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From Piedmont we traveled to the Veneto and the fair city of Verona, Italy’s unofficial wine capital and home to Italy’s major wine fest every Spring: Vinitaly. The landscape around Verona is dominated by cherry trees (very beautiful in Spring), and of course, vineyards! Exactly what is grown in the vineyard depends on where you are in the Veneto. The region offers a rich tapestry of wine styles; it is the perfect destination for wine lovers.

Lovely Verona is definitely a destination for wine lovers …

One of the most famous wine regions in the Veneto is Valpolicella, which loosely translates as ‘valley of many cellars’, located about 20 minutes north of Verona. The vineyards in Valpolicella are situated throughout the foothills of the Dolomites (Italian Alps), of varying elevation and exposure (the direction of the vineyard slopes). The soils are fossil rich, a combination of morainic and limestone. This alone explains why the wines are so diverse, but it doesn’t end there…

Here, the red grape Corvina is key. This vibrant grape is cherished for its tart acidity and notes of plum and cherry in straight Valpolicella wines. Rondinella and Molinara grapes can play supportive roles in the wines of this region, but the latter brings less to the blend. And while the blend is more or less consistent, the styles vary.

  • In straight Valpolicella wines, grapes are crushed and the fermentation process is normal. The end result is (usually) a medium-bodied wine with crisp acidity and fresh fruit flavors.
  • In Ripasso della Valpolicella style versions (where the wine is ‘repassed’ over the gross lees, i.e. grape skins, pulp and yeasts, a process known as appassimento) it is a degree higher in alcohol, richness and complexity of flavor.
  • In Amarone della Valpolicella, which is produced from grapes that have been carefully dried for three to four months before fermentation even begins, you’ll get a fuller-bodied wine with deeper, darker fruit notes along with coffee, toffee, sweet spice, pepper, tar and mocha–all of which depends on the use of oak in raising the wine.
  • Lastly, Recioto della Valpolicella is made in a similar method to Amarone, but with even higher concentrations of sugar so the final wine is a sweet, dessert style wine of great complexity. Both Amarone and Recioto are considered ‘meditation’ wines, but can be expensive, as they are very expensive to produce.

These Corvina grapes have been dried for about four months and are ready for pressing. As one can see, there is not much juice left in the grapes!

Next up: What is Classico and Superiore about Valpolicella?

The first thing to note is that it is very easy to get lost in Piedmont.

This is true when trying to follow, say, Google directions between wineries. This is surprising when most wineries have existed here for a long, long time, but the fact that they are so established does not translate to their roadside signage. In other cases, roads do not exist where they should (or in our case have fallen down a hillside or over a bridge) or the wineries changed names/ownership but the signs remained the same (not helpful). Somehow, we managed to stay on schedule.

“Go back that way.” (Note: suspicious fire in background, yes we are again lost here).

But who can really complain about being in Piedmont? Because more importantly, it is also really easy to lose yourself in the sensory richness of this region, not just among producers, grape varieties and cuisine but also among a vertical tasting of the different vintages from the same producer, or even this same vineyard. It is not only incredibly terroir-driven, but vintage-driven as well. No matter how lost you may become, a visit to Piedmont is a rich experience for the oenophile.

We actually visited four wineries in Piedmont, all very different. One could certainly spill a lot of ink on this topic, as many already have, but my highlights include:

The Scagliola estate is located in southern Piemonte in the hills of Monferrato in a small (and hard to find) village of Calosso. What impressed me most about this family run winery was that they were consistent across the board among the numerous offerings from Camilo Metodo Classico (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne method) to their Azord blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is a special producer from the Barolo commune of Verduno. Winemaker/owner Silvio Busco is considered somewhat of an ‘upstart’ because he has only been making wine for twenty years in the Barolo appellation, but it should also be noted that he is only 39! A bright future ahead, Silvio makes a straight Barolo and single vineyard (Monvigliero), as well as tasty reds made from Dolcetto and Pelaverga, grown at lower elevations and ready to drink now.

