Visiting the Veneto
Located in the Veneto region, the 123-acre Brigaldara estate commands a hill near San Floriano, overlooking the Marano Valley. The vineyards are planted on terraces between 150 and 250 meters above sea level and are planted with the traditional grape varieties of the Valpolicella Classico with a distinct emphasis for the high-quality varieties Corvine and Corvinone over Rondinella and Molinara. The Cesari family has owned the winery since 1928, and presently, Stefano Cesari directs the business. The estate’s Amarone wines are regular recipients of the highest Tre Bicchiere (Three Glasses) award from the prestigious Italian wine rating journal Gambero Rosso.
The small Monte Faustino estate is located in the middle of the Veneto’s historical Valpolicella Classica area, overlooking the hamlet Monte Faustini, next to Bure of San Pietro in Cariano. Founder Giuseppe Fornaser planted the vineyard, located at 259 meters above sea level, at the beginning of the 20th Century. Since then the family has purchased too more vineyards in the area, Vigneto Traversagna and Vigneto Costalunga. But grapes for its finest Amarone wines are harvested from the oldest Monte Faustino vineyard. Brothers Faviano, Giorgio, Massimiliano, and Paolo Fornaser, the third generation to run the business, focus on the classic local wines of the area, including Amarone, Valpolicella, and the dessert wine Recioto.
This 40-hectare estate is located in Friuli-Venezia Giula in the Gradisca d’Isonzo area, where vineyards span out over the highest slopes and lowest valleys. Production includes Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Dominic Nocerino is the owner and director of Vinifera Imports, for the last 25 years one of the premier Italian wine importers and distributors in the U.S. Fifteen years ago, Dominic established his own winery, and today superstar consulting winemaker Carlo Ferrini guides the process, while Franco Bernabei is the on-site winemaker.
Italian Wines of the Month
Sant’Elena – 2007 Pinot Grigio
This Pinot Grigio has a deep straw yellow color with copper hints. Complex and extremely perfumed, the wine shows the characteristic signs of pear, exotic fruit, and acacia flowers. What sets this Pinot Grigio apart from most traditional Pinot Grigios is its vibrant color and structure. While most Pinot Grigio is immediately pressed and bottled after the harvest, the Sant’Elena Pinot Grigio is macerated or 36 hours to obtain deep color and then left on the lees for six months. A delicate and complex process usually not reserved for the variety, it vaults the wine into the top tier for the variety. This full-flavored Pinot Grigio is an excellent accompaniment to seafood risottos, fish soups, and other fish-based dishes in general, but its rich structure allows it to complement many courses such as pasta and poultry. The wine also serves as a superb aperitif on its own. Serve chilled.
Brigaldara – 2010 Valpolicella
Valpolicella is a traditional blend of Corvina, Rondinella, Corvina, and Molinara, the same grapes that make up the noble Amarone. The difference between the two wines is that Valpolicella is a lighter, fruity wine, fermented after harvest in the fall, whereas Amarone is made in the following spring after the grapes dehydrate in airy barns during the winter, the result being a dense, intense wine. Valpolicella Ripasso is somewhere in between, because the wine is refermented on the lees of Amarone, so that it gains more intensity than normal Valpolicella but clearly not as much as Amarone. Serve at cool room temperature.
Brigaldara – 2009 Ripasso Il Vegro
Garnet red with aromas of fruit jam, cherries, and vanilla, this Valpolicella Ripasso is a typical blend of 40% Corvina, 30% Corvinone, and 30% Rondinella. Aromas of dried fruit and spice derive from the “appassimento” process, which consists of allowing the wine to ferment for a second time on the grape skins from Amarone. Since grapes used to make Amarone are slightly dried, the Repasso wine takes on new aromas from the contact. The Ripasso Il Vegro is a full-bodied, elegant, complex, and velvety wine with a relatively high alcohol content of 14.5%.
Sant’Elena – 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon
Most of us don’t usually drink 12 year-old wines. But even if we did, it would be difficult to identify this wine as old. There doesn’t seem to be sediment in the bottle, at least the bottle that I tasted. And the wine, while very refined and smooth, still has deep color and flavor, which normally ebbs in older wines. On the nose, it’s easily identifiable as Cabernet Sauvignon as it is on the palate. But the wine has pronounced toasty, cedar qualities mixed with spice that were probably less pronounced when it was young. This is a beautiful wine. Serve at cool room temperature with a variety of foods. No need to pair this Cabernet just with red meat. It’s subtle enough to complement a variety of dishes.
Sant’Elena – 2009 Traminer
Gewurztraminer is well known in the United States, but Traminer, while related to Gewurztraminer, is less aromatic but richer. The grape variety is grown mainly in Northern Italy, Germany, and Austria. The wine has subtle aromas and flavors of roses and honey, and it should be served only slightly chilled so that aromas and flavors are not subdued by cold temperatures.
