Wines from Veneto offer higher quality and greater variety than ever before. Our tasting panel rates more than 100 of the region’s reds.

For a generation of Americans who grew up with Valpolicella on the tables of our local red-and-white-tablecloth Italian restaurants (it was the wine to order if we didn’t want Chianti in a wicker basket), the new wines of the Veneto are a revelation. While simple, quaffable versions of Valpolicella still abound, the trend is toward higher-quality wines with more concentration, richer textures and longer aging potentials than they had in the past.

The roots of this change go back to 1964, when Verona-based Masi produced what the company’s owner, Sandro Boscaini, refers to as “the first super Venetian.” The company’s Campo Fiorin (now condensed into a single word) was produced using a double-fermentation process that has become known as ripasso. Originally, unpressed skins from the production of Amarone were added to Valpolicella base wine, inducing a second fermentation and extracting additional flavor, alcohol and tannin. Vintages of Campofiorin since 1983 have used partially dried grapes in place of the Amarone skins.

Using whole fruit instead of previously macerated skins provides more fruit and softer tannins, according to Boscaini, qualities we found in all of our favorite Valpolicellas. Yet not all rely on specially selected fruit to achieve this. Le Salette’s I Progni is refermented on the skins of the winery’s recioto (a sweet wine), while the Galli family’s Le Ragose uses Amarone skins.

These “serious” Valpolicellas are part of a broader, experimental movement that encompasses the entire Veneto. And if the region’s many DOCs (denominazioni di origine controllata) don’t provide enough latitude for producers to innovate, vintners are eagerly trotting out new IGT (indicazione geografica tipica) wines furnished with fanciful names, which are often made with international grape varieties.

These IGT wines come in a dizzying array of grapes, even if most are made in a modern style. Contrast Allegrini’s La Poja, made entirely from Corvina and filled with firmly structured berry fruit, with Zenato’s Sansonina, a new Merlot that’s exquisitely soft and seductive, yet packed with sweet mocha and cherries. Wines of this caliber illustrate why “super Venetian” is fast on its way to becoming as recognized a term as “super Tuscan.”

But the glories of the region remain its Amarones. Made from partially dried grapes grown in the Valpolicella region, Amarones can be some of the world’s biggest, richest and most intense wines. Indeed, while we tasted some outstanding super Venetians, Amarones garnered the highest scores.

In a region with a winemaking history that goes back to Roman times (Valpolicella comes from the Latin for “valley of many cellars”), the Amarone della Valpolicella DOC dates back only to 1991. Before that, wines made in this style were labeled Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. Nowadays, Recioto della Valpolicella is used to refer to sweet wines produced using the same appassimento drying process as the dry (or nearly dry) Amarones.

The Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes for appassimento are harvested in the fall and allowed to dry until late January in specially designed, ventilated chambers or buildings before being vinified. Some traditional producers wait until February or March, allowing the development of botrytis, but the trend is toward shorter drying times and the elimination of botrytized grapes from the wine. While botrytis does add some fine aromas, it also breaks down the grape pigments and promotes oxidation, resulting in wines that often show early color deterioration and aged characteristics.

Another recent change in Amarone production is an increased reliance on inoculated yeasts. Boscaini explains, “It used to take a year or more to ferment the wines to dryness. Now, the fermentation can finish in three or four months, preserving more fruit.” These modern Amarones are dark and rich, densely packed with flavors of dried cherries, baking spices and new leather. More traditional Amarones are often somewhat brownish in color, with flavors likely to include orange peel, soy sauce and old leather.

One persistent question our reviewers raised as we tasted through the Amarones was “What food pairs best with them?” Deborah Cesari, whose family’s winery is the second-largest producer of Amarone answers, “You don’t always need game or aged cheeses. You could have a risotto with Parmigiano and mushrooms.” Another more adventurous possibility comes from Marilisa Allegrini, who suggests Asian dishes, with the wine’s slight sweetness helping to balance the spiciness of the food. Allegrini should know—she logs thousands of miles every year promoting her family’s wines.

Rich, full-bodied styles can conceivably be matched with rich braises or game dishes, although the pairing may be too much of a good thing. A bowl of pappardelle sauced with venison braised in red wine and a bottle of 15.5-percent alcohol Amarone may be a wonderful match, but it may also leave you sated for a week. Dal Forno’s massive 1996 version, which weighs in at 17.5 percent alcohol (plus some residual sugar), is best served on its own or with cheese.