However beautiful the vineyards, I was always on the lookout for wolves (volpe) and wild boars (cinghiale). Thankfully, I saw neither.

After tasting through the line-up of Poderi Roset we were treated to lots and lots of carne crudo, followed by the best lasagne I will ever have in my life, prepared by Silvio’s mom.

Like the Barolo appellation, Barbaresco is exclusively devoted to red wines from Nebbiolo, but is said to be the more elegant, accessible of the two. Rapalino winemaker, Marco Rapalino, worked under the guidance of the legendary Bruno Giacosa for more than ten years, and it shows. Across the board, these wines are deep, dark and brooding–even the Vughima Freisa, a grape otherwise known for light, strawberry-scented wines.

Mechanical engineer Annalisa Battuello switched careers from automobile design to Piedmontese winemaking after she turned forty… so the name I Quaranta not only refers to the village where her Barbera vineyards are located, but also to the fact that she found her ‘true’ direction at age forty. Indeed. Her wines are amazing across the board, and she certainly breathes new life into the Barbera variety…with dry, sweet and sparkling styles.

Vineyards are scattered throughout the villages because, as you can see, this is mountain country. And there are wildflowers everywhere …

Our small importing team had the opportunity to visit many of our producers in northern and central Italy earlier in the summer. Our first stop was in Valle d’Aosta, the northernmost region of Italy, to visit La Kiuva. We stayed in Bard, a small village situated along a famous pilgrimage route on the Dora Baltea River. Our host pointed out that those historically those traveling north through this region were traveling for reasons of war and conquest (Roman empire) and those traveling south were doing so for reasons of peace (to the Vatican). Because of French and Swiss influences and also their isolation from the rest of Italy in this mountainous terrain, they are really seen as ‘outsiders’ by most Italians to the south. Despite having such a reputation quirkiness (such as our host answering every question with “perhaps”), I found the people to be quite endearing overall.

This tiny, alpine region is predominantly known for its reds from a local clone of Nebbiolo called Picotendro, along with other grapes rarely encountered in the market, such as Gros Vien, Neyret and other field ‘varietal spices’. These vineyards are high and steep (not an ideal place to visit for victims of vertigo) and because of the high elevation, phylloxera (a pest that can be fatal to vines) cannot exist here.

The La Kiuva cooperative oversees 25 hectares of vineyards overseen by about 60 growers in the Aosta AOC sub-zone of Arnad-Montjovet (for reference: there are 350 hectares in the entire AOC of Aosta). Many of the La Kiuva vineyards are centered in and around Chateau Vallaise, a castle which dates back to 15th century. The cooperative makes use of the cellar storage space for riddling (and even the keys to these cellars are ancient)as well as visitor presentations.

There are three wines we tried (and loved).

La Kiuva Arnad-Montjovet Normale 2011 and Superiore 2007 were both comprised of 75% Picotendro (Nebbiolo), 20% Pinot Noir and that varietal spice from Gros Vien, Neyret, Cornalin and Fumin. I found both to be layered and complex with bright cherry fruit, tea leaf and black pepper spiciness but the Superiore–which sees a year in oak– tended to be much more tannic and structured, like a true Nebbiolo, whereas the Normale drank more like a delicious, accessible Pinot Noir. And the La Kiuva Rosé 2011? that was so good it is already sold out (but you can try it in 2012).

As for pairing, we were treated to numerous dishes of charcuterie, lots of delicious lard, Vitello Tonnato (thin sliced veal with tuna sauce), creamy gnocchi, and one tray that our host would not identify until we tasted it: cow udder. This is true mountain country after all!

This feels a little like a flashback to elementary school days, when every student was forced to recite those dreaded  ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ reports to the rest of the class.

1. I was not at all on vacation. Not really, anyway. And ..

2. I actually LIKE sharing my adventures in the field with my small but growing list of readers.

So as we move into the lovely season of autumn, I want to recap over the next few weeks some of my summer travel highlights from Italy, South America and Downeast Maine.

Stay tuned …