

The vineyards of northeastern Italy have changed beyond all recognition over the past 30 years. In the 20th century, red wines produced in the hills of Verona were lackluster, to say the least; a culture of industrialized production took root in the post-Second World War environment, as impoverished growers prioritized quantity over quality. There were exceptions, of course – Amarone della Valpolicella has long commanded a loyal following – but the critical mass of labels was dilute and acidic.

Yet the new Millennium gave rise to a renaissance in Veneto winemaking – the emerging generation, acutely aware of the dwindling market for substandard plonk, refocused on producing premium red and white wines of superlative quality. Yields were drastically lowered, cellar equipment was overhauled, and viticultural methods were updated for the modern era. The results can be tasted in bottle: terroir-driven and site-specific wines that compete with the best of Piedmont and Tuscany. The vineyards of Verona no longer disappoint – they inspire.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Drying Grapes on Racks in Amarone della Valpolicella
Drying Grapes on Racks in Amarone della Valpolicella

A surge of investment in the late 20th century transformed the winemaking culture of Veneto. Methods and equipment were once decidedly rustic in this corner of Italy; widespread machine harvesting also did the area’s reputation no favors. Thankfully, it all looks very different today. Every producer worth their salt boasts the latest in cutting-edge technology, while stainless steel tanks are used to ferment the critical mass of white wines at low temperatures. From that perspective, there is little to separate Veneto from its neighbors, Friuli-Venezia and Lombardy. To satisfy market demands, grapes are handled as carefully as possible, gently pressed, and then vinified with minimum skin contact to produce a very fresh and fruity style of white. As a rule, aromatic varieties like Pinot Grigio, Friulano, and Verdicchio are not matured in oak, although there are always exceptions. One of the most important is Soave, where leading producers, such as Pra, believe that a period in barrique can enhance the texture and depth of Garganega whites.

Meanwhile, every bottle of Prosecco is made according to the Charmat method – wines are fermented in tank before a yeast/sugar solution is added to the vessel. This will then cause a secondary fermentation and release CO2 into the wine. It is then filtered and bottled. In addition, a natural wine movement is flourishing in northern Italy – winemakers refrain from using sulfur and other synthetic inputs in a manner that exceeds the fanaticism of the most committed biodynamic growers.

The methods and approaches involved in the production of red wines are no less diverse. In Valpolicella, producers can blend up to four indigenous red grapes: Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella, and Corvinone, respectively. The best examples have ripe acidity, approachable tannins, and ample freshness, making Valpolicella a food-friendly style. However, the potent reds of Amarone della Valpolicella are another matter altogether. These very concentrated, alcoholic, and muscular wines are made via desiccation – water was historically removed by drying the berries in natural sunlight, positioned on hillside lofts that covered the landscape. But Amarone now relies on temperature-controlled warehouses to remove moisture from the grapes slowly and precisely. When they have been dried out to a minimum of 14% potential alcohol (this is called (appassimento), it is time to ferment the must. This usually takes place in December after the harvest; maturation in wood is typically for at least two years in either French or Slavonian barrels. The traditional practice of ripasso strengthens Valpolicella by refermenting it on the pressed grape skins, after an Amarone has finished vinification, in which case it may qualify as Valpolicella Superiore.

Veneto Wine Region Map

Veneto Wine Region Map
Download Veneto Wine Region Map

Geography and terroir

Vineyards of Valpolicella
Vineyards of Valpolicella

This is undoubtedly one of Italy’s most expansive and diverse wine zones. It stretches from Lake Garda in the west, Venice and the Adriatic Sea to the east, and the ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the far north. There are seven provinces in greater Veneto: Belluno, Treviso, Venezia, Verona, Vicenza, Padova, and Rovigo. Principal rivers include the Adige and the Po, and there are smaller rivers such as the Brenta with its beautiful villa-studded banks. Moreover, the region is planted to a mixture of indigenous and imported grape varieties, while local climate conditions, soils, aspect, and elevation vary significantly. As a result, generalizations are simply impossible.

So, let’s proceed on a case-by-case basis. One of the most popular styles today is sparkling Prosecco Valdobbiadene, made in a strictly demarcated geographical area in eastern Veneto. Awarded DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status in 2009, it yields a particularly fruit-rich and creamy expression of the local Glera grape, aged in tanks as opposed to a secondary fermentation in bottle. Cartizze from Valdobbiadene is the finest incarnation and is growing finer constantly as competition from Franciacorta has an impact. Meanwhile, Verduzzo is an obscure white style of the Venetian hinterland – light Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Raboso blends are made in the plains of Piave and Lison-Pramaggiore to the northeast of Venice.