Fortunately, the Veneto offers a number of other reds that are more versatile with food, many of which fall into various IGT categories. Light, quaffable Merlots and Cabernets are the most plentiful on store shelves, but not always the best picks; buyers must be selective. Maculan, located in Breganze, is a quality leader with its Fratta, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, but also makes a more affordable blend called Brentino. Serve these wines as you would Bordeaux, with roast lamb or beef.

Another lesser-known region worth exploring for reds is Colli di Conegliano, where Astoria, the Prosecco producer, makes a noteworthy example. And don’t miss some of
the reds coming from Valpolicella that aren’t labeled as such. Allegrini has taken to labeling its single-vineyard wines, La Grola and La Poja, Rosso del Veronese. Other innovators— Tommasi, Remo Farina and Giuseppe Quintarelli, among others—have also ventured out of the DOC without leaving its geographical borders.

All of this experimentation and innovation makes Italy’s Veneto an exciting region for consumers to explore via corkscrew and glass.

93 Allegrini 1998 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Black as coal and a true powerhouse. The nose dishes out bacon, chocolate, caramel and prunes. Then comes a palate that is the liquid version of fruitcake: there’s liqueur, raisins and dark chocolate. $65
93 Cecilia Beretta 1998 Terre di Cariano (Amarone della
Valpolicella Classico)
The nose is rich and complex: soy, marzipan, leather and poached cherries are all there. The palate is stately and quite a treat. There’s snappy, acid-driven fruit as well as hints of orange peel, brown sugar and coffee. And it finishes in sublime fashion.
93 Domìni Veneti 1999 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Immensely sweet, both in terms of aromatics and flavors. The bouquet offers bacon, vanilla, blackberry and coconut-tinged oak. The palate delivers layers of black fruit as well as pepper, bitter chocolate and caramel. The finish is firm yet not overbearing. $39
93 Le Salette 1998 Le Pergole Vece (Amarone della Valpolicella Classico) Here’s a spicy, brooding beauty, one that could use a few years before it’s at its best. Aromas of pepper, earth, mushroom and spiced cherries are interesting and inviting. We also liked the explosive flavors of dried cherries, blackberries, chocolate and vanilla. Some tannins add grip. $115
93 Tommasi 1997 Ca’ Florian (Amarone della Valpolicella) Aromas of leather, smoked meat, tar, cola and menthol combine into a deliciously complex whole. The meaty palate has powerful black cherry fruit and firm acids. The finish is long and warming. $55
91 Domìni Veneti 1999 La Casetta (Valpolicella Classico Superiore) Rich, regal and loaded with plum, raisin and earth notes. The flavors are a perfect combination of toast, black cherry, blueberry and baking spices. The finish offers length, ripe tannins, good acids and lots of chocolate and licorice. $20
91 Zenato 1999 Ripassa (Valpolicella Superiore) Very pure and pretty aromas of smoked meat, tire rubber and ripe plums. The flavors are of black-cherry and pepper, with a touch of creaminess making for an easy mouthfeel and some hedonism. Very silky and full; a pleasure to drink. $19
90 Le Salette 2000 I Progni (Valpolicella Classico Superiore) Textbook, from the fresh cherry-and-leather nose through the smooth red-fruit and vanilla palate and all the way to the creamy, well-wooded finish. While this wine may not be unique, it sings the praises of the Veneto in perfect pitch. $25
90 Remo Farina 2000 Montecorna (Valpolicella) Boasts fine, toasted aromas and whiffs of bacon, leather, cola and hickory. The palate is equally impressive: It’s rich and meaty, with cherry fruit and lots of spice. A chocolaty, firmly tannic finish rounds out this complete, rich wine. $19
90 Domìni Veneti NV Vigneti di Moron Rich and floral, with piercing aromas of grape skins and black-berry preserves. Certainly the texture is thick, while the flavor profile is boldly sweet. But it’s a healthy wine with moderate tannins and good acidity, so it’s not cloying. Likely a fine match for chocolate-based desserts. (Recioto $23/375 ml
della Valpolicella)
Other Wines  
91 Maculan 1999 Fratta (Veneto) Clearly, this 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot blend will appeal to the international market—meaning it’s extracted, rich, supple and, at 14.5%, rather high in alcohol for a Veneto wine. That said, it is truly luscious and delicious, with black fruit pouring out of the glass. Accents of oak, tobacco and vanilla make it all the more friendly, but with enough structure to age gracefully. $80

Published on May 1, 2003