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Malcolm Jolley: Beyond Prosecco and Pinot Grigio: Four other wines to try from the Venetian hinterland

Commentary

For four of the last five vintages, Veneto, in the Northeast of Italy, has made more wine than any of the other regions of the country. During this time, wine made in the Venetian hinterlands has accounted for about 20 percent of the nation’s production. This is particularly impressive given there are commercial vineyards in every one of Italy’s 20 regions.

The bulk of that volume is derived from Veneto’s two big 21st-century wine industry winners: Pinot Grigio and Prosecco. In 2017, Veneto made 43 percent of the world’s Pinot Grigio, and for comparison, the next biggest producer was the United States at just 14 percent. Veneto makes all of the world’s Prosecco, as it is an EU-protected geographical appellation. Prosecco can only come from the Prosecco zone, and all of it is in Veneto.

Veneto’s other well-known wine success story is its big red from the western end of the region, Amarone. Amarone came around in the 1960s and 70s when temperature controls in the cellar meant that the sweet red wines made from dried-out grapes in the hills around Verona could be fermented longer in cold weather. Keeping yeast alive longer meant less sugar and more alcohol, and the powerful “wines of contemplation” became a popular category for domestic and export markets.

The success of the big Veneto three is a welcome addition to the wino ecosystem. Most Prosecco is uncomplicated and fun. It’s the best match to green olives, in my humble opinion, and adds bubbly festivity to a casual gathering.

Pinot Grigio has achieved the ultimate English-speaking wine world accolade: the name of the grape has become its own category, like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Wine snobs complain that mass-produced Pinot Grigio doesn’t taste like anything, which is both true and false.

A decent, good-value Pinot Grigio will have a crisp citrus flavour. It might not have much else, but that’s OK. Lean and refreshing, big brand PG, is a kind of gateway drug to more interesting, mineral, and acid-driven white wines. In addition, it has the double positive attributes of being widely available and just fine to be had on its own in lieu of a cocktail.

Amarone is largely something of a monster of a wine, though it can be made in a surprisingly delicate and elegant way. The women winemakers Marinella Camerani of Corte Sant’Alda and Camilla Rossi Chauvenet at Massimago are masters of this modern style that is in balance and remarkably light and fruit-forward.

But the big Amarone wines have their place too. In Verona, closer to the mountains than the sea, they make an especially hearty meat ragu, and it’s hard not to believe that Amarone was invented specifically to pair with it.

It’s also true that big Amarone can be seen as an analog to Pinot Grigio, the wines are just fine on their own at the end of a meal, served as one would a Port to aid digestion. The Italians will often describe a wine that can be served without or after food as a vino da meditazione; a wine of contemplation to be sipped while staring at a fire or in deep conversation with a friend.

Still, the universe of Veneto wines is much bigger than those big three. Here are a few wines from the Venetian hinterland that make it across the ocean with some regularity, generally offer good value at a fair price, and are worthy of a try.

Soave

In the late 1960s, Soave was one of Italy’s leading wine exports. But Garganega grape, from which it is made, is particularly vigorous and overproduction, and a corresponding decline in quality, saw the wine slip from fashion into a near obscurity. Over the last two decades, crisp white Soave is experiencing a risorgimento as a mineral-driven, food-friendly wine.

The Soave region is concentrated over a number of Alpine foothills just east of Valpolicella and Verona. It takes its name from a spectacularly crenelated castle that was built in the 14th century and looks like it was taken out of a child’s storybook. The soil mix in Soave is either ancient volcanic or limestone and the wines have a particular vibrancy and freshness.

Top producers increasingly fetch high prices for their Soave, but there are many good value wines that come into the market for around $20.

Lugana

The not-very-big Lugana region is on the very western edge of Veneto and spills into Lombardy in the hills just south of Lake Garda. The white wines are made from the Turbiana or Trebbiano di Laguna grape, which is a distinct clone of the widely planted cultivar. Made with care, these wines will often show a character of saltiness, as well as rounded peach or stone fruit notes, and remind Italian wine enthusiasts of Verdicchio from the Marche.

Lake Garda is a popular vacation spot for Milanese and Germans, and the reputation and demand for Lugana wines is a bit of a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because increased demand has meant investment and dedication to quality. It’s a curse because it also means high prices. And yet there are Lugana wines that pass through Canadian markets for $20-25 that are worth a try.

Valpolicella

Before Amarone there was Valpolicella, or what is now labeled simply Valpolicella Classico, to distinguish it from red wines in the area that are made from dried grapes, or Ripasso, which is a wine that is soaked in the pressed skins of the Amarone grapes. Those two latter sales dominate production still, so the fresh Valpolicella wines fly mostly under the wine consumer radar.

This is the traditional wine made in the Alpine foothills surrounding Verona.

Like Soave, Valpolicella passed from fashion (despite a recommendation from Ernest Hemingway), but the fresh and lively red wine, made from chiefly the Corvina grape, is also making something of a comeback as consumer tastes pivot towards lower alcohol, fruit-forward, and more food-friendly wines, and prices have mostly not caught up.

Bardolino

Bardolino is Valpolicella’s lighter cousin, like Laguna, grown in the lower lands by Lake Garda. More red fruit and often made with short skin contact as a kind of heavy rosé. Fruity and fun, as a resort wine ought to be, though some producers make more serious, concentrated versions. 

