The legendary canals of Venice, the tragic love affair of Romeo and Juliet, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites – just a taste of the romance and wonder offered by one of the world’s most inspiring places, Northeast Italy. Rich in history, culture, music and culinary heritage, it is the most visited region of Italy, with more than 63 million tourists every year.
But we cannot forget the allure of the wine, which clearly represents the culture and landscape of this fruitful region.
Several years ago, my wife and I went to Northeast Italy to discover the allure of the appellations of Veneto, Fruili-Venezia Giulia, and Trentino-Alto Adige. These regions are distinctive by landscape and culture, and present a unique variety of food-friendly wines.
Veneto: Situated around the city of Verona, Veneto is nestled between the Adriatic Sea and Alpine mountains to the north, which tempers the harsher climate in northern Europe. The northern part of this appellation is suited to white grapes, and is home to the well-known soave wine. Soave is mostly garganega (with some triebbiano grapes) and produces a light- to medium-bodied white wine. Other white grapes of note are sauvignon, pinot bianco and chardonnay. At its best, soave is dry, verging on complex, and excellent with foods such as herby pastas and seafood dishes.
Veneto is known mostly for Valpolicella, a red wine which pairs well with classic Italian pizza. However, the real star of the region is amarone. Comprised of the same grapes found in Valpolicella (corvina, rondinella, and molinara), amarone uses a distinctively different process in making this special wine. After harvest, grapes are laid out to dry for several weeks--which shrivels the fruit, increasing sugar content and reducing water content--and then make wine until all the sugar is fermented out. The result is a stunning wine, slightly Port-like, with a dry almond finish.
Fruili-Venezia Giulia: To many Americans Fruili-Venezia Giulia is “that region north of Venice.” It borders Austria to the north, Slovenia to the east and the Adriatic Sea to the southeast. Because of its vast range, it has several climates: Alpine continental in the north to mild Mediterranean to the south. White wines excel using chardonnay, sauvignon, pinot grigio, pinot bianco, malvasia, müller thurgau and tocai fruilano grapes. The winery that really positioned the white wines on the global stage was Jermann, available in St. Louis.
This diverse wine region also grows red grapes like refosco, schioppettino, pinot nero and cabernet sauvignon. Refosco, which can range from soft-hearted to full-bodied, is native to Northeast Italy.
As with all regions in Italy, cuisine is integral to its wine production. Fresh seafood is abundant in the coast and mushrooms proliferate the hilly forests. Sausages, cured meats and hearty polentas anchor the region firmly in culinary tradition.
Trentino – Alto Adige: Situated in the hills below the Alps, called the Dolomites, this region has strong German and Austrian influences. When you enter this region, you feel like you are in another country, with Germanic architecture and locals still speaking German. The views are breathtaking – lush, rolling vineyards and the picturesque Dolomites leading to the Alps in the distant background. Although the daytime temps can get as high as 90 degrees, at night, it cools off because of the mountains, giving the vines critical recovery time and the grapes good acidity.
Much like the atmosphere, you will find strong German influences in the cuisine. Speck, a smoke-cured ham (leaner than prosciutto), crusty bread and local cheeses were among our favorite snacks during this visit. Polenta and tagliatelle are staples but you will likely find sausages, goulash and spätzli, a small handmade German-influenced noodle, often served alongside beef dishes.
Chardonnay, sauvignon, gewurztraminer, müller-thurgau, and pinot bianco are the region’s most abundant white grapes. The main red grapes are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, lagrein, teroldego and pinot nero.
During our visit, we stayed at one of favorite wineries, Alois Lageder. Nestled into the hillside, this eco-friendly, state-of-the-art winery was created using solar power, wind and gravity-fed processes, to name a few.
One cannot leave Trentino without a visit to Ferrari Winery, which makes some of the best sparkling wines in Italy. Classic Méthode Champenoise is used here, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, same as Champagne. They have garnered many global accolades, with many different bottlings and quality levels.
And that’s just Northeast Italy. Italy is a diverse land of vineyards and offers more than 1,000 grape varietals.
Tasting Tip: Sparkling wine should be served well-chilled at about 45 degrees, and in a glass that allows the aromas to be enjoyed such as a flute or a nice white-wine glass. The smaller the bubbles, the better the quality is a good guideline. Also good vintage/aged sparkling will produce small 'pearls' of bubbles to display elegance.
Wine Recommendation: Try a good pinot grigio, a quality soave, and chardonnay for those who say they don’t like chardonnay (these are cleaner and have more acidity). Also try some of the native red grapes like refosco, teroldego, and amarone!
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.