Just as the fog rolls in to surround the vineyards planted upon the hillsides in Northern Italy, ripening the grapes and sustaining their vital acidity, so too does a great sense of mystery shroud the region and the grapes that make up the farthest reaches of one of the world’s greatest wine countries.
When most people think about Italian wine they think about Tuscany. I know that I do, and it always takes me a moment to remember that some of the most famous wines that come from Italy are not made anywhere near Tuscany at all. I am talking about wines like Barolo, Pinot Grigio, Valpolicella, Moscato, Barbera, Prosecco, and Amarone. I know… when I was looking at the line up of wines to serve at my Central Italian ‘Thursday Night Swirl’ wine tasting, I was perplexed to notice that I had overlooked Amarone for the tasting. How could I not have any Amarone to sample? What was I thinking?! And then I recollected that (oh duh…) Amarone is from Northern and not Central Italy. Well then. I am glad that we are focusing on Northern Italy this month so that we can taste some Amarone!
The landscape of Northern Italy is quite mountainous because it borders Switzerland and Austria and is divided from these two countries by the Alps. It also borders the southeastern corner of France which is closest to the Rhone Valley and wine region. Interestingly, Northern Italy is at a similar latitude to the Rhone Valley as well as the Bordeaux Region of France, yet it has a remarkably different climate. Although the summer heat and sunlight hours can be nearly identical, the vineyards in Northern Italy are planted at a higher elevation and therefore have cooler temperatures in the fall, winter, and spring seasons. The vineyards in the western sections of Northern Italy are often covered in a dense fog which helps to ripen the grapes, and the entire area receives considerably less precipitation than France’s wine regions do because of the rain shadow effect of the Alps.
Northern Italy is broken into seven wine regions, but I don’t think we need to delve into the details of all seven of them (…you’re welcome) when expounding upon the two best known regions will suffice.
Piedmont is the westernmost Northern Italian wine region, and the wines from this area are referred to as Piemonte. This is not confusing at all. The best known Piemonte are Barolo which is named for the sub-region where it is grown and made, and Barbaresco which is also named for the sub-region where it is grown and made; both of these wines are made from Nebbiolo grapes. Nebbiolo is a dark skinned grape that makes wines which are bright ruby red in colour when young and that age to a rusty brick colour when they get older. They are characteristically described as having the scent and flavours of tar and roses (which is sort of the way I would smell if I fell upon fresh pavement…) and solid tannins that take years to break down and soften. The main differences between Barolo and Barbaresco besides their sub-regions are that Barolo tends to be the bigger and more tannic of the two, requiring a decade or more of aging before being ready to drink, while Barbaresco is considered to be approachable and drinkable at a much younger age. The winemaking standards for Barolo require that the wine spend more time in oak and be bottle aged longer than Barbaresco before release, and the finished wine also tends to be higher in alcohol than Barbaresco is. Piedmont’s Barolo region is approximately three times the size of that of Barbaresco. Barbera is the most widely planted grape in Piedmont; in fact, it is the third most important grape in the entire country of Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. It varies greatly in its manifestations, all depending on the winemaker’s intentions and the quality of the grapes he or she uses. Some characteristics that remain consistent are the deep red colour of the finished wine that fades to pink at the edges, its low tannins, and its rather high acidity. Lighter versions of Barbera are unoaked and have fresh cherry, red berry, blackberry, and blueberry tones to them. The addition of some aging time in oak barrels adds richness and complexity to the wines as well as smoky cedar notes and vanilla flavours. Other important red Piemonte include Dolcetto and Bonarda, with more and more vineyards being planted to ‘experimental’ international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. White Piemonte are also made, with the most famous being the deliciously effervescent Moscato. Most Moscato is made into a frizzante or spumante style, meaning that the wine ranges from gently spritzy to lavishly sparkling, and the finished wine is usually fairly sweet. Moscato can also be made as a still wine, but regardless of the style it typically tastes exactly like white grapes (funny that… I mean, go figure… how odd) with honeysuckle, orange blossoms, citrus fruit, and peaches thrown in. There are other white Piemonte as well, mostly made from Cortese or Arneis grapes, a further tutorial of which you don’t even want to get me started on, unless you want to go to sleep… I guess.
