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August 5 - 12, 1999

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Ricco Soave

A window on Venetian wines

by Thor Iverson

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When it comes to Italian wine, Chianti gets all the shelf space. The "killer Bs" (Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco) and the super-Tuscans get all the hype. But where does the majority of Italy's quality wine come from? Hint: it's not Tuscany (home of Chianti and Brunello), nor Piedmont (home of Barolo and Barbaresco).

The Italian region that produces the most DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine is actually the Veneto, a large region in northeast Italy that stretches from Verona to Venice, and from the Po River to the Alps. And though the name of the region might not ring a bell, the wines that come from this region just might: Valpolicella, Soave, Amarone, Bardolino, and prosecco.

Red Wine Of these, the most familiar to many wine drinkers is probably Soave (swah-veh), a light, generally unassuming white made from two grapes: the obscure garganega and the insipid trebbiano. If you're having a hard time remembering what Soave tastes like, you're not alone. The wines, when mass-produced from high yields and with large percentages of trebbiano, are eminently forgettable.

But dedicated producers can take steps to change that. And thankfully, many have. Usually, a wine labeled "Soave Classico" (from the old center of Soave production) means higher quality. A well-made Soave will have a pine- or pine-nut-like aroma, tropical and citrus fruit (lime and kiwi are common), a strange powdered-sugar character, and a good layer of acid to give it some zip. These wines are classic matches for seafood both light and heavy. Look for wines from the producers Anselmi, Gini, and Suavia; all should be around $8 to $20.

Bardolino (bar-doh-lee-noh) is another wine destined to be consumed, not noticed. Made in a style not unlike that of Beaujolais, it's one of those light, grapey reds that need chilling and then go down like water with just about any food. In fact, it's so much like Beaujolais that Bardolino Novello has become an Italian competitor of Beaujolais Nouveau. The only Bardolino I've regularly seen in this market is from Bolla, and it is usually just average. Check Italian wine specialists like Cirace (in the North End) and Martignetti Liquors if you want something more interesting. No Bardolino will be expensive.

The third, and potentially greatest, wine of the Veneto is also best known for being tart, simple, and dull. (Are you noticing a trend here?) Valpolicella (val-pol-lih-chel-la) is made from corvina, with varying amounts of rondinella and molinara thrown in. When vinified quickly and simply, Valpolicella (and Valpolicella Classico, with or without the "Superiore" designation) has an acidic, apple-and-red-cherry taste that needs acidic foods to show its stuff. However, more serious producers can, from the right soil, produce majestic, sturdy, even long-lived Valpolicellas that have almost nothing in common with the classic trattoria red of the past. Look for wines from Allegrini and, to a lesser extent, Zenato, and expect to pay in the mid-teens for a wine that's tasty with meat and lighter cheeses.

The "king" of the Veneto is known as Amarone (am-ah-roh-nay), a definite acquired taste. Amarone is made by a process known as ripasso (rih-pah-so), whereby a portion of the harvest's grapes are dried on mats, and then fermented to yield a more concentrated wine that often tastes of prune, earth, and roasted berries. Amarone goes well with roasted meat and strong cheeses, and is delicious both young and well-aged (10-plus years). Amarones are more expensive than other Veneto wines -- it's common to pay $25 or more. Great examples come from Allegrini, Masi, and Quintarelli. Ripasso techniques are increasingly used in otherwise fresher, fruitier Valpolicellas, leading to a modern and intense style favored by Dal Forno, Quintarelli, Masi, and Allegrini. These wines cost from $15 to $25.

Finally, the Veneto is known for delicious sparkling wines. Most are made from the prosecco (proh-sec-coh) grape, and called Prosecco di Conegliano (usually genericized to just "prosecco"). Not really alternatives to Champagne, these are instead lighter, fruitier, more refreshing and thirst-quenching bubblies to pour before or during shellfish and finfish meals. I've yet to taste a truly bad prosecco, but my favorite thus far is made by Zardetto. Twenty dollars (often much less) seems to be the going rate for these wines.

So don't get caught in the Tuscan-Piedmontese rut this year. Here are a few wines to get you started:

1996 Allegrini Valpolicella Palazzo Della Torre ($16) and 1996 Allegrini Valpolicella La Grola ($17). I adore these earthy, spicy, complex wines, which are as delicious now as they will be in five years. Allegrini also makes a tasty 1998 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($10) for early drinking, an elegant and silky 1995 Allegrini Amarone ($40), and the stunningly tannic and weighty 1995 Allegrini La Poja ($25).

Anselmi has two tasty Soaves on the market; the 1998 Anselmi Soave Classico Superiore "San Vincenzo" ($12) is soft and friendly, but I prefer the more structured and minerally 1996 Anselmi Soave Classico Superiore "Capitel Croce" ($17), which I've written about before.

I'm not a fan of the 1993 Zenato Amarone ($50) -- I think it lacks style -- but I can recommend the tangy, tasty 1995 Zenato Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($10) and the earthier, slightly pruny 1996 Zenato Ripassa ($19).

As for producers Masi and Dal Forno, buy anything you see on the shelves. You'll pay a hefty price for the latter, but it's worth it. These are among the richest and most intense wines of the region, making full use of the ripasso method.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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