A tour of Veneto region's wines
Each year, the three regions of Sicily, Puglia and Veneto vie for first place as producer of the largest amount of Italian wine.
While, in any given year, Veneto may lose that contest to one of its southern kin, it's no issue to name Italy's top maker of DOC (or quality-legislated) wine. The winner is always Veneto — producer of one-fifth of all Italian DOC wine.
Both Veneto and its magical capital, Venice (in Italian, Venezia), take their names from the Veneti, a tribe that settled the region by 1000 B.C. Three of Veneto's wines are very familiar to American wine drinkers — Soave, Valpolicella and prosecco, with the last having bubbled its way close to the top in popularity for Italian sparkling wine.
Its full name is Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Conegliano DOCG (whew) and it is made of a grape little known to us, the glera. This soft, fruity, light, fizzy white wine slakes thirst like few other bubblies and its price is remarkably low (usually $10 to $15 a bottle). It is the wine of Venice and the base of that city's famed aperitif, the Bellini.
Veneto teems with other grapes that we know little of. Here is a tour of some of them and their wine, in addition to glera and prosecco. White grapes first, then reds.
Garganega: The backbone of Soave, garganega has the moniker "plastico" in Italian. That is, a winemaker can be lazy and render of it a wine that tastes barely stronger than water — the Soave of the past — or care for it and make (increasingly more numerous) versions demonstrating garganega's nascent flavors and scents of ripe apple, citrus, hints of honey and pear, and its soft, almost creamy texture.
Some say that the wine's name is due to this texture, from the Italian word "soave," meaning "gentle, delightful or exquisite." The wine takes its name from the town where it is made, Soave, near Verona, due west of Venice. It is the town that is exquisite.
Vespaiolo: So called because, when ripened to super-sweetness (to make one of Italy's great dessert wines, Torcolato), it attracts wasps (or, in Italian, vespe). Torcolato is a liquid essence of the tastes and smells of orange peel, honey and shortbread biscuit.
Moscato giallo: "The yellow muscat" makes for a startlingly aromatic wine in the hills of Colli Euganei near Padua. Often sparkling and at a low level of alcohol, it resembles (but trumps in quality) its widely popular northern neighbor, Asti Spumante. No wonder a subzone of the Colli gives its name to the wine when it's bubbly, Fior d'Arancio ("orange blossom").
Tocai Italico: Not to be confused with the sweet Hungarian wine called Tokaji, the tocai grape in the area of Veneto called Lison-Pramaggiore produces a dry white wine that is richly textured and tastes of chalk or minerals, pineapple and white fruit (pears, apples, white nectarines).
Tai rosso: In the district of Colli Berici, grown near Palladio's famous villas, this grape turns into a light- to medium-bodied red wine resembling Bardolino, but with a more intense perfume of strawberry and cranberry and with tastes of ripe red cherry. It sports a nice, tight, acidic edge and is, consequently, the preferred red with the region's common codfish dishes.
Friularo: This is not the grape tocai friulano (with an "n," from the neighboring Italian region of Friuli). Around the town of Bagnoli, south of Padua, the friularo (with an "r") makes a rich red wine redolent of ripe, dark fruits, licorice and spice. It gets that way because, prior to fermentation, the grapes are partially dried after harvest, for about four months, in a process called ambasciatore.
Corvina: Often blended with the grape rondinella, the corvina is the mainstay of Valpolicella, perhaps the best-known red from Veneto. When the corvina grapes are partially dried, as with the friularo of Bagnoli, and then made into wine, we have the delicious, brooding red called Amarone della Valpolicella.
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Foods of Veneto
The Venetians introduced spices to Italy, but cooking in Veneto ranges from the ornate (typically, in Venice) to the plain-spoken.
The most famous dishes of the region are rice-based — risotto, first of all, and risi e bisi (rice and peas cooked together). Depending on the additions to a risotto, either white or red wine is appropriate.
Carpaccio, another Venetian recipe, enjoys a light Valpolicella or Colli Berici. Full-on roasts of pork or braised beef can take a friularo ambasciatore or an amarone, but save some sips for the end of the meal and amarone's ideal companion, shards of grana padano.
And, of course, prosecco is best to begin it all.