Sant’Elena – 2006 Quantum L’Autoctono
This unusual wine is 100% Pignolo, indigenous to the Colli Orientali zone in Friuli. Pignolo means “fussy” and refers to the low and uneven yields that the vine produces. Like Amarone, this wine is made with the appassimento method whereby the grapes are dried for several months after harvest so that sugars and flavors become concentrated. Although Quantum is a rich wine at 15% alcohol, it is also elegant and balanced. Dark cherries and tobacco leap from the glass. Velvety and warm in the mouth, the noble tannin finish is a staple characteristic of this indigenous variety. The wine was aged for 36 months in French oak barrels. Serve at cool room temperature with braised red meats and winter stews.
Monte Faustino – 2006 Amarone Classico
Monte Faustino, 250 meters above sea level, is the oldest of three vineyards that the family owns, planted by founder Giuseppe Fornaser at the beginning of the 20th Century. Grapes for the family’s finest Amarone are harvested from this vineyard. The 2006 Amarone Classico blends 70% Corvina and Corvinone Veronese, 20% Rondinella, and 10% Sangiovese, Croatina, and Oseleta. The grapes are harvested in September, dried naturally in wooden boxes through February, and fermented in the spring. Aged for 36 months in French oak barrels, the wine shows pronounced aromas of ripe prunes, cherries, and almonds that transfer to the palate with the addition of vanilla, coffee, and chocolate. At 16.5% alcohol, the wine is rich and concentrated, but balanced with plenty of acid and fine tannins. Serve with grilled or roasted meats or as a meditation wine with dried fruit, nuts, and aged cheeses.
Italian Regions of the Month
Venezia, a city built into the sea, is like no other, haunted by the princes and poets of its noble past and by centuries of tourists. The cities of Padova, Vicenza, and Verona, originally frontier posts on the Roman trade route between Venezia and Genova, grew into Renaissance splendor and are marvels in their own right. In the 16th Century, the region’s great architect Andrea Palladio worked throughout the area and his buildings are everywhere, in the cities and in the countryside. Nature exhibits its own marvels in the region, the spectacular Dolomite Mountains in the north, the rolling Euganean hills in the south, vast Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, on the eastern border, and to the west, the Adriatic with its beaches and ports.
Today, Veneto is a thriving agricultural center, a lush land of vines, ranking third after Apulia and Sicily in wine volume but the first with classified DOC wines. There are three general areas of premium production: the western province of Verona in the hills between Lake Garda and the town of Soave, the central hills in the provinces of Vincenza, Padova, and Treviso, and the eastern plains of the Piave and Tagliamento river basins along the Adriatic coast northeast of Venezia.
Verona is the leader in classified DOC wines and the site of Vinitaly, the largest wine trade fair in the world. A major part of the DOC wines in the region are Soave, Bardolino, and Valpolicella, a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. When young, Valpolicella is a full, fruity red, but when the grapes are partly dried, they are made into Amarone, one of Italy’s most noble wines. Bardolino is made from the same grapes as Valpolicella but is a lighter version. Similar to Soave, Bianco di Custoza is another DOC white as is Lessini Durello, a steely dry wine, usually sparkling.
The central hills produce whites similar to Soave as well as Tocai, the Pinots, Merlot, and Cabernet. Prosecco, a dry to lightly sweet white, is produced in the area as is the renowned Venegazzu, both usually sparkling.
The eastern plains have been dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Franc for decades, but the local red Raboso and white Verduzzo still have admirers. Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay are also gaining ground.
Friuli and Giulia both refer to Julius Caesar, who conquered the area after a long struggle with the native inhabitants. Friuli, a contraction of the Latin for Forum Julii, includes the large provinces of Udine and Pordenone between the Adriatic and Austria, while the smaller Venezia Giulia in the southeast was part of the Venetian empire. Before joining Italy in 1866, the region belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Today, the region borders Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia and has a sizable Slovenian minority.
The Carnic and Julian Alps cover 43% of the region and open onto the Adriatic basin. Friuli’s most exceptional DOC zones are in the higher areas of Collio and Collio Orientale on terraced slopes called ronchi and in the hills above the seaport and regional capital of Trieste. The other four DOC zones cover the low hills or plains.
Friuli has built a reputation for white wines like Tocai Friulano, Malvasia, Ribolla, and Verduzzo, which are native to the area, but it has a long tradition with Chardonnay, Sauvignon, the Pinots, Traminer, and Riesling. The Friulians have also rediscovered certain neglected varieties, such as Picolit, one of Europe’s finest sweet whites around 1800. Verduzzo also makes an exquisite light dessert wine. And Ribolla Gialla has benefited from new wine making methods and is now produced as a dry white.
But the Friulians are also making attractive reds as well. Refosco can be either light and fruity or a more substantial wine, which can age. Franconia and Tazzeieghe make distinctive reds, but the Schioppettino grape may have the greatest quality potential.