Lianne Bell: Notes from a rural neighbour: On COVID, community, and big-city solutions to every problem

Commentary

I hate black-eyed Susans.

Their blooms dotted throughout the fields bowing in the hot August heat meant summer break was about to end. Growing up on a farm I learned to measure time by the rhythms of nature. Staring up into the dark clear nights to find the Big Dipper hanging handle to the horizon told me winter was here to stay for some time. Dark and early mornings in the musty barn bottle feeding a newborn calf was the first sign spring was around the corner. Opening the school bus window to smell the fresh cut of hay in mid-June meant summer break was about to start.

For kids across rural Canada, my childhood was just like theirs, these natural markers completely common. For us, responsibilities came at an early age, hard work was a point of pride, and helping the neighbours was expected. Everyone pitched in all the time. Almost every rural family embodies these values and a sense of community that relies on each other, not some far-away government program. When the tractor gets stuck your neighbour and his bigger tractor come over to pull you out. When the farmer down the road shows up because their cows got out, it doesn’t matter if you are mid Christmas dinner, you put your boots on and help. That meant us kids too—feeding chickens before catching the bus to school, throwing hay bales in the summer, or helping to mend fences.

It’s a practical life, and deeply rewarding, but it is one that can be dismissed or misunderstood by our friends in the city. 

Arguments are made these days that the social and political divide is rural versus urban. And yet regardless of where someone chooses to live, the desires are the same. Everyone wants their kids to go to a good school, to feel safe walking down the street they live on, to show up to the hospital and know they will be taken care of. We all want the same things in our lives. So where does the hostility come from?

Growing up we would drive from our peaceful little farm to the big city of Toronto to visit my extended family. I knew we were close when my parents started remarking to each other about how close the homes were built. Stacked one upon another. My family couldn’t understand the appeal. Not that we didn’t recognize the charms of city life. Friends to play with down the street, restaurants to enjoy, and going to see the Raptors play. But when we headed for home, away from the bright lights to where the stars shone clear again, I felt free. 

When I left for university, I started to notice the tangible difference between how I grew up and how my friends in the city grew up. I dressed differently; my t-shirts were of every NASCAR track I had been to. There was never much point caring about clothes, who would care? The cows? I didn’t watch much TV growing up and Sundays were for church. All the cultural references were lost on me. I was an ice cube thrown into a pot of boiling water. 

The aspects of my life that I treasured and clung to were mostly foreign to my peers. They didn’t know about black-eyed Susans; they couldn’t see the Big Dipper. I felt like an outsider. Hillbilly was not said as a point of pride—here it meant that my life experiences were inadequate, that I was not cultured in the right ways. The labyrinth of social norms was meant to highlight that I didn’t belong. I went to the GAP and bought a turtleneck. 

Life marched on and my city-born husband and I had two sons. Children sharpen the senses. How would we raise these young men and what values did we want to teach them? My husband knew he married a hillbilly. He came with me to NASCAR, and he loved the stars. But I’d look out the window of our suburban home and think: “look how close our neighbours are”. It was time to get out. I wanted my boys to hate black-eyed Susans too. I dug my NASCAR t-shirts out of the closet and started packing. My relentlessly patient husband got on board and we moved to an acreage.   

The impacts and incentives of public policy are often urban-centric, dreamt up by people that don’t understand a rural way of life. These policies have often been frustrating and cumbersome for those of us outside the cities. However, no such policy had really been a lightning rod to rally the ire of rural people across the country at once.

That was until COVID came along.

Measures meant to protect people who live in dense communities where degrees of interaction are high were outlandish on the family farm. The rationalizations for these were often comical. Barbershops would be ordered closed in a community no one in the city knew the name of, where there wasn’t a COVID case within 100 kilometres. All under the auspices that maybe someone from the city would be desperate for a haircut and drive out of town.

Our friends in the city faced COVID first, and the fears and concerns they had were legitimate and valid. But our bonds started to fray. Rural communities overwhelmingly wanted policies that reflected our lifestyles—ones that recognized that we share a different sense of community, have a different relationship with our neighbours, and don’t work in highly populated environments. That calving doesn’t care about COVID and crops come off the field when they are ready, not when measures have been lifted. Our urban friends didn’t understand. Their valid and realized fears of the devastating impacts of the disease made the health measures inflexible for rural lifestyles. The tone was judgmental and severe. Rural people felt attacked, misunderstood, and desperate. It never changed and the breakdown was never addressed. 

COVID measures were eventually lifted and people mostly went back to their lives as before. The fabric that weaves us all together hasn’t been woven back together, though. Do our friends in the city know or care that their friends in the country feel betrayed? Does it matter? Elections are won in cities; public policy is made in cities and by people who live in cities. All we ask is you cast your thoughts on us and the hopes and dreams we have for our kids when you develop public policy. Help us restore our communities together. 

My family was driving into town the other day and as we merged onto the highway my husband remarked at how close the homes were built. He’d never noticed it before.

Choosing to move out of town was what was best for my family. I don’t want to live within 15 minutes of anything, never mind everything. Let us make the choice of how we raise our families and prioritize the way of life we inherited from our parents, our grandparents, and their parents. We mostly want to be left alone, to solve the problems we encounter on our own or with the help of our neighbours. And if things do get desperate enough that we come into town to meet with you, hear us out. Give us the chance to explain where we are coming from. That’s all we ask.