Indeed, the Veneto offers a healthy mix of esoteric grapes and global icons. The wines of Breganze fall into the former category; Breganze is situated to the north of the city of Vicenza in one of the region’s most tranquil areas. It produces a unique sweet wine called Torcolato, spearheaded by the legendary winemaker Fausto Maculan; some high-quality Pinot Noir and even Bordeaux blends are also made here. Similarly, the appellations of Colli Bercici and Euganei DOC (west of Padua) grow a combination of French and Italian grapes, including Merlot, Garganega, Friulano, and Sylvaner. It must be said that Bercici and Euganei rarely set the world on fire, although there are plenty of well-made and good-value wines here. The same accusation, however, cannot be levied at the wines of Lake Garda. Its western shores are renowned for their dry whites based on the Verdicchio grape, marketed under the synonym Lugana. The light Bardolino can also be a deliciously fruity red, although Bardolino Superiore DOCG has ambitions to oak-aged quality and a superior structure. The Garda DOC is a catch-all designation that allows multi-regional blends of many red and white grapes. Bianco di Custoza is another name that deserves greater recognition – Garganega-based whites that offer rich fruit and ripe acid.

Nevertheless, the most productive and export-orientated zones are found in the hills of Verona, stretching from Soave westwards to Lake Garda. Soave is probably one of Italy’s most popular white wines, made on volcanic soils covered in terraced vine rows, villas, and pergolas. Much stands in the grower’s favor: a benign continental climate (cool winters and warm summers) is supplemented by diurnal temperature variation, which helps to maintain freshness in the grapes. As elsewhere, the top climats (vineyard sites) are planted on poor soils and subject to restrictions regarding the maximum permitted yield. They usually benefit from a south-facing aspect, low soil fertility, and good drainage. Under such conditions, the Garganega grape (regulations allow a small percentage of additional varieties in the blend) will yield structured and powerful white wines characterized by stone fruit, almonds, and vanilla aromas. The region’s unofficial ‘First-Growths’ – Pieropan and Anselmi – have taken to producing a growing volume of single-site wines made from legendary terroirs like Vigneto La Rocca. They represent the apex of Veneto winemaking.

Soave cohabits with Valpolicella, whose vineyards are surely the most famous in northeastern Italy. The production area is very large, bordering Soave to the east and Bardolino to the west. There are also several categories of this cherry-scented red: Valpolicella DOC extends far beyond the original Classico zone and, therefore, displays a great variance in quality. Some of the cheaper labels continue to disappoint. However, as many producers here as in Soave recognize the need to make truly distinctive wine. Yet the finest examples are almost always made in Valpolicella Classico in the Fumane, San Ambrogio, and Negrar communes. The most potent form of Valpolicella is Amarona, which is based on air-dried grapes and contains very high sugar and extract.

The lowdown

Scala Castle in the Soave region
Scala Castle in the Soave region

In 2021, Italy produced more than 50 million hectoliters of wine ranging from the sublime to the execrable. Remarkably, a quarter of that total was made in Veneto, which suggests that the region is a powerhouse of entry-level brands and supermarket bin ends, sold at a massive discount. Fortunately, the truth is far more complex.

Historically, Sicily and Puglia were Italy’s well of wine – industries run by cooperatives and sold in bulk to discounters worldwide. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, vast tracts of vineyards were dramatically and deliberately pulled up in those regions, leading to a renaissance in southern Italian wine growing. Since then, northeast Italy in general, and Veneto in particular, has become the nation’s largest producer, an accolade it does not necessarily want. Thankfully, the ratio of cheap supermarket wines – an inevitable and economically vital part of life here – to premium labels has become more favorable as ambitious wineries target discerning consumers in recent years. Thus, while it would be disingenuous to claim that every part of Veneto is in the quality wine business, there is much to celebrate in 2023.

Many improvements have occurred in the vineyard, as much as in the cellar. The regions of Soave and Valpolicella are perfect examples of this; high yields, with an official limit of 14 tonnes per hectare (about 105 hectoliters), are the bane of quality in Soave DOC. Compare and contrast that with the strict approach in the production of Grand Cru Burgundy (maximum 64 hectoliters per hectare for whites), and you see the problem. It is simply impossible to make high-quality wines at these inflated yields, which is one reason why the Consorzio (eventually) introduced two superior designations: Soave Classico DOC and Soave Superiore DOCG. Yet, with maximum yields set at 98 hl/ha and 70hl/ha, respectively, many decried the move as cynical posturing without any substance.

