The Wines of Vento Italy

Veneto is an increasingly important wine region, located in the northeastern corner of Italy. The wine style represents a transition between the alpine, Germano-Slavic end of Italy and the warmer, drier, more Roman lands to the south.

Veneto is slightly smaller than the other main wine-producing regions of Italy but creates more wine than any of them. The southern regions of Sicily and Puglia were for a long time Italy’s main wine producers.  However, this balance began to shift north towards Veneto in the latter half of the 20th Century. Since the 1990s, Veneto has developed and improved the quality of its wines.  More than 25 percent of the region’s wine is made and sold under DOC/DOCG titles. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards August 31, 2019)

From a red wine perspective, Amarone has the most intense flavour.  This is in part due to innovations such as drying grapes prior to fermentation, which develops greater depth, complexity and concentration in the wines.

Production of the fruity red Valpolicella uses the ripasso technique, in which the  wines undergo a second fermentation and are “re-passed” over used Amarone skins, enhancing the colour, body and texture of the wine.

The other red wine unique to Veneto is the sweet wine, Recioto.  The region also produces some wonderfully refreshing white wines, such as Soave and sparkling Prosecco. 

The Veneto region can be roughly split into three geographical areas, each distinguished by its topography and geology. In the cooler, alpine-influenced climate in the northwest, the foothills of the Alps descend along the eastern edge of Lake Garda and fresh, crisp whites are made under the Bianco di Custoza and Garda titles, as well as Veneto’s lightest reds.

East of the lake and north of Verona is Valpolicella and its sub-region Valpantena.  Here 500,000 hectolitres of Valpolicella are produced each year. In terms of production volume, Valpolicella is the only DOC to rival Tuscany’s famous Chianti.

Immediately east of Valpolicella is Soave, home to the dry white wine that now ranks among Italy’s most famous products. Beyond that, Gambellara serves as an eastern extension of Soave, both geographically and stylistically. Garganega and Trebbiano are the key white wine grape varieties grown there.

In central Veneto, vast quantities of wine are produced, but only the better quality wines from more elevated areas have gained DOC status. International varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir (known as Pinot Nero in Italy) and Carmenere have proved successful here, as well as white Pinot Grigio and Tocai Friulano.

In the northeastern corner of the region, sparkling Prosecco is produced. Still wines are also made here, such as Lison, Lison-Pramaggiore, Montello e Colli Asolani and Colli di Conegliano. The common factor that unites almost all viticultural zones in northeastern Veneto is the Glera grape and the foaming spumante and semi-sparkling frizzante wines it creates.

I was introduced to Valpolicella wine by my wife many years ago.  We would sometimes venture out for a series of tapas on a Friday night which on her recommendation, we would complement with a glass of Valpolicella.  Delicious!

Sláinte mhaith

Grapes and Wild Fires

Smoke has caused a lot of damage to the 2020 grape harvest in California, Oregon and Washington during the past few weeks.  In some cases production has been reduced by over 80.  The smoke can be absorbed right into the grapes’ flesh giving them the flavour of a wet ash tray.

Atmospheric smoke has blocked the sunlight that is essential for the grapes to properly ripen. Poor air quality is slowing harvesting as fieldwork hours are being limited and particle-filtering masks are in short supply due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wineries were already facing great financial strains due to the reduction in restaurant traffic and smaller crowds visiting vineyards for tastings.  Many tasting rooms remain closed due to fire and smoke risks, while grapes may be damaged or totally ruined.

Oregon, Washington and California together produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months as crop damage can vary greatly.

Smoke has blanketed much of the U.S. West as fires have charred some 2 million hectares.

Laboratories that test grapes for smoke contamination are being overwhelmed with some taking up to a month to return results, instead of the normal week. Vineyards need this data to determine whether or not to harvest their grapes.

Winemakers and scientists are still learning how smoke can affect wine grapes and how the effects can be mitigated.  Australia has been at the forefront of the research, but studies at American universities have ramped up over the past five years.

The Australian Wine Institute has come up with a few practical ways to manage smoke-exposed grapes.  These include:

  • Hand harvest fruit to minimize breaking or rupturing of skins
  • Exclude leaf material to limit smoke-related characteristics
  • Maintain integrity of harvest fruit, avoiding maceration and skin contact
  • Keep fruit cool to extract less smoke-related compounds
  • Whole bunch press to reduce extraction of smoke-derived compounds

If corrections cannot be made, smoke taint will add two distinct compounds to wine: guaiacol (commonly called Creosote) and 4-methyl guaiacol.

White wines are often more susceptible to smoke than reds. Low levels of smoke can mask the fruit and give a dirty finishing flavour and higher levels negatively affect the smell and taste ashy.   Washing grapes with water might help get ash off the grapes but it does not reduce smoke compounds in the fruit.

It is too soon to judge how the wildfires will impact 2020 vintages but harvested grape supplies are expected to be much smaller.  With smaller harvests winemakers are expected to buy bulk wine from the 2019 season for blending with what is available from this year.

The reduced supply will most likely increase prices making U.S. wines less competitive in the international wine market for the next couple of years.

Sláinte mhaith

The Wines of Piedmont Italy

Piedmont, located in northwest Italy, is the home of more DOCG wines than any other Italian region. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards, August 31, 2019.)  Among them are such well-known and respected names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera d’Asti. Although famous for tannic and floral red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, Piedmont’s greatest recent success has been sweet, white sparkling Moscato d’Asti.

Piedmont, which literally means ‘at the foot of the mountains’, is situated at the foot of the western Alps.  The mountains are credited for the region’s favorable climate.

Foreign winemaking technologies have been a great contributor to Piedmont being viticulturally advanced compared to other Italian regions. The region’s proximity to France also plays a part in this.

