Italy's inviting Veneto

June 2024

Italy is the world’s largest wine producer, and the Northeastern region of Veneto is its most productive agricultural zone and largest wine producer, vinifying some 20% of all Italian wine. Unfortunately, that isn’t always good news. Slick marketing and international demand have been strong drivers of quantity, but not always of quality.

The good news is that there is still gold to be found amongst that great volume of dross.

Centred on the famous destination city of Venice, the Veneto is familiar to fans of Shakespeare – Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet – and the Italians take good advantage of that connection: you can stand under Juliet’s balcony in Verona, or walk the Rialto in Venice.

But romantic ruins date back far beyond Shakespeare’s time; archaeologists delight in local Roman and even pre-Roman relics.

But we are here for the wines, and today we focus on their whites, noted for solid value. The wine grapes here are mostly indigenous Italian varieties, so their names – with one notable exception – are not well-known to international consumers.

That exception is Pinot Grigio, which has surged in popularity to the point where it has become the very definition of a light luncheon wine. Unfortunately, that popularity ensures that quantity has trumped quality, and a wine named simply Pinot Grigio is notoriously unreliable. Often pallid, insipid and lightly sweet, it is produced in huge volume and may come from anywhere. There are some good ones still, so look for an authentic Italian bottling labelled DOC Delle Venezie. Otherwise, generally speaking, avoid it unless you know the source well!

A more reliable choice is Soave, a wine that is everything that Pinot Grigio pretends to be – dancingly light, fragrantly fresh, bracingly crisp, perfect for patio luncheons or evening aperitifs. The label should say Denominazione di Origine Controllata – or simply DOC – that is the Italian government seal of authenticity. Made from a blend of grapes native to the region, you will find Soave on the LCBO shelves beside its better-known cousin Pinot Grigio. Some producers make very good wine outside the government regulatory framework; these are usually labelled IGT – Indicazione Geografica Tipica.

They may be good value, but you need to be selective, as each producer crafts in whatever style they choose.

West of the Soave zone, spilling over the border into the neighbouring region of Lombardy, we come to Lago di Garda, the largest lake in Italy. Sheltered by mountains along its western shore, the lake creates a gentle microclimate perfect for nurturing fine wine. Here you will find Lugana DOC, possibly the finest white wine from the region. Made primarily from the Trebbiano grape, Lugana is full-flavoured and round, notably richer than Soave, with the potential to improve with two to three years of ageing.

We cannot leave the Veneto without mentioning sparkling Prosecco. Originally a grape variety, the name Prosecco now applies only to the wine, and the winemakers have cleverly patented the name, so that imitators can no longer jump on their highly successful commercial bandwagon. Unfortunately, as with Pinot Grigio, the popularity of this light, slightly sweet, frothy confection has grown in popularity so much that its fine quality – which is what caused it to boom in popularity in the first place – has now been swamped in mediocrity. Even the giant Spanish Cava producer Freixenet has set up a branch plant in the Veneto to produce huge volumes of Prosecco. So if you must have Prosecco, select one labelled ‘brut’ from Valdobbiadene; these are all certified DOC and can be cheerfully pleasant.

© Paul Inksetter 2024

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