Veneto is the eastern section of Northern Italy that includes the areas surrounding the cities of Venice and Verona. There are quite a few famous bottles that come from Veneto, wines like Soave, Prosecco, Valpolicella, Ripasso, and Amarone. Wines called Soave are named for the region and are sourced from vineyards directly east of Verona. They are usually made from Garganega grapes though small splashes of Pinot Blanc, Verdicchio, and Chardonnay are sometimes permitted. Soave is a white wine that has been compared to unoaked Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. It seems to sit right in the middle between these two varietals in flavour and style, with medium weight and crisp, vibrant orchard and citrus fruit characteristics dusted by just a hint of almond. Prosecco is a wine that most of us are familiar with. It is made with Glera grapes which are commonly known as Prosecco grapes, and sourced from vineyards north of Venice in the hills just above the city of Treviso. The wines are made in a light, sparkling style, with fresh apple, peach, and pear fruitiness, and can be anywhere from very dry to quite sweet. Most of the Proseccos we see in British Columbia are either dry or just slightly off dry. The wine is usually made in the Charmat Method rather than the Champagne Method because this is a more cost effective way to create quality sparkling wine. Using the Charmat Method, Prosecco is initially fermented in stainless steel tanks; it then undergoes its second fermentation also in sealed stainless steel tanks before being bottled and sealed under pressure. Prosecco can be generously bubbly or it can be just lightly fizzy and is best enjoyed while the wine is young. Valpolicella is a region within Veneto directly west of Soave, and also north of Verona. In Valpolicella they are best known for making a red wine named for the region from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes. Most wines labelled as Valpolicella are light and fragrant in style, are usually unoaked, and have sour cherry flavours. They have been compared to France’s Beaujolais wines, and are often served slightly chilled. The next famous Valpolicella is known as Ripasso, which translates into the English word ‘repassed’. This wine is made with all of the same Valpolicella grape varieties, but here is an interesting twist: the skins and seeds (aka pomace) left over after making Amarone are added to the fermenting Ripasso so that the fermenting wine is thereby ‘repassed’ over the Amarone pomace (ah-hah!). What results is a wine that is higher in alcohol than straight Valpolicella with more colour, flavour, tannin, and overall mouth weight and complexity. Ripassos echo the floral and cherry notes in Valpolicellas and offer some added concentration of dried fruit flavours with chocolate notes from the oak used in the aging process. Perhaps the most coveted and sought after wine style from the Veneto region is Amarone itself. This full bodied, super concentrated and complex wine is made by selecting the ripest grape clusters of the harvest and allowing them to dry for approximately three months on straw mats until they lose roughly thirty to forty percent of their weight and become slightly raisinated. Once this drying process is complete the grapes are pressed and undergo a slow, cool fermentation period of up to fifty days. After this the wine is transferred into oak casks to be aged before being bottled and released into the marketplace nearly five years after the winemaking process was initially begun at harvest. Amarones are very ripe tasting with almost syrupy, focused, dark and dried fruit flavours; they are highly tannic and have very little acidity. The alcohol content of an Amarone tends to be quite high as well, but all of these things remain balanced because of the wine’s inherent richness.
So what does any of this wine speak have to do with petting a fat cat? Nothing, really. I just wanted to include a photo of myself taken almost twenty years ago petting a super cute, tubby tabby in Venice. Yeah, I was in Venice (be jealous…) and I got to wander through the Piazza San Marco (err… make that wade through a veritable sea of pigeons covering the Piazza floor) and eat delicious meals in tiny, hole-in-the-wall, family owned eateries beside the canals. I did not, however, get to be transported about and sung to by a Gondolier, nor did I drink any Northern Italian wine while I was there (be therefore not too terribly jealous). It was a fabulous experience all the same, and I think you’ll have to agree that I still look exactly the same now as I did twenty years ago when I was stroking the fat feline (okay, you can be jealous again). Ha, I gotcha!!