Piedmont has been referred to as the “Burgundy” of Italy, as a result of its many small-scale, family wineries and a focus on quality that has sometimes been known to border on obsession. What Burgundy does with Pinot Noir, Piedmont does with Nebbiolo, the grape that has made the largest contribution to the quality and reputation of Piedmont’s wine. Nebbiolo is the varietal used to produce four of Piedmont’s DOCGs – Barolo and Barbaresco (two of Italy’s finest reds), Gattinara and the red wine from Roero (minimum 95 percent Nebbiolo).

Wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes are known for their “tar and roses” bouquet, and the pronounced tannins that can make them undesired as a young wine but an excellent wine for cellaring. The grape is known as Spanna in the north and east of Piedmont, and is used in at least 10 local DOCs including Carema, Fara and Nebbiolo d’Alba.

Barbera, a dark-skinned variety, is Piedmont’s workhorse grape and the region’s most widely planted variety. It is long been used to make everyday wines under a number of DOC titles, but is now behind a growing number of superlative wines in a range of styles and approaches of oak maturation.

Piedmont’s best Barberas are sold under the Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d’Alba titles. These are classically Italian in style: tangy, sour cherry-scented reds with good acidity and moderate complexity. Less astringently tannic than their Nebbiolo-based counterparts, Barbera wines are enjoyably drinkable within just a year or two of vintage, giving them a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced, impatient wine market.

Dolcetto is the third red grape of Piedmont. It has one DOCG (Dogliani), and several DOCs devoted exclusively to it; the top three being Dolcettos d’Alba, d’Acqui and di Ovada. Dolcetto is usually used to make dry red wines.

The Brachetto grape is used in the production of the sweet, sparkling reds of the Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG. So, too is Freisa, with its broad portfolio of sweet, dry, still and sparkling red wines made in Asti and Chieri.

Although Piedmont is known mainly as a red-wine region, it produces several well regarded white wine styles. The most prominent is Moscato d’Asti and to a lesser extent the Asti Spumante. Both of these are made from Moscato grapes grown around the town of Asti.  The former is sweeter, more lightly sparkling and generally of higher quality.

The Piedmont white of the connoisseur is made from the Cortese grape; a variety which struggles to produce wines of any aromatic complexity anywhere else.  It now faces serious competition from the aromatic Arneis varietal. Although not as prestigious, the Arneis is increasingly popular for its delicate, exotic perfume. A final white worthy of mention is Erbaluce, which has benefitted from the 300 percent increase in Piedmont’s white wine production over the past thirty or so years.

With more DOCGs and DOCs than any other Italian region, and about 40 percent of its wine produced at DOC/G level, Piedmont is challenged only by Veneto and Tuscany for the top spot among Italian wine regions. Overall, Barolo is my personal favourite Italian wine.  Though it tends to be sold at a higher price point than other types of Italian wine, I find that it is cost justified.

Sláinte mhaith

Wine Clubs

From time to time I have toyed with the idea of joining a wine club, whether it be one associated with a specific winery or an independent one.  Both have their pros and cons.

According to the so-called experts, the best wine clubs give you key features including access to unique, curated wines for special occasions, last-minute gifts or simply to satisfy your own palette.

Wine clubs can help take the guess work out of deciding what to buy or drink, but more importantly a wine club can introduce you to new wines.

There are lots of clubs to choose from and most are accessible online.  At any given time there are as many as 20,000 Ontarians subscribed to wine clubs.  With over 200 wineries in Ontario and an additional 300 across the rest of Canada, as well as several independent wine clubs, it’s good to know all the facts first.

Most Canadian wineries have wine clubs although   there is difference in how the various club subscriptions work. So it’s important to understand things like frequency (when you’ll get your wine) and quantity (how much you’re getting) and what their rules are for opting in and out.

Things that are important to take into consideration are variety of wines on offer, exclusivity, early-access, value and quality.

It is beneficial to join a club that offers its members exclusive and early-access deals. Check to see if there are any savings from purchasing through the wine club versus through your local liquor or wine store, the quality of the wine being offered (award-winning, sommelier tested, etc) and the guarantees provided to its members regarding satisfaction with the product and service.

Some of the largest wine clubs (Peller, Hillebrand, Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, Great Estates of Niagara) are a good place to begin your investigation, but some of the smaller, boutique wineries should not be ignored.

Clubs, like kwäf’s ClubK, are not tied to just one winery, but instead offer an array of quality wines, providing the opportunity to enjoy the wines of many wineries. They work with top sommeliers to offer the best wines. Kwaf is Ontario based and curates the best of Ontario wine and delivers it directly to your door.

The Exchange is a wine club that offers wines beyond what is available through your local liquor or wine store.  The Exchange will provide a curated, mixed case of top quality wines directly to your door. They work with top Ontario wine agencies to find jewels for Exchange members. All the wines are rated at 90 points or more and have been carefully selected by their panel of critics for quality and value.

With an Exchange subscription you become part of a cooperative consisting of hundreds of like-minded wine lovers to ‘Exchange’ a purchase of a full case of a single wine with a mixed case of twelve different wines. The Exchange does everything from the curation, ordering, purchasing, warehousing, repackaging and delivery. The curated case of high-quality wine is delivered to your door once every three months.

With any wine club you should be able to:

  1. Access exclusive discounts
  2. Save time
  3. Discover new wines
  4. Have flexibility
  5. Gain from loyalty and rewards

Before making your ultimate club selection you need to determine whether your drinking habits and style suits the terms of the club. The main things to look out for are to ensure that there are no contracts or obligation to purchase wines; that the company has a large selection and variety of wines; and their prices are less than the retail outlets.

If you are a wine drinker and like discovering new wines, then wine clubs are worth joining.

Sláinte mhaith