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Finding Surprises in Italy’s Most-Travelled Corner

Colli Berici Vineyards
Colli Berici Vineyards
A hint of Tai Rosso in the Colli Berici

The Veneto. Italy’s Northeast corner, dominated by several of Italy’s most famously attractive cities, is also Italy’s most heavily-visited region. Tourists flock in their millions to see the sights in Venice, Verona, Padua and elsewhere.

But it is also a wine powerhouse, producing some of the most wine by volume at every level of quality, including Italy’s largest production of DOP white wine. Some of Italy’s – and, indeed, the world’s – most famous wines come from here. Amarone della Valpolicella and Prosecco are two of the most recognised and most important, but Valpolicella, Lugana, Bardolino and Soave are all found here, and most of Italy’s Pinot Grigio comes from the region as well. And there seems to be a lot of Merlot and a few other Bordeaux varieties, too, adorning wine shop shelves that, generally speaking, are a bit lower than eye level.

With so many well-known grapes, legendary wine appellations and famous brands being mercilessly exported all across the world, what hope is there of making a discovery? Of finding something unique? Something unusual? Something special? Something compelling?

Well, any realtor will tell you: it is all about location, location, location. To find something undiscovered, you will need to go to a less-touristed, less-known and entirely underrated part of the region – far from cruise ships and Juliet-searchers. Such as the province of Vicenza.

And so it was that I found myself in a relatively undiscovered corner of the Veneto, where wines of high quality are being made in all styles: sparkling, still, and sweet – and in all colours: red, white, and rosé. I even had a fortified wine, though this is not really recognised under appellation rules, so it was not classified.

I came to the region to explore the native and traditional grapes, and I was not disappointed. What really caught me off guard, however, was something else: grape varieties with which I am intimately familiar – but in a context that was far-removed from their origins, and very much different than what I was used to finding in Italy.

What is Being Made

So what is coming out of the province of Vicenza? Let’s start with some grape varieties:

There are the well-known world travellers such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Carmenère, for starters. The classic Bordeaux varieties are no strangers to the Italian Peninsula. Indeed, some of Italy’s most famous, most respected and, by the way, most expensive wines are made with them: so-called Supertuscans, mostly, but there are others.

Beyond those standard varieties, there is a Mediterranean classic: Tai Rosso. What, you never heard of it? I assure you that you have: it is known in Spain as Garnacha. In France as Grenache. And on Sardinia as Cannonau. Who would have thought that it would be present in Italy’s northeast, just south of the Dolomites? It has been here a long time, and gives rise to a unique interpretation of the variety.

And then there are the indigenous grapes: Durella and Garganega, both ancient white varieties and both starting to gain recognition for their quality. Garganega is the primary – and best quality – grape used for Soave, while Durella is a recently recognised, high acid variety that has come into its own most particularly when used for classic method sparkling wine production – offering a fascinating alternative and pendant to the ocean of Prosecco coming from the neighbouring province of Treviso.

The Province of Vicenza

Poor, neglected Vicenza. The city for which the province is named is found on the A4 highway leading from Verona over Padua to Venice. With those three destinations as a draw, you can see that Vincenza might be overlooked by tourists. The drive from Verona to Venice is only about an hour and a half, so most people don’t even take the time to stop.

But it goes beyond tourism. Sandwiched between the two wine powerhouses of Treviso (source of Prosecco) to the east and Verona (home of Valpolicella) to the west, Vicenza Province does not get the attention it deserves for the wine that it makes. Part of the problem is marketing, of course, and part of it is that there simply aren’t as many producers making wine here as there re in the neighbouring zones. Nevertheless, there is a fair bit happening in this lovely, hilly part of the Veneto, and there are several DOCs allowing for the creation of fine wines by quality-conscious producers.

This week I’m writing about three of these DOCs: Colli Berici, Lessini Durello, and Gambellara.

The Twin Strengths of Colli Berici

Established in 1974, the Colli Berici DOC is a small appellation found south of Vicenza, and is home to just thirty producers. The several cooperatives that operate in the region are responsible for over 80% of production, meaning that if you find wines from the area at all, they are very likely coming from one of these big operators.

But that leaves a good double-handful of smaller, independent producers to seek out. And they are worth seeking out. Wines of all styles can be made here, but there are two strengths for which it really stands out: Tai Rosso and Bordeaux blends, with a focus on Merlot – in fact, for Colli Berici Rosso Merlot needs to be at least 50% of the blend.

Something Special: the Bordeaux Blends

Bordeaux varieties came here first. Much is made of the fact that Sassicaia, which first came onto the market in the 1970s, has a history going back to before the second world war. That story is all well and good, and it is often used to establish a long enough heritage for Bordeaux varieties in Tuscany to make it seem like they are traditional. The Colli Berici doesn’t even have to try; the varieties I listed above have been here since the 19th century – yet nobody seems to know this, and they have languished in the shadow cast by Tuscany’s famous wines for a long time.

International grapes can be found everywhere in the world. I tend not to say too much about them partly for that reason; because I don’t often find them very compelling, even if they can be very enjoyable. Italy is famous for some very pricey wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but I tend not to lavish much thought on those wines, either, for obvious reasons. What I found in the Colli Berici made me sit up and take notice.

Something Unusual: Tai Rosso

Tai Rosso. It’s an Italian spin on a Spanish grape that is most famous when it comes from France. Really, we are talking about Garnacha, known as Grenache in France, or, if you would like to keep things in Italy, you could also call it by its name on Sardinia: Cannonau. These are all essentially the same grape, though there are some minor differences in expression between the varieties.

In the Colli Berici you will find wines of spicy depth, with great fruit and more colour than you would expect from Grenache. Many of the wines can age beautifully, and there is even a sparkling rosato version.

Something Unique: Lessini Durello

Found northwest of Vicenza, this tiny appellation is responsible for some truly beautiful sparkling wines based on the local native grape, Durella, which keeps high acidity even when it is ripe. This, combined with very late harvests, is perfect for the sparkling wines which are the focus of the appellation. Most of the sparkling wines here are being made Metodo Classico, as they are in Champagne. Though the entire range of sweetness can be explored, it is often the Brut Nature wines that are causing the biggest splash.

Something Compelling: Gambellara

Gambellara DOC is all about Garganega, one of Italy’s most ancient grapes – and one of its best, regardless of what impressions may be communicated by some over-cropped, dilute wines from nearby Soave and further afield. What is truly special about Gambellara is not just that the wines must be made with at least 80% Garganega (the best ones are 100%), but that there is also a sparkling version and gorgeous sweet wines from the appellation: Recioto della Gambellara DOCG, made from dried grapes, and Vin Santo, which is an oxidative style of sweet wine more famous from Tuscany. Small producers making fantastic wines from one of Italy’s finest grapes? Yes, please!

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