Welcome to the sexiest part of Italy, The Veneto, home to the former Venetian Republic that ruled this part of the world for a millennium, from the seventh century AD to the eighteenth century. The Republic’s influence originated from the marshy lagoon city of Venice, and is filled with a history of power, romance, mystery, culture and intrigue. Venice has many names, such as The Queen of the Adriatic and The Floating City. It is the birthplace of Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, the gondola and the enigmatic Carnival of Masks, which lends the city yet another nickname, The City of Masks.
It is also the capital of The Veneto.
The Veneto is the 8th largest region of Italy. It’s situated in the northeast of the country, and bordered to the west by Lombardia and to the south by Emilia-Romagna. Although the region has many of its own wine production zones, together with the surrounding Italian regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia to the east and the once Austrian occupied territory of Trentino-Alto Adige (Sudtirol) to the north (each with their own plethora of appellations) the Veneto forms a large overlapping zone known as the Triveneto. Within The Veneto alone there are 28 DOCs and 14 DOCGs, eight of which share territory with bordering regions, making The Veneto the largest wine production region in the country. And having a wine producing region in Italy this large means things can get very confusing.
It’s all very complex. But I’m not here to dive too deep into the pool, describing every obscure wine produced under the sun. I am here to help you understand and enjoy the wines of The Veneto that we see most prevalently on the American market, in the hopes of exposing you to something affordable and new, while helping to clarify some names you may have heard.
Let’s dive in.
Making up 30 plus miles of the Veneto’s western border is the eastern bank of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. It is from here moving east where some of the most well known wine zones of the region lie. But resting on the southern end of this massive body of water is the little-known, up and coming Lugana DOC. Established in 1967, Lugana is not a town but an area. The vines here grow in chalky limestone and clay soils rich in mineral salts that surround a smattering of fishing villages. Lugana is interesting not only because it produces white wine exclusively, but because its wine comes from a grape unique to this area as well, Trebbiano di Lugana, known locally as Turbiana (which is thought to be related to the Marche variety, Verdicchio). These wines are an exact translation of the soil and climate of the area straddling the border between The Veneto and Lombardia. Ranging in price from $10 to around $15 a bottle, they are pale lemon in color (dare I say with a hint of silver), and with soft acidity pronouncing the wine’s floral and white peach aromas alongside a calm wet stone minerality. There is a slight weight on the palate but that hint of acidity makes all the flavors present and accounted for. For food, well the vines do grow near fishing villages. Enough said.
Working our way north up the eastern bank of Lake Garda we come across the Bardolino DOC granted to the flat, fertile plain just off the shore in 1968. Where Lugana focuses on white wine, this zone commits to red. Often the wine is a blend of three native grapes: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara (which is steadily being phased out of the blend). This is the same trio used in the famous Valpolicella region to the east, but here the wines are, as Jancis Robinson puts it, “cheerful and uncomplicated.” Corvina, with all it’s sour cherry goodness, is the framework for the blend, giving the wine its structure. Rondinella then comes in to liven up the wine with high toned bright berries and herbs. Bardolino should cost no more that $15 a bottle and is great with grilled meats. I recommend giving it a slight chill in the warmer months.
As we move southeast just below the Valpolicella zone and east of Verona, we enter into the tumultuous Soave wine region. It is here where millions of bottles of the white wine Soave are produced every year, making the wine one of the most recognizable names after Pinot Grigio and Chianti. But what is Soave? Is it a grape? Is it a blend? The Soave is a small hilly area celebrated for it’s native grape Garganega. It produces a white wine with notes of almond and lemon peel with bracing acidity and calm depth. When Soave was awarded a DOC in 1968, the wine was insanely fashionable, and as a result the zone was expanded from the hills to the flat alluvial (clay, silt, sand and gravel) plain of the Adige river nearby. With this expansion Garganega was forced to share the stage with other grapes like the safe, non-descript Trebbiano di Toscana, Chardonnay, Trebbiano di Soave (thought to be Verdicchio) and Pinot Bianco all due to production demands. This led to a significant dip in the quality of the wine that resulted in a very complex series of quality-minded amendments to the law, making it almost impossible to understand on a consumer level. The following is what you would see on a label and what you are getting in the bottle.
If you see Soave DOC, Soave Classico DOC or Soave Colli Scaligeri DOC (Colli means hills) on the label, you are getting a wine that has at least 70% of Garganega with up to 30% of combined Trebbiano di Soave – giving the wine a more subtle liveliness and calming the acidity – and a bit of Chardonnay to give the wine a little more body.
If you see Soave Superiore DOCG, Soave Classico Superiore DOCG or Soave Superiore Riserva DOCG on the label you are getting a wine that has at least 70% of Garganega with up to 30% of combined Trebbiano di Soave, Chardonnay or Pinot Bianco which brings more vigor to the blend.
Any of these wines can be and often are (on the higher end) 100% Garganega.
And that is just the general breakdown. There are other factors involved as well, but as you can see Soave can be a simple quaffing wine or a delicate balance of grapes, allowing each producer to shine in their uniqueness. I could talk more about this amazing wine but for the subtleties of each wine offered at any particular store or on a wine list, and with the prices starting well below the $15 mark and soaring upwards into the $50 plus tier, it is the wine merchant or sommelier (or in house wine geek) who should be able to guide you on what you can expect.
So as you journey back to the Venice once described by Luigi Barzini writing for The New York Times as “Undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man,” as you wander the ancient streets of The Rialto district with it’s many wine bars and winding streets, you can now find a Venetian wine at your price point, sip, close your eyes and wherever you are, feel like you are there.