But the Italians love to stick two fingers up at authority. So top winemakers like Pieropan and Anselmi decided to set their own yields at levels far below the permitted maximum. They have been joined by a band of contentious producers, such as Gini and Tamelllini, who are willing to farm the steep hillside vineyards and pergola-trained vines. They are more expensive and cumbersome to maintain, and yet the wines they produce are infinitely superior in all aspects. Meanwhile, growers in Valpolicella have returned to some of the more difficult-to-work but higher-quality hillside sites in the Classico zone; vines are being cultivated on white-pebbled terraces at much higher densities and vertically trained to extract more flavor from every grape. The culmination of these changes in vineyard management has led to a surge in quality across many districts and appellations. Twenty years ago, selecting a bottle of Veneto wine for dinner was a hit-and-miss affair. But no longer. Today, you can buy with confidence as long as you purchase from a trusted source.

Veneto gastronomy

Even in the most rustic and unpretentious osterie and bacari, gastronomes will find a wealth of seasonal, delicious food that doesn’t cost the earth. Venice and Verona are the region’s two major capitals of exceptional dining, running the whole gamut from Michelin finesse to noisy dens of family-run chaos and conviviality. But that’s a small price to pay for all that fresh seafood and produce delivered by boat in Venice! Highlights include cicheti (Venetian tapas), seppie in umido (cuttlefish in rich tomato sauce), cloud-like gnocchi, and exceptional pasta of all shapes and sizes.

A Guide to the Gastronomy and Cuisine of the Veneto: Read more

History

Villa Barbaro designed by Andrea Palladio architect
Villa Barbaro designed by Andrea Palladio architect

The history of winegrowing in Veneto predates the Romans by several hundred years. Historians believe that wild vines were cultivated by a civilization known as the Arusnates, indigenous to the shores of Lake Garda in northeastern Italy. However, the might of Rome eventually subjugated the Italian Peninsula, and by the 3rd century BC, its capital, Verona, was a thriving center of Roman trade and commerce. Indeed, Verona boasts magnificent Roman ruins, second only to those of Rome itself, as well as important medieval monuments. The Arena, Verona’s Roman amphitheater completed in AD 30, is the third largest in the world. Meanwhile, authors and poets sang the praises of the ancient Uva Raetica grape, which was used to make a very sweet concoction known simply as Raetica. It is believed that the Phoenicians imported the variety from ancient Greece, introduced via the port of Marseilles.

After the Western Roman Empire collapsed in AD 476, Germanic tribes attacked Roman towns along the Adriatic coast; refugees fled to the safety of the murky wetlands of a lagoon that would eventually become Venice. Several civilizations had their eye on the Italian Peninsula. Still, only one could emerge triumphant – the Lombards asserted their authority in the 6th century, keeping the peace for over two hundred years. In AD 643, the Lombard king Rotari signed an edict protecting the vineyards of the Veneto region from damage or theft; several penalties would be applied to guilty parties. Yet the Lombards were defeated in 773 by the superior armies of Charlemagne, the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

By the Middle Ages, Veneto’s wine industry was back at full strength. Much credit for its development must be given to the Venetians, a society of merchants and traders who put business before politics. Venice positioned itself as a neutral party between the Holy Roman Empire and the Eastern Byzantine Empire, trading with both and dispensing favors as it saw fit. Always with an eye for a business opportunity, Venetian merchants earned vast profits from exporting Veneto wines to northern Europe and importing new varieties from Greece and Cyprus. However, the Venetians lost control over the Mediterranean trade routes in the 1500s, while the conquest of the New World opened up new routes across the Atlantic that Venice had no access to. Yet this turn of events allowed Italian grapes and styles to flourish, as the import of Greek wines and grapes fell drastically after Venice lost its commercial power. Notwithstanding the disruption caused by wars, weather events (such as the extreme frost that wiped out an entire crop in 1709), and pestilence, Veneto became a powerhouse of wine production in northern Italy.

Sadly, the 19th century saw a litany of disasters – both natural and man-made. Fungal diseases like oidium were followed by an outbreak of phylloxera (a disease caused by a poisonous louse accidentally imported from the US) that devastated vineyards across Italy. Meanwhile, Venice fell under Austrian control in 1817. A subsequent rebellion led to a blockade that caused widespread food shortages and precipitated an outbreak of cholera. Nevertheless, Venice was able to join the newly minted Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

In the 20th century, the Veneto region began to industrialize, with factories springing up on the outskirts of Venice and a road connecting it to the mainland built by Mussolini. Unfortunately, this extended to the area’s wine industry as well – Veneto became known as the bulk producer of northern Italy, with yields approaching 100 hectolitres per hectare in some appellations. This legacy only unraveled in the late 1900s as quality-focused growers revitalized Veneto’s reputation. Today, it is a region on the move.

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James